I wanted to test out a number of different After Effect Noise Reduction plugins, and I knew that this 35mm version of Star Wars certainly has some noisy scenes. Would today's DNR (digital Noise Redution) tools cause the same kind of smearing and weirdness we see on the 2006 Bonus DVD, or have things improved a great deal since 1993?
Testing Digital Noise Reduction Plugins for After Effects, on the Star Wars SSE
Hello Star Wars fans!
Today I'm going to take a look at some of the commercial noise reduction plugins for After Effects, and show you how you might use them to improve the quality of Team Negative One's Silver Screen Edition.
One of the most common complaints I hear about the SSE is about how grainy it is, and I think that is because of scenes like this one. This is probably the second worst shot in terms of how grimy it looks, in the whole film. (we'll tackle the worst shot shortly.)
However, the fact is that if you saw this film in Theaters in 1977 or in any of the cinema re-releases in the 1980s, you'll know that this is how it actually looked. I have access to 4 or 5 different 35mm prints of Star Wars on various film stocks, including two Technicolor prints, the LPP used for the SSE, and the red faded Eastman print we were looking at last time, and they all look like this. If you look at this scene on the 16mm and 8mm prints, it's there too, and even on the laserdiscs and VHS copies, despite the low resolution, you can still see traces of these brown blobs, so there is no doubt in my mind that this is how it looked in 1977.
Is it supposed to look like this? Did George Lucas want it to look like this? I seriously doubt it, but by the time he got the film back from the lab he was out of time and money so that's how it looks. This is how it was for two decades so we didn't want to fix it for the Silver Screen Edition. If we had done so, we would have been accused by many of the same sort of revisionism that Lucas himself is guilty of.
But now that the original is out there, there is no reason why you can't fix it and make it the way YOU want to see it. So I'm here to show you how you can have your cake and eat it too. A lot of the footage used by Harmy to "despecialize" the official blu-ray actually came from the 2006 Bonus DVD, affectionatly known as the "GOUT" (George's Original Unaltered Trilogy), and he did some truly remarkable things to make that work seamlessly, but now that the Silver Screen Edition is out there, anyone with a little know how can go in and Despecialize the blu-ray or swap out shots from Harmy's masterpiece with real 1080p Star Wars.
Of course, just dropping this shot back in would be extremely jarring! Clearly it needs to be cleaned up some more.
So with that in mind, let's jump right in and try to fix up two of the grungiest shots of the SSE and make them ready for their Despecialized closeup.
We'll start with the Sandcrawler shot (a shot that was completely replaced in the Special Edition), which comes right after the "Look, Sir, Droids!" line when the stormtroopers check out the escape pod. The first thing I did was stabilize the shot using the VFX Warp Stabilizer effect in After Effects, because it was still a bit wobbly in the Silver Screen Edition and that affected the cleanup.
So here it is before we add any noise reduction effects. If we zoom in a little you can see it doesn't really look like film grain - it's just weird floating brown blobs, and this sort of color noise is present in a lot of scenes, particularly in the desert, but also on the Falcon. Perhaps it's the film stock used in the camera or maybe there was a stocking or some kind of weird filter on the camera. Whatever it is, let's see if we can reduce it to a more tolerable level.
RevisionFX offers two different Noise Reduction plugins for After Effects. The first one, called DE:Noise works pretty well here with just the default settings. The Sandcrawler moves so slowly that this scene is almost static, and because there isn't a lot of motion we can crank up the noise reduction a little without seeing any of the smearing or other problems that happen in high motion shots. With this effect, on this shot, though I don't see a lot of difference as I play with the settings. I don't know how much of it will come through on the screen capture, especially after YouTube recompresses it, but I'm not seeing a lot of changes here.
The second effect is called DE:Noise Frame Average. The default settings aren't nearly so impressive but if I tweak the threshold to about 40 and increase the frames Before and After to 2, it looks much better. Comparing it to the basic DE:Noise I think it is slightly better here, there are certainly fewer brown blobs.
The third effect by RevisionFX that I want to show you is their Deflicker Effect. For some reason this effect does a fantastic job of removing the noise while preserving detail, however if there is any kind of significant movement there is horrible smearing. Here though, it works pretty well using noise clean method #1 or #2.
Red Giant's Denoiser II does a nice job here too, the only change to the default settings I made here was to change the "Footage Source" to "film". Since most of the noise is in the blue channel, increasing the "Blue Offset" by 100% under "fine tuning" further improves the image. Overall, it looks smoother and cleaner than any of the RevisionFX.
