Supun Lakmal Abeysekara is a software engineer who is involved in open source projects and also in finding new technology that helps Sri Lankan developers.
As an open source developer, he’s been involved in multiple projects purely out of passion and to do good for other developers, who would incorporate his improvements to make something even better.
As is his way of life, Supun stumbled upon a new project that caught his eye – the colourisation of old black and white imagery. Speaking to The Morning Brunch, Supun shared that he came across some old images and was thinking about how much more impactful these images would be if in colour; so he went about searching on the web, using the specific keywords “colourised by me”, and he came across some truly inspiring work done by others around the world. However, there was no work done by anyone from Sri Lanka.
As a Lankan, he said he was disheartened to not see any local historical imagery with colour added, and so took it upon himself to do what he could.
The reason for embarking on the project, he said, was because he believed that while black and white photography in its original state is fantastic, the colours of an era often help you more accurately grasp the times gone by. Especially if you are a lover of history, it is more likely that it could inspire if you can truly picture it.
The technical side of things proved to be interesting to Supun, with his open source background. He shared that he adopted the python language to develop his work, as the process is already used by developers and has been made open source.
Speaking about the accuracy of the technology, he said that it’s a “neuro network” – an AI (artificial intelligence) software – and those who created the AI they have trained it so that they could feed millions of coloured-turned-black-and-white images into the programme, and then proceed to repaint it so that the programme learns the patterns.
He said that the AI can get 70% of its work done accurately, particularly constants in the picture like the sky, environment, plants, trees, etc. However, he said that what he has experienced is that it often struggles with skin colour, which is a variant. He said that he is still in the process of training the network in that aspect.
He said that once the language was utilised, he proceeded to find historical images of Sri Lanka to run through the programme. However, his better known works are his series of colourised videos of historical events. He has done a total of 12 videos so far – 1948 Sri Lanka Independence Day, Veteran Cars Parade Through Colombo (1963), Ceylon Independence Day (1967), Vesak Celebrations In Ceylon (1969), Ceylon Food Drive (1968), and Funeral Of Mr. Senanayake – Ceylon’s Prime Minister (1952), to name a few.
He shared that in the case of videos, the process is done frame by frame; so for example, if you are to make a one-minute video, it would need to contain around 3,000 images. Supun said he would colourise and reapply the required number of images into the video. It was a long and tedious process when he first started late last year, but he has managed to speed things up as the network continued to learn since then, he said.
He also pointed out that in case of commercial projects like big Hollywood productions where they colourise for total accuracy, it is done often with a lot of manpower. Particularly when it comes to images to be shown in museums, it would require a team of historians who would study those times and the nature of their economy which would lend to the accuracy of clothing material, skin colour, etc. that needed to be depicted, which would then be fed back into the network to produce results.
He said that he hopes to do some service with what he has learned. There have been many who have sent their old black and white photos of their ancestors to be colourised and as an open source developer, Supun shared that he does not wish to ask for anything in return; he would take on these projects free of charge as and when time allows.
For the future, he hopes he can find a way to acquire rights for these images in a more efficient manner so that he can go about making a bigger contribution to this side of history.