Remastering just means changing the original quality of the master copy of a piece of media, and you can remaster nearly anything – even if it’s already high-quality. A CD-quality movie can be remastered up into Blu-Ray. Songs from 2007 can be remastered to up the quality in 2020. Vinyls and VHSs can be remastered into MP3s.
Here’s a general overview of what remastering means!
The end goal of a remastering, restoration, or any other sort of improvement is to keep the art to the artist’s original vision. This means that you could remaster “Yesterday” to sound as clear as it did when McCarthy played it onstage, but removing the claps and cheering in “Bennie and the Jets” would be going against Elton John’s vision when creating the song. At that point, it’s a remix, not a remaster.
Arguments persist over how to best remaster old vinyl and tape media to current kinds, but one thread of argument has existed for decades now: when companies make things louder but more compressed, are they honoring the wishes of the artist? Or are they trying to make it sound ‘better’ for the new format? In that case, is it truly an accurate remaster? The fight goes on. I personally agree that mixing like the original is as big a part of the song as any of the instruments are. You can argue that Black Sabbath would have used more powerful bass if it existed at the time, but that’s not how remastering works. Again – that’s a remix, not recreation. It is not the remasterer’s job to remix.
However, sometimes the original media is missing parts – that wasn’t the artist’s vision either. Maybe the original vinyl cracked, or the grooves have been worn in. Tapes yellow over time, too. Old art in particular is sometimes missing pieces due to environmental wear and paint degradation. See BaumGartner Restoration’s approach. The goal is to replace the art exactly as it was before the degradation happened, while also making it possible for future restoration artists to remove his work and replace it with their own if new information about that picture comes out. Maybe the artist of a portrait of a Labrador always painted dogs with five toes instead of four – if someone finds a letter with that info after he’s replaced the dog’s foot, they can re-paint the dog’s foot to match this new information. He hasn’t ruined the original.
Bad remastery doesn’t have to be as extreme as ‘Potato Jesus’. See ‘The Lamb of God’ from the Ghent Altarpiece where the lamb is still expertly painted, but it’s not the same lamb. The artist envisioned the lamb as strangely humanoid, so the first artist – in their painting over it with an arguably more attractive lamb – is going against the original artist’s wishes. It’s a remix, not a remaster.
Digital Remaster: Disney Movies
Digital remastering is one of the most common types today, but it wasn’t widely done because it was A) expensive and B) took a long time. Uploading every individual frame of a movie at the right definition to make it Blu Ray quality eats up 12 terabytes on average before the editor even touches it. That is a lot of data. Automatic filters can reduce the appearance of fuzz, but they can also destroy fine detail and blur the image in a different way. Instead, AI software takes individual frames to remove specks of dust and scratches from said film without requiring that editor to go over every. Single. Frame by hand. Unfortunately, it’s not quite perfect, and human hands are needed to keep particular sparkles and fine lines from disappearing during the AI’s processing. Even with a human touch, it’s often not enough to maintain the original details.
Many of the complaints about Disney remasters are that the lines are blurry. Disney’s Cinderella is especially bad. Her dress is less flowy. Her fingers often lose their gaps when her hands are together. The magic of the fairy godmother is reduced to a handful of sparks instead of a shower of them. Objectively, it’s a clearer image than the film was, but it sucks some of the character out of the characters, the backgrounds, the setpieces, fur, hair, fabric… the list goes on. Demilked has a great list of side-by-side comparisons on this phenomenon.
Black and White vs. Color
Unfortunately, for movies that weren’t stored by a gigantic mega-corporation, cracked, warped, and aged film sometimes makes remastering difficult. A number of movies are simply lost to time because the master was stored improperly and started to age beyond salvage. On the other hand, the earliest color films struggle with multiple tapes aging in different ways. Early moviemakers filmed a scene with four colors of film to get the full rainbow of color. Those films are the master, and those films quadruple the information the computer has to compile and scan. It’s a double-edged sword. Flaws in one strip can be fixed using information from the others, but now there are four opportunities for something to go wrong instead of just the one.
Shirley Temple’s recolorings are probably some of the best known – at least to my generation. Advertisements for the old movies, now in color! played across dozens of channels aimed at kids and tweens. I still remember the first couple of lines to “Animal Crackers”. Of course, grainy black-and-white movies are a totally different beast than grainy color ones. You can filter a color image to make it more colorful, or suck color out completely. Putting colors back in isn’t nearly as simple! Just like every other kind of movie, black-and-whites to be recolored are scanned in, and (in today’s tech) an AI is told to color certain objects. Just like ordinary remastery, sometimes this fails. In the earliest days, editors would recolor every object in the movie frame by agonizing frame. Ever wonder why only the biggest classics get the recolor/remaster treatment? This is why.
As an interesting side note, the actual set for a black-and-white movie may be hideous. The actor could be put in a dark orange suit to his co-actor’s gray one, because it’s not just about how the suit looks in black and white, it’s also how it looks in contrast to other items on-stage and how the light catches it. Pure black is almost never actually black – a very dark blue often caught the light better to simulate black on-screen.
Additionally, colored lights could be used to create effects with stage makeup. Red makeup is invisible under red light, but very dark under blue light, and vice versa. By using two alternating shades of paint, they could simulate a face changing from one to another. Heck, even with only one, they could create the effect of the actor withering away by painting his cheeks and undereyes blue and then gradually changing the stage lighting from blue or green to red! The applications of color in a black-and-white movie are endless!
The remaster rewrites all of this into colors and shades pleasing to the eye, and nobody is the wiser. Except the people who worked on it originally.