Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Cream of the crop

Rotation and cropping are the first, simplest and most important decisions in many restorations. Unrestored images could be interpreted more than one way, and cropping is a powerful method of selecting one interpretation at the expense of others.

Take the caricature of Charles Darwin: is the illustration itself the only thing that matters? Or is the date and publication in Vanity Fair important enough to retain? And if context is important, how much context do we keep? A crop that includes the border text needs balance. And that can be tough to attain from material this old: With many originals from the nineteenth century or earlier, either the paper has dried and warped with age or the borders were never drawn perfectly to begin with. Twenty-first century tastes are accustomed to digitally perfect parallels and can object to variances as small as a few hundredths of a degree.

Here's one where that problem is easy to spot. The borders on this political cartoon of Lincoln and Johnson are off by tenths of a degree, not hundredths. So the bottom border tilts upward from left to right while the vertical borders are reasonably vertical already. One gets an urge to rotate the thing, but every rotation comes out wrong because the border itself isn't rectangular.

There are three potential potential solutions here:

  • Crop the border out of the picture and lose the caption.
  • Manipulate individual lines of border to create an actual rectangle.
  • Leave the caption in and the border lines unchanged.

Any of those choices are arguably correct, depending on how one regards the image.  The easiest one to refute is the first option.  This caption may be obscure after a century and a half, but to me it looks like an explanation of the original artist's choice to juxtapose the president in coat and tails against a reference to his humble origins.  Of all the people who became United States presidents, Lincoln started out life lower on the socioeconomic ladder than any other.  Hence the references to manual labor, which seem to result in a compliment to Lincoln's hard work and perseverence bringing the country back together at the end of the Civil War.  The artist's caption helps explain that; I decided to leave it in.

So if we keep those darn borders, do we fix them?  Do we rotate individual lines and make them correct?  It can be argued that is not artistic intent, that it's distracting, and it ought to be fixed.  It can also be argued that slight variances from mechanical perfection are characteristic of the period, therefore historical, and ought to be kept.  When they performed a digital restoration on the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz they erased the wires that had lifted the flying monkeys.  I'm a Wiki Witch; I prefer vintage monkeys in their original technical imperfection even if it takes me out of the story just a little bit.

So I selected a compromise rotation and cropped a little extra space outside the border lines to minimize attention to that flaw.  The closer an uneven border comes to the edge of the digital image, the more apparent any deviation is.

Ragesoss complained about the final choice here and, to be candid, it wasn't my first crop either.  Originally I had kept the side borders and I'd left leeway outside them because they were a few hundredths of a degree off from true.  But the area outside the border on the original has uneven tone, especially the blown whites at lower left.  And although the file was big enough to work with it wasn't ideal.  I could have filled in the problem tolerably but the technical limitations of the file didn't make it worth the effort.  Overall, for an image that most viewers will see in thumbnail, a good rule is to crop in as close as feasible.  These kinds of decisions are often tradeoffs, and arguable either way.  


micahc said...

Quote:"I prefer vintage monkeys in their original technical imperfection even if it takes me out of the story just a little bit."

Ummm...There was no "technical imperfection" in this case. The wires were never seen by audiences of 1939 or beyond for various reasons: persistence of vision from film projection, the relative graininess of the period film stock, over saturated prints, and later the lower definition picture shown on television, released on VHS, and DVD.

The wires were not intended to be seen by the audience, nor were they. It was the extensive restoration and the transfer to high definition that finally revealed them.

If they had released it on blue-ray and not have digitally erased the wires, it would be effectively tampering with the film, as it would be going against the intent of the films original makers.

If you had watched a scene with wires attached to the monkeys, it would be the first time these wires ever were seen.

For you to say you'd prefer watching it with the wires, leads me to believe that you thought audiences could see them before, when nothing is further from the truth.

In summary, the wires were not seen until the hi-def transfer, and that was a problem that needed a solution. Digitally erasing the wires made vastly more sense than not restoring it so that the wire wires remained unseen.

Lise Broer said...

How would it be that "the relative graininess of the period film stock" would render information invisible to theatrical audiences yet "It was the extensive restoration and the transfer to high definition that finally revealed them"?

Restoration doesn't expose information that fails to record at the level of film grain. If the silver halide molecules don't react to a bit of information it simply doesn't become part of the image.

What's interesting is that this comment comes on the heels of coverage about a Blu-ray release this month, while actually I wrote the post nine months ago.

After a search today I was unable to locate the earlier article about the Wizard of Oz restoration that prompted January's comments, but the underlying analogy remains a valid one: sometimes period technology is unable to fully realize an artistic intent. When the intent is obvious and digital technology allows its fulfillment, is it the restorationist's responsibility to be faithful to the intent or to reflect the technology as it existed at the time?