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Ukrainian puts color into Soviet movies

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Feb. 21, 2013, 11:03 p.m. | People — by Anastasia Forina

A screenshot from hit Soviet movie Volga-Volga (1938). Applied to black-and-white movies colorization is set to bring them second commercial life.
© (Courtesy)

Anastasia Forina

Bringing color to popular black-and-white Soviet movies is giving them a second commercial life with younger generations.

Invented in the early 20th century in the U.S., colorization went through a short glory period before falling out of use. But Ukrainian Igor Lopatonok, who lives in Los Angeles, has been trying to bring back the practice since 2009.  

Soviet hits like Volga-Volga (1938), Officers (1971) and Only Old Men are Going to Battle (1973) are among the films colorized and restored by Lopatonok’s two U.S.-based companies, Grading Dimension Pictures and Formula of Color, over the last four years.  

“In Ukraine there is no technology for movie colorization. It’s hugely expensive and involves a lot of hand work,” says Lopatonok. 

Around 150 painters are needed to colorize one movie, he said, with each one doing up to 600 shots. “It’s not a computer-assisted process. Painters are colorizing it (manually) like a picture,” Lopatonok explains. 

Colorization is accompanied by restoration, including sound renovation and recreation of missing shots, which can last from three to six months. 

“There was a case when we had to recover 15 shots that were missing. That’s almost one second in the movie,” says Lopatonok. 

His firm also adapts three-dimensional versions of old films, a process he has already used on Soviet hits Officers and Only Old Men are Going to Battle, but which is also carried out on movies from around the world. 

Working with TV channels around the world, Lopatonok estimates his work has brought the Soviet blockbusters to up to 260 million people. First runs always take place on the First Russian TV channel, a partner of the project. In Ukraine, Lopatonok’s colorized movies are bought by STB, Inter, 1+1 and Ukraina TV channels. They can also be seen in Kazakhstan, Belarus and on some international TV channels like Viasat. 

A screenshot from a colorized version of Soviet movie Three Poplars At Pliushchikha (1967)

Yet many film critics are against colorization and 3D technologies being applied to black-and-white movies.   

“There is only commercial motive in it. It has nothing to do with art,” says Sergiy Trymbach, head of the Ukrainian Union of Cinematographers. “Those black and white movies were made for a reason and not just because there was no colored film. If you colorize it, it will be another movie,” he says.

Lopatonok agrees with him, but only regarding the author’s movies. “Colorizing movies by (Andriy) Tarkovsky makes no sense at all because he used the play of light and shadow in black-and-white pictures as a creative technique,” Lopatonok says. 

His company has a list of films it describes as beyond colorization.

“Black-and-white movies are still available, so viewers can choose (what to watch),” he adds. 

Regarding the commercial side, it is a big deal indeed. 

“It’s a multimillion-dollar business,” Lopatonok says. “A $500,000 project, for example, could pay back in a year or a year and a half and become profit-making,” Lopatonok explains. Restoring one movie costs $50,000-$100,000. The typical payback period is two to three years, according to Lopatonok.

Properly selecting projects, however, is key to profitability. 

Igor Lopatonok is seen at work in Los Angeles where he runs two companies colorizing and restoring Soviet blockbusters

“We chose only those movies that have huge audience potential to return to TV,” Lopatonok says. “Creation of new product that has commercial potential and using this money for restoration is our know-how. So, we don’t have to ask for money from the state since it’s hopeless.”

“We tried to approach the (Ukrainian) Ministry of Culture once,” Lopatonok adds, but that wasn’t successful. 

Lopatonok also outsources a lot of services in order to cut expenses. While the management and creative team is based in Los Angeles, the lion’s share of work is outsourced to Ukraine, Russia, India and the Philippines. The films are scanned in Ukraine, the process of chemical and physical restoration takes place in Russia, and colorization is done in the Philippines and India. 

“The cost of manpower in the Philippines and India is much lower than in Ukraine, (Russia or the U.S.). The average (monthly) salary of a computer painter in the Philippines is $150, while in Ukraine it is $1,000 and in the U.S., $8,000,” Lopatonok says.

Right now his company is working on colorizing the black-and-white historical movie Oleksandr Nevsky (1938) and adapting the hit U.S. movie starring Marilyn Monroe, Some Like it Hot (1959), into 3D. 

Soviet films colorized since 2009

Only Men Are Going To Battle (1973)
Officers (1972)
Three Poplars At Pliushchikha (1967)
Father Of A Soldier (1964)
Spring At Zarechnaya Street (1956)
Heavenly Freighter (1947)
Foundling (1939)
Volga-Volga (1938)
Circus (1936)
Happy Guys (1934)

Kyiv Post staff writer Anastasia Forina can be reached at forina@kyivpost.com.

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