Digital Noise
Where'd That
Cartoon Go?

The same frame from two video releases of Bimbo's Initiation (1931). The intact frame is from Betty Boop Special Collector's Edition; the mangled image is from the recent Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection. © Republic Entertainment Inc.

by Amid Amidi

Throughout the ages, technology has constantly evolved to make life easier and more automated. In almost all cases, it has been developed to help man. Such is the case with a technology called digital noise reduction (we'll refer to it as DVNR, the commonly used term in the telecine industry). The technology was developed in the early '90s as an affordable way to clean up dirt and grain digitally as film is transferred to tape. Used correctly with live-action product, it serves a very beneficial purpose. However, when used with animation, it can create unwanted artifacts that can harm or even ruin the product, and in most cases is not the right tool to use for the job.

Danny Antonucci changed his post-production process after seeing the effects of DVNR
on his work.
© Cartoon Network.

So What's Happening?
As film is output to tape, DVNR's algorithms are designed to compare frames in the same scene and pick out unwanted noise such as grain, dirt and scratches. Once picked out, the system selectively replaces the unwanted parts of the image with parts from the previous and subsequent frames. The system's level of intensity is controllable thereby making it more or less sensitive to the noise on screen. Certain complications arise however when DVNR is used with animation. In animation, DVNR easily confuses the high contrasts and thin black lines commonly found in cartoons, and mistakes them for dirt. John Knowles, Vice President of Marketing at Photokem, one of Hollywood's major output houses, comments, "When DVNR first came out, it was a box that helped to clean up the film-to-tape process, but its overuse can create unwanted side effects. Like any technology, it's available to use, but it's best to do so with caution." Operators tend to set the settings too high so the system mistakes small details, such as the pupils of the eyes or thin shapes like fingers, as noise and blurs them over. In fast action, with animation on ones, the black lines around the characters are often read as film scratches and are obliterated. Once one learns and notices these effects, they become impossible to tune out, and are clearly visible to the naked eye, even when the film is played at full speed. The process tends to be less harmful to TV animation where shows are generally shot on twos and threes making the system less likely to identify animation elements as dirt or scratches.

No Cartoon is Safe
Chances are if you've seen an animated film within the past few years, then you've seen DVNR. Whether you noticed it or not is a different question. Video and laserdisc releases that have prominent DVNR contamination include such titles as Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection (Republic), The Flintstones Deluxe Laserdisc Box Set (Image Entertainment), MGM/UA's The Art of Tom and Jerry Volume 3, Bob Clampett's Hook cartoon on MGM/UA's The Golden Age of Looney Tunes Volume 5, Orion's Alakazam the Great, Rhino's Schoolhouse Rock, MGM/UA's Happy Harmonies boxed set, plus numerous MGM Tex Avery cartoons and Bob Clampett Beany and Cecil cartoons shown on American and European television. Cartoon Network's Ed, Edd n Eddy recently revised their production process in order to reduce the affects of DVNR. This partial listing clearly shows the breadth of classic and current cartoons affected by this process. Why? For that, the answers are a bit more complex.

At first thought, it seems silly to put new cartoons through DVNR because they shouldn't be dirty, or so you'd think. Danny Antonucci, creator of Ed, Edd n Eddy, says that when negatives come back from Korea, they are so dirty that it's a necessity to run them through DVNR. "Being aware of budgeting, network economics, and the fast output required in TV, it's sort of a necessary evil. If North America didn't overprice itself, and it wasn't necessary to get animation done on such a quick schedule, there would be tighter quality control; and we could all be purists." As concerned as Antonucci is about the final product, he claims that, "It's definitely an insider situation, and most of the audience doesn't notice it unless it's really, really bad. I showed it to my boys and their friends, and they never noticed it." However, after seeing the detrimental effects on the first episode, Antonucci says that they've minimalized the DVNR percentage to just purify the colors, and hopefully avoid affecting the image.

© Republic Entertainment Inc.

Can Anything Be Done?
DVNR isn't the only solution however. John Knowles says, "A better alternative to DVNR is DRS (digital restoration services) whereby dirt and scratches are removed selectively without processing the entire video frame. This artifact-free process is also available in hi-def and NTSC/PAL." But it's also a lot more expensive. DRS is a manual process that requires someone going through the film, frame by frame and detecting the problem areas, whereas DVNR is an automated process where an operator sets an intensity level, and the machine batch processes all of the frames. Very few companies have the resources to ensure that cartoons receive this A-class treatment. It's no surprise that one of the few companies that insists on DRS over DVNR when it comes to animation is Disney.

Animation purists tend to find DVNR most obtrusive when it affects home video releases of classic cartoons. Consumers should be aware that phrases like "Digitally Enhanced" or "Digitally Remastered" do not necessarily mean an improvement in the image quality. Animation historian Jerry Beck, who has authored a few sets with DVNR'd cartoons, explains, "The marketing people who create the product concept, and the engineers who master the videos, don't talk to each other. One hand doesn't know exactly what the other hand is doing." What is most alarming is that many of the same cartoons have been released before sans digital tampering actually look better than the DVNR versions. Case in point: A number of cartoons from Betty Boop: The Definitive Collection had previosly been released under the 1990 Betty Boop Special Collector's Edition Volumes 1 and 2 laserdisc set. Now, compare the exact frames from both of these packages and see if technology has helped or hurt the image.

Some will counter that the telecine operator set the DVNR system's intensity level too high, but if the pre-digitally transferred print is fine, why use the technology in the first place. Beck comments, "The marketing folks want to advertise `Digitally Remastered' on the boxes and that means using the latest clean-up technology. They order the tapes to be run through DVNR even though that is not the best thing to do." Antonucci sums it up best with this thought, "You don't go fucking with it. Why screw around with history?"

Start a Riot...or Maybe Not?
Whereas collectors know of the problem, there is some division as to what should be done to rectify the situation. Some insist that returning the tapes to the stores and telling them why is the best way to create awareness. After all, if consumers refuse to purchase a shoddy product, that hits the manufacturers where it really hurts - their bank accounts. Beck counters, "It is so difficult to convince the home video companies that serious collectors of classic cartoons exist in any sigificant number. Whereas these laser disc and video tape collections are not so common, I'd advise collectors to buy these collections, like Betty Boop & Flintstones, while they can if they want to see all these cartoons. If no one buys the Flintstone or Betty Boop sets, then distributors, store owners, and the library owners will be convinced that there is no audience for cartoon collections. After you've paid for it and you have a complaint, make your complaint heard. Write letters, e-mail the companies about your dissatisfaction, etc. Buying these products will convince the copyright owners to keep making these products available."

Economics and a general lack of awareness have created the situation. It would be easy to let it pass and wait until a new technlogy comes along but as consumers, animation enthusiasts, artists and executives, we must recognize the situation and work to find a resolution. Now that Jerry Beck is aware of the problem, he insists to the people he deals with that the cartoons not be DVNR'd. His current projects include restoring the 1940's Columbia-Screen Gems (Fox & Crow, Color Rhapsodies, etc.) and compiling a WB/Columbia House Looney Tunes Collector's Series -- both of which are scheduled to be sans DVNR. Technology can be great but like any other tool, it must be used correctly and DVNR is one tool that the animated artform can do without.

Amid Amidi is the Associate Editor of
Animation World Magazine.

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