The making of the 4k remasters

From the Star Blazers/Yamato Premium Fan Club magazine, issue 17 (October 2023): Just over a month before the first film returned to theaters in a dramatic new form, an extensive interview was published with the personnel who conducted the painstaking process of bringing almost 50-year old footage up to today’s digital standard. Remake scriptwriter Hideki Oka asks them about the process in detail and adds some fascinating trivia to an already rich historical record.

4K remaster screenings coming soon!

Space Battleship Yamato and Farewell to Yamato 4K remaster production-related testimonies

The latest technology and the passion of people who love Yamato have revived “the shape of the original” after half a century.

4K remasters of Space Battleship Yamato (feature film) and Farewell to Yamato will be screened at 36 theaters nationwide from December 8. As previously announced, this remaster incorporates newly discovered materials, bringing back to life the excitement and emotion of almost half a century ago. We asked Hideki Oka, a staff member involved in the remastering, for a detailed interview. Mr. Oka is originally a director of live-action films and has a long-standing relationship with Imagica Entertainment Media Service, which was in charge of remastering. What was the “original form” that the remasterers pursued?

Interview with Ryohei Mito and Takahiro Hijikata

Takahiro Hijikata is the media sales group archive coordinator of Imagica Entertainment Media Service’s media sales department. He was in charge of coordinating the entire project from material research to technical support for the digital remastering of the two films.

Video restoration is part of the process – checking the remaster workflow

Oka: I just saw the preview of the film and I’m still excited. Thank you very much for your hard work on remastering these two films. Above all, “Thank you! Thank you very much!”

Mito: If you’re this happy, it was worth all the hard work. (Laughs)

Oka: Today, I’d like to discuss the reality of that “hard work” in detail. First of all, what are the basics of remastering a movie? The term “4Kremaster” has been around for a long time, but what kind of work is done to bring old films back to life?

Hijikata: Please take a look at this diagram (Figure 1). It’s a flow chart for the process of digital remastering using film as source material. The upper row shows the “picture” process and the lower row shows the “sound” process. Imagica was in charge of the “picture negative” (video material) part this time. Tomohiro Yoshida, the sound director of the Yamato remake series, was in charge of restoring the “sound negative” (audio material).

Figure 1: Example of the digital restoration flow from film (Courtesy of Imagica Entertainment Media Service)

Oka: I see. So, in other words, the picture and the sound were created in completely different places.

Mito: That’s right. We unified the data for each and created a new master.

Oka: Could you please explain step by step the work that Imagica did?

Hijikata: Yes. The first step is “repair and cleaning.” Usually, original film negatives were cut by a device called a splicer and joined together. Deterioration often begins at the joints. Therefore, the first step is to physically repair and clean the negatives of deterioration and damage. Our staff specializes in that work. Once the physical repair of the negative is completed, we proceed to the “scan” process, which digitizes all of the image information from the film negative.

Oka: Is the resolution, or the “4K” in “4K remaster,” determined in the scanning process?

Hijikata: Yes. In this case, the scan was performed to maintain a resolution of “4K,” which is about 4,000 pixels in the horizontal direction. To be more precise, the initial resolution is about 4.5K because we’re scanning a wide area of the film. Later, when the image is cut to the specified screen size, it becomes 4K.

Incidentally, conventional terrestrial digital broadcasting and Blu-ray images have a resolution of 2K (screen pixel count is 1920 pixel in the horizontal direction). 4K is approximately twice the size of 2K, or four times the resolution in terms of height and width.

Once the scanning process is completed and the image is digitized, the next step is to “restore.” The scan data includes all the scratches from deterioration of the negative, dust from when the animation cels were shot, unnatural reflections, and so on. We can remove them digitally as necessary, and also correct flickering, unevenness, and shaking in the film.

Oka: What does that mean?

Hijikata: As for “flicker,” depending on the preservation condition of the film, the brightness may change drastically from frame to frame. Similarly, unevenness can be a change in color, and shaking comes from physical shrinkage of the film, which can also occur. Such artifacts are found, the brightness and color are adjusted by digital processing, and we correct any shakiness.

