Videography - October 1997
VidiPax Recreates History
by Sheldon Liebman
Jim Lindner is one of the true pioneers in the field of computer based animation for video and film. His first company, The Fantastic Animation Machine, proved in the 70s and 80s that computers could be used not only for special projects, but also for a weekly advertising campaign. It was FAM that animated stylized versions of the covers for the then-new People magazine. FAM typically received final artwork on Tuesday or Wednesday that had to be animated in time for an edit session on Friday.
With the possible exception of Pixar and Pacific Digital Images, all of the original companies that were animation pioneers are gone today, replaced by a large number of places using off the shelf hardware and software. But everyone who uses a computer for animation owes a debt to pioneers like Lindner and the people who worked with him at FAM. By creating their own software (and even hardware), they paved the way for companies like Alias/Wavefront, Kinetix and SoftImage.
Today, Lindner can probably add the word "hero" to his list of accomplishments. A few years ago, he started VidiPax, a Manhattan-based company whose business is the restoration of video, audio and film material in a wide variety of formats. After The Fantastic Animation Machine closed, Lindner did consulting work for Steve Rutt at RVI and Paul Fisher of Tapestry, two long-time friends from his days at FAM.
Getting Out of a Sticky
While he was consulting, Lindner was approached by some people at the Andy Warhol Foundation. They had some 1/2" reel-to-reel tape that was sticky and wanted to know if Lindner could fix it. "I figured that they just didn't know how to run the machines anymore," says Lindner. But when he got there, he discovered that "they were right and I was wrong." Because this project was a very important record of a period in Warhol's life and because he found the idea technically intriguing, Lindner agreed to take on the project.
Lindner's first approach was to contact the tape manufacturers, all of whom indicated that they were unfamiliar with this type of problem. When it became apparent that they could not (or would not) assist him, Lindner took the same approach he had at The Fantastic Animation Machine - he decided to do it himself.
Lindner started doing research on how videotape works and how recording systems work to gain the best possible understanding of what it would take to fix this problem and make the best possible restoration from old and damaged tapes. What he discovered was that it wasn't just about cleaning the tape, it was about finding a way to get older, less precise equipment to generate a signal that was acceptable to more modern machines while maintaining the integrity of the picture itself. "As all the technology has been getting smaller, faster, better and cheaper, the tolerances have been getting tighter," he explains. To make this work, "you actually have to make a change in the electronic signal itself."
The first thing that probably occurs to most people at this point is the same thing that occurred to Lindner - just stick in a TBC and some digital noise reduction. Unfortunately, he found that different TBCs did different things to the signal with respect to field sequences and field integrity. On top of that, few could properly process the huge signal changes that can occur to a tape that is 35 years old. Digital noise reduction solved some of these problems, but made the picture look different from the original. This raised an ethical issue that signaled Lindner's transformation from an engineer to a historian.
"Even if I have the technology to make this look better," he says, "this distorts history. I'm taking videotape from the 50s, putting a monocle from the 90s on top of it and preserving it for all time. The way that the image looked then had an impact on the way it was perceived." This is, of course, the strongest argument that was made against film colorization. Although the process may make the original more "marketable" or "aesthetically pleasing," the fact remains that it becomes different from the original.
Spread the Word
It took Lindner two years to restore 60 Andy Warhol tapes and he learned a lot during the process. He also started taking every opportunity he could to speak about this problem and educate the production industry about the consequences of inaction. "I realized that all the work I had done in television when I was young was being lost forever and nobody cared," comments Lindner. "It took a long time, but eventually there was recognition. Other people were putting tapes on their machines and they wouldn't play properly either."
As more people began to recognize and experience the problem, more came to Lindner for help in solving it. So VidiPax started growing and Lindner realized that this business was totally different from a traditional production or post-production environment. "In a traditional post production environment, a problem tape costs a lot of money. The customer's in the edit room, everyone is rushing around trying to solve the problem and the customer ends up thinking the production house doesn't know what they're doing." The more time it takes to find a solution, the more money it costs either the customer or the facility. Lindner realized that providing a way to deal with problem tapes and obsolete formats outside of this environment would benefit everyone.
