The SciTech Award Goes to... The Lowry Process
COW Library : TV & Movie Appreciation : Debra Kaufman : The SciTech Award Goes to... The Lowry Process
On February 11, the Academy will honor John D. Lowry, Ian Cavén, Ian Godin, Kimball Thurston and Tim Connolly with a Scientific and Engineering Award for "the development of a unique and efficient system for the reduction of noise and other artifacts, thereby providing high-quality images required by the filmmaking process." The Academy says, "The 'Lowry Process' uses advanced GPU-accelerated, motion estimation-based image processing tools to enhance image quality."
Lowry first pioneered improving image quality in 1971 when he started Image Transform and invented and patented techniques for video noise reduction. His technology was notably used to reduce noise in the live images transmitted around the world from the moon by NASA's Apollo missions.
In 1997, Lowry and chief scientist Cavén started Lowry Digital Images to focus on improving image quality. "Initially we investigated the problems and found the best way of solving them," says Cavén. "John and I spent about two years working on various techniques." The resulting Lowry Process was first picked up for use by Warner Bros., which contracted Lowry Digital Images to improve the imagery in North by Northwest. "We realized at that point that there was a real need for reducing the amount of dirt," he says. "Studios felt very conscious of wanting to produce the best product for DVD release and a huge amount of effort was put into manually removing dirt."
Instead, Lowry and Cavén looked for a way to automate the dirt removal process. "But then we realized there were lots of other ways we could improve the image that had degraded over the years or were present in the original production," says Cavén, who lists flicker, scratches, jitter and weave, X-ray damage and tears among those problems.
Mike Inchalik, John Lowry, Ian Cavén
Next came the task of writing a new film negative when all the original elements were unusable; Paramount Pictures brought Roman Holiday and Sunset Boulevard to Lowry Digital Images. "We started from second generation prints and cleaned it up to the extent that we were able to write out a high quality negative from which other prints could be made," says Cavén.
In 2003, senior scientist Ian Godin joined the company, followed by scientists Kimball Thurston and Tim Connolly, all of whom came from software development company Silicon Grail, which had made hardware and software available to Lowry.
According to Mike Inchalik, former president of Lowry Digital Images, Lowry's technique used complex algorithms based on motion estimation to compute and replace lost details in the picture. In time, competitors began to offer a version of temporal-based image improvement. But the team that worked on the Lowry Process states the pioneering technique is still heads above the rest. "From a technical standpoint, we believe that the optical flow and the amount of computation we're doing per pixel and per frame is well beyond what any of our competitors do," says Godin. "Everyone else who does temporal processing might look at five frames and we look at 25 frames."
Lowry and Cavén left Reliance in April 2010 to pursue the launch of Trioscopics, which stereoscopically encodes movies. "We get left and right eye images and create a single image that can be viewed through colored glasses," says Cavén. "Our movies are released on Blu-ray and DVD. Journey to the Center of the Earth, Ice Age and Coraline are among the movies handled by Trioscopics. Inchalik was also working on a new imaging R&D company with the indefatigable Lowry, this one to take image improvement tools to a broader marketplace.
Although Lowry will not be at the Awards ceremony to accept his well-deserved honor, the fruits of his innovative thinking continue to make strides at Reliance MediaWorks, Trioscopics and elsewhere. All the colleagues who worked with him over the years continue the work he began. "John's whole goal in life was to make images better," says Thurston. The Academy's award is an official validation of that, for the entire team.
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