by some of America's foremost film preservationists
Two years ago Cineaste organized a Critical Symposium on Repertory Film Programming, calling attention to the cinemas, museums, and film societies around the country that are devoted to the theatrical exhibition of movies from throughout the history of cinema, and from all realms of film production (including the noncommercial). A central purpose of that symposium was to celebrate repertory cinemas’ indispensable role in preserving a healthy and diversified film culture, and in fostering access to the films of the past. We went so far as to suggest that these institutions, many of which double as film archives, are engaged in preserving the experience of theatrical moviegoing, especially as films are increasingly viewed nontheatrically. But however older films happen to find their audiences—whether in a cinema, or on DVD, computer, or iPhone—they can do so only if they continue to exist, a condition that, given the precarious nature of celluloid (as well as of video formats, whether analog or digital), is not one to be taken for granted. We therefore felt that the logical successor to our Repertory Film Symposium would be one on Film Preservation itself, a topic of the utmost importance to film history and culture, but one that’s little understood by the public at large.
It’s perhaps a testament to the unique, illusory nature of the medium, to our perception of it as an ephemeral play of light and shadow, that most people rarely reflect on the status of films as physical objects (a paradox that’s clearly destined to grow as movies—along with almost all media—transition to purely digital form). And yet, even in an age of mechanical (or digital) reproduction, movies most certainly are physical objects, every bit as prone to disintegration and loss as paintings, manuscripts, or monuments. Indeed, despite the medium’s relative youth, countless numbers of films from throughout the cinema’s first century have been lost, and hundreds of thousands more are teetering on the edge of oblivion. For this issue’s Critical Symposium, we sent out a questionnaire to a host of individuals engaged in various ways in the mission to collect, preserve, and safeguard films—the contributors represent the country’s noncommercial archives, the Hollywood film studios, preservation-oriented foundations, and the film labs that perform much of the actual preservation work—and nearly every one of them testifies to the gulf between the volume of films demanding preservation and the number that, for reasons practical and financial, can realistically be attended to before celluloid ceases to be a viable option.
The contributors to the symposium are each engaged in an uphill battle against the forces of time and decay, as well as against more culturally-determined factors such as funding shortages, lab costs, lack of understanding of proper storage conditions, and so on. Our goal in organizing this symposium is both to call attention to the individuals and institutions whose efforts to save threatened films take place largely behind the scenes, and simply to increase awareness of the fragile nature of the medium, of the mechanics of film preservation, and of the challenges involved in the field.
As the contributors below make clear, the struggle to preserve film history is ongoing, not just because of the volume of films involved, but also because the awareness of what deserves to be saved, of which films are deemed worthy of collecting, preserving, and studying, is constantly evolving. Just as Hollywood films were once considered disposable entertainment, one of the most striking developments in the film preservation field (as in film scholarship) is the increasing recognition of the value (and the past neglect) of “orphan” films, works whose creators or copyright holders have either abandoned them or lack the resources to preserve them—home movies and other amateur footage, industrial, medical, and science films, newsreels, experimental films, and so on. These films have only recently emerged from the state of purgatory in which Hollywood cinema once found itself, and as a result they exist—where they exist at all—in a particularly vulnerable state. Many of the institutions represented in our symposium have increasingly focused on these films, since their orphan status leaves them otherwise unprotected.
And the embrace of “orphan” films is far from the end of the story. Inevitably, a dominant theme here is the digital revolution and its impact on the film preservation field, an impact that’s no less significant than in film production, distribution, and exhibition. While the debate over the positive and negative aspects of the digital revolution is an open one (with a consensus emerging that digital video is at the very least an invaluable tool for providing access to archival material), almost all the contributors to the symposium point out that digital media are far from being stable enough to constitute a means of long-term preservation. For traditional films, this means that digitization is not, at this point, an adequate replacement for preserving to celluloid. But it also means that the legions of movies that today are actually created digitally are in almost as precarious a state as the silent films of one hundred years ago. In other words, film preservation should not be mistaken as something relevant only to those interested in past epochs of film history. As the technology of the cinema evolves, the need to understand how to preserve moving-image works becomes a very contemporary challenge—in the words of Margaret Bodde, the Director of the Film Foundation, “The preservation of born-digital films is going to be the greatest challenge ever to face archivists.” The potential for loss that film preservationists labor mightily against applies to twenty-first-century cinema every bit as much as to the musty, fading, bulky film prints that will soon represent an earlier era of moving image practice.
