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How Do Old Movies Become 4K?


If you’re a movie buff, chances are you’ve been following the recent popularity of 4K-restored movies/films and TV shows. Everything from Ben-Hur to Top Gun is now available in vivid 4K. 

While all that is cool, you might be wondering:

Exactly how do old movies become 4K? 

Well, the process isn’t so simple to explain. However, we will try to make it as comprehensive and digestible as possible in this article. 

Scroll on to learn more!

Going Back in Time

In the past, major motion pictures were shot in either 35mm or 70mm film reels. Television shows and sitcoms were, on the other hand, shot in 16mm film reels. 

Old film reel

Film reels are analog, meaning they can be transferred to any technology available that can process the images stored on each reel. But the best part about the film is the incredibly high-quality “resolution” that it possesses. (We put the word resolution in quotations as film reels technically don’t possess resolution in the same sense as digital videos do.)

Without the normal limitations of pixel count, films can render an estimated twenty million “pixels” or film grounds per 35mm film reel. That’s equivalent to an 8K resolution video if we were to interpret it in today’s standards. 

The technology did not live up to its potential back in the day. However, that’s where 4K restoration comes in. 

The Digital Age

Digital movie making

Movies nowadays are shot digitally using the greatest and latest technology on the market. Using powerful computers to render each pixel, the results typically come out amazing, vivid, and lifelike on-screen. 

The only trouble is that, due to the incredibly large sizes of digital movies, pixel count is limited; otherwise, it would take up too much space and would need far more time to render. 

What Is 4K Remastering?

As the name suggests, 4K remastering is essentially the process of rerendering an old film into 4K resolution. It’s the reason why you can watch classics like Children of the Corn and The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on your 4K TV. 

4K TV display

If movies are thought of as a way for people to chronicle moments in time, then we can consider 4K remastering as a way of bringing new life to old films. 

It’s the most efficient way of allowing people to take a peek into how the world was back in the day and how far technology has advanced over the years. 

How Do Old Movies Become 4K?

The process starts with collecting and gathering old film copies of a certain movie. These plastic and gelatine emulsion reels can experience significant breakdown because time erodes the quality of the film. 

Old movie restoration

So, the process can take a while as editors/restoration experts work to salvage the pieces of film for better image rendering. 

Once the gathering process is complete, these film reels are then put through a machine that creates digital versions of images and uploads them onto a computer or software. 

The real work begins after the images have been lifted from their film reels. 

Artists, editors, colorists, and many other specialists work together to bring new life into the old film. Here happens a ton of sharpening and contrasting, as well as removing scratches that may have affected the film in storage. 

Some editors also apply minor effects to select images to help improve the picture quality. 

Why Should I Care about 4K Restoration?

It might not be obvious to most people, but 4K restoration might just be the best thing that’s happened in the movie industry ever. 

Old movie to 4K Restoration

Here’s why:

Because digital formats are typically restricted by their digital capacities to a certain number of pixels, image quality is limited to a set number, depending on where the technology is being stored. 

In other words, the more pixels the better the quality, but it also needs a higher storage allowance. 

However, because film reels are analog, they don’t possess the same limitations in pixel count. Therefore, it doesn’t experience the same downscaling digital movies do when stored in smaller spaces. 

To put it simply, with 4K restored films, the lighting, coloring, and quality never diminishes. The display you see will be as clear as the original image. 

Here’s an example of an old film upscaled to 4K:

Police 1916 - Charlie Chaplin Film - [ 60 FPS - Color - 4K ] - Old footage restoration with AI

Why Not Just Watch Old Films in Their Original Quality?

Although watching vintage films in their original quality does bring with it feelings of nostalgia, some people enjoy watching remastered versions of said films because of the higher image quality that 4K offers. 

It’s the closest filmmakers and movie junkies have come to realizing the true potential of film. Plus, it makes for an entirely different and new experience for movie enthusiasts. 

Can You Restore Old Films at Home?

The technology used in restoring old films can be incredibly expensive. However, if you’re okay with the price tag that said equipment may come with, then you can restore old films at home. 

Remake old movie at home

Granted, of course, that you have copies of the original film reels that said movies were shot in. 

You can also perform 4K restoration on old home movies shot by your parents and grandparents. You could turn it into a fun little project on the weekends. 

The Bottom Line

Expect to see more and more old films restored in 4K in the next few years. 

From classic tragedies to terrifying horror masterpieces, as technology progresses, the remastering process of old films becomes much easier for filmmakers and editors to achieve. 

Soon enough, we will be able to remaster old films with a single press of a button. 

But for now, we can enjoy the few 4K remastered releases on the market. 


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