BorisFX Noise Reduction Effect has a lot of tweakable settings, but I certainly didn't bother to read the manual to find out what they all do! But adjusting the sliders under Temporal and Spacial smoothing produces pretty nice results.
Finally, there is NeatVideo (which is also available for Virtualdub). I have been a customer of theirs since version 2.0, and of all the effects we have tried so far, I think this is the best one out there, and it is the one I use the most. It is able to almost completely remove all the those blobs from this shot, while retaining all the detail. You're probably thinking, that we're done - that this cleaned footage could now be dropped right into the blu-ray footage, though you might have to crank up the saturation and add a blue/magenta tint to it if you want it to match the blu-ray colors, but I mean it looks great, right?
But wait. Watch whap happens when you play it back. Look at the clouds. It's almost as if there is a heat haze up there. None of the other effeccts are having this problem. They don't get it so clean, but the clouds aren't changing shape either. The best solution here might be to use one of the other filters, and then apply Neat Video on top of that. I don't really like the idea of filtering it twice, but that might be the best solution here.
Let's move on to the next shot which is the Land Speeder entering Mos Eisley. This is without a doubt, the grungiest shot in the whole movie. So right off the bat let's show you the before and After, and then we'll take a look at how well the various plugins did. So here's the before - plenty of brown blobs. And here is after, again using the Neat Video 4 plugin. You'll notice that I added some color and a little film grain too. Now I think that looks really good given the source.
If you've watched Mike Verta's video on this shot, you'll notice that he managed to recover more detail, but then he was working with a 4k scan of the Technicolor print, while this is from a 2k scan of the LPP, which was itself a duplicate made from another 35mm print. So unfortunately the power lines visible in the blu-ray (and somewhat recovered in Legacy Edition) could not be recovered here.
I think it looks really good - until you look at the blu-ray. While there are obviously a ton of issues with the Blu-ray version - CGI dinosaurs, the speeder has had the bottom completely shaved off, and the colors are just hideous - but there is no denying that the level of detail and sharpness is a huge step up here. But again, the Blu-ray was able to recomposite many of the original elements directly from the camera negatives, so that is to be expected. I ran this shot through Dr Dre's Color Balance tool to create a LUT. Applying it, makes the colors a little more natural.
It looks like they also worked very hard to remove that smear of vasaline on the camera lens (you can see it moves with the camera) which was there to help obscure the wheels on the Speeder. But anyway, when compared to the Blu-ray it does seem like a bit of a let down, until of course you see all the CGI crap and you turn that layer off. From Before to After is still quite impressive, right?
Especially when compared to the next best official release: This is the same shot from the 2006 Bonus DVD. Now you remember when I talked about how we didn't need to worry about "temporal smearing" when working on the Sandcrawler shot, because there was no fast motion, well in this shot there is plenty of motion. Not only are the people moving, and the speeder is whizzing by, but the camera is panning too.
There are two basic kinds of cleanup techniques. Spacial Cleaning recruits nearby pixels from the same frame, and Temporal cleaning uses the pixels from the previous / next frame. As I scroll through the GOUT version here, what do you notice? See the guy's leg? It vanishes! Then the whole Guy just gets blurred out completely - He's the invisible man! This is what happens when using any kind of automated cleanup tools - though today the side effects are not nearly so bad. But it's why the Silver Screen Edition was cleaned manually, frame by frame whenever possible. The 2006 Bonus DVD uses a master created for the 1993 Definitive Edition Laserdiscs, and their automated cleanup process leaves a lot to be desired. And the fact that Neat Video was able to prevent this problem is really very impressive.
Let me show you how well that RevisionFX Deflicker tool worked here. As you can see, the static areas look fantastic, but the areas with motion are all smeary, with echos of past and future frames. Even the regular DE:Noise effect shows some smearing - look at the guys leg - and this is with the default settings. The Frame Average one, doesn't do much here on the default setting - just sort of blurs the brown blobs. Upping the threshold helps, but if we go as high as 40, which is what we used on the Sandcrawler shot, there is all kinds of smearing.
Using the Red Giant Denoiser II with the same settings here as we used on the Sandcrawler just isn't good enough, and increasing the sensitivity creates some weird, wavy artifacts, similar to those we saw on the DVD, while washing out details, particularly on the ground.
Here is the BorisFX plugin with the same settings we used on the Sandcrawler. Watch as I turn it on and off. See all that pixelation? And look at the tower - it is being blended into the sky.
Which brings up back to the Neat Video plugin. all the brown blobs are just about gone, there is no smearing, and most of the detail is still there. It doesn't look quite so sharp, but that is an illusion.
But anyway, that's about it for today, I look forward to seeing new projects featuring re-purposed Silver Screen Edition footage.