Alien Resurrected
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 12 (December 2003)

Alien Resurrected

By Karen Moltenbrey

Director Ridley Scott's 1978 breakthrough film Alien reinvented the science fiction/horror genre by establishing new standards in special effects, art direction, and set design. Yet, the key to Alien's success was not what people saw, but rather what they didn't see on the screen. Tension builds throughout the movie as the audience catches only a fleeting glimpse of the monster, and reaches a crescendo near the end in a "coming out" scene that is still talked about today.

Images © 20th Century Fox Film Corp.

Film editors used advanced digital tools to reverse the aging process for the classic film Alien. The top image highlights age spots in an original frame; the bottom image shows the same frame after it was digitally restored.

More than two decades later, what could be seen in this blockbuster sci-fi thriller was cause for concern at 20th Century Fox, as scratches, dirt, chemical stains, and other ruinous effects of time have marred nearly every frame of this classic film. A fairly common occurrence, these age spots nevertheless were problematic for the studio, which was planning a 25th anniversary Alien release in select theaters across the US, beginning last month. To reverse the signs of wear and tear, Modern VideoFilm (Glendale, CA) used state-of-the-art editing and color-correction technology to digitally restore the movie to its original condition—and then some, by creating a number of new visual effects, revising scenes, and even adding never-before-seen segments from the director's archives.

"What we're doing, in the pure sense of the word, is a digital intermediate, but the interesting twist is that it's also a digital restoration intermediate process," says Mark Smirnoff, executive vice president of studio services at Modern VideoFilm.

A fairly new process, the digital intermediate has evolved over the past year and a half and is accomplishing what used to be done photochemically in postproduction: editing, visual effects, color grading, and timing to complete a film, or give it a signature look. Now, however, it is done digitally with software and computer workstations.

The process, in short, requires a person to scan the material that was just filmed, producing an interpositive, so all the information resides on a server in very high resolution. As a result, the original film negative is no longer used, helping to keep it in optimal condition. Completing this task electronically not only prevents wear on the original negative, but it also provides editors with a larger collection of tools—and subsequently, more creative options—from which to choose. When the process is complete, the digital files are recorded back out to film, the most widely used theater medium.

In most instances, this novel digital intermediate process is used for new titles, though Modern VideoFilm applied this technique to the quarter-century-old Alien, and achieved impressive results.

The new, pristine theatrical release was cut from the original negative and the interpositive, which Modern VideoFilm scanned into a Thomson/Grass Valley Phantom Transfer Engine—which acts as a gateway between telecine data scanning (re-recording images from film onto videotape) and postproduction—using a Spirit DataCine high-resolution film transfer system, also from Thomson.

From there, the group transferred the 2k data into a Quantel iQ editing system, where the team worked frame by frame within the iQ's QPaint to remove or paint over dirt, scratches, splices, and bumps, as well as modernize many composites and artifacts inherent in the 1970s technology that was used to create the original film. In fact, every frame from the initial release had to be refurbished, some more extensively than others.

Next, senior colorist Skip Kimball—who had worked with the director on several others films, including Matchstick Men and Gladiator—again collaborated with Scott to color-correct the high-resolution images, this time, using a da Vinci Systems 2K Plus real-time enhancement system and the Quantel iQ. "We found that the walls in certain parts of the film were discolored," says Kimball. "We isolated the colors and adjusted them to Scott's specifications." Kimball and the other colorists completed their work on all 170,000 frames—nearly 2tb of data—in just two weeks.

When Alien was made 25 years ago, visual effects were limited. So for the film's anniversary edition, editors enhanced some of the original imagery, bringing the quality up to today's standards.

Once the color correction was complete, Kimball color-timed the film (which involves balancing the hues, providing continuity, and evoking specific moods through the enhancement or manipulation of colors) in a theater setting at Modern VideoFilm's Glendale facility. "Our digital intermediate setup realistically emulates that of film projection," describes Smirnoff. "We're able to look at [the material] digitally, through a digital cinema projector from Christie Digital that emulates film projection. So what we see on the screen is what we will transfer to film and what you will see in the theater. Conversely, a CRT monitor, such as a home television, has different color properties and color values than film projection."

Once the color timing was completed, the group used the iQ to produce an HD and SD version of the movie. For the 2k HD version, it used an ARRI Digital Systems laser film recorder to transfer the images onto film for delivery to theaters.

In addition, the team created some new visual effects by adding star fields, for example, and painting new backplates. They also fixed several composites by making them cleaner, stabilized background mattes, and enhanced the titles.

To complement the re-release, Modern VideoFilm also created a director's cut, integrating some "bonus" shots that had been previously eliminated from the 1978 version. These "cuts" not only required the same restoration process as the original, since they too were stored on negative, but they had to be seamlessly integrated into the initial footage. This was largely achieved through color correction.

In all, the work on the Alien restoration took nearly a year, most of which was spent in R&D and testing. And the result is a rebirth for the movie. "The [reworked] Alien is a lot closer to what Scott originally envisioned for the film," says Smirnoff. "We were able to use today's technology to get some of the sets to the same level at which they had been constructed or, in some instances, that he had initially planned." That said, Smirnoff is hesitant to say that the restored version is "better" than the original. "It was a beautiful trendsetting feature film when it came out, and I wouldn't want to take anything away from it," he adds, "so I'd be more comfortable saying that we brought it up to millennium standards."

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor at Computer Graphics World.

ARRI Digital Systems
Christie Digital
da Vinci Systems
Thomson/Grass Valley
Quantel Systems