What Does It Cost To Remaster A Classic Anime?
by Justin Sevakis,
What are the costs of doing a full-on remaster of an older show as opposed to upscaling an existing version? In a recent column you discussed how some new releases are made by upscaling, say, a DVD master for Blu-Ray, while other times the original film (if it can be found) is rescanned to make a new Blu-Ray master. I would expect that doing the latter is more expensive. But how expensive, exactly? If someone was wanting to release a Blu-Ray of a classic anime from the VHS era and the original film still exists, what is the difference in cost between the two options?
Making a new transfer and restoration of a film-based anime can be a pretty expensive proposition. Most of the time original film elements can only be accessed by the Japanese owner, since they're irreplaceable and nobody wants to risk mailing them off overseas. However, the costs to remaster a film are fairly similar around the world, so even if Western companies are asked to chip in, it doesn't make much of a difference if the restoration is done in Japan, America or Europe.
Doing new film transfers in-house is way beyond the expertise of most media companies (film scanners cost about US$30,000 anyway), and old film, even if properly stored, usually requires cleaning before it can be scanned. This usually has to be done with a special ultrasound device in order to get the dirt off the brittle film without scratching it. So, this job is usually outsourced to a post-production company or film lab with the right gear and expertise to handle it.
Once the film is clean, the process starts with running the film through a special film scanner device. Technologically, this isn't so different from using a flatbed scanner to scan a piece of paper, but in much higher detail, and spread across thousands of frames. Each frame is saved as a separate high quality still graphic file known as .dpx, in either 2K (2048×1080) or 4K (4096×2160) resolution. For a 90 minute feature, that would be 129,600 individual files.
Digital scans are typically billed by footage -- literally the number of feet of film that's being scanned. This can be a little tricky to figure out, but generally 100 feet is about 2 minutes 45 seconds of footage for 35mm, and 1 minute 40 seconds for 16mm. That means that a standard TV episode would be around 800 feet of 16mm film, and a 90-minute feature would be around 8,100 feet of 35mm film. Costs vary wildly by lab; a typical 2K 35mm film scan would cost $0.25 - 0.40 per foot for 2K ($2,025-3,240 for a 90-minute feature) and $0.50 - 0.60 for 4K ($4,050 - $4,860 for a 90-minute feature). 16mm is low-resolution enough that most labs won't bother with 4K, but 2K would cost around the same per foot as 35mm (coming out to $240-320 per episode).
That may not seem like a lot of money, but it's really just the tip of the iceberg: the film must be fixed up from that point. The big pile of .dpx files is opened by specialized color timing and restoration software. Color timing -- the adjustment of color to offset any fading and natural variance between shots -- has to be done manually on a shot-by-shot basis, and colorists charge around $350 per hour. This step is not optional. Old film has a tendency to really produce some unexpected color, and it simply must be adjusted to bring the image into line with what people expect to see on a modern HD television. Vintage Kodak film stocks in particular are notorious for colors that fade unevenly after decades of storage, eventually causing every color but red to fade away entirely.
Other software is used to reduce and/or remove dirt and scratches, excess film grain, and gate wobble (slight variations in frame alignment that cause the picture to slightly drift around the screen when in motion). This part is the most variable. You can run the entire program through some automated software to try and correct these things without human intervention, and it'll only cost a few hundred dollars. However, these automated processes miss a lot of things, and depending on how they're set, can be too aggressive with removing what it perceives to be problems. With animation especially, this software can really screw things up.
However, hiring people to manually go through an entire film or TV series frame by frame and manually Photoshop out every splice, dirt speck, and cel scuff can get insanely costly -- well out of the price range of pretty much every anime publisher. What usually ends up happening is that a delicately set array of automated filtering is used, with some human oversight and slight manual touches where needed. Finally, the image is cropped to its proper shape, resized to fit a standard resolution, and exported in a more flexible format. (Usually some flavor of Apple ProRes.)
Finally, audio needs to be digitized and resynchronized to the final video. Sometimes this is a cinch: just capture the old master tape, line it up, and export. But often far more needs to be done: perhaps the tape has stretched and no longer synchronizes. Or maybe it has drop-outs that need to be patched from something. Maybe the only audio source that could be found was an old film optical track that sounds terrible and needs major sonic restoration applied. You never know what you're getting 'till you start working. Audio restoration isn't cheap either.
All of this adds up to quite a bit of cash: US$5,000 and up for a feature, and $1,700 and up for a TV episode. You can see how for a very long series, the costs would quickly become overwhelming. This is why many content owners decide to just upscale the standard definition masters if they're decent: shows that are shot on 16mm often don't have much additional detail hiding in them anyway. Some lines might be clearer and some grain might be a little more detailed, but that's about it.
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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.
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