At this point, Lindner could have decided to become a full-blown production house specializing in clients with old and damaged material. However, he wanted to partner with the production industry, not compete with it. "We don't do editing. We don't do dubbing. We are not a post house. We just do remastering," he explains. By concentrating on that one aspect of the business, Lindner says that they've become "real good at it."
Achieving True Format
They've also become more than just a business. In order to work on a variety of formats, Lindner has to have working equipment for all of them. He's been very active in obtaining collections and "rescuing" equipment from basements and dark corners. "Hal Layer had one of the largest collections of wire recorders in the world," explains Lindner. "It was part of the Ampex museum," and now it's a part of VidiPax. Some of the equipment is restored for display, other pieces are souped up and used as part of the production process. "We are actually customizing quad machines," he adds. "We are re-engineering in some cases because we need them to play back something other than what they were originally designed for."
Keeping all of these formats available requires a constant search for additional equipment, working or not. "If people find machines in the basement, we'll take them," states Lindner. One of the pieces they've located is an Ampex VPR-1 that was still configured as a Type A machine. "The VPR-1 originally came out as Type A, but then a modification kit could be used to make it Type C. We've modified our machine to play back not just the original high band, but also low band and medium band." With the modifications, Lindner claims to "have the best A machine in the world."
VidiPax doesn't just deal with video formats. They also have audio and film equipment. "We have one machine that plays any 1/4" format from 15/32 to 15 IPS continuously. Mono to stereo to four track," says Lindner. "We've also tweaked our Rank to deal with really damaged film."
Achieving the Best Result
Just because an original is restored, of course, doesn't mean that you can play it whenever you want. The goal after restoration is preservation. As part of VidiPax's service, they create modern format copies that can be used without fear of damaging the original.
Which format does Lindner recommend for these copies? "We are in such a state of change," he comments, "that whatever single decision you make will be wrong. So the best decision is to make a multiple decision and hedge your bets." In order to ensure that everyone can actually do this, VidiPax charges the same fee whether a customer chooses to have one or two copies made, as long as they're in different formats. The best decision, says Lindner, "is to record onto as many formats as you can afford and keep them in different geographical locations."
What about digital formats? Lindner is cautious about this approach. First of all, he says, he doesn't recommend any type of compressed video storage. "As an archivist, the job is to pass the torch onto the next era in as good and as intact a way as possible," he explains. "Fifty years from now, technology will be better and the one thing you don't want to do is preempt the use of other, better formats."
The other side of digital is that although digital storage and playback theoretically results in no loss of quality over time, all digital storage is still based on a certain type of media that must be preserved. "If you can't read the media, you can't get at the information." In addition, there has to be a method of decoding the original tape or file. Formats that may be considered standards today can become orphans tomorrow.
The other part of Lindner's recommendation, storing originals in different locations, protects against major catastrophes. Recovering from these catastrophes is another part of VidiPax's business. "There is no recovery from a single copy that's lost or damaged beyond repair," says Lindner, so the best protection is to make sure multiple copies exist. As part of his mission to preserve history, Lindner and VidiPax have worked for all the major networks, the Library of Congress and the National Archives. On the catastrophe side, they spent four months helping the Pratt Institute in New York recover from a fire that damaged 2000 tapes.
VidiPax makes money by charging a fee to restore damaged originals. However, Lindner is a strong proponent of taking the right steps to preserve original material so that the need for restoration is minimized. "Unless people take care of what they have, it will not be able to be seen in future years," he comments. "Even if the client doesn't care, there is an obligation for the greater good to take care of the materials." As is the case with the Warhol tapes, "The life of the materials may live longer that the videographer or the client or the company."
One example Lindner points to is Ken Burns' "Civil War" project. "Most of that stuff is pictures from plain old folks," he says. "Fortunately for all of us, they survived. And we have to keep working at this, because audio and video materials are part of the cultural heritage of our time." According to Lindner, "In order to get the 'whole truth' about any period in history, we need to be able to look at a number of different sources." VidiPax wants to make sure as many of those sources as possible survive for the future.
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