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'Time travel' to the 1890s in AI-remastered silent movies that look like HD video

Shot more than a century ago, a scene showing "Buffalo Bill" as he conducts an interview with an Oglala Lakota leader looks as if it were filmed yesterday.

This old film clip was recently remastered using artificial intelligence (AI), and the result lookslike high-definition video. The artist behind this transformation is giving Live Science readers a first look at the astonishing result. 

Though still black and white, the remastered footage no longer appears jittery and sped-up, as silent films usually do. Motion in very old movies looks unnaturally fast because the hand-cranked film cameras of the day captured fewer frames per second (fps) than cameras do now. 

Digital artist Matt Loughrey, who restores historic photographs at My Colorful Past, developed a process that brings film clips from the late 19th century and early 20th century into the present. Loughrey uses AI to recreate the missing visual information between the original frames in these films. By enabling motion to advance as smoothly as it does in contemporary film and video, Loughrey's remastered footage looks eerily modern, even when it was shot more than 100 years ago. 

Related: Photos: The reconstruction of teen who lived 9,000 years ago 

In 1914, William "Buffalo Bill" Cody, the American showman, Pony Express rider and creator of popular "Wild West" shows, conversed with Oglala Lakota leader Siŋté Máza, also known as "Chief Iron Tail," in Plains Indian Sign Language. The original footage of their conversation was shot at about 19 fps, as was common for film during that time; to put that into perspective, the frame rate for modern film is 24 fps, and high-definition (HD) video is 60 fps. 

A higher fps rate is one reason why details in HD video look so sharp, particularly when compared with films from the silent era, Loughrey told Live Science. To create that "modern" effect in the "Buffalo Bill" clip and other films that are even older, Loughrey designed an algorithm that generates new frames between the film's original frames. However, this differs from motion interpolation, another video processing technique, which merely duplicates and merges existing frames, he said.

"What you get at the end is, in one sense, an optical illusion, because a lot of those frames never existed," Loughrey explained. "This is filling in the gaps with best guesses."

The algorithm processed about a minute of the Buffalo Bill footage in about 40 hours, generating thousands of new frames. In the final playback, with footage playing at about 60 fps, the people in the film move in what appears to be real time — unlike the accelerated, jerky motion in the original film clip.

"You can see Cody's pocket watch moving. You can see his hair moving," Loughrey said. "Even though you know physics was the same then as it is now, when you see that physics is the same, it's like visual vertigo."

Loughrey created that same disorienting effect in a remastered clip of Broadway in New York City that was filmed in 1896 at 16 fps. In the remastered clip, which plays at 71 fps, people cross the street, clamber on a construction site and stroll down the sidewalk; despite the 19-century architecture, vehicles and clothing, the way that the people are moving highlights tiny details that make the scene look as immediate as if it were shot in the present day. 

"It's like some version of time travel," Loughrey said. "There's all these little stories going on, you just wouldn't catch that at 16 frames a second."

You can see more of Loughrey's film and photo restoration work on Instagram.

Originally published on Live Science.

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