Naoyuki Kato’s shell-colored variation of Yamato on the poster of the first theatrical version.
Kazutaka Miyatake drew the preliminary sketch.

Oka: It’s a daunting amount of work, but once the “restore” process is complete, the remastering work is almost finished, right?

Mito: No, not at all. After “restore” comes “grading,” which is the process of adjusting color tones. In fact, this process was very important in Yamato‘s remastering. The work was extremely delicate and difficult, and we were constantly nervous.

Oka: The pursuit of color…? Certainly, color is important for Yamato. The color of Yamato itself, the color of the reddened earth, the color of outer space that is not simply black.

Mito: That’s right. The unique colors of Yamato should be vividly etched in the minds of everyone who has seen it. That “memory” was the biggest hurdle in the remastering process.

Oka: What do you mean?

Mito: It was not enough to simply reproduce the color information of the negative film in a straight-up manner on the digital screen. Many people suggested that “something was different” at the initial checking stage.

An Unexpected Dilemma Arising from Higher Image Quality

Hijikata: This is a bit technical, but in this 4K remaster, we upgraded to HDR [High Definition Resolution] by aligning the brightness standards with the latest technology.

Oka: HDR is a standard that we hear a lot about these days.

Mito: Yes, it is. The 4K remaster of Farewell to Yamato that I was in charge of four years ago used SDR [Standard Definition Resolution]. It has only been a few years since then, but the environment for viewing movies is changing significantly. It was inevitable that we would make HDR versions of the first and second Yamato films when converting them to 4K.

Oka: The brightness increases and the range of expression between light and dark also increases, so the images have more depth.

Mito: That’s right. However, there was a big pitfall here.

To put it simply, when the latent color information of the 35mm negative was converted directly to HDR, the evaluation was, “It was transformed into a Yamato that I’ve never seen before.”

Oka: Transformed? Isn’t that a bit of an overstatement?

Hijikata: There are many ways to approach HDR, but this time, I wanted to take full advantage of the color information in the film. I thought this would please everyone. However, at the beginning of the check screening, I received a comment that “This is not right!” I got really nervous.

Mito: Specifically, the planet bomb in roll 1. It was off at that point. (Laughs)

Oka: What? Can I see that first HDR data now?

(The first HDR data is played in response to the request.)

Mito: How is it?

Oka: It’s no good… (everyone laughs) At first I was impressed by the beauty of the color of the universe, but I felt something strange the moment the planet bomb flew into the foreground. I saw a harsh red color instead of what I remembered as white.

Mito: And you couldn’t immerse yourself in the film anymore?

Oka: Yes, exactly.

Mito: (chuckles) Everyone said that.

Oka: I see…so that’s why “memory” became the biggest hurdle.

The scene of the planet bomb flying in had a big impact at the beginning of the first movie. Shown here are the earliest HDR version (bottom) and the final HDR version (top) produced during the remastering process. Comparing the two, it is clear that the images give a different impression. The color adjustments were delicately pursued all the way to the finished version.

What is the policy set by the production team for remastering when there is no right answer?

Oka: HDR makes the images “clearer” than ever before, but it detracts from the viewing experience… It’s a difficult problem.

Mito: Technically speaking, it takes advantage of the amount of information in a film and the characteristics of HDR. It gave us an option to pursue “a Yamato world that no one has ever seen before.” However, in the case of a work like Yamato, which gained so many fans that it became a social phenomenon, the important thing is the emotion and excitement of the time, and the memories etched in the hearts and minds of the fans.

This is where the policy of remastering comes into play. We held many discussions with the participation of people who have a deep understanding of the world of Yamato. As a result, the decision was made to “return everything to its original form.” The story, the images, the colors, the sound, everything was to be restored to its “original form” and then updated to the latest standards. In order to meet this major policy, we decided to forget about HDR for the time being.

Oka: Forget it?

Mito: Yes. In the remaster of Farewell to Yamato we produced four years ago, there were no major differences in color. The remastering at that time was done in SDR. When we remastered the two works this time, we decided to complete all the work in SDR first.

