Sunday, 15 August 2010

News Review - Film's true superheroes

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." 
This quote, from the AMIA’s (The Association of Moving Image Archivists) homepage, asserts the still underappreciated importance of film preservation. Without the work and knowledge base that film archivists and film preservationists possess, we would lose invaluable visual documents that are indispensable for current and future generations.

This article hopes to draw readers’ attentions to the incredible work that film’s true superheroes do, often without a hint of recognition.

We will start by looking at an exciting online wiki project; that among other things, is attempting to identify a plethora of films that remain nameless. Slate recently drew attention to their project.
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."
One cannot speak highly enough of this project as it attempting to bring together the vast knowledge base of film lovers and historians the world over, to help identify films that have been forgotten for vast periods of time as well as hunting down the thousands of films that we have records of but are now missing. Take a look at this page, which has pictures from a variety of films; you never know, you might help preserve a film by identifying a film that no-one before you has been able to name. Furthermore, here is more information about how you can contribute towards this important project.

The next piece concerns perhaps the most important part of the film preservation process: the pain-staking restoration of classic film. This in-depth piece from, which I implore you to read in its entirety, takes an in depth look at George Eastman House:

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.”
George Eastman House not only restores up to 200 films a year, but they have also trained more than 130 motion picture archivists in 19 countries. Having complained in an earlier article about what I perceived as a lack of initiative and awareness when it came to film preservation and film restoration, it is delightful to learn of the indispensable work that one institution is partaking in to ensure that these important visual documents are not consigned to history. The fact that they are training archivists in countries which may have a far inferior knowledge base when it comes to film preservation can only bode well for the survival of early film in unheralded parts of the world.  
As with almost every conceivable topic one can imagine, there is a wealth of information available in regards to film preservation available online, that we can use to deepen our knowledge and understanding of the field. For example, over at the Film Archive Forum , there is some extremely useful information on the topic, for example:
Preservation copies
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 quality
I 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.

If you share my interest in this field, please retweet, facebook, digg or whatever method you use to increase awareness in regards to this article and more importantly, this often overlooked aspect of the film business. Also, if you have any links or information which you would care to share in regards to this field, please post a comment below.

To conclude, here is another excerpt from the DemorcratandChronicle piece:
... 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."
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