Restoration – done to perfection

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Cape Town-based production house Gravel Road Entertainment Group has
launched a new initiative aimed at restoring some all-but-forgotten South African
films from the 1970s and 1980s to their former glory.

Many will remember the 1970s and 1980s as a period considered the most
prolific within the filmmaking industry in South Africa. It was also a time when the
South African government offered extremely attractive subsidy schemes
designed to encourage film production. Regrettably the schemes had their
shortcomings as they were widely abused and finally, in the 1990s, they were
officially terminated.

These subsidies did however result in the birth of “African Cinema’ in South Africa
– where a handful of filmmakers produced hundreds of films for the oppressed
majority, telling universally entertaining stories in their languages and giving rise
to a generation of African film stars. These films were widely distributed to rural
communities by means of informal distribution “road show’ networks – where
films for the people, were taken to the people (reaching audiences of hundreds
of thousands).

In the early 1990s, the Department of Home Affairs launched an investigation
into the subsidy schemes and it was during this period that filmmakers were
encouraged to submit their master prints to the National Film Archives – only a
fraction of the African films were ever submitted and the majority simply
disappeared.

Gravel Road African Film Legacy (GRAFL) has been launched to locate, acquire
and restore once discarded and forgotten African cinematic gems, making them
available to a whole new generation of cinema lovers around the world.
Benjamin Cowley, CEO of Gravel Road Entertainment Group (Pty) Ltd, is an
industry veteran who started in television 14 years ago, co-producing NBC’s
International Day of Broadcasting for Children in 1998, which won the Emmy
Award for best live production that year. He explains the process.

“We operate out of the new Waterfront Film Studios complex, and while we are
not part of that group, they are partners in the legacy initiative. Restoration is
only a small part of our business (although taking up most of my time at the
moment!). Our core focus is development and production of feature films for
export purposes. 2014 is really our first year in operation as the majority of the
last two years has been spent setting up models and structures, and building
relationships. This year we are planning on completing two feature films,’ says
Cowley.

“In terms of the legacy project, the movie Joe Bullet is the tentpole project with
which we are launching the initiative. We’ve just delivered six films (including Joe
Bullet) to SABC1 for broadcast in April this year. The others are Bona Manzi,
Isiboshwa, Ukuzingala, Ezintandandeni and Ambushed. We have secured the
rights to over 100 titles to date and are in the process of digitising all of them for
broadcasters to view.’

Once they have made their selections, the films undergo a full restoration
process which takes between two to six weeks depending on the extent of
restoration required. The restoration process is complex and painstaking. “Since
most of the content is in vernacular we are focusing on the local television
markets,’ says Cowley, “although the opportunity to reach into the rest of Africa
and other platforms (including mobile and IP) does exist and is being actively
explored.’

The restoration process involves the cleaning and physical repair of the film
which is generally in the form of a 16mm print. The next step is scanning the film
in HD using a Spirit Classic Telecine machine and from there the audio and
picture are separated. Step three is processing the film for restoration using
Diamant, which is specialised software that is able to digitally remove scratches,
dust and sparkle. This is quite a long process and it literally works frame for
frame.

The audio is restored using a Protools based restoration application. “At the
same time we have a team who handles the subtitling,’ concludes Cowley.
“Once all this is done, the picture is sent for final grade on the Pablo and then
audio and subtitles are married to the picture and the fully restored master is
generated.’

The process is indeed painstaking and the attention to detail extreme. As the
original features were completed without the sophisticated equipment now
available – and it would seem on low budgets – the quality was poor, with
picture artefacts and sound glitches being commonplace. The restoration process
used by the Legacy Project renders features otherwise unacceptable for
broadcast not only acceptable, but now in full HD with clean pictures and perfect
soundtracks. This is a major achievement, allowing a plethora of films that have
been unavailable for years back onto the broadcast and theatrical market.

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