Browsing through any recent collection of 4K movies — either physical copies, such as a 4K UHD disc, or digital copies, such as on iTunes or your streamer of choice — you’ve likely encountered the words “remastered in 4K” or “4K restoration,” or some other combination of the sort.
Judging by this vague description alone, you wouldn’t be wrong for assuming this was an inherently good thing. However, restoration is not always the best way to treat a work of art. Just look at that infamous decade-old meme of the ruined 19th-century Fresco painting of Jesus Christ.
It begs the question: Is a 4K restoration always going to look better compared to the previous, non-restored version of the film? Not at all. Remastering a work of art can go terribly wrong if done lazily, improperly, or just plain badly.
It’s true of paintings, it’s true of architecture, it’s true of music… so why would it not be true of film, as well? Let’s take a look at what exactly goes into the restoration of a film, paying close attention to how the delicate process can go completely wrong. From there, we can look at some instances of 4K remasters that ended up looking worse than they did before.
What Is a 4K Remaster?
Before getting into it, let’s take a second and explain what exactly a 4K remaster is. It’s a common question surrounding remasters and restorations. How can a film be remastered to a quality that didn’t exist at the time the film was made? It’s not a dumb question at all.
You aren’t wrong to wonder about it. After all, how can something shot on film be 4K when we think of 4K as a quality of digital filmmaking? It can be a little confusing to wrap your head around, even if you’re a big fan of film.
Here’s the simple answer; 35mm film was the standard for Hollywood filmmaking for much of the 20th century and throughout the 2000s. Despite being older, it actually has a higher picture quality than even 4K.
While the two are like apples and oranges, it’s commonly accepted that 35mm film’s picture quality shakes out to be more or less the same as an 8K digital image. Likewise, the picture quality of 70mm film — also referred to as IMAX — is equivalent to as much as 18K. (Digital and celluloid film have two distinct looks, so these comparisons are not totally equivalent.)
With this in mind, a 4K remaster is the term used to describe the complicated artistic process of improving and restoring an old film reel to make it look as close to new as possible. This has been done through a whole slew of methods, which we’ll talk more about below.
The reason 4K remasters have become so in demand as of late is that 4K itself is becoming more in demand. In the past, the limits of technology meant the best a restoration could look was equivalent to 2K. With 4K technology now readily available to technicians, remasters are now done in 4K instead.
4K Remasters: Methods of Restoration
Today’s method of restoring film is not the same as the methods used 50 years ago. What’s more, those methods are not the same as the methods used when the need to restore film first arrived in the first part of the 20th century.
Over the course of film history, the three methods listed below have been the primary methods of restoration. Some more archaic methods have come and gone. Other, more experimental methods are just beginning to emerge. And yet, these three have undoubtedly seen the most use over time.
1. Cleaning the Film
In the early days of film history, when a film had been exposed to dust, dirt, and grime, the easiest thing to do was to simply clean the film to remove the grit. This looked different than cleaning a tabletop or sweeping the floor, of course.
You couldn’t just put some elbow grease into it. That would destroy the very delicate material the film was printed on. Either by brushing, dusting, or some other gentle form of cleaning, projectionists and preservationists could do their best to try and restore the film to what it originally looked like.
2. Wet Gate Printing the Film
In the 1970s, a new method emerged. It was called “wet gate printing.” It worked to resolve an issue that simply cleaning the film could not — scratches on the film. As a matter of fact, improperly cleaning film probably even perpetuated the problem of the scratched stock.
By submerging the reel of film into a bath of special liquid with the same density and spectral quality as the reel of film itself, technicians could project the film through the liquid and effectively skip over the scratches. They could then film this projected film to create a new master. It was a lot like taking a picture of a picture.
Remastering in the 20th Century
In film, music, and other recorded mediums, a master is the reel of film or tape that the work was originally recorded on. By creating a new master — i.e. remastering — you can correct any of the scratches, dust particles, and other blemishes that might exist on the original master.
