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Train in vain | Silent London

We’ll never know whether people fled from the screen when they saw the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving in La Ciotat station. We do know now that it wasn’t among the very first films they showed at that famous occasion on 28 December 1895 and that when they did make it they were trying to achieve a kind of stereoscopic effect – a train that looks like it is going to leap off the screen.

The implication is they were trying to impress, to go one better than the original impact achieved by their first screening of moving pictures.

There’s a lot of this kind of showmanship in early cinema – bills of attractions filmed in order to appeal to the audience’s idea of exoticism, novelty or thrills. Travelogues, phantom rides, trick films, that sort of thing. And then those films were shown in fairground and theatres as a hot ticket.

People haven’t changed, even if the films have.

So it’s no surprise to see an “amazing” new presentation of this 1890s classic circulating online – it first appeared on YouTube and Reddit on Monday and has circulated via several blogs and pinged around social media ever since. YouTuber Denis Shiryaev has used “neural networks” to enhance Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat. In his own words he has “upscaled” the film. His new version used one set of software to boost the film to 4K and another to add enough frames to make it a bewildering 60fps.

He has also added an entirely ersatz background-noise soundtrack, and letterboxed it. Yes, he has cut off the top and bottom of the image in the name of “upscaling”.

Not long after Denis posted his clip, another YouTuber added their own improvements. Using technology that is called, I kid you not, DeOldify, they have added colour.

I am not a fan of either upscaled version. I am no restoration ethicist, but anything that removes part of the image (the top and bottom) and adds entirely imagined elements (the sound and colour) is not restoration in my book. It’s showmanship – glitz, a bit of the old razzle-dazzle. Fun, but not historically valid.

Which is fine, I guess. What comes around goes around. Denis is just trying to go one better.

But don’t forget, please, that this beautiful film has already been sensitively restored to 4K – which reveals all the detail you could wish for. The mountain scenery, the gleaming train, the human faces, from 120-odd years ago, staring back at us. You can find this version on the fabulous Lumière! Box set, and that is the version Denis started from. The difference between this restoration (here’s a compressed YouTube version) and his is negligible – apart from the soundtrack and the letterboxing, of course.

Everything else is just showmanship.

  • You can order the restored Lumiere films on DVD and Blu-ray if you shop around online.
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