Wednesday 29 May 2013

Interview: Stuart Humphryes ('Babelcolour')

With the 1971 Doctor Who story The Mind of Evil coming out on DVD in the UK on Monday, I spoke to a man who played a key role in restoring its first episode to full colour for the first time in over four decades. Originally broadcast in colour, the story only survives today as a set of black-and-white film recordings. Thankfully, Episodes Two to Six have been brought back to life using the Colour Recovery process, but Episode One lacks the 'chromadots' which need to be embedded in the film recording for the technique to work. Enter Stuart Humphryes...

Hi Stuart. To begin with, could you explain the circumstances which led to you developing an interest in colourisation?

My first early dalliances into colourisation stemmed from an interest in genealogy. Family history is a bug that bit me in my early teens and my first experiments with colourisation were with scans of old family photographs. It naturally wasn't long before the interest extended itself into Doctor Who – the other great passion in my life. I started with black-and-white photographs and then Tele-snaps, partly inspired by the colourised thumbnails on the BBC's own Doctor Who website which were, shall I say, done quite expressionistically! I wanted to see if I could do them a little more naturalistically and posted those early pictures online. The reception to them was very warm and positive, so it encouraged me to continue experimenting. I tried creating colourised GIFs and then, eventually, colourised AVI files of video footage. It grew, organically, over a couple of years, from a small seed into quite a big part of my life!

What software did you use back then? Do you use different software these days?

Back in those foggy days of youth my computer monitor was a huge CRT monster the size of a microwave oven and the program of choice was Micrografx Picture Publisher. I think the processing power of that old machine was probably less than a digital watch but I managed to produce the images to my satisfaction. These days I use Adobe Photoshop to colourise the frames and then grade the footage with Adobe After Effects before uploading the work to YouTube. Grading was always a bugbear in those formative days. I had to basically grade the frames before rendering them as a video file, rather than grade them in post-production.

Is it your YouTube work that got you noticed as a potential candidate for the restoration of The Mind of Evil Episode One? How did that project come about for you?

It was a long and meandering journey, to be honest. It was because of my early work colourising Tele-snaps online that I was approached by James Russell (one of the founding members of the Doctor Who Restoration Team) and asked if I would like to collaborate on a project to colourise some footage using his newly invented, bespoke motion-estimation software. We worked together on a film sequence from The Nightmare Begins – episode one of The Daleks' Master Plan – which James subsequently offered up for use on the Genesis of the Daleks DVD. It was entirely down to this prior collaboration that James later contacted me again about working together on The Mind of Evil. We were under the impression that a number of interested parties were out to tender for the job of colourising the serial and so, with this in mind, we worked together to colourise a one minute test sequence to illustrate what could be achieved together. Due to various factors, this test sequence was never delivered to the BBC for consideration and I have absolutely no idea whether anybody else's were either. But I heard nothing back for about two years. It was then I contacted Pete Crocker and asked if he could make any use of the key-frames I had produced for James. I burnt a disc with the frames on and sent it off. I was then sounded out about an interest in tackling the full serial. I understand, by pure coincidence, Dan Hall [commissioning editor of the classic Doctor Who DVD range] had seen my YouTube colourisations and suggested maybe contacting me, but the contact had already been made! I dare say the YouTube work may have factored into the equation, but things were moving independently of the YouTube work. My involvement pretty much stems from my collaboration with James in 2005.

What was the workflow when you came on-board for the full task of recolourising the episode? How many shots did you have to tackle, and how spaced out were the key-frames you passed on to Peter Crocker? Did the spacing of the key-frames fluctuate during the process?

There were 205 shots to colourise in Episode One. The key-frames required for colourisation were chosen by Peter Crocker, as he had taken over the role of interpolating the chroma signal and so he was best placed to know which frames he would need to do his part of the job well. He would send me the key-frames for a scene, via Dropbox, I would colourise them and send them back to him the same way.

The frames were about five or six frames apart. I colourised about every 5th frame for a year and at that point voiced my concern that it was progressing too slowly and that the deadline may need to be revised. I was informed that the deadline would not be moving, so there were decisions to be made. I could simplify my work to speed up the process, employing broad flat washes of colour rather than painstaking naturalism. Alternatively, Peter himself could do some colourising on scenes, but I had absolutely no idea whether he was a good colouriser and voiced my reservations about the possible jumping between contrasting techniques and quality throughout the episode. Ultimately, Peter decided to reduce my key-frame production to about every 20th frame rather than every 5th. He would cut and paste the colour from my "primary" key-frames and transplant it onto "secondary" key-frames, making the necessary alterations and warping to ensure things lined up. That way, we worked together for the last six months. The whole thing took me 18 months work at ridiculously long hours. I was working 17 and 18 hour days and utterly exhausted, whilst juggling my real daytime job as well. Every weekend, every day of annual leave, every evening after work. For a year and a half. How I managed without succumbing to nervous exhaustion or an ulcer I'll never know. The pay was utterly crap for the thousands of hours invested in the project but it was a labour of love. A gift back to Doctor Who.

