Beauty, Resurrected: Inside the Cinelicious Restoration of Lost Anime Classic Belladonna of Sadness
Post-production house and distributor Cinelicious Pics restored the lost animated masterpiece Belladonna of Sadness, and the team—Craig Rogers, Caitlin Díaz, Zach Rogers and Trevor Dauten—lived to tell the tale.
One of the great lost masterpieces of Japanese animation, Belladonna of Sadness is a mad, swirling, psychedelic light-show of medieval tarot-card imagery, with horned demons, haunted forests and La Belle Dame Sans Merci, equal parts J.R.R. Tolkien and gorgeous, explicit Gustav Klimt-influenced eroticism.
The last film in the adult-themed Animerama trilogy produced by the godfather of Japanese anime and manga, Osamu Tezuka, and directed by his long-time collaborator Eiichi Yamamoto (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), Belladonna unfolds as a series of spectacular still watercolor paintings that bleed and twist together. An innocent young woman, Jeanne, is violently raped by the local lord on her wedding night. To take revenge, she makes a pact with the devil himself, who appears as an erotic sprite and transforms her into a black-robed vision of madness and desire.
In early 2015, Los Angeles-based digital restoration and post-production studio Cinelicious began the process of restoring Belladonna of Sadness in 4K from the original 35mm camera negative and sound elements. Never before officially released in the United States, the resultant newly-restored version contains more than eight minutes of surreal, explicit footage cut from the original negative, and plays in theaters this spring. The year-long process of bringing Belladonna back to the big screen was a digital restoration in 10 steps.
Here’s a step-by-step guide for the restoratively inclined.
Step One: Where’s the Negative?
First, find and secure the film elements. What exists? The Holy Grail is almost always the original negative, but that’s often either lost or in such poor condition that it’s not worth using. The next best element will likely be an interpositive, or I.P., a positive print made on negative film stock. Traditionally, these are produced as an intermediary step towards creating a duplicate negative (also known as an internegative, or I.N.). However, I.P.s are also a terrific early generation source for film restoration.
If the original negative and I.P. are both lost, or in unusable condition, you may also hope to find a fine-grain master, which, like the I.P., is a special positive print made exclusively for the creation of a duplicate negative. Then, of course, you could use the duplicate negative.
If none of those elements are available, an answer print is your best bet. Answer prints are color-corrected trial prints made from the conformed original negative. As a last resort, you might use a release print, but it’s important to remember there is a noticeable drop in quality with each new generation of film elements. A release print could be as far as four generations away from your original negative.
In the case of Belladonna, we were thrilled to discover that the original animation studio, Mushi Production, still had the original cut negative and sound elements—essentially everything we would need. Or so we thought.
Step Two: Inspection Time
Once you have your film elements, inspect them and confirm that you have what you think you have. In this case, we discovered that approximately eight minutes of footage had been edited out of the original negative. Thankfully, we were able to track down a 35mm release print through the Cinematek film archive in Belgium, whose staff were kind enough to scan the missing sections for us.
During inspection, we add film leader to the head and tail of every reel, labeling each with the film title, reel number and type of film element. Adding leader is necessary for our scanning process, but it also helps us take a closer look at the condition of each reel. It’s also crucial to carefully inspect each element for damage (common culprits include broken splices, torn perforations, Mercer clips, as well as any tape or debris on the film). Any and all damage should be repaired, if possible, and documented. This not only safeguards against potential disasters when cleaning and scanning the film, but also documents the condition of the element as you received it.
Once the inspection is complete, the negative should be cleaned. The first step of this process occurs during the inspection stage by using PTRs (particle transfer rollers) while you wind through the film elements. Belladonna was in surprisingly good condition, with hardly any splice breaks or major damage. After running the film through the PTRs, it heads to our ultrasonic film cleaner where it’s treated with a mixture of alcohol and hot air to remove any further surface dust and dirt.
Step Three: Digital Negative
Scanning is a crucial step. As important as it was to secure the earliest-generation film element, it’s equally important to produce the finest-quality scan possible. The files created by this scan will essentially be your new “original negative.” 35mm film elements should be scanned at a minimum of 4K, especially if you have access to the original negative.