This wet gate printing process was the go-to remastering method for nearly the remainder of the 20th century. But, its many downsides still left film technicians searching for a better, more effective remastering process.
You see, first and foremost, wet gate printing was expensive. The process of submerging the film, projecting it, and creating a new master had a grand total in the five-figure range. That’s just for a single film, too.
Not to mention, if the scratches were pretty deep or found on the emulsion side (a.k.a. the light-sensitive side), wet gate printing simply would not work. Thankfully, with the continued advancement of computer technology, there was a new method of restoration on the horizon.
3. Digitally Remastering the Film
With the invention of digital remastering in the late 1990s, the process behind 4K remasters was finally within reach. For the first time in the history of filmmaking, film masters could be digitally altered without needing to physically change a thing about the master itself.
The end result is a drastically different film. (Not always “better,” as we’ll later see, but undoubtedly different indeed.) Digital remastering was born out of respect for the arts, but for studio execs, it was also about something else. With the popularization of HD TVs and the like, poor-quality films just wouldn’t be purchased.
What the Process Looks Like
The process of digitally remastering a film looks something like this. First, you scan the reel of film into the computer and convert every single frame into a corresponding digital image. From there, every frame can be blown up on the screen.
At this point, a digital artist will make the necessary repairs to the colors, the blemishes, the tears, and — through a similar process, only with audio instead of video — even the sound. The remastered film, now a digital file, is then re-printed back onto a new reel.
These days, there’s even artificially intelligent software being used to accomplish some of these tasks without the need for a digital artist. From AI upscaling to AI color grading and all sorts of other jobs in between, artificial intelligence has become a key (but controversial) part of 4K remasters.
Thankfully, more often than not, the remastered film is shown to someone with artistic intent — whether it be the director, the cinematographer, or the executive producer — for approval. Sometimes an artist will even work alongside the technicians throughout the remastering process.
Which Films Cannot Receive 4K Remasters?
Now that we’ve provided this (simplified) explainer on the methods of restoration, it’s worth expanding upon what kind of films can receive 4K remasters in the first place. After all, this is not a universally applicable process.
There are certain types of films that — at least at this point in time — flat-out cannot be improved. Whether that’s because of the film’s condition or the limits of the technology used to make it, these are the types of films that cannot receive 4K remasters.
1. Lost Films
Prior to 1950, many film masters would end up lost, damaged, or completely destroyed. This would happen due to archaic methods of recording images on film, including the use of highly flammable nitrate film. After 1950, something called “safety film” became the industry standard.
These special film reels were specially made to avoid color fading, spontaneous combustion, and other fatal flaws that could result in older films being inadvertently destroyed. Alas, hundreds upon hundreds of pre-1950 films have ended up being destroyed forever.
Obviously, these films can no longer be restored, much less receive 4K remasters. While some distribution prints — the copies sent to theaters and projectionists that derived from the master print — might still be around, they lack the image quality of the master itself.
Editing the Master
The same goes for filmmakers who make edits to the masters themselves. This effectively erases the original film and prevents it from ever being remastered in 4K. George Lucas is guilty of this, among many other filmmakers over the course of film history.
Preservation of Historic Cinema
Occasionally, though, lost films once are found in an attic or a basement somewhere. When this happens, the masters can then be restored to their former glory as usual. Lucas and fellow filmmaker Martin Scorsese are known for using their money for the preservation of historic international cinema.
This is a key component of the filmmaking world that receives criminally little attention. Through Scorsese’s World Cinema Project and Lucas’s Hobson/ Lucas Family Foundation, dozens of once-lost films have since been saved.
2. Digital Films
Keep George Lucas on your mind, because we aren’t done with him just yet. While digital cameras are the standard method of filmmaking today, it wasn’t this way until very recently. In fact, the switch happened partway through the 2010s.
In the 2000s, the technology just wasn’t totally there yet. Still, Lucas and other filmmakers opted to work with the latest and greatest regardless. This means that Star Wars: Episode II and III will always be 2K. They cannot be restored, remastered, or altered beyond 2K.
