How Does Old Anime Get Remastered?

by Justin Sevakis,

Julian asks:

So I know a couple people who like to collect old animation cels, and I've read before that materials get lost or destroyed so that when it comes time to re-master a show they have to use old releases (see the new Eva BD). My question is does having cels missing because they've been sold or just lost affect the re-mastering process?

When an old, analog show gets remastered in HD, nobody is photographing the cels again. Nearly all of the cels are long gone, having been thrown away, sold off to collectors and specialty shops, or hanging on somebody's wall. How those cels were originally photographed was a work of art in and of itself, and that work of layering the animation, exposing it to light in a specific way, and adding glimmers of light and other effects, are part of the art of animation itself, an irreplaceable part of the show.

But those old shows, be it a movie or TV show or OVA, were originally shot on film. To understand how remastering them works, you have to understand how those shows were originally assembled. Sometimes it was shot on 16mm film, sometimes 35mm. Each cut was photographed separately, usually by teams of photographers, under the supervision of that show's Director of Photography and Director. The film was then sent off to a film lab to be developed. A cheaper TV show would come back from the lab as a positive film print, which an editor would then hot splice together in the proper order, and then transfer it to video. An OVA might get transferred to video first, and then edited.

A movie or a very high budget show would turn into an original camera negative, from which a "work print" (a durable, low-quality positive print) of the film would be made, which the editor would then cut into the proper order and tweak as needed. Then a special skilled craftsman called a negative cutter would take the original camera negative and carefully splice it together to match what the editor did to the work print. Certain shots that required optical effects (such as matte shots, or shots with titles on them) would go to a specialized studio to optically superimpose those shots onto another negative, which would get cut into the final negative. Finally, an "answer print" is made for checking, color adjustments are applied, optical audio is added along the edge of the film, and an internegative is created, from which theatrical prints and a video master were made.

Those film elements usually looked pretty good back when classic anime was originally made, and they still look good (albeit sometimes a little grainy) today. What changed between the 80s and 90s and today is that video technology has gotten orders of magnitude better, and the technology to to transfer those film elements to video just blows away anything that was available before. Video master tapes of anime made in the 80s and 90s look really rough on today's fancy flat screen TVs and computer monitors, and in order for a disc to come out on Blu-ray, a publisher really needs to create new, high-definition masters from the original film elements.

This means that in Japan, someone has to crawl through boxes and closets and warehouses of crap, trying to find ancient film canisters that were often stored without any coherent filing system. Some shows are lucky, and had all of their elements stored properly by the film lab that did the original lab work. Others aren't so lucky. Some are missing random reels, or can't be found at all. Many production companies and film labs have gone out of business, moved, or gotten bought out over the last few decades, and some elements have just scattered to the winds. For example, when Media Blasters wanted to produce a Blu-ray of Kite, a reel containing a few shots from episode 2 couldn't be located. (The final disc actually has the old standard definition master filling in those cracks, and the quality difference is really jarring.)

If everything can be found, the precious and rare original camera negative will get dusted off, cleaned, and put into a digital scanner, which will take several minutes to digitize each frame of film in the best resolution possible. A 2k or HD scan of a feature film can take a few days to complete. A 4K scan can take over a week! From there, the new digital master is color corrected, restored, and possibly had some film grain removed. (Removal of film grain is a contentious issue among film nerds, but it's often a necessary evil. Some older film stocks are just so grainy that viewing them would be very distracting on a modern display.) If the original camera negative can't be found, other film elements will work, but the quality won't be as good.

Since those film elements are irreplaceable, most restoration work has to be done in Japan, as the studios are usually not willing to risk putting them through international shipping and customs. Most anime restorations are done by Imagica, which is Tokyo's most well-regarded film and video production facility.

Say a publisher in Japan wants to make a Blu-ray but can't find the necessary film elements to create a proper HD remaster, or made the decision that trying to reassemble all of the pieces is not worth the expense. Sometimes video effects that can't be easily recreated have been added to anime after being transferred to video, so a new optical scan of the film isn't entirely possible. The result is that some shows just get their old, ratty video masters upscaled to HD, rather than being properly remastered. I don't know many people that are happy with that, but many shows simply won't sell enough copies to make a proper remaster worth it.

People are buying these discs, so Japan keeps doing these fake remasters. For anime fans that care about video quality, it can be very frustrating.

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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