Hijikata: We were told that the product for sale would include both 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray (HDR) and regular Blu-ray (SDR). We originally planned to produce both by completing the HDR and then converting it to SDR.

Oka: Did you reverse the process for Yamato‘s remaster?

Mito: Yes, to create something that maximizes the characteristics of HDR without drifting too far off your memory. That was the most effective way to proceed.

Oka: So you did the “restore” process in SDR to remove scratches and dust, then the “grading” of color in all the shots, and then you converted it to HDR reflecting that data?

Mito: Yes, that’s right.

Oka: Wait a minute. The brightness is totally different between SDR and HDR, even in the same 4K. Even if you carefully restore the image as well as you can with SDR, as soon as it becomes HDR…

Mito: Yes. You can see things that were not visible before. A lot of scratches and dust were newly found. (Laughs) We restored all of them, then went back to the SDR data again to fully reflect the corrections.

Oka: Sounds like an unprofitable endless loop…was that okay?

Mito: This was the only way to update to the latest standards while honoring your cherished memories. We had to adjust the HDR shot by shot, using the approved SDR colors as a reference. It was a lot of hard work, but…

Oka: Thanks to this, I was able to enjoy a fresh image without any sense of discomfort.

The color of Susumu Kodai’s hair, inherited from Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s supervision point before his death. Which is closer to the “original form,” before the grading (bottom) or the adjusted image (top)? Which color is etched in your memory?

Inheriting Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s “original form” to the present day

Oka: You’ve both remastered many masterpieces that have left their mark on the history of Japanese cinema. Were there any major differences between those remasters and the remastering of Yamato?

Hijikata: This goes back to the policy mentioned earlier, but who would be responsible for supervising the remastering? Is that the point? In the case of live-action films, most of them are supervised by the cameraman. If such a person is no longer with us, their apprentice supervises the film “with the master’s intention in mind.”

Mito: The more time passes after the creation of a film, the more difficult it becomes to select a supervisor. Yamato is about 50 years old.

Oka: Many people have passed away, including Yoshinobu Nishizaki.

Mito: That’s right. Even in the search for the “original form,” there are many things that we cannot decide on our own. We have to properly reproduce the memories of Yamato and deal with various versions. What were the intentions and thoughts of the people involved in the production at the time of its creation? Many people supported us in our search for such information.

Hijikata: Among them, I think the two special participants from Bandai Namco Filmworks were very important. They’ve been involved in the production of Yamato video products for many years. They’ve been watching and loving Yamato since the time of its broadcast. Their judgment based on their “memories” and “experiences” really helped us a lot.

Mito: In 2008 the first Yamato TV series was converted to HD. The supervisor at that time was Yoshinobu Nishizaki. The two I mentioned earlier worked with Mr. Nishizaki for a long time, and were present at the remastering of all the episodes. They kept a record of everything Mr. Nishizaki said and all the points that were corrected. That really helped us a lot. All the corrections he insisted on have been carried over to this remastering.

Oka: That’s a great story. History is connected. What kind of modifications did Yoshinobu Nishizaki instruct you to make?

Mito: There were a lot of things, but the one I felt was symbolic was Susumu Kodai’s hair color.

Oka: The color of his hair…

Mito: Yes. Kodai’s hair is brown, right? When Mr. Nishizaki saw it, he said, “It’s too bright. Kodai’s hair is darker brown.” In accordance with his suggestions, the original HD version at that time adjusted Kodai’s hair color. Even in this grading I readjusted it as Yoshinobu Nishizaki intended, about 20 shots per roll, about 200 shots in total.

Oka: Wow. Can I see the data before the modification?

(After this request, the data was viewed.)

Mito: How is it? It’s about this much difference.

Oka: It is true that the image is too bright. The corrected one looks better. But what does that mean?

Hijikata: I heard from the two supervisors that Yoshinobu Nishizaki’s point was, “The colors are different from those of the film we delivered to the TV station. No good.” I think that was what he meant.