This is because digital film is very different from 35mm film or 70mm film. Beyond the obvious difference in materials, they’re also completely different technologies. 35mm filmmaking involves exposing light to a reel of film and creating a chemical reaction that captures the scene in front of the lens.
Digital filmmaking, on the other hand, is done with sensors. Because 35mm turns out to be equivalent to 8K, it can be continually restored until technology reaches that limit. Digital filmmaking locks the film in whatever resolution it was shot in. That’s why a 2K film will always be 2K.
You might be thinking: “Wait, I own the Prequel Trilogy on 4K UHD!” Here’s the truth: these are not really 4K restorations. Nothing has been “restored.” A more appropriate term? 4K upscale. This is really all you can do to improve the quality of a digital film.
Run it through artificially intelligent software that digitally upscales the image and adds HDR colors, and it will spit out a 4K-quality file. These upscaled digital films are hardly 4K remasters, but “4K remaster” sounds more impressive than “4K upscale” on the package.
4K Remasters Gone Wrong
Over the past several years, there have been plenty of truly great 4K remasters. In that same amount of time, there have been some genuinely awful ones, as well. We’ve found some of the best examples of 4K remasters gone wrong and listed them below.
The World of Wong Kar Wai
Here’s a weird one for you: How can a 4K remaster be bad if the director signed off on it? This is the question that keeps fans of Wong Kar-wai up at night. Known for such legendary international films as Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000), Wong Kar-wai’s most notable films received 4K remasters in the spring of 2021.
Upon their release, fans of Wong Kar-wai were repulsed at how nearly every one of the films had a sickening green hue. The “World of Wong Kar Wai” box set is now infamously one of the most despised 4K remasters of all time.
Terminator 2: Judgment Day
Back in 2017, when 4K remasters had only just begun to have demand, the 1991 James Cameron film Terminator 2: Judgement Day was given the 4K UHD treatment. The master that was digitally scanned allegedly derived from the 3D version of the film.
As a result, the final product ended up going down as one of the best instances of how 4K remasters can go wrong. The cast actually has a disturbingly waxy look to them because of how much detail was lost in the remastering process. It’s a real shame, too, because a good 4K scan of Terminator 2: Judgement Day would be a hit.
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
Similarly to the Terminator 2 restoration, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) received a particularly bad 4K remaster in January 2022. Whatever digital software the film’s technicians used managed to scrub all the much-needed film grain from the picture.
The result is a disarmingly artificial image quality that borders on the look and feel of a deepfake. Couple this with an unimpressive HDR implementation, and you have a truly disappointing 4K remaster that collectors know to steer clear of.
Are Restorations Always Better?
So, are 4K restorations always better than the original version of the film? The simple answer is no. However, that’s not to say that 4K remasters are a bad thing. Not in the slightest. For films that have seen a significant loss in quality over the years, a 4K remaster can effectively save the film from destruction.
Additionally, a high-quality 4K remaster can ensure a film is seen and enjoyed the way it was meant to be seen for decades (or even centuries) to come. This is particularly true for little-seen or poorly maintained films outside of the Hollywood machine.
But how can a person possibly know the difference between a good and a bad restoration without buying it and seeing it for themselves? Here’s a good rule of thumb. If the film already has a 2K or 4K restoration on Blu-ray, buying the film on 4K UHD will typically offer very little discernible difference in picture quality.
However, if the film has never even made it to Blu-ray, or has not been re-released on Blu-ray in a decade or more, you can safely assume this new restoration will be well worth upgrading to 4K UHD for. Hopefully, as the 4K restoration process continues in the years to come, a set of standards will emerge.
Ideally, these standards would be decided upon and determined by industry professionals. With a set of officially agreed-upon standards for film technicians to follow, bad 4K remasters could be avoided outright. It’s not outlandish — HDR is a standard, Dolby is a standard, and so on. If we’re lucky, perhaps a standard for 4K remasters will be in the near future. Until then, we’ll just have to purchase with caution.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©ahmetemre/Shutterstock.com.