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First Internet digital film library debuts

By Robin Rowe on November 11, 2003 (8:00:00 AM)

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The CinePaint Digital Film Library, launched on Halloween, has placed the first digital intermediates on the Internet. These frames are sequences from the 1903 George Méliès film, Tom Thumb et Dum Dum. Méliès is an important pioneer in motion picture history, credited with creating the genre of science fiction in 1902 with his famous film, A Trip to the Moon.

Digital intermediates are digital film masters -- the file format Hollywood uses to print optical masters to strike 35mm film release prints to show in cinemas. Each frame, in a file format called Cineon, takes 12MB. A feature film, at 24 frames per second, is 2TB. You've never seen these files on the Internet before.

The CinePaint Digital Film Library happened because developers for the open source CinePaint project, of which I am project leader, wanted open source content to work with. CinePaint is a popular open source film retouching application used on Elf, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Duplex,2 Fast 2 Furious, and many other feature films. The studios use CinePaint on digital intermediates, but those files are as tightly held as the Crown Jewels.

Help came unexpectedly from the U.S. Library of Congress and the George Eastman House museum. The Library of Congress holds one of the largest film archives in the world, with more than 350 million feet of motion picture film. Preservation and restoration of film presents a problem. The tools cost too much and archives have too little funds to save every film in their possession. Worse, expensive technology often becomes orphaned.

"We've been stuck with products many times when vendors go out of business," notes Library of Congress motion picture lab supervisor Frank Wylie. "And, getting changes made to proprietary systems is exorbitant -- if you can get changes at all." Many vendors fail because the archive market is so lean. Smaller regional archives may have no budget at all for tools. "Archives need grass roots level digital tools," says Wylie.

Could open source be the answer? Could CinePaint could be adapted from film production to film restoration?

CinePaint
CinePaint motion picture retouching software

CinePaint to the rescue

CinePaint began as the Film Gimp project in 1998. It was funded by the motion picture industry, but soon lost Hollywood's support. The project was shelved in 2000. However, open source can't die as long as it has even one user -- which Film Gimp did, with studio Rhythm & Hues. RnH used Film Gimp on Harry Potter, Scooby-Doo, and many other films. It also continued development. In 2002 the project was officially revived on SourceForge, and this year was renamed to CinePaint to help end confusion with The Gimp. Studios using CinePaint in production today include Sony Pictures Imageworks, Hammerhead Productions, ComputerCafe, Flash Film Works, Pixel Magic, and Amalgamated Pixels.

In March I asked Wylie at the Library of Congress if he could get us open source film content for testing in CinePaint. Unfortunately the Library of Congress had no digital intermediates of their films, nor do most other film archives. Although common in Hollywood, digital technology is today virtually unknown in film archives. Archives still rely upon photographic optical wet-gate technology to create new safety preservation copies from deteriorating films. Each generation of an analog copy loses something, even given the superb quality of film. Anyone who has made a copy of a copy of a copy of a VHS tape understands the problem. Digital though, when done to a very high standard, can be lossless.

Archives are trying to modernize, which includes making the move to higher quality digital intermediates. The Library of Congress is doing major renovations, moving its film archive from vaults built after World War II to hold reconnaissance film at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. A new archive called the National Audio Visual Conservation Center (NAVCC) is being built in a former Federal Reserve underground facility in Culpepper, Virginia. The LoC is both federally and privately funded. NAVCC received $120 million dollars from David W. Packard (of HP fame) and the Packard Humanities Institute.

Located on the former estate of Kodak founder George Eastman in Rochester, New York, George Eastman House is one of the world's leading photographic and motion picture museum. "When Frank Wylie told me what they were doing I was excited to help," says Jeffrey Stoiber, administrator for the Selznik School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House. "The Library of Congress is building the most state-of-the-art facility in the world." Eastman House senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, a Méliès scholar, had recently made a digital intermediate of the 1903 ten-minute short Tom Thumb et Dum Dum.

A Trip to the Moon

Méliès 1902 science fiction classic, A Trip to the Moon

Tom Thumb et Dum Dum

Recently digitized, Méliès 1903 Tom Thumb et Dum Dum

Jeffrey mailed me sequences from the film as Cineon images on CD-ROMs, but where to host them on the Internet? I turned to Paul Jones, director of Ibiblio.org, based at the University of Northern Carolina, a major conservancy of freely available digital content, including software, music, literature, art, history, science, politics, and cultural studies. Ibiblio received a substantial endowment from the RedHat IPO. Jones saw right away how Ibiblio could help launch the first digital film library.