Oka: Oh, so that’s it!

Mito: That’s right. The first Space Battleship Yamato was a TV work, shot on 35mm film. However, the actual broadcast was on 16mm film, which was printed from the 35mm original. The color and brightness of the prints was altered in no small way during the duplication process. The difference in Kodai’s hair color may have been caused by such changes. That’s the story.

Oka: I’m sure Yoshinobu Nishizaki was present at the final viewing of the completed film before delivery. Kodai’s hair color was shown in the 16mm film preview that was repeated 26 times. It’s possible that it was the “original form” for Yoshinobu Nishizaki.

Mito: We feel the same way.

Oka: I see…our memories of repeatedly watching reruns of Yamato were also steeped in the colors of 16mm film. Maybe that’s why Kodai’s hair color after the correction was more suitable for us…

Hijikata: This is the material I referred to as an indicator when proceeding with grading… (a book is presented.)

Oka: Oh, it’s the visual volume of Space Battleship Yamato Complete Records Collection.

Hijikata: The stills in this book were directly printed from film at the time, so I thought the colors were accurate. If you look at the relevant images, the color of Kodai’s hair, which Yoshinobu Nishizaki said was “different,” is indeed a little darker.

Oka: I see…! It’s very possible that the film used for the stills was a 16mm film used for broadcasting. Hmmm…I’ve come to a conclusion by comparing the evidence with speculation: the Yamato remaster is like a world of archaeology.

Mito and his team collected not only films but also books of the time as reference materials for this project.
We are deeply impressed by their inquisitiveness.

In search of the original form — a can of film finally discovered

Mito: In order to produce this 4K remaster version, we thoroughly searched for the best-preserved film. First of all, we ordered all the negatives and posifilms with the name Yamato that were stored in Tohoku Shinsha’s warehouse, and checked them one by one in detail. We then identified the material we thought was the closest to the original.

Oka: Wow, you went through a lot of thorough preparation.

Hijikata: As a result, we were able to identify films that were suitable for use as the original version. Unfortunately, the “Starsha’s Death edition” was not among them.

Oka: Does this mean that the only films that were found were the “Survival edition”?

Mito: That’s right. But without the “Death edition” film, the 4K remastering would not have accomplished its mission.

Hijikata: So, we came up with the idea of visiting a photo lab. After repeated inquiries to photo labs via Tohoku Shinsha, we found a “Death edition” film that was manufactured during the theatrical screening period in 1977.

Oka: Did you identify it by the serial number of the film reel?

Hijikata: Yes. However, strictly speaking, the only thing that can be determined is the year in which the film itself was manufactured. It doesn’t necessarily mean that the film was developed in the same year. However, in this case, there was a clear connection to the serial number of the film, which we judged to be close to the original.

Oka: Oh!

Mito: Originally, the Yamato movie consisted of 9 reels of film. Later, the story was revised and the “Survival edition” became the official version. The 9th reel (Iscandar block) was completely replaced. As a result, the duration of the film was extended, and the block for the return to Earth was made into a separate roll, resulting in the current 10-volume structure. During this revision process, the “original 9th reel” was removed from the original negative…

Oka: It must still be around somewhere…and as a result of your search, you found the serial number of the film…

Mito: Yes, it was related to the serial numbers up to reel 8.

Oka: Wow! Bingo!

Hijikata: The film was found in the warehouse of Tokyo Film Laboratory. It’s just a guess, but when the reel 9 “Death” version we found was replaced with the “Survival” version, it was treated as “NG.” It remained at the Tokyo Film Laboratory where the “Survival Edition” was developed. I think it may have been stored there for many years.

Oka: Speaking of the Tokyo Film Laboratory, it was announced that the entire business will be terminated this year, right? They’re making a large-scale appeal to find places to return the film they’ve stored for many years. In other words, if the end of that project and the current 4K remaster project don’t go hand in hand…

Mito: The “Death Edition” film might have been lost forever. I think it was miraculously lucky timing.

