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Feature

Saving Grace

By Marilyn Ferdinand | HUMANITIES, March/April 2013 | Volume 34, Number 2

A barn. A warehouse. A closet at a mental institution. These locations have something in common: They all contained films or parts of films that were missing and presumed lost forever.

French film pioneer Georges Méliès’s classic short  film Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), an inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s 2011 film, Hugo, was discovered in its most complete form in a barn in France in 2002. Japanese director Teinosuke Kinugasa rediscovered his brilliant avant-garde film A Page of Madness (1926) in his own warehouse forty-five years after he made it. Last, a pristine, unexpurgated copy of renowned Danish filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer’s most iconic film, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), turned up in a janitor’s closet at the Kikemark Sykehus mental institution in Oslo in 1981.

According to reliable estimates, at least 50 percent of all films made for public exhibition before 1950 have been lost. Move into the silent era, and the estimate shoots up to 90 percent. The cellulose nitrate film on which movies were recorded until 1950 is flammable and highly susceptible to deterioration. The medium that replaced nitrate, cellulose acetate, solved the flammability problem, but is vulnerable to disintegration, shrinkage, and breakage. All or parts of thousands of films from virtually every era have burned up, broken down, or ended up in a dumpster.

The digital age may seem to provide a greater degree of safety for the durability of our new digitally produced films. But if you have ever had a hard drive crash or a virus corrupt your files, you know that digital information is fragile, too.

Film Preservation 101

Anyone who stores a film might  be considered a preservationist. Thousands of private collectors are responsible for rescuing films that were slated to be trashed, but mere collecting will not ensure these artifacts are preserved.

Film needs to be stored in a temperature- and moisture-controlled environment. Film archives all over the world maintain such climate-controlled storage facilities as a first line of defense. Transferring nitrate film to stable safety stock is a second precaution film preservationists take.

Actual restoration is a further, complicated step that many films will never  undergo. Restoring celluloid films is a costly, time-consuming process that requires expert handling in one of the few photochemical labs that still exist; today, more films are being restored through digital correction, but this work is also labor-intensive.

The work also requires old-fashioned research. Film is an art form that everyone from producers to theater owners have felt entitled to alter to fit their requirements, including shortening films to maximize the number of screenings and cutting out material the exhibitor deemed inappropriate. Therefore, research must be done to find shooting scripts, directors’ notes, other  preproduction materials, and any available reference prints to ensure the restoration is as complete and correct as possible.

Films also have more parts than other types of restoration projects. A black-and-white silent film may be the easiest type of restoration, with only one piece of film to correct. Sound pictures add a soundtrack to the mix. Finally, a color film has two or three  strips of film that must be restored.

Martin Scorsese and The Red Shoes

Established in 1990 by Martin Scorsese, the Film Foundation helps to conserve motion picture history by supporting preservation and restoration projects at film archives. The foundation has helped save more than 560 motion pictures. It prioritizes funding each year according to physical urgency. Also taken into account is the significance of a project, whether the film is an important work of a certain writer, actor, or director, or a technical first, or whether it approaches some social issue ahead of its time.

At its core, the Film Foundation represents a natural progression for Scorsese, arguably the world’s greatest film enthusiast. Margaret Bodde, a film producer and executive director of the Film Foundation, says, “With Marty, what is so remarkable is his dedication to preservation and film as culture and an art form. He doesn’t do it as an obligation; he does it because he wants future generations to be as inspired by film as he was.”

Scorsese’s storied career gained its inspiration from the numerous films he viewed growing up in Manhattan’s Little Italy. He began amassing a film collection that now numbers 3,500 prints. He holds screenings for his production team when planning a new film. There may be a scene, a certain  shooting or editing style, or a performance that Scorsese thinks will help inspire the work to come.

One film that inspired Scorsese with a model for how to shoot  the fight sequences in his 1980 film Raging Bull was The Red Shoes (1948), the ballet-centered masterpiece created by the powerhouse British directing team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The Film Foundation funded its restoration in 2006, the first fully digital restoration with which it was involved.

Working from the original film negatives, preservationists found that tiny imperfections from the shooting and original film development had  been exacerbated by time. In addition, much of the film had shrunk. Colors flickered, became  mottled, and  showed other types of distortion. The film also showed red, blue, and green specks throughout. Worst of all, mold had  done substantial damage to the negatives.

After the film underwent an extensive cleaning process, it was digitized: 579,000 individual frames had to be scanned. Colors were reregistered, scratches smoothed out, flecks removed, and color inconsistencies addressed. For UCLA restoration expert  Robert Gitt, it was an ambitious first chance to see how digital technology can be applied to film restoration. Last but not least, a new filmstrip  was produced.

The rapid shift from photochemical to digital production and  distribution has raised concerns. Bodde says, “If a film is born digital, there should be a film output” because of the possibility of data corruption or the unavailability of playback mechanisms. The Film Foundation is working with archivists, technologists, and preservationists to raise awareness and to ensure that photochemical preservation continues.

The foundation also works, indirectly, with young people, by offering an interdisciplinary curriculum to help develop visual literacy and  film knowledge. This curriculum, The Story of Movies, has been embraced by well over thirty thousand middle schools and high schools. All of this effort works to ensure that future generations know the wonder of watching Moira Shearer move through the vivid, Technicolor dreamscapes of The Red Shoes and  many other treasures of our film heritage.

Marilyn  Ferdinand is a freelance writer  and  film critic who blogs at Ferdy on Films (www.ferdyonfilms.com). She is the cofounder of the online fundraiser For the Love of Film: The Film Preservation Blogathon.