More than a reflection of society and culture, moving images are primary documents that can serve a wide range of research purposes. The director Sydney Pollack has said that cinema is “the most vivid and valuable record of who we were and what we were, and what we thought and what we believed. And it continues to be that.” As our culture is increasingly shaped by visual images in the digital age, historians may soon rely on moving images as much as on the printed word to understand 21st century culture. In a sense, by relying more and more on moving images to understand the times in which we live, society is increasingly reverting back to its roots grounded in oral tradition.
Whether it’s classic Hollywood feature films, 20th century newsreels, documentaries, classic television or home movies of Billy’s fifth birthday, it is important to preserve our visual heritage."
But if you find one of those rusting, unlabeled canisters ... then what?
It's a question that drives the extraordinary German site Lost Films. Begun in December 2008 by the Berlin museum Deutsche Kinemathek, it's a collaborative effort with other archives that now encompasses an astonishing range of films: The more than 4,000 movies listed as M.I.A. range from an actual jazz-era version of The Great Gatsby(1926) to a re-enactment of The Battle of Gettysburg (1913) staged while the veterans were still alive. But even more curious is the site's "Identify" section—an open call to other museums and the public to I.D. films that sometimes survive without title cards, without canister labels, without so much as a cast or director or country of origin.
"For a working film archive, unidentified films pose a much more urgent question," explains Kinemathek staffer Oliver Hanley in an e-mail. Not knowing what scripts or other contextual materials to consult makes these orphans nearly impossible to preserve properly. As Hanley notes, "To the public, it renders them lost already."
George Eastman House helps preserve and repair these tattered objects, often more than a century old. Its six film technicians restore up to 200 films annually. Their quiet rescue mission reaches Hollywood studios and film archives around the world.
"Last year, we could have circled the Earth with that footage," says Edward Stratmann, associate curator of motion pictures.
The museum revives many films at their last gasp. An estimated 90 percent of silent-era movies already have vanished. Others are dying "the death of 1,000 cuts" with tears, stains and fading.
"It we don't act, sometimes it might be too late," says Caroline Frick Page, curator for the motion picture department.
When they do act — on rare screen tests for Gone With the Wind (1939), for example, or the first full-length movie of Huckleberry Finn (1920) — a part of film or art history is saved both for posterity and practical use. The Eastman House gets constant inquiries from studios looking to make DVDs from restored prints.
The museum also is training the next generation of preservation experts through two pioneering programs.
The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, launched in 1996, has trained more than 130 motion picture archivists in 19 countries. Its dozen incoming students each year will learn how to preserve and restore movies, engaging in lab work and archiving courses. It offers both master's and certificate programs.”
Additionally, due to the fragility of film and video, it is often necessary to make copies for preservation purposes. This may be e.g. to transfer from nitrate to ‘safety’ film, to transfer from acetate ‘safety’ film which is suffering acetic deterioration (commonly called) Vinegar Syndrome) or to retrieve content from obsolete formats. In this case, the new copy should also be treated as a master, replacing or supplementing the original. Wherever possible, any new master replacing an original should be on an appropriate format eg a new master from a title originating on film should usually also be on film of an equivalent format, even though the viewing copy may be video or digital. A new master taken from an obsolete format should be on to a current format of equivalent or greater qualityI was unaware that preservation copies of fragile films and videos are made for preservation purposes. If we increase our basic knowledge of the basics of film preservation, not only can we increase our understanding of the methodology behind the field, but hopefully such knowledge will encourage more people to go into the field as well argue its cause when it comes to ensuring that film preservationists receive more funds.
... Restoration work tends to be anonymous, intensely technical and glacially slow. It demands Sitzfleisch: German slang for gluing your backside to a seat for hours at a time.
"Today, a polyester film base can last up to 500 years — longer than any CD," Haidet says. "We don't get our names attached to this work: it's a group effort. But I feel that we're doing something for posterity."