Monday, February 21, 2011

The Restoration of a Film (Hollywood or Home)

From February 14 through 21, Preserving a Family Collection is participating in For the Love of Film (Noir):  The Film Preservation Blogathon.  Through this blogathon, over 80 bloggers are hoping to raise significant funds to support the work of the Film Noir Foundation and restore The Sound of Fury, a 1950 film noir starring Lloyd Bridges.

Please contribute to this worthy cause by making a donation at  this link, the Maltese Falcon donation button, or through the donation buttons on host sites Ferdy on Films and the Self-Styled Siren.

Today is the final day of the For the Love of Film (Noir) blogathon.  We’ve been raising money to restore a deteriorating nitrate print of The Sound of Fury, a 1950 film noir starring Lloyd Bridges.  And this cause got me to wondering:  What are the differences and the similarities between restoring a professional Hollywood film like The Sound of Fury and the work that has been done to restore old home movies?

I posed this question to Snowden Becker, an expert on film preservation.  She is one of the co-founders of the annual international Home Movie Day event as well as the nonprofit Center for Home Movies.  Currently, Snowden is a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas, Austin, School of Information where she is studying how home movies and amateur media become integrated into our larger cultural heritage.

For our final contribution to the For the Love of Film blogathon, here are Snowden’s thoughts on the various challenges of film restoration:

“Fundamentally, the photochemical restoration of any film – whether it’s a commercial feature or amateur footage – is going to be the same:  Assess, stabilize, and repair the original film elements, then create the highest-quality intermediate elements possible. Sometimes these will be digital – for instance, if extensive soundtrack cleanup is needed, or if there is physical damage to specific frames or segments that can be repaired only using digital tools.  Those intermediates are then used to produce a new film print that resembles, as closely as possible, the film as it was originally shot or shown.  Archivists and lab staff working on a nitrate print must take into account the combustible nature of nitrate film when transporting and storing the preservation elements (which may come from several different institutions – feature film restoration often involves multiple members of the international film archive community, as this story in the New York Times describes).  Tinted, toned, or other early color films will typically present additional difficulties when it comes to making contemporary film stock match the look of the original.

“Where these processes differ most profoundly, however, is in the elements that may be available for a specific film – and, of course, in the budget at a restorer’s disposal! Home movies are often (though not always) reversal originals;  that is, the film that is exposed in the camera is processed to become the positive film screened in the projector, instead of a negative from which positive prints are made.  With reversal stock there is no negative;  the reversal stocks used for home movies are also much higher in contrast than negative and positive film and challenging to reproduce accurately, so copies are extremely rare.  An original home movie is therefore unique and
A still from the famous Zapruder
film of the Kennedy assassination.
irreplaceable.  (Just ask Abraham Zapruder, whose 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination was damaged shortly after its creation by a Life magazine photo technician.  Those notorious ‘missing frames’ have been speculated about by conspiracy theorists ever since.)

“Feature films, on the other hand, having been mass-produced for commercial exhibition, may have any number of different negative or positive elements surviving in good enough condition to be of use in a preservation or restoration project. These elements may include (in descending order of quality and desirability) an original camera negative, finegrain interpositives or "lavender prints" (so called because of the distinctive color of the low-contrast reproduction stock), internegatives or duplicate negatives, and release prints.  Any of these elements may vary in appearance, duration, or other particulars, such as foreign-language intertitles for silent works, or reflect the conditions under which they have been stored or screened since their creation.  For features, in other words, one may simply have much more material to work with.  Finding out what elements exist for a specific film, and then determining how to combine those elements to maximize their good qualities and minimize the effects of age or poor handling, is a big part of the restoration process.

“The size and length of the film being restored is the other major factor that differentiates commercial and amateur film preservation, and is the primary factor in its cost.  Home movies were typically shot on small-gauge film – 16mm, 9.5mm, 8mm, and Super8 being the most common – because it was cheaper, and because the correspondingly smaller cameras were more portable and convenient than the 35mm equipment and stock used by movie studios.  Small-gauge film reels and cartridges held anywhere from 25 to 100 feet of film, enough for about 2-3 minutes of memories;  a feature film, on the other hand, can run to a dozen 1,000-foot reels or more.  Foot for foot, 35mm film is more expensive than smaller gauges, and the proliferation of intermediate elements for feature material multiplies that cost further.  On the other hand, while 35mm film is preserved to the same format, it’s considered impractical to create 8mm or Super8 preservation copies of home movies.  Increasingly, they’re optically printed (blown up) to larger gauges – 16mm or 35mm – as part of the preservation, with a corresponding increase in cost.  Expert restoration work on a few minutes of home movie footage may run to a few thousand dollars, but feature restoration can easily cost ten times as much. Creating a lasting, stable preservation copy of a feature or a home movie isn’t cheap.”

I hope to return for more discussion with Snowden Becker in the near future as we fully turn our attention to strategies for preserving home movies.  In the meantime, I am very appreciative of her deeply informative contributions to this great blogathon effort.  Thank you, Snowden!

© 2011 Lee Price

1 comment:

  1. I guess it's really up to distribution. Distribution determines film preservation. Distribution enables whether a film gets within reach of as many people as possible enough for any of us to do anything about it, in the short, as well as, the long term. But it's also up to the technology and the tools and methods that were employed for it.