How Did They Remaster Decades Old Music Video ‘Last Christmas’ In 4K?

In time for Christmas, a 4K version of 80s classic love song ‘Last Christmas’ landed on the Internet. The video looks so crisp and detailed that many are calling it surreal. People are puzzled how an old song that looked awful on their tiny CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) is serving so well on the latest 4K screens. Rightly so, because this synth-pop sensation was released in 1984. This video is older than I am and yet holds so well by today’s standards. So what’s the sorcery? Where does this additional detail come from? Well, first of all, it is not a result of upscaling. You can’t simply take a VHS from MTV’s library and turn it into a 4K video. The entire thing is possible because the Italian Gentleman who directed the music video shot it on a film instead of a tape. Now, to understand why the film is superior to tape, we need a bit of primer. Oh, and do watch the video before you get to the explanation part.

Introduction to Film and Tape

Back in the days of CRT (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs, the video broadcast quality was limited to 486 horizontal scanlines in the NTSC system, used in North America, Japan, South Korea, and a few more countries. In India, China, and major territories in Africa, Europe, and Australia, the PAL system was used for TV signals. It had slightly more 576 horizontal lines compared to NTSC. Much like how pixel dimensions work these days, these additional lines meant more detail. To put things in perspective, broadcast quality and TV output in the 80s and 90s is comparable to watching 480p video on YouTube.

Since shows, news, and even documentaries were going to end up on a CRT TV, most creators opted for videotape. For that time, this way of shooting a video had its advantages. For instance, the equipment required for capturing a video on tape was compact compared to that of the film camera. Since it saved the video as a signal, it was easy to broadcast. On the other hand, shooting on a film was an expensive and challenging affair. What’s worse is that the early films were highly flammable due to its nitrate content. However, anyone who took the efforts to put up with all these hassles made their content timeless.

To understand the motion picture film, try to remember the old point-and-shoot cameras your family used to carry during the vacation. It used to hold a roll that could shoot 24 or 36 snaps. This roll of negatives was then taken for development to a local photo studio shop. Without making it too technical, a film captures an image owing to a chemicals reaction that takes place when exposed to the light. It is defined by the grain which comes into the existence as photons hit the silver halide. Sorry, if it sounds complicated. We often fail to appreciate how simple things we take for granted are incredibly complex.

Turning Grain Into Pixels

Since the film is an analog medium, it doesn’t have a resolution like a digital video. So to make it available for consumers in a digital format, someone has to get hold of high-quality master print or something close to that. Each frame of the film reel is then manually scanned and fed to a computer to achieve a digital HD or 4K version.

The digital copy is also beautified using the latest color grading and other editing techniques. It is hard to tell what quality these scans can peak at. The grain on a film can be insanely detailed. In the 70s and 80s, these films were used for VHS and video CDs. In the late 90s, we began extracting HD quality for DVDs. And while 4K is seen as gold standard today, we have already managed to achieve 10K resolution from film conversion! As our scanning technology improves, we may get even more out of these old films. To find out more about the specialized hardware used for digital conversions, look up the motion picture film scanning system in your search bar.

Photo credit freepik – www.freepik.com

Thanks for reading till the end of this article. For more such informative and exclusive tech content, like our Facebook page