Some months ago, you hinted on an online forum that something happened during the work on the episode which resulted in the pause button being pressed for quite some time, so to speak. I'm not sure I've ever heard the story there – are you at liberty to explain?

I really don't know if I'm at liberty to explain, but I can't see any harm in discussing the vagaries of it. Pete called a halt to proceedings in December 2011 because it appeared the original colour tapes had been found. Apparently, paperwork in a foreign station indicated that they had copies of the tapes and so the colourisation work was stopped. It seemed to be a very credible and authentic find. We waited for further developments and about three months passed – during which time I was able to colourise the sequences for Terror of the Zygons. Around Easter it all transpired to be an admin error with the station's catalogue. Their paperwork indeed confirmed they had the tapes, but they were not in the archive, so back to work it was! It afforded me the opportunity to work on Zygons but made a significant dent in the time-scales involved in colourising The Mind of Evil.

Fascinating! Of course, the episode was graded once it had been completed. What was that process like, and what considerations were there to take into account?

I found the grading a fascinating experience. Jonathan Wood operates in what can only be described as a bat cave stuffed full of electronic consoles and interfaces that he taps and tweaks faster than you can register. Time is obviously of the essence when you're booking slots in a grading suite, but you'd not find anyone faster than Jonathan!

Contrary to what I had suspected, it was quite a light grade. Not a huge amount was changed, except for the background walls. You see, I had worked from the raw Colour Recovery episodes as a reference guide to set and costume colours. The other episodes dictating my palette choices so that everything would match. Unfortunately, the raw Colour Recovery had a significant amount of chroma errors which meant that a lot of the sets looked green: the prison corridors, the Brigadier's office, the process room – all green. I slavishly replicated this in Episode One but found out, about two months before we finished, that it was all wrong. The subsequent episodes had been secondary colour-corrected quite late in the day, which highlighted the fact that the walls were not meant to be green at all. The prison corridors were grey, the Brigadier's office was white, the process room was beige! So at grading Jonathan was able to colour-match the walls to Episode Two. It was quite an eye-opener to see him alter the wall colour and leave everything else untouched. I would scarcely have believed it possible. But kudos to Jonathan.

Of course, it would have been infinitely preferable to me to have had the restored and graded episodes to use as colour reference, but this is an imperfect universe and I used what resources I had. After grading I was sent a DVD by Peter to view the finished work and, quite honestly, I was mortified. It looked nothing like it had in the grading suite, it was a mushy beige and orangey mess. I emailed Pete straight away and asked what had happened to it, but was merely told he was sorry I was disappointed. In fact, I felt heartbroken. So much time invested and the results shocked me. I had long discussions with friends as to whether I should even attend the BFI screening. I was almost teetering on the precipice of depression. I just couldn't believe it would have turned out like it did. It was with quite a heavy foreboding that I went to the BFI premiere only to be told there by Peter that there had been an authoring fault on the disc he had burned and that it actually looked great. The relief was palpable. And it did look great – seeing it on the giant screen with an audience of hundreds was one hell of an experience. But I still only have that faulty disc – I've never been sent a corrected version so, consequently, none of my family or friends have got to see it yet!

Well, they will very soon, because the DVD is almost upon us – it's out on Monday. I've been lucky enough to see a press preview disc, and it truly does look amazing. Before we conclude, could you briefly talk us through the situation with Terror of the Zygons, which is currently set for release this September?

The DVD contains a special “director’s cut” of Part One, which incorporates newly discovered footage depicting the TARDIS' arrival in Scotland. The sequence had originally been edited out of the episode shortly before transmission, due to a grading problem that could not be rectified at the time. It's a tremendous little scene with the Doctor, Sarah and Harry. I do adore Harry Sullivan!

Because it had been excised from the programme so late in the day, the scene had already been scored and edited. The original music cues still existed and the soundtrack recovered, so when the film itself was discovered amongst the possessions of the story’s film editor Ian McKendrick it seemed a gift too great not to include. Unfortunately, because the footage originated from an editing print, the scene was found to consist of a mixture of both colour and monochrome shots. I've recolourised the black-and-white bits to fully restore the scene to colour, although I should point out that due to the the quality of the print, which was very grainy and washed out, the colourisation was never going to be fantastic. It required a very heavy grade which unfortunately knocked out the skins tones quite a bit (apparently leaving Harry's face looking a silvery blue). Peter attempted to ameliorate the problem by applying a translucent wash over his face in post-production but it still looks a bit wrong to me. But that's the nature of archival material. We should just be grateful it exists at all!

I'm sure I speak for a lot of people when I say that we are really looking forward to seeing it. Stuart, thank you so much for your time, and for your work on these projects!

My pleasure, Ian.

And to offer you a little exclusive, I can let you have an unseen colourised key-frame from the forthcoming Terror of the Zygons director's cut. I hope it succeeds in whetting the appetite of your readers!

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