Hollywood Looks to Film Preservation
March 27, 2002, By Bob Thomas, Associated Press Writer
It's happened over and over again since movies began.
Until about 1950, all motion pictures were shot and projected with film stock that used a cellulose nitrate base. If not stored properly, nitrate film can deteriorate into sludge or dust, or explode and destroy film vaults. As one conservationist says, "You can put a burning nitrate reel in a bucket of water and it will still burn."
In 1950, nitrate film was gradually replaced with what is commonly called safety film, which uses a less-volatile acetate base. But even safety film can present problems. The once-vivid color of such post-1950 classics as "The King and I" and "Singin' in the Rain" can fade into a purplish haze in a generation.
To the rescue come the combined forces of Hollywood's largest studios and the nation's leading film archives, which have launched some of the most ambitious programs of restoration and preservation in artistic history.
For the studios, this is more than altruism: They have realized anew that there is gold to be found in their film vaults.
"There is more film restoration and preservation being done now than ever before," says Roger Mayer, chairman of the National Film Preservation Foundation, which is funded by Congress and private donations. He also is in charge of preserving the huge film library of AOL Time Warner.
"It's being done not just for artistic and educational and preservation reasons, but for commercial reasons. If you restore and preserve it, you can release it," Mayer says. "With DVD expanding greatly all the time, it becomes a matter of smart commerce to spend money on film preservation."
Time Warner is using a digital process to restore the color of "Singin' in the Rain," for example, which is being re-released on DVD this fall to mark its 50th anniversary.
Today's niche-network universe of cable television also has provided new motivation for film preservation.
Take MGM's Fitzpatrick travelogue shorts, for example. The shorts -- fondly remembered for the closing line: "And as the sun sets in the west, we say a fond farewell to (wherever) -- were restored and sat in the vault for 20 years. Now they and other MGM shorts can be seen on the American Movie Classics cable channel.
"Of all art forms, film is the most unstable and the most susceptible to deterioration and alteration, both by natural forces and by human hands," comments Mike Pogorzelski, director of preservation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
The academy restores three to six features and six to 20 shorts annually, with emphasis on those that have won Oscars. A recent project was John Ford's "Four Sons," which was shot as a silent and released in 1928 when sound was sweeping the country. Fox superimposed a soundtrack over the finished film, and no silent version could be found in North America.
"There was a print in the Portugal archives," Pogorzelski says. "The picture was released in most European countries as a silent, because those countries took longer to convert to sound. That print had been censored because of violence and a scene where the soldiers mutiny against their officer and execute him. We had to use some fancy optical tricks to restore the missing elements."
The Academy also has launched an ambitious project to restore the complete works of Satyajit Ray, the great Indian director who received an honorary Oscar shortly before his death in 1992.
The George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., which has a collection of 23,000 film titles, not only restores and preserves movies -- 500 reels of nitrate film in 2001 -- it also offers a one-year course on how to do it.
The Library of Congress' film department has been storing all films copyrighted in the United States since 1896.
And the UCLA Film and Television Archive with its 220,000 titles is second only to the Library of Congress's 300,000 films and 350,000 TV programs. This fall it will begin offering a graduate degree program in film archiving, says archive director Tim Kittleson.
UCLA's archives maintain 65 million feet of nitrate film, all of it inspected annually.
"If a film is in trouble, we have three considerations," Kittleson explains. "1. Have other archives restored it? 2. Does it have social, artistic or historic value? 3. Do we have the resources to restore it?"
The process is time-consuming; of the entire UCLA archive, only 500 films have been restored. Those include "The Virginian" (1929), "Stagecoach" (1939) and "Double Indemnity" (1944) to name a few, along with TV shows including "The Steve Allen Show," from the early 1960s, and John F. Kennedy's campaign speeches.
Restoring films often requires frame-by-frame inspection, and a typical 90-minute feature has 130,000 frames.
"Films contain our history, our culture and a lot of the artistic background of America, because it is the indigenous American art form," explains Mayer. "You wouldn't let paintings deteriorate in art museums or music deteriorate in music libraries. Why let