Sunday, 16 September 2012

Intermission: The Magick of VidFIRE

When magic becomes scientific fact we refer to it as medicine or astronomy.
- Anton Lavey


Beware of any enterprise that requires new clothes.
- Henry David Thoreau

Deep within the ACME Complaints Department, a phone begins to ring…

Him:  Is this the one where the Doctor talks about his family?

Me:  It is.

Him:  And I’ve not seen this version?

Me:  You haven’t.  But first, here’s a documentary.


The Tomb of the Cybermen has an interesting history, to say the least.

Seeing as you’re reading a blog that pretends to be about Doctor Who but basically consists of a transcribed commentary, obscure in-jokes, suspect pop-culture references, snarking and other people’s holiday snaps, I’m guessing you’re enough of a fan to already know the minutiae of that history – up to and including the real reason that Revenge of the Cybermen was chosen to be the first VHS thrown into the grasping talons of the baying home-market crowd.  I didn’t really need to read the Target novelisation and rewatch both DVD versions of the story (including the original and updated sets of commentaries and production notes) in order to dig up enough obscure esoterica to coax a chuckle that’s never previously been chucked, did I?  Peachy.  

There’s an ‘interesting’ documentary on the ‘Second Effort’ edition of The Tomb of the Cybermen, concerning the restoration work that took place after the initial release.  Seeing as it’s only quite short, and the Him’s resistance to nonsense has developed quite nicely during our wade through the Recon Delta, I decided the time was right for some technical information.

This went better than I expected it to.

Whistling nonchalantly, like a spy that won’t last until the credit sequence, I press ‘play’. 

Following a blue-tinted version of the Troughton titles, a friendly voice begins talking us through the Restoration Team’s covering letter.  The next shot is of the DVD range arranged totally incorrectly1, and in some cases, scattered across the floor.1 

Apparently the techniques of restoration are ‘complicated and numerous’.  I think this is probably an understatement of impressive proportions, and I’d like that to be taken into account if it sounds like I’m being rude starting in about three paragraphs time.  I’m very impressed with the Restoration Team and the work they’ve undertaken, and the (few) quibbles that I do have with them are all coughed from inside an anorak that the Him doesn’t share.

The original recordings that come off 2” magnetic video tape are largely a bit ropey now.  This may be something to do with WOTAN, judging by the illustrative stock shots1, but is more commonly blamed on the fact that the electronic cameras recorded the frames (twenty-five spurts of truth every Earth-second, tech-fans) as two interlaced fields, or images.  This, in itself isn’t the problem, but the fact that every single one of these video tapes no longer exists, is.  Still, the harvest came through fine the following summer, so that’s alright.1

Fortunately, before this wanton destruction of priceless cultural artefacts storage solution, bootlegs camera copies were made.  This exacting procedure involved pointing a movie camera in the general direction of a television screen and filming what was on it.  The process survives to this day, albeit in an evolved but still oddly feral form, and is largely responsible for the ludicrously pompous infoverts you have to sit through at the start of every film you’ve actually paid to see, whether it’s at the cinema or on DVD.  I can’t afford to drink angel tears for breakfast or I’d say something about bLuRay here.

These film recordings have their own problems, in that they’re a bit crap on the whole.  They wobble, they’re scratched, they judder, sparkle, get dirty and – worst of all – the bootlegging process required to create them has merged the two fields we were talking about earlier.

Write that down in your copy book now.

Sometimes only one of the fields survives, giving a pleasing ‘film’ look to the surviving program.  This is far removed from the cheap and harsh appearance of video, which is a shame, because that’s we want to see.  Well, that and boom shadows.  And uncorrected mistakes.  And original rubbish effects, rather than up-to-the-minute-cutting-edge-crap CGI replacement effects and manufactured director’s cuts and whatever it was that happened to that scene with that Dalek on Aridius in The Chase.  Tch.  We’re never happy.2

Anyway, we’re onto VidFIRE now.  This is the process that restores the cheap and nasty video look and makes everyone look sweaty.1

Him:  Why not ‘V-Fire’?