Discussions are underway with other sources to get more digital intermediates for the Internet, to continue building our digital film library beyond these first sequences from George Eastman House. Some of the content we're pursuing is pristine, some badly damaged. The goal is to gather a large variety of material.

CinePaint is starting to incorporate features for film restoration. An important feature in development is automated scratch removal to repair damaged film. Two algorithms are available: RBF (Radial Bias Function) and inpainting. RBF is a technique of drawing smooth lines in all directions radially across a hole to infer the missing information. Inpainting is a scratch removal technique based on partial differential equations. RBF code developed by Harf Zatschler at the Imperial College in London was contributed to CinePaint in April, while code from an inpainting project led by Bernard de Cuyper in Belgium is being integrated into a second CinePaint plug-in for scratch removal.

Inpainting is a hot field of research and being advanced at universities all over the world. I sought the advice of inpainting expert and UCLA physical sciences dean Tony Chan. Over lunch we brainstormed ideas why academic researchers should be interested in CinePaint -- reasons such as bridging from academia to Hollywood, providing a wider audience for university research, providing a tool and content researchers can use, and being free and multi-platform.

Venera inpainting
Before and after -- an image from the Russian Venera 9 Venus probe restored using inpainting. Courtesy Don P. Mitchell Copyright 2003.

Active CinePaint developers now number more than 25, and new developers ask to join every week. CinePaint recently gained its first official grad student working on color management for college credit. As the project management time demands increase I find I am spread pretty thin -- answering questions from developers while working on developing code myself.

There's also the recurring question of business model. People ask me, how do you support yourself giving away software for free? LinuxFund provided a small grant last year, and vendors including Wacom, Apple, and Epson have contributed hardware. My own company, MovieEditor, has allowed me to contribute a significant part of my time to the CinePaint project -- and even underwrote the Windows port of CinePaint entirely.

Finding the means to continue supporting CinePaint is a challenge. Studio developers, students, and hobbyists can cycle on and off the project as their time allows, but as project leader I need to be constant. Besides working on CinePaint I do outsource R&D for movie studios. Between working at the studios and CinePaint sometimes I don't get much sleep. And I keep finding new projects to do -- such as launching a digital film library!

Is it worth it? Is the launch of the first Internet digital film library significant? "Having files on the Internet will certainly make it a lot easier to collaborate," says Frank Wylie at the Library of Congress. "It is not unusual for an archive to complete a restoration only to discover that another archive had some elements in better condition." There's no standard grading system for damaged film. Whether an element is "good" or "terrible" is subjective, and requires seeing the frames.

"I think this is a crucial step," says Jeffrey Stoiber at George Eastman House. "The idea of having open source software everyone can use is vital."

It has been said that nothing significant once placed on the Internet can ever be lost. Digital film doesn't rot and can last forever. To preserve motion pictures indefinitely the surest way is digital film on the Internet. Ibiblio's Jones says, "We hope that hosting content will preserve long term archives for our international cultural heritage."

Robin Rowe is the founding director of the CinePaint Digital Film Library, and project leader for CinePaint and the Linux Movies Group. He is a partner in motion picture technology company MovieEditor. He was this year's keynote speaker at the GUADEC GNOME conference in Dublin, Ireland, and will be speaking at SCALE at the Los Angeles Convention Center on November 22, 2003.

Robin Rowe works in the film industry and leads the CinePaint project.

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For the record

Posted by: HarryLeBlanc on November 12, 2003 12:56 AM
...Mary Shelley invented the genre of science fiction when she wrote the novel "Frankenstein."
Fascinating article! More stuff like this, Newsforge!

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Re:For the record

Posted by: roblimo on November 12, 2003 02:06 AM
Or was the (classical Greek) story of Icarus and Daedalus the first science fiction story?<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

In any case, in the context of this article, the "first science fiction" citation is correct, since we're talking about film, not written stories.

But you could get even more didactic and note that the term "science fiction" wasn't used until the late 20s/early 30s as a more mellifluous version of Hugo Gernsback's "scientifiction" description of the kind of stories he was publishing in Amazing Magazine -- which he started in (I think) 1926.

- Robin (Miller, not Rowe)

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Re:For the record

Posted by: Daniel Watkins on November 12, 2003 03:02 AM
I think the sci-fi<nobr> <wbr></nobr>/film/ genre is what he is credited with. And yes, this was a fascinating article, I'd love to see more.

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