We used Digital Film Technology’s Scanity to scan Belladonna at a 16-bit 4K resolution. For each reel, we spent a few minutes before capture to set focus and adjust our light settings and framing. We made sure that our light settings would allow for the highest possible dynamic range so that our colorist would be working with the maximum amount of color information.
Step Four: Ooh, What Pretty Colors
The color grade is what most people think of when they hear the term “restoration.” We like to get the color grading done first, as it makes the processes further down the pipeline more efficient. Grading an animated film may seem like an easy task, but in the case of Belladonna that couldn’t have been further from the truth. The film is a mix of mediums (watercolors, pastels, inks, charcoals, oils—the list goes on) and the grade had to accentuate the beauty and depth of each. Consequently our colorist, working with DaVinci Resolve, went through numerous passes on the film.
For a project like Belladonna, which is more about remastering the color than creating a new look, the colorist references various stills from an earlier version of the film. We had a Digi-Beta version of Belladonna, which we used as our master to conform the reels and confirm edits, but it proved to be a bad color reference as it was tinted a monochromatic blue-purple throughout. Luckily, Mushi Production sent over several print stills which reflected the original look of the artwork and were very helpful to the process.
Color grading not only sets the look and tone of the overall film, but also helps keep continuity within scenes. Belladonna’s shifts in style and character design, however, didn’t adhere to normal continuity standards. In one scene, for instance, Jeanne’s hair cycles through about three different colors! Since the film fluctuates between mediums so often, we concentrated instead on matching whites and gamma levels (the luminance and contrast values of an image) between shots and scenes.
One challenging task was getting the color between the original camera negative and the Cinematek release print to match each other. Since the print was several generations removed from the negative, the colors had faded and there was slight loss of quality. Using stills of the graded negative as a reference for the print, our colorist used many of Resolve’s tools (such as hue and saturation curves, keying and sharpening) to bring the print closer to the realm of the negative’s grade.
Our goal in the color remastering process was to highlight the beauty of art director Kuni Fukai’s work. After sitting in a warehouse for over 40 years, it’s our hope that the low contrast and high saturation of his amazing watercolors, the heavy look of his oil paint, and the delicate pencil work have been given a new life.
Step Five: The Stabilization Master
Once the grading process is done, we hand off those Resolve projects to the guy we lovingly refer to as our “stabilization master.” He goes through each and every shot and makes sure it’s stable. Beyond the minor unsteadiness you might typically expect in a film element, Belladonna had some particularly bad splices in which the entire image would jump and rotate. Not only are these issues distracting to the viewer, they also make dust and dirt removal far more difficult.
It should be noted that while the images need to be stabilized, no intentional movement should ever be removed. A nearly imperceptible amount of movement should remain. This was shot on film; it’s not a contemporary, born-digital movie. When we’re done it should still look like film.
Step Six: Dust and Dirt and Scratches–Oh My
At this point dust, dirt, scratches, flicker or any other remaining damage gets cleaned up. The color graded and stabilized files are handed off to our restoration artists. The first step is to go through each shot and apply appropriate restoration filters using restoration software Phoenix Refine. These will serve as an initial pass to help filter out some of the things that can be done automatically with the software. “Automatic” is a bit of a misnomer though, as each shot needs different filters and each of those filters will require individualized settings, so it’s a fairly laborious process.
Once set up, this initial render removes most of the tiny specks of dirt from every frame of film. It does this by analyzing a series of frames and, with a very sophisticated algorithm, determines what is dirt and what is not, thereby automatically removing the unwanted specks. Unlike a live-action film, each frame of animation is typically photographed twice (or in some cases even three times). That is to say, you can find the exact same frame repeated two or three times in succession. As you might imagine, that really throws off the automated dust and dirt removal tools. If it sees a speck of dirt in the same place on multiple frames, it assumes it’s not dirt and leaves it alone. You’re better off safe than sorry, but that means more manual work.
