Dam Busters footage restored using ultra-high definition techniques ahead of 75th anniversary

David Keys

Using ultra-high definition restoration techniques, classic films from the 20th century are now being brought back to life. At least 300 have been restored worldwide – and hundreds more will be over the next few years.

After six months of painstaking restoration work, one of the biggest films of the 1950s – The Dam Busters – will be released by one of the key organisations involved in film restoration - the Paris and London-based company StudioCanal. To mark the 75th anniversary of the original 17 June 1943 “ raid over Germany, the newly restored film will be screened simultaneously in 393 cinemas across the UK, including 35 in Greater London and 20 in the Manchester area.

The rebirth of these old films is being made possible by the increased use of so-called 4K digital scanning technology over the past three years.

As well as The Dam Busters, other upcoming 4K restored films will include Mel Brooks’ satirical comedy The Producers (1967); Michael Cimino’s epic Vietnam War drama The Deer Hunter (1978); the controversial dreamlike drama Last Year in Marienbad (1961); and the romantic social commentary Le Crime de Monsieur Lange (directed in the 1930s by Jean Renoir, son of the artist).

Others, already released over the past 20 months, include Carol Reed’s drama The Third Man (1949); romantic comedy The Graduate (1967); operatic film The Tales of Hoffmann (1951), Second World War drama Ice Cold in Alex (1958), Nicolas Roeg’s The Man who fell to Earth (1976, starring singer and actor David Bowie), Kurusawa’s 1985 epic Ran (partly inspired by King Lear), La Grande illusion (directed in the 1930s by Jean Renoir), Marcel Carné’s Le jour se lève (1939) and Le Corbeau (made in Nazi-occupied France in 1942).

Other new 4K releases over the next few months from another distributor – Arrow Films – will include the horror classic Last House on the Left (1972) and a set of three 1990s dramas from the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

The British Film Institute has also been using 4K technology to restore scores of films including Ken Russell’s Women in Love (1969), 1924 documentary The Epic of Everest and Terry Gilliam’s Jabberwocky (1977).

The 1955 film is based on the true story of a group of pilots charged with taking out the supposedly impenetrable Ruhr dams. (StudioCanal)

Restoring old films is an time-consuming and expensive operation. Each film can have up to 200,000 frames – and each frame normally has to be physically cleaned to remove dust and then digitised in 4K. That new ersion then needs to be digitally repaired, with scratches, stains, tears and splicing/editing joints removed. Faded colour needs to be corrected. Distortions caused by warping and fluctuations in image density have to be put right.

“Our most extensive restoration to date,The Third Man, took eight months to complete . The process means that audiences today can experience films as close as possible to how they were presented originally, in ultra high definition,” said John Rodden, a senior executive at StudioCanal.

Sometimes, entire sections of an original master copy are found to be substandard or to have been replaced by inferior later copies.The restorers have to go into detective mode, scouring the world for better quality copies of those sections that need to be replaced. Major restorations can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds.

The Dam Busters, released in cinemas for one evening throughout Britain tomorrow, was restored on behalf of StudioCanal by a South Wales based company, Dragon Digital. The original film, directed by Michael Anderson, was released in 1955 and stars Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd. It is the true story of Operation Chastise in which, in 1943, the RAF’s 617 Squadron attacked the Mohne, Eder, and Sorpe dams in Nazi Germany with bouncing bombs, specially invented by the English engineer and scientist Barnes Wallis.

A list of cinemas showing the newly restored Dam Busters on Thursday is available here