November 11, 2003

First Internet digital film library debuts

Author: Robin Rowe

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 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.

Méliès 1902 science fiction classic, A Trip to the Moon

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.

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.