While the automated filters are terrific (even with double- and triple-printed animation), they can only do so much, and you don’t want to push them too hard or you’ll start creating unwanted artifacts. So once those auto-pass renders are done, you then need to go through frame-by-frame and manually paint out the larger pieces of dirt and hairs remaining in the image. This manual work was done primarily with another software, PFClean, and again in Phoenix Refine. We did four passes of Belladonna manually, inching closer and closer to the goal of a completely dirt-free image with each pass.
It may sound mind-numbingly boring, but if you’re Zen about it, it can actually be a relaxing process. You’ll also develop the ability to refrain from blinking for long periods of time, making you a staring contest champion!
Step Seven: Film Has Grain
Once all of the above is done, watch the film. Take note of the film grain. Isn’t it nice? Film has grain. Your goal should never be to remove the grain.
Depending on the generation of the film element you’re working from, you may want to do an overall grain reduction, but a light touch should always be your motto. Ultimately, you simply want to balance out the odd shot here or there that is overly grainy and will distract an audience. Otherwise, leave that grain alone.
Step Eight: Final Tweaks
There’s always that one last tweak you want to make.
We watched the entire restored film in our 4K theater and went through it shot-by-shot again, making minor color tweaks and noting any last remaining bits of dust and debris. We also faced the added challenge of getting those eight minutes of print material back into the film without having distracting bumps in quality or color. A great many of the edits were small sections at the head or tail of shots. Getting those in-shot cuts between the original negative and the Belgian release print was a challenge, but I think we pulled it off. It was this final pass that really dialed those in.
Step Nine: Sssssssssssss
I bet you thought we forgot about sound.
Any sound element this old is going to have a fair amount of pops, clicks and hiss throughout. Belladonna was no exception. Along with the negative, Mushi Production provided us with 35mm optical audio and 35mm magnetic tracks. We decided to use the audio from the magnetic track for our restoration. Magnetic audio was the better element because it doesn’t get scratched up or disintegrate like an optical track. While we own a mag audio reader, we needed someone knowledgeable with the format to do the record. That’s when we brought in Academy Award-winning sound engineer Bob Weitz, who actually built our mag reader! He set up the reader to feed into a computer equipped with ProTools and captured the mix, sound effects and music tracks that were on the mag reels. Once those transfers were complete, we were finally able to listen to everything and assess the restoration.
Using the sound restoration program iZotope RX, we were able to pull out a lot of the ambient hiss with a standard Academy EQ curve. The program’s spectral repair tools cleaned up any apparent pops and clicks. As with picture restoration, staying true to the original element is crucial for audio. Finding a good middle ground wherein the overall quality is improved but not over-modulated was probably the most difficult part of the process. Finally, since sound quality is so relative, we had the entire restoration team sit in on the final listening session. It wasn’t deemed finished until it was unanimously approved by the whole group.
Step 10: So How Do I Watch It?
If you see Belladonna on the big screen, chances are the theater is screening from a Digital Cinema Package (DCP). A DCP is the standard for digital projection and consists of a handful of specific files that together represent a complete movie. The bulk of these files refer to picture. The first generation of these digital picture files are 16-bit DPX image sequences, and at 4K resolution they amount to a massive amount of data. To give some perspective, the DPX image sequence for the entire Belladonna feature was nearly 10 terabytes! That’s a highly impractical amount of data for a cinema server to process. So a DCP requires what are called JPEG 2000 image files, which use wavelet compression to bring the size way down, while keeping image quality as high as possible.
The picture is then matched with individual WAV files for each channel of audio. While most new releases use a modern 5.1 surround arrangement, with six separate channels of audio, we preserved the classic mono sound of the original Belladonna release and mapped audio to only the center channel for theatrical presentation.
The final asset needed for the DCP was English subtitles, which the movie projector reads from a separate text document and then displays onto the image. An additional XML within the DCP tells the projector when to utilize each asset so that picture, sound and subtitles all play in sync. All these files are then transferred to a specially formatted hard drive and ingested into a cinema server at the theatre, where it is verified for authenticity and then projected.
At this point get the popcorn, turn the lights down, and the presentation can begin! MM
Belladonna of Sadness opens in theaters starting May 6, 2016, courtesy of Cinelicious Pics.