The “Starsha Death” film was discovered as a result of a nationwide search.
The writing “July 5, 1977” indicates that it is a valuable item.

Flyer for the “Yamato Festival” held in August 1978. In addition to the debut of the “Survival” version
of the first film, the end caption of
Farewell was revised.

The image quality problem of the “Death Edition” and the “original form” are carried forward to the present day

Oka: In the preview I mentioned earlier, I was shown both the “Death Edition” and the “Survival Edition.” Both were very beautifully done. So, I’d like to clarify once again what the fans may be wondering about. In this remaster…

(1) The “Death Edition,” which was first shown in 1977, was scanned in 4K from the original negative.

(2) The restoration of the “Death Edition” was also done in both SDR and HDR formats.

(3) The “Death Edition” and the “Survival Edition” will both be included in the 4K remaster Special Limited Edition Blu-ray that will be released at the same time as the theatrical screening.

Is that correct?

Mito: That is correct.

Hijikata: To add to that, the audio of the “Death Edition” is the monaural version from the time of first release, and the “Survival Edition” contains both a monaural version and a stereo version that was created later. You can specify which one to watch.

Oka: That’s very generous of you. I understand that the theatrical release will be the “Survival” version. (In a low voice): is this a budget issue? In other words, it would be difficult to produce two versions of a DCP (digital cinema package) for theatrical screening…

Mito: No. Both versions were converted to DCP. It was the decision of everyone involved.

Oka: Wow! So it’s not impossible to see the “Death Edition” on a big screen…?

Mito: I think this is the result of everyone’s emphasis on historical value. I hope it will see the light of day someday.

Oka: I’d like to ask one more point of interest. I heard that the new footage shot for the Yamato movie was done in 16mm film due to budget constraints, though the majority of the film was based on a TV series shot in 35mm. So there is inevitably a difference in image quality. Longtime fans say that the picture quality suddenly deteriorated and the images became blurred when they reached Iscandar. What kind of processing was done to remaster it?

Hijikata: Using the latest technology, one of our missions this time was to minimize the visual mismatch as much as possible, so we corrected as much as we could. However, the area of a 16mm film frame is only about a quarter of that of a 35mm frame. Since the size of the recorded image is smaller, there is inevitably a sense of mismatch. Specifically, the definition is lacking, and the grains of film are noticeable.

Oka: Did you supplement this with digital processing?

Hijikata: Yes. Basically, we can’t compensate for missing information. We can only process it to reduce the discrepancy, for example, by adjusting the roughness of the grains by changing the sharpness. If we process them too much, the images will look artificial. We made delicate adjustments while consulting with many people to ensure that the images would not stray too far from the “original.”

Oka: I see. In the preview screening, the Iscandar part of the “Death Edition” felt very natural. This remaster has a deeply immersive finish without stress.

Stills from the “Starsha Death Edition.” [Left side] The newly discovered part was originally shot on 16mm film. The remaster (above) underwent careful processing, including grain adjustment, to reduce the “discrepancy” with the rest of the film, which was shot in 35mm. [Right side] The royal palace on Iscandar, where Yamato arrived. A band of light extends from the royal palace to Yamato‘s deck. Compared to the pre-remaster image (bottom), the post-remaster image (top) is definitely clearer.

Technological innovation never stops. What is important for remasters?

Oka: So far, we’ve mainly talked about the first film, but could you tell me about the remastering of Farewell to Yamato?

Mito: The work we’re doing, including the remastering policy, is the same. However, we already cleared up most of the major problems in the remastering work we did four years ago.

Oka: So, compared to the first movie, Farewell didn’t require as much effort.

Hijikata: No, that’s not true. As expected, with the conversion to HDR, lots of new scratches and dust were discovered. (Laughs) So we’re working on further brush-up. This is the fate of the remastering process. Compared to four years ago, the viewing environment of our customers has evolved significantly. If we don’t improve the quality of the images accordingly, we won’t be able to produce a product that satisfies our customers.