Me:  Dunno.

Basically, it was noticed in the early 1990’s that if you watched a film recorded at half-speed on a knackered video recorder, it would look a) like it should have the Benny Hill pursuit music playing and…

Him:  I love double-speed.

b) all cheap and videoy again. 

Halfway to the champagne cabinet, our unnamed hero was struck that in order for this effect to be applied successfully, the programme would have to be actually playing at twice its current speed, and for that to happen, those pesky missing fields would need to be restored.  Realising it would take at least a decade for the necessary software to be developed, our hero sobbed, turned from the champagne cabinet, left the room and was never mentioned again.

The first piece of software used to tackle the task of tampering with these tens of thousands of frames was developed by Lex Luthor1 and entitled ‘Twixtor’. 

Him:  I’m glad this isn’t my job.

Me:  It’s Babelcolour I feel sorry for.

It’s been a while since I praised the mighty Babelcolour, so here’s a quick “Praise Him”for the gentleman who’s colourising the individual key-frames of The Mind of Evils first episode.  By himself.

Meanwhile, back at the doc: Twixtor (when not punching seven types of kryptonite out of Kal-El’s head1) was being used to generate intermediate frames.  Unfortunately, Twixtor was a frustrated impressionist, and would often add in decorative flourishes that looked weird and cloudy when compressed and played back.

Me:  That’s what happened to Dodo in The Ark.

There’s a brief shot of the Wolfman manipulating images, and then we’re back into the breakneck-pace of the narrative.  Basically, the software was improved.

As you know, the VHS release of The Tomb of the Cybermen was rush-released by the BBC who were worried that otherwise they might accidentally destroy it properly this time1 and consequently there was no time for any fancy restoration work.  I remember seeing it at the time, so I can vouch for this.  These days, if a lost story was to escape from the BBC Canteen be recovered, it would undergo a rigorous (and possibly even secret) process of careful restoration (including the addition of commentary, menu screens, documentary, 5.1 music video, photo gallery, endearing but tenuous short film, Easter egg, coming soon trailer and production subtitles) before being released to, ‘accidentally’, coincide with an episode of the new series amid much fanfare.1

With The Tomb of the Cybermen being an early release in the DVD range, there was only time to VidFIRE an Easter egg for the original.  Oddly enough, there was still enough money left over for a congratulatory VAM about restoration to be knocked up.  Sorry, that’s rude.  Still, I haven’t mentioned ‘Tombwatch’, which is remarkably restrained of me.   

At this stage I’d best reiterate my love for the DVD range.  They’re the only things I own that get dusted whether or not it’s required.  ‘Greater love hath no man…’ and all that.

Suddenly, someone’s being interviewed.

Jonathan Way (for it is he):  Of course it was amazing to see the video of ‘Tomb’-

Him:  Does he not know what it’s called?

Me:  I think he probably does.

Jonathan Way (who hell he?):  -because we’d all hoped that maybe it would turn up, somehow we’d see it.  I didn’t realise it would be possible to make it look better than it did on VHS at the time.  The DVD was a phenomenal improvement.  Changes have been made: the clean up, the lack of dust, the stability… um… and those make a huge difference.

Me:  “It looks a lot better now.  Which gives us a chance to flog it to you again.”

That’s a bit harsh.  Someone’s got to blow the trumpet after all. 

Funky music kicks off and there’s a selection of comparison shots to show examples of the work that’s been done.
Me:  It’s pretty impressive though.  Kudos.
And that’s that.  Time to change disc and enter The Ice Tombs of Telos…

Me:  Right.  Shall we start Season Five?

Him:  Yeah.

Me:  You’re in a great mood.

Him:  That’s because I selected ‘audio navigation’ when you weren’t looking.

Me:  Noooooooo!

1.  It would help your reading experience if at this point you imagine the word ‘SATIRE’ flashing across the image of a burning model building.  Thank you, so much.

2.  I’m standing by this.


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