Restoring the Big Chill


I’ve been working the last week or so, trying to reconstruct an elementary school program called The Big Chill.  There were a number of problems with the original recordings.  The sound was poor, but I did have two separate copies of it from two separate sources.  I also had the original soundtrack album the children were singing to.  Using Audacity, an audio application, I’ve been taking each track, song by song, minute by minute and slowly applying fixes.  The live vocal track is a patchwork of the two recordings.  It fades out here and there, but adding the actual soundtrack over it seems to cover a multitude of sins.  I have high hopes of restoring the songs, at least.  I don’t know about the short spoken interludes.  Most of those are almost inaudible.  We’ll see.

On the video side things are more problematic.  It was a two camera shoot.  Unfortunately, they both had their auto white balance turned on.  This means that the color between the cameras is way off.  What looks white on one camera looks sort of orange-yellow on the other.  This makes switching from one camera to another very jarring; it looks like two different programs.  One camera was supposed to be locked down as the “CYA” shot whereas the other zoomed in and out, panning here and there to get better shots of the individual kids as the program went on.  Unfortunately, the master shot moves around as well.  This works in a couple of shots where it might have been challenging to go from one very long shot to a close up.  However, Murphy’s Law dictated there were several spots where the two cameras were in motion at the same instant, so neither of them had a very good shot.  Again, I’ve been painstakingly editing each track and minimizing the camera movement as much as possible.

Finally, one of the tapes was dumped to my computer in the wrong aspect ratio.  It was shot in 16:9, so it would be “future proofed”, but my computer scanned it as 4:3.  When I stretch it out, there is a lot of information lost and the childrens’ faces are banded and blocky.  I thought I could just re-capture the video from the original tape, but the machine I have for doing that seems to have died.  The format is getting to be kind of long in the tooth, so it’s not a quick, easy, nor cheap fix.

After working about twenty or thirty hours on this project, I empathize with those archivists who struggle to restore classic films to their original state.  It makes me appreciate the work that went into Lawrence of Arabia and silent classics like Metropolis though – by definition – their work should be unnoticeable if it’s done well.  If I manage to reconstruct this program and get it edited the way I feel it should be done, most likely the audience will never know (unless they read this blog).  However, what seems most unfair is how much work I have to do to restore a program that was recorded less than a year ago!  If reconstructing video from January is this big of an issue, I shudder to think of what I’ll have to do when I start working on my VHS tapes from twenty years ago or more.  I guess the best spin I can put on it is that I definitely have a life-long hobby!

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