Restoration on the eve of the Millennium
A View from the Trenches
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Robert A. Harris & James C.
- December 1999
Harris (right) and James Katz (left) with 70mm cans for "Vertigo". Image
source: Robert Harris.
Picture credit: Laura Luongo
Over the past twenty years or
so, film restoration has come out of the laboratory and into the theatres.
It has become a concept that enables entities like The American Film
Institute and The Film Foundation to bring in public funds to help
preserve and restore our national film heritage.
Films restored have run the gamut from the earliest works of cinema to
the films of Griffith, Gance and their contemporaries - to the late silent
and early sound era - and on to the Technicolor period and beyond. Each
era and type of film carries with it its own set of difficulties
The basics of film restoration, not unique to any era involve the
gathering of all elements worldwide for the film to be restored or
reconstructed, as well as all production and post production paperwork
extant. From that point on, the differing film elements and era go in a
myriad of different directions - creating a situation in which an
archivist might well be advised to stay with a certain era or type of
What we consider
"real restorations" or "reconstructions" of note
during the period have been Kevin Brownlow's work on Abel Gance's 1927
Ron Haver's reconstruction of George Cukor's 1954 "A Star is
Born", Bob Gitt's (for UCLA) three strip
reconstruction/restoration of the first three strip Technicolor feature "Becky
Sharp" as well as his work on John Ford's Technicolor "She
Wore a Yellow Ribbon" and more recently Frank Capra's "Lost
Added most recently to the list are Frank Capra's "Matinee
Idol" from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and
Columbia Pictures, "In the Heat of the Night" again from
the Academy and MGM.
Further in 70mm reading:
Restoration of "My Fair
"Lawrence of Arabia"
1994 re-release poster for "My Fair Lady"
own work on films such as
"Lawrence of Arabia",
"My Fair Lady",
"Vertigo" and "Rear
Window" holds us very much in the fifties and sixties.
However, the films listed above don't even make a dent in the problem of
film survival. There's a wonderful line in John Ford's "The Man
Who Shot Liberty Valence" which states something like...
"When truth becomes legend, print the legend."
Unfortunately, the survival of our film heritage and just how much is
being done within the studio system is, in some cases more legend than
fact. And things don't bode well for our film heritage.
Equally important to actual films being "restored," are the
plethora of concepts, definitions and ill-researched journalistic reports
about where we are and precisely what film "restoration" is all
If one were to believe the press, there have been dozens of brilliant film
restorations in the past few years alone. Add to this various
"video" or "restored for video" works which further
muddy the waters.
All of this confusion - much of it industry-bred and manufactured to
either sell tickets to supposed restored films or sell videos or DVDs,
does nothing more than stall actual film restoration at best - and lead to
destruction of the films in question at worst.
While some studios do a perfectly professional job of archiving,
preserving and restoring their assets, others - not to be left off the
bandwagon - have taken an almost "Wag the Dog" position. While
maintaining that all is well in Mudville, and taking great pride in their
work, they point a finger squarely in the direction of the
"real" restoration problem - "Orphan Films."
("Orphan Films" are films which have been located in recent
years. They come from various sources, including university and private
collections, and even commercial film vaults. There are many types of
these films, including everything from silent films to newsreels to
independent films, both old and new. However, they all suffer from the
"defect" that there is no current clear copyright holder (other
than the holder of the print or negative). And there are usually no funds,
public or private, to make protection copies of the film or to do
restoration or to make preservation materials. And unfortunately, unless
there is some perceived financial gain from funding a re-print, these
films are left to decay. --ed).
Restoration of "My Fair
"Lawrence of Arabia"
Restoration of "Vertigo"
frame from "Napoleon".
An interesting stance has become the "everything here's under control
and we want to help so here's a contribution toward..."
While the legitimacy of real Orphan Films need not be questioned, and
while funding to preserve these films is of great importance, the reality
of the situation is that in many cases important Studio Films are in worse
condition than the Orphan Films. Within the video-driven film
preservation/restoration scenario, major feature films will be left to rot
as long as a video colorist can get an acceptable transfer of an extant
fading film element.
If one can either spend $30,000 to $1,000,000 or more to save a 35mm or
large format (35mm eight perforation or 65mm film), and actually create
elements which will save the film for centuries to come and either break
even or make a small profit on their home videos, too many decisions are
being made to go with "adequate" for DVD. The need for immediate
gratification comes to the fore. Too many times, a beautiful - or at least
nice - video is delivered to the unsuspecting public, on occasion using
the original negative as a transfer element, thereby resigning the
original negative to a worse fate than it would have suffered had it
remained locked away, undisturbed, unpreserved, unrestored and
1989 re-release poster for "Lawrence of Arabia"
Films "restored" for video or theatrical, while the original
film elements may molder include non-orphans: "The King &
I", "The Alamo", , "North by
Northwest", "El Cid", "The
Graduate", "Gone with the Wind", "The
We have an industry which
cannot agree what "Film Restoration" actually is. We have,
bright and generally responsible journalists who can be swayed into belief
by well-written studio handouts. We have a public which innocently views
the latest DVD and makes the assumption that "the film" actually
still exists as film and is in some way conserved. We are very much in
that same position taken a quarter of a century ago when nitrate studio
negatives were copied onto unstable stock and then dumped unceremoniously
into the Pacific or used as landfill. And the executives who make these
Within eighteen to twenty-four months they're at another studio, or
another higher paying position in broadcast, video or anywhere else, where
they can make more astonishingly uninformed decisions, the results of
which won't come to light until after they've left the company. With
studios being consumed and traded like really expensive baseball cards;
with libraries being broken up, sold, structured and restructured; it has
become a virtual impossibility for some entities to properly conserve,
preserve and restore on any rational basis.
With an impossibly large number of titles (read: film elements) coming of
age in the year 2000, we are dealing with more faded, shrunken and
decomposing rolls of acetate, containing both picture and sound, than most
people can imagine. I'll repeat myself. Some studios are doing a superb
job of saving and conserving their assets. For others, and many great
films, its almost after the end.
of Arabia", perhaps the world's most famous 70mm film. Restored
by Robert A. Harris and re-released February 4, 1989 (at the
New York) to great acclaim.
The film world premiered at the
Odeon Leicester Sq. in London, England on
December 10, 1962 and was later cut from 222 minutes to 187 minutes. The
restored and reconstructed director approved version runs 218 minutes.
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