Lowry Remembered For Restoring Classic Films

Audie Cornish talks to Mike Inchalik about the late John D. Lowry, a technology innovator whose work restored classic films such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind to a pristine state for DVD release. Inchalik was Lowry's business partner and friend for 15 years.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now, we remember a man who breathed life into old movies. John D. Lowry died late last month at the age of 79. He was the founder of Lowry Digital Images, a company that restores classic films so they can be released on DVD and his resume speaks for itself.

(SOUNDBITES OF FILMS)

CORNISH: That's "Casablanca," "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves," "It's a Wonderful Life," "Empire Strikes Back," "Gone with the Wind," and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Well, earlier today, I spoke with Mike Inchalik, John Lowry's business partner and friend for the past 15 years, and I asked him to explain the process that Lowry pioneered.

MIKE INCHALIK: Movies and television shows that sit in archives around the world, as they age, are generally copied onto new pieces of media, meaning a piece of film is copied onto a new, less brittle piece of film every 10 or 20 years to keep it usable. But every such copy, as we'd all be familiar with, if we were to Xerox a document and then Xerox the copy and do that over and over, every time you do so, that picture gets fuzzier, the contrast gets worse. There's dirt and scratches from the glass, et cetera.

And, in very simple terms, John and his team of engineers built software that would automatically look at a sequence of pictures and decide what belonged and what didn't so that it could discard defects and also improve the inherent quality in what had survived all these copies.

CORNISH: So, for a film like "Roman Holiday," Lowry said that they removed hundreds of pieces of dirt from each of the 17,000 frames, so, I mean, you're talking about a lot of specks and dirt, right?

INCHALIK: Exactly. Well, in fact, my guess is that movie's more like 117,000 frames long. The average movie is about 150,000 frames long. And I think we computed for the Disney folks that, literally, the number of pieces of dirt and scratches removed on a single film rung in the hundreds of millions.

CORNISH: And I read that he also worked on film for NASA.

INCHALIK: He did. In the 1970s, he actually developed what are the seminal patents in what's called noise reduction, which is this whole idea of deciding what belongs in pictures and what doesn't. And his company that was located in Hollywood actually processed as a live television feed the images from the Apollo 16 lunar landing in real time so that those of us old enough to remember that event actually saw pictures that had been processed by Lowry.

CORNISH: He was also scheduled to be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in just a few weeks. We don't always hear about people behind the scenes and I was wondering if you could leave us some words about what you think his legacy is in this industry.

INCHALIK: Well, I think his legacy lives on in a couple of ways. First of all, his inventions include so many important pieces of technology we use today, but the other is the people he's had a chance to touch because John was not a, you know, university professor doing these kind of complex things.

He was a self-taught, very brilliant technologist and, very often, he would take those of us who did come with university educations and essentially shake us and say, it's not impossible. I don't care what the books say. Here's how we're going to do this. And he would build our confidence and point the direction and that's how the breakthroughs happened.

CORNISH: Mike Inchalik, thanks so much for talking with us.

INCHALIK: It's been a pleasure.

CORNISH: That's Mike Inchalik remembering film restoration pioneer John Lowry, who died January 21st at the age of 79.

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