Behind the Speedy Restoration of Indonesian Film Noir 'Pagar Kawat Berduri'

Part of the digital restoration process of 'Pagar Kawat Berduri' taking place at the offices of Render Digital Indonesia in Kemang, South Jakarta, last month. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

By : Dhania Sarahtika | on 3:37 PM December 22, 2017
Category : Life & Style, Movies

Jakarta. A newly restored version of Asrul Sani's 1961 film "Pagar Kawat Berduri" ("Barbed Wire Fence") was shown in an exclusive screening at the Usmar Ismail Film Center in Kuningan, South Jakarta, on Wednesday (20/12).

Starting in late September, Jakarta-based Render Digital Indonesia spent only 100 days to complete the restoration process, compared with the usual minimum of six months.

What had to be done in such a short time? The Jakarta Globe had the opportunity to visit Render Digital's office last month for a sneak peek.

The company obtained four celluloid copies of the film: the positive, negative, duplicate negative and a positive with English subtitles.

Each copy, consisting of 170,000 frames, had to be inspected for damage. Render Digital Indonesia director Taufiq Marhaban said his team found scratches, molds and clips that had expanded or shrunk due to temperature changes.

"The defects varied, but most were caused by aging – something that cannot be prevented. If a celluloid film is stored in a climate-controlled room, it will survive for a long time. But if we look at history, Sinematek [the film archive center] was established in 1975, while this film was made in 1961, so we do not know how it was stored for about 14 years," Taufiq said.

Every defect received different treatment. Molds, for instance, could be removed by using isopropranol on a cotton bud.

Luckily, "Pagar Kawat Berduri" was free of vinegar syndrome, which is considered the worst form of chemical damage to celluloid. The name comes from the sour smell affected film exudes.

"Once it infects a film, it cannot be stopped, even if we store the film in a proper place. The only way to slow down the damage is to put the film in cold storage at a temperature of around -4 [degrees Celsius]. Setting up a place like that is difficult in Indonesia. No one wants to do that, especially for archives," Taufiq said.

After the cleaning and patching up of damaged and missing clips came the digital scanning process. Just like paper documents, celluloid films must be scanned to a computer first before it can be digitally edited.

However, the two-hour long film, divided into six reels, took many hours to scan.

"We scanned at two to four frames per second. Each film could take 12 hours to scan," said Gery Simbolon, an expert assigned by the Ministry of Education and Culture to oversee the restoration process.

Two types of scanners were used – one with sprockets, and a line scanner. When using the former, the sprockets engage the film perforations (holes placed in the film stock during manufacturing). During this process, it is important to make sure there are no perforations that differ in size, or it could cause the film to tear.

"If the stock gets torn during the scanning process, we have to take it back to be inspected. When we tried it [with 'Pagar Kawat Berduri'], almost everything went well. There were only some stocks we had to re-repair," Taufiq said.

On the other hand, the line scanner is used for film stocks that have become wrinkled or heavily damaged.

A Golden Eye film scanner used by Render Digital Indonesia. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika) A Golden Eye film scanner used by Render Digital Indonesia. (JG Photo/Dhania Sarahtika)

Digital Touch-Up

After the film was scanned, each copy was saved in 2K resolution, a generic term for display devices or content having a horizontal resolution of approximately 2,000 pixels. Then the digital restoration started with the use of special software programs such as DaVinci, Phoenix and Digital Fusion.

The purpose of digital restoration is for a more optimal cleaning process. Dust, dirt and scratches that could not be cleaned during the physical restoration process can thus be removed.

For more recent films, such as those made in the 1980s, the restoration work can be less painstaking because the software is able to automatically detect and fix damage.

"The older the film, the more difficult for the software to do that. In the end, 80 percent of the cleaning must be done manually … We have to be meticulous and experienced. Fortunately, the people here have been doing this for quite some time – since 2009," Taufiq said.

Other things done during the digital restoration process include selecting the best clips from each copy, putting them together, and performing color grading.

Sound restoration is also part of the digital process, though done separately from visual touch-ups. Audio restorer Windra Benyamin said he had to mainly deal with pops, cracks, glitches and background noise throughout the film.

"There was also a part where the volume changed drastically. It was caused by the sound production, which had not yet advanced at the time the movie was made," Benyamin said.

Since "Pagar Kawat Berduri" is packed with dialog, the challenge was making sure that each word could be clearly heard. If a syllable was lost when one of the characters speak, Benyamin had to find a similar sound in other scenes and copy it to replace it.

Dubbing was not an option, because it meant creating a new element instead of restoring the film. Taufiq added that in a worst-case scenario where dialog is missing and there is no replacement, the solution is to add a subtitle.

"That requires research. If the script is nowhere to be found, we have to look for the scriptwriter or any actors who are still alive," he said.

Challenging, Never-Ending Process

Restoring a film does not mean making it picture-perfect, but only fixing the damage. The result shown on Wednesday still had flickers on screen at times, plus the background noise could still be heard. This proved that a one-time process may not be enough for a complete restoration.

"It is impossible to make them disappear 100 percent. It may be possible if we worked on this for like 10 years, but we were faced with time constraints," Taufiq said.

He added that no restoration job ever goes smoothly, because dealing with old, decaying films always comes with surprises.

"The older the film, the more surprises you will get," he said.

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