Someone used AI to colorize a 100-year-old film strip of Beijing

May 12, 2020

A Chinese video game developer used algorithms to restore an old film strip from 1920s Beijing.

About 100 years ago, a Canadian photographer wandered around Beijing to record life in China’s capital city.

Now, a Chinese game developer has given this old, grainy video a facelift using AI technology.

The enhanced footage, with color and frame rate adjusted.
The enhanced footage, with color and frame rate adjusted. / Photo: DGSpitzer

The rare black-and-white footage captured a time when people still traveled on camels and rickshaws, and men wore their hair in long braids in the back.

DGSpitzer said on the Chinese streaming app Bilibili that he combined several AI tools to bring history back to life.

(Read more: Nostalgic photos show how much China has changed in the last 40 years)

DeOldify, a machine learning system, was used to add color to the black-and-white footage. The DAIN algorithm, created by researchers from the United States and China, adds artificial frames to the video to bring it up to 60 frames per second, on par with frame rates offered by shooting on modern smartphones.

ESGRAN, another AI system, was used to create realistic texture to the film to boost its resolution. Music was also added for effect.

The results aren’t perfect—you won’t mistake it for a movie shot with modern equipment. While adding frames and color helps the video feel more authentic and intimate than you would expect from a century-old film, the edges of the people and objects seem blurrier. If you want to see the difference, make sure to check out the original footage here.

DGSpitzer says his project was based on tutorials by Denis Shiryaev, who used AI tools earlier this year to upscale the 1896 silent film Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station to similar effect.

According to urban legend, the 45-second clip startled 19th-century moviegoers who thought the train in the film was going to burst out of the screen and barrel straight into them.

Adapted from an article first published in Abacus.

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