Mito: As Hijikata says, technological innovation never stops. We will continue to respond to technological developments. However, we always remind ourselves that there’s no point in getting too caught up in them. Our job at Imagica is to bring out the charm in the essence of the work in a natural way, and to pass it on to the future. I think that is the heart of the remastering process.

Oka: That’s how you approached Yamato‘s remaster. While doing this work, have you discovered or realized anything new about Yamato?

Hijikata: Since I was not a member of the generation that was directly affected by Yamato, when I look back the first image I had of it was of “cold space.” However, in reality, it has many expressions of “nature,” not only outer space but also the ocean and the Earth, and rain and wind. I realized once again that it was a very rich piece of work. It was a great discovery for me.

Mito: I had the same impression as Hijikata. The remastering process brought out the original expressive power of the work. I would be more than happy if it creates a sense of “immersion” into that world.

Oka: When I saw the preview, I felt it strongly. There were scenes that moved me emotionally for the first time. I think the finish definitely makes you feel that “this is Yamato.” Last but not least, Mr. Hijikata and Mr. Mito, please give a message to the fans who are eagerly waiting for the 4K remastering.

Hijikata: In my work, I often have opportunities to talk with older people in the film industry. When it comes to people over a certain age, quotes from Yamato come up naturally in my daily conversations. Each time, I realize the magnitude of Yamato‘s existence. I’m not exaggerating, I think Yamato is an “indispensable element” that makes up our lives. It is truly an honor to be involved in the remastering of such a great work.

I hope that this 4K remaster will be the start of remasters of the original series. As a person with the surname “Hijikata,” I will continue to face Yamato with determination. (Laughs)

Mito: We at Imagica have been in charge of remastering Yamato since 2019. Every time we work on this project, we’re not only grateful to the people involved in the production, but also those who have loved Yamato for the past 50 years. I myself am not of the generation that knew Yamato back then, but I worked as hard as I could to respond to everyone’s passion. If you’ve read the article up to this point, I believe you’ll understand that we’re not lying when we say we’ll “return everything to its original form.” Please visit the theater to see for yourself. I was able to hear many valuable stories from the audience.

Thank you very much, Mr. Hijikata, Mr. Mito, and everyone at Imagica!

The “immersive” feeling of Farewell was also upgraded in this remastering. For example, entering the city empire
is one of the most famous scenes. Compared to the pre-remastering scene (bottom), the post-remastering scene (top)
has a clearer background, and the viewer is able to get more deeply into the story.

After the interview

“I’m very glad to have met these people,” was my honest impression after the interview. Everyone on the Imagica team aimed straight at the goal without giving in to the problems that occurred one after another. I felt that this was the very voyage of Yamato. Imagica’s inquisitiveness in their work and their pursuit of end-user satisfaction is reflected in the 4K remaster images.

I saw the remaster ahead of others, and I felt a sense of “immersion” that I had never felt before. I was convinced of this at the end of the first movie, from the final battle on Gamilas to Kodai’s long speech with his exclamation. It was unquestionably a “great scene,” but until now, I feel like I’ve watched that scene with a cold heart. “Hey, Kodai suddenly started talking about the theme…” Ever since the first time I saw it, I had this undeniable feeling that it was abrupt.

But this time, that scene made me cry for the first time. It was undoubtedly due to the “immersive feeling” created by the remastering process. The “endless battle” just before Kodai’s long speech became even more realistic than before. The red color on the screen was filled with a variety of thoughts and feelings. I was reminded of this once again.

I felt a tightening in my chest the moment I heard the narration, “There was no city left there. There were only ruins.” It was the first time in 50 years that I felt an irretrievable regret. I could share Kodai’s feelings at that time.

I am very grateful to everyone who was involved in the remastering. 36 theaters is not a large number. I’m sure there are many people who feel like they can’t go. But if possible, I would like you to experience the revived Yamato in the darkness of a theater. As a fan, I feel this deeply.

The original Yamato series will return to you soon.

– Hideki Oka

Related reading:

Watch the “Starsha Death Edition” footage on Youtube here

Learn more about the making of the “Starsha Death Edition” footage here

Read about the original 1977 release of the first film here

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