From any perspective, the transition from celluloid (and analog video) to digital media that is transforming all aspects of film culture makes this a fascinating moment in the history of archiving and preservation, and hence a perfect time to solicit the observations of those in the field. What follows will hopefully raise the curtain on the processes, the challenges, and the financial, ethical, and cultural issues involved in preserving motion pictures, and focus attention on the individuals who devote themselves to the cause.
The following two commentaries are Web Exclusive responses, both from film laboratory professionals, which appear here as a supplement to the Film Preservation Critical Symposium in our print edition, an eleven-page section featuring responses from Schawn Belston (Twentieth Century-Fox), Margaret Bodde (The Film Foundation), Paolo Cherchi Usai (George Eastman House), Grover Crisp (Sony Pictures Entertainment), Dennis Doros and Amy Heller (Milestone Film & Video), Jan-Christopher Horak (UCLA Film and Television Archive), Annette Melville (National Film Preservation Foundation), Michael Pogorzelski (Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive), Katie Trainor (Museum of Modern Art), and Daniel Wagner (George Eastman House).—Jared Rapfogel and Andrew Lampert
We posed the following questions to our contributors:
1) How has the landscape of film preservation changed over the past decade or so? Is there a healthy amount of funding available?
2) Can you outline the decisions and choices that go into deciding how certain titles are prioritized for preservation? What are the factors, both theoretical and practical, that inform these decisions? How difficult is it to choose certain films over others?
3) Do you feel that there are specific films/ eras/modes of filmmaking that are falling through the cracks when it comes to preservation? If you are responsible for an archive, how are you trying to diversify and strengthen your collection through acquisitions and preservation of works not already in your care or possession?
4) How has the digital revolution impacted film preservation? Does transferring a film to digital media qualify as preservation? To what extent is it becoming difficult to find labs/technicians with the expertise to do photochemical preservation work? What are the positive dimensions of the digital revolution to the field? What efforts are being taken to archive, transfer, and preserve works that were produced in video?
5) How do you approach the question of preservation vs. access? Are these two goals difficult to balance? How would you characterize the relationship between your preservation work and repertory film exhibition, home-video releasing, and/or Internet streaming?
For many decades now, ongoing preservation programs have been established by major archives, and through these programs large quantities of film materials have been successfully preserved at reasonable cost due to economies of scale. Funding of these programs has been in decline for decades. Public funding has been cut again and again. We are well aware that, for many years in the U.S., concern from the powers that be for the cause of education and history has been relegated to the back of the bus.
In preservation work a film laboratory’s mission is to derive the highest amount of information possible from a given film element so that it is available well into the future. Via film-to-film replication, we transfer images from one film base to another using a variety of tools specifically purpose built for the particular task at hand. We strive to capture every nuance and detail of image and sound possessed by the original film element. We retain what is there, as the image and sound exists, and we do not attempt to alter same. With this high-end preservation element in hand, in the event it is required, a restoration can be achieved well into the future. In the meantime we are able to produce more preservation elements with given available dollars. More films are preservable within the constraints of budgetary limits.
Today major postproduction motion picture laboratories handle new films, which are shot via film as well as those acquired digitally. There have been vast improvements in professional motion-picture digital cameras; use of film for acquisitions is waning on many fronts. Major laboratories that handle new film productions have fully embraced this digital technology, the possibilities for digital manipulation are endless, and cost savings can be enormous. One scene that may have cost a million dollars to shoot a decade or two ago can now potentially be visualized digitally for as little as a few thousand dollars. Special effects in films today are often the norm.
If a filmmaker is shooting a traditional film, on film, today the lab choices to fully finish on film are quite limited. Few laboratories exist that are capable of a full film finish. The fact remains that if you shoot a straightforward (non-effect-laden) 35mm film, a direct 35mm print from a cut negative will produce a superior image (compared to a Digital Intermediate, aka “DI” finish) on a theater screen. Further, the overall cost for this type of direct film finish is far less than going through today’s standard “DI” film finish. Film is capable of retaining much more information when used directly as opposed to being sent through the “DI” process. The current “DI’ process automatically degrades the image resolution of the original film element. The “DI” process involves a digital scanner, which digitizes the analog image from the film, and a film recorder, which returns the (manipulated if need be) digitally-scanned information back to film. With the advent and final success of digital projection, which theatrically is taking over at a very rapid pace today, the need for a theatrical film finish will all but vanish within the commercial production laboratory.
So what is the problem with using this digital technology as a tool in preserving existing archival films? Currently the main issue is considerable loss of information/detail, which exists in the original film element, along with higher cost and lower stability expectations. Film has a proven track record. We have existing 35mm films that are 110+ years old, but the images are still very much visible and recoverable. (Archivists love images that can be seen; it is very reassuring to be able to confirm the image exists simply by the human act of observing.) Like ancient cave paintings, these very old film images have often simply languished in uncontrolled environments but still managed to survive reasonably well. Media is often at the mercy of a holder’s limited budget constraints.
Magnetic media has a more limited track record but, like film, has a whole range of deterioration issues as well, not to mention potential catastrophic influences such as solar-storm flares, what scientists call "coronal mass ejections," the most famous of which were the events of 1859 and 1921. These ejections occasionally hit the earth, with the potential for dire consequences. Scientists indicate that the possibility for such a major event within the next few years is very high. Keep in mind that these prior major events occurred before the world was electronically dependent; we really don’t know what havoc an event such as this would wreak today on our mass of electronic equipment and magnetic media. Another danger is the potential for human self- imposed EMP attack events, which could also have dire ramifications for magnetic media (see “Electromagnetic pulse” on Wikipedia).
Finally, the rapid obsolescence and disappearance of the systems that are able to decipher these immense quantities of magnetic media is the most common concern. Magnetic media migration is said to be the answer to this problem, but history has frequently proven the folly of this concept. All too often much media ends up being treated via the out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude…that is, until you need it. Ask any laboratory about the elements customers abandon.
Currently if you take a film original you wish to preserve and run it through a “DI” process, you will lose information/detail that exists in the original due to the limitations of commonly-used scanning systems. Some will say that when making a film-to-film preservation copy you will also lose information. This is true, but currently you will lose less real information via a properly executed film-to-film replication and in the end you will have an image existing on a piece of film, not a fragile digital file. In the event you record this digital file back to film via a laser film recorder, you will then have the piece of film with images on it, but you will have lost more information and detail elements of the original, and you will have paid more dollars for the process than if you had initially done a film-to-film replication. Film preservation is all about retention of information and limiting loss through the duplication process. Film restoration is more about making a film more palatable for viewing.
Digital restoration is wonderful when used for purposes such as steadying an unstable image, which may have been caused in error by lab equipment of long ago or a faulty original camera. Rips across a frame, white and black dirt, all can be made to magically disappear. It can be used to remove all the animation cell dirt from a film such as Snow White. Walt probably would not mind.
Digital technology enables considerable alteration of that which exists, as well as construction of that which does not exist due to prior loss, and this all can be a good thing. Operations are performed because they are possible. Depending on the problems involved in the restoration of any particular film, it often can be a very time- consuming and costly proposition. This is all well and good in the case of product used for mass distribution to the public via broadcast, DVD, online streaming, etc. The potential income stream from this commercial use can be used to cover the costs involved. This sort of finessing is not necessary for films that simply need to be preserved for historical reference.
No doubt future “DI” scanning and recording equipment will be up to the task of equaling the resolving power and speed of direct film-to-film duplicating systems and will become a practical reality in the future. When that day comes, we will have a contender with which to effect a positive change in the preservation method workflow. We need systems that actually are capable of retaining the original information, not systems that simply make the image appear pleasing via digital manipulations.
Archives that are able to afford film-to-film preservation I think will stick with the proven analog methods for now. As long as there is a reasonable demand for such work, there will be facilities available to perform it.
Currently video is moving toward reformatting via digital files. Unfortunately, as with the originating video formats, the new video files will likely become quickly obsolete as well. There is considerable disagreement as to digitization routes for video content, and this is causing much consternation. Hard-drive storage seems to be a good long-term storage solution for this derived digital information. Access copies are typically lower- resolution digital transfers from the film. If we produce a full-blown film preservation, an archive will often request a DVD copy for general access.
In the event a client does not have the funds for film-to-film preservation, we recommend that any available funds be used in an effort to improve the long-term storage conditions for the original film elements. The original film is repaired, cleaned, and transferred to an analog or digital master tape from which a DVD master is struck for general access. This process protects the film element from unnecessary future handling, since a good access copy is readily available for viewing.
Janice Allen is responsible for the renowned film preservation lab Cinema Arts Inc., in Northeast Pennsylvania, as well as the film archive, John E. Allen Inc., both of which have their roots in a company founded by her father in 1936.
Most writing about film preservation is aimed at institutional professionals in archives, museums, and libraries. Funding for preserving films is similarly directed. But the films I care about most are often not part of an institutional collection but instead are found in the closets, basements, and attics of the artists who’ve made them. Many are left in the vaults of film labs that have closed or that no longer provide analog film services. Even films with significant distribution histories share these conditions.
As an independent filmmaker for over forty years and also as a film preservationist, I understand well the practical, financial, and emotional barriers artists face in properly caring for our own works. As artists we can feel caught between putting our efforts toward producing new works and preserving old ones.
However, by doing only a little, or a little at a time, we can go a long way toward preserving our work and at the same time actually help set the conditions for completing new projects. And, by taking the first steps we can make it a lot easier for others to preserve our work in the future.
In 2006, with Toni Treadway, I wrote A Self-Preservation Guide for Film/Video-Makersthat outlines in detail a step-by-step “harm reduction” approach to film preservation for artists.  This, we hope, is contributing to a widening awareness among artists of the need for preservation and the importance of taking even the first steps. This advice applies as well to those with home movies and private film collections.
In brief, we recommend:
Locate, List and Remove From Harm
1. Locate your film originals, prints, video and digital masters and copies and make a general list of where they can be found.
2. Move originals, prints and other materials to a relatively cool and dry location from especially unsafe places such as basements, garages, attics, under sinks, on window sills, near radiators or heaters.
3. Retrieve originals or printing masters from laboratories.
4. Make a list of your films, installations and video works
5. Identify someone who will care about your work should you leave it behind when you move or die.
Inspect, Label and Improve Containers
1. Open the boxes, cans or drawers and inspect the materials. Identify each item and confirm that the labeling on the can or box conforms to what’s inside.
2. Replace the containers that are dented or rusted.
3. Remove the plastic or paper laboratory bags around your films.
4. Separate magnetic tracks from picture materials.
5. Replace ordinary cardboard boxes or sealed containers with vented cans or acid free boxes.
6. Consolidate “outtake” reels into larger containers to save shelf space.
7. Isolate materials that are moldy or smell strongly like vinegar by placing them in a separate area at least twenty feet from other film, video or audio materials.
6. Build or purchase inexpensive sturdy shelves from a building supply store and set them up in a cool, dry location.
Annotate and Place
1. Expand your list of works to include notes about each title or project.
2. Store films and videos to maintain proper temperature and humidity (40°-54° F and 30%-50% relative humidity). Since few of us on our own can meet this standard, the closer we can get the better.
3. Make a will that specifically mentions your films and videos.
4. Place your work in an archive or museum that has better storage conditions than you can provide for yourself.
Distribute and Imagine
1. Place your films with distributors, or suggest to curators they exhibit them.
2. Transfer your films to a contemporary format like DVD or online streaming.
3. Imagine your films well organized, safely housed, carefully labeled and appreciatively placed, restored and exhibited.
Digitizing films and videos, if done well, is a great way to make them accessible for distribution, study and promotion. But digitizing is generally still not considered an adequate way to preserve films. Though archival standards and practices are constantly evolving, digitized films are still far more vulnerable to loss than analog film. With equipment and formats changing and becoming obsolete at a rapid pace, digital collections must be continuously migrated to current formats and are thus very expensive to maintain.
While the film stocks required for easily making new prints of older films may no longer be available, contemporary film stocks in general have superior potential for color rendition with better control of contrast and grain. Properly preserving or restoring a film can be surprisingly expensive but a realistic analysis of the cost of preserving and maintaining a film for the long haul, say one hundred years, shows that analog film is by far the most effective and least costly means. In fact, some major companies are devising methods and materials for preserving even digital born cinema projects as digital information on analog film. Digital restoration techniques, on the other hand, have tremendous potential when properly handled, for recovering deteriorating films. Still, the wonders of digital film production today pose some of the biggest challenges for archivists and preservationists in the future.
Bill Brand is an artist, educator and film preservationist whose films, videos and installations have exhibited worldwide since the early 1970s. He is Professor of Film and Photography at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts and teaches film preservation at the New York University Moving Image Archiving and Preservation graduate program. Since 1976 he has operated BB Optics, an optical printing service specializing in 8mm blow-ups and archival preservation for independent filmmakers, libraries, museums and archives.