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Fan Film Friday – DAN ARMITAGE is remastering old fan films to HD quality

By August 27, 2021 Fan Films

Last month, I released a compilation of what I determined were the very best scenes and sequences from the world of Star Trek fan films. (You can watch it here.) I grabbed about three dozen clips from fan productions spanning the last two decades, using an application that downloads videos from YouTube.

Unfortunately, the quality of the videos was all over the place. The most recent fan films like the ones from AVALON UNIVERSESQUADRON from the Czech Republic, and A LONG WAY FROM HOME from SAMUEL COCKINGS looked spectacular with High Definition (HD) quality. And even going back five years, stuff still looked awesome.

But when I got to fan films released prior to 2010, video quality dropped significantly because those productions were shot before HD quality digital video was available to the masses…both due to camera equipment and the size of video files and the cost of hard drive storage.

But hey, the show must go on, right? So I used what I had to work with, and the feedback to the video has been generally positive. Nobody seems to have an issue with the image quality of older fan films. But, man, if only…

“If only…” happened last week, about a month after I released my video. Without fanfare, a fellow named DAN ARMITAGE from a town near Liverpool, England released an upscaled version of STAR TREK: OF GODS AND MEN onto his YouTube channel! Originally shot back in 2006 and directed by TIM “Tuvok” RUSS, ST:OGAM was shot primarily on JAMES CAWLEY’s TOS sets at Retro Studios in Ticonderoga, New York and at Vasquez Rocks north of Los Angeles. The fan film was professional quality, starring a wealth of actors from the (at the time) rich 40-year history of Star Trek, including NICHELLE NICHOLS as Uhura and WALTER KOENIG as Chekov. All of the performances were amazing. (You can read more about the production here.)

The groundbreaking fan film was originally released in three parts between December 2007 and June 2008. Those segments were combined into one YouTube video a few years later in 2012, and here’s the way the film has looked to most fans for more than a decade…

 

Now take a look at the remastered version that Dan Armitage just released…

Pretty amazing, huh? Granted, it’s still not as pristine as the 80 episodes of TOS or the seven seasons of TNG that Paramount and CBS Home Video spent millions of dollars remastering. However, in fairness, those folks went back to the original film negatives, digitally scanned and color-corrected them, re-edited each episode from scratch, and had CGI artists spend thousands of hours creating brand new VFX sequences.

What did Dan have to work with? Let’s ask him…


JONATHAN – For anyone reading the blog who says, “Who’s Dan Armitage?” what would you like them to know about you and your background?

DAN – That’s a very difficult question to answer because the work I’ve done, and the productions I’ve worked on, have often been much less prominent than the big players in our community. You say ROB CAVES, and you think HIDDEN FRONTIER. James Cawley brings to mind NEW VOYAGES. Alec Peters brings you to AXANAR.

Dan Armitage

I’ve been interested in editing since I was a child, and some of the first edits I made were to combine the various Voyager two-parters into a single movie experience. With a VCR. Not my best work…

Over the years, I have produced audio dramas and audio books based on Doctor Who. A couple of years ago, I put together a team that made a two-hour animated movie based on the unmade 1993 Doctor Who anniversary special, “Lost in the Dark Dimension.”

In recent years, however, I’ve been looking at restoration and remastering. There’s so much ephemera out there that is in danger of being forgotten.

JONATHAN – So what precisely got you into the practice of remastering old Star Trek fan films?

DAN – I’d been working to remaster some of the less-seen materials associated with Star Trek for several years: classic VHS trailers for the various series that I recreated shot by shot in HD. The popular fan trailer “The Wrath of Kirk” I applied the same process to.

I’ve been a fan of STAR TREK: HIDDEN FRONTIER since, I think, 2005. I followed the big fan film boom and remember downloading New Voyages‘ “In Harms Way” and “Come What May” at 5kb/s. It took…a long time.

With the rise in streaming services, fewer and fewer people are holding on to physical media—and gradually, people are holding onto less digital media, too. Why download the files when you can just turn on YouTube? Except the quality of those uploads, particularly of the older fan films, is less than stellar. The original files are still out there for many of them, so I set about archiving them. I never upscale from a YouTube download or similar…only from a DVD or, if I can find somewhere they are archived, the files as they were originally released.

When I discovered the advances in AI upscaling, I was immediately impressed and realised that the process could be applied to the forgotten gems of the golden age of Star Trek fan productions. What I’m doing with this preservation/restoration or remastering process isn’t perfect. The Of Gods and Men upload looks lovely, and it’s great to finally watch it on a 50″ screen and see all that detail. But that’s not always possible. The process relies on the stellar work from the original filmmakers. I can’t improve on their efforts, nor would I try to. I only hope to offer their productions in the best quality possible, with any flaws or flourishes intact.

JONATHAN – Which fan films are you in the process of remastering?  Which are you hoping to do in the future?

DAN – I am currently in the process of gradually remastering the entire Hidden Frontier catalogue into 720p HD. Rob Caves has kindly given me access to the cast and crew DVDs, which have allowed me the best source material to work from. I’m also applying the same process to the first four episodes of New Voyages, before the series began shooting in HD.

Although I’m focusing mainly on the more well known fan films of yesteryear, I am looking at some that have fallen more into obscurity, like U.S.S. HATHAWAY and TALES OF THE SEVENTH FLEET. The source materials for those are much lower to begin with, so offering downloads rather than streaming videos means I can guarantee viewers get the video in exactly the same way I see it.

I have tried many times to remaster STARSHIP EXETER‘s “The Savage Empire,” but unfortunately, the originally-released .mov source files are much too low quality to bring any extra detail. In fact, if I were to apply the process to those files, the result would actually lose detail, which would be a much greater harm to this preservation project. I know that the episode was released as a VCD .mpg file, but I have so far been unable to track it down. If anyone has a copy, please do get in touch.

A still image from STARSHIP EXETER’s first episode, “The Savage Empire”

I think that brings me to STARSHIP FARRAGUT. I have the originally released .mov files for the first two episodes but would like to contact the producers in the future to see if they have anything better that I can use. Perhaps a DVD exists? The possibilities are endless!

JONATHAN – What is the actual process for remastering a fan film?  Can anyone do it, or is it a more complicated process?

DAN – The process is essentially very simple, and the software I use has been set up with various models, each giving a different resulting picture. A model that works with one production may not work so well with another. I have played around with the software long enough that I know which models to use based on the picture quality of the source.

There’s currently a group of fans that are working to remaster Deep Space Nine into 1080HD, and the results, while no comparison to a proper BluRay release, are a significant step up from the original DVD releases. Those files are “out there” now, but as the process improves, I believe those results can also be improved upon.

I would encourage anyone interested in working on this type of restoration to ensure you have a solid GPU [graphics processing unit – Jonathan]. While anyone can learn to use the software, without the right hardware backing you, you’ll struggle to get anywhere fast.

JONATHAN – How long does the remastering process take your computer for a typical fan film?

DAN – For my just-released remastered version of Of Gods and Men, I applied the process to a DVD copy of the film and upscaled it to 4k, essentially dragging every pixel possible out of the picture. Using my (very old) computer, this process took five full days, with the software running around the clock. From there, it was a simple process to encode the file down to 1080p and upload. Easy.

Other fan films, however, can take much more work, based on what the original picture looks like and how the files are authored. Take Hidden Frontier. Comparing the low quality .mov files that were originally offered on their website to the cast and crew DVDs, I believe that an additional clean up was applied to the released files, before the quality was downgraded. Occasionally, (particularly in the early episodes), the green screen would end abruptly and the screen would bleed into the real world.  For the released version, these shots were reframed to remove the offending bleed-through. However, the DVDs did not have these shots fixed, so I have to redo all of this by hand. So while an episode of Hidden Frontier is much shorter than a movie, it can take significantly more “actual” work to get it ready for release.

JONATHAN – You recently launched a crowd-funding campaign to cover your costs, but it’s since been deactivated.  What costs did you need to cover, and why did you close the campaign before reaching the goal?

DAN – As I’ve said, I began this process using a computer that was on its last legs and very much not designed for the kind of work that I was throwing at it. One day, my laptop got so hot, it melted the solder on the motherboard connecting the power jack! I was able to get this fixed, but eventually, it died. I pushed it well beyond its limits.

Since my efforts seemed to be yielding interest, I began a crowd-funding campaign to purchase a new PC, one specifically designed for the kind of work I’d be throwing at it. Over the course of a week, I received one donation. But the day after I started the campaign, my dad got in touch. He wanted to know what I was doing and why. I explained it all to him, and the next day he took me out and bought me a brand new PC, with more processing power than I knew what to do with! Projects that once took days, now took mere hours.

My family have always supported my work. My mum and dad watched my embarrassing early edits as a child. They encouraged me to practice and hone my craft, and as time has gone by, they have watched my skills improve. Last month, we sat down to watch a movie I had fan-edited, and that edit now sits on their Kodi as the preferred version of the film.

My mum, my dad, my wife…they have always been the biggest supporters of my work, and I’d never have gotten this far without them.

JONATHAN – Before you began doing the remastering, were you ever involved directly with any Star Trek fan films?  If so, which one(s), and are you interested in getting involved with any new productions going forward?

DAN – I’ve very much been an outside observer with Star Trek fan films, and over the years, I have drifted away from the community and towards the Doctor Who fandom. It is there where my works are more known…from audio dramas like A Town Like Malus, to animations like Dark Dimension and The Great Key.

Many of the actors and animators and composers and artists that I’ve worked with over the years have since gone on to forge a career on their talents, many with direct connections to the Doctor Who show itself. I am so proud of them and wish them the very best of luck. One day, I hope to follow them and perhaps leave a small footprint on the show that so many of us love.

But bringing the topic back to your original question, I haven’t been directly involved with any other Trek fan films and I’m okay with that. The Golden Age of Star Trek fan productions took place while I was growing up, when I had a terrible Internet connection and had to wait hours and hours to watch every episode. And yet, I look back fondly. And remastering those old productions, in a way, lets me relive those days.

JONATHAN – So now that you’ve remastered ST: OGAM, what can fans look forward to seeing next?

DAN – Actually, it’s already out. A few days after I released the remaster of ST: OGAM, I released the pilot episode of New Voyages, “Come What May,” remastered in 1080p. Come what may, indeed…

With that upload, I have noticed that the compression that YouTube applies can affect the benefits of the upscaling process. Therefore, I’ve begun putting together a blog where people can download the videos from the file hosting site MEGA to get the best quality possible.

JONATHAN – Well, Dan, I must say that I’m impressed with your commitment to helping preserve and enhance the rich history of Star Trek fan films. Thanks so much for this work that you’re doing for our community, and for this wonderful interview.

DAN – You’re very welcome.

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