How can Old Movies be Converted to High-Definition?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 28 September 2019
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With the advent of high-definition televisions, people are becoming used to a new level of visual stimulation. Many people, unfortunately, put old videos in to watch on a new high-definition television only to discover that the quality is sub-par, and that things that may not have been noticeable in the past appear glaringly bad now. Luckily, the resources exist for most films, even those made quite some time ago, to be converted to high-definition. Unfortunately, converting old home videos and recorded movies yourself is virtually impossible.

High-definition televisions are, as their name implies, capable of displaying a great deal more definition, or resolution, than traditional televisions or computer monitors. However, if that extra resolution information isn’t present in a film or video, there is no way the high-definition television can display it. There is no real way to upscale an existing video to high-definition, since the information that would be required just doesn’t exist.


One thing that can be done with videos on a computer or old movies to make them more viewable on a high-definition television, is to make sure the aspect ratio is correct. There are two ways to go about this: converting the file, or setting the television to display differently. A number of software programs exist that can take files from a computer and convert them to the same aspect ratio as a high-definition television, although they will not actually have the extra information required to offer high-definition. Most high-definition televisions also offer an option to switch to a 4:3 display mode, which will add black bars to the left and right of the film, rather than stretching it out to try to fit.

Thankfully, it isn’t the case that old films can never be converted to high-definition, only that most of us don’t have the resources available to do so. Films, whether in the form of a VHS cassette, a Laserdisc, or a DVD, are all significantly reduced from their original quality in order to play on the machines of their era. The optics used in filming professional films have been extremely high for decades, and the film used captured a great deal of that information, so that even old movies from the 1950s and 1960s were actually shot with a great deal of definition. They were then compressed down in order to fit on the media of the time, losing most of that definition in the process.

However, the original film still exists in most cases, held by the studios that shot the movies. These studios can go back to that original film, and put it on a medium that supports high-definition quality, and re-release the films. These films will then have the crisp, clear features, and vivid colors that people have come to expect from high-definition television, even when they were shot nearly sixty years ago. Sadly, films shot in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s are not quite of the same level of technical quality, and so while these movies can be remastered to have quite a bit more detail, they do not tend to reach high-definition levels.


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Post 6

@anon285780: Technically, one could possibly scale up a photo and video image to a higher resolution. However, this resolution will not be its native (original) resolution, and the image will lose detail.

This is why a VHS tape (or even non-HD TV channel broadcasts) played on a HD television will look less detailed than if played on a non-HD television.

This is because the HD TV is upscaling the video image played from the VHS tape since the HD TV is made for playing higher quality HD images. VHS tape images are a very low resolution and of low detail, compared to today's standards.

The image must be stretched (upscaled) to fit the resolution of the HD tv it is

being played on to, which exposes the lack of detail it contains.

This can be compared to having an image on a computer and than enlarging it. It becomes more and more blurry and less detailed as you increase its size.

Think of a tattoo on a 140 pound guy changing size as he puts on weight all the way up to say, 300 pounds. That fish will become a whale, because the skin it sits on is stretching out the ink tattooed on it.

Post 4

If you can't convert a movie into a higher resolution, how come you can do it with pictures? I feel I could go frame by frame and better the resolution, then put it back together. Why the heck can't a converter do so?

Post 3

I agree with @softener. In fact some directors try to recreate some of the effects caused by the lower level of technical quality used during those periods, like Canadian director Guy Maddin.

Post 2

I would argue that films shot in the 20s, 30s and 40s don't really need to be converted to high-definition. I think it's important that films are seen the way the director intended and although you won't be able to produce an exact replica of the experience of seeing such films in the cinema, the lesser technical quality of the films in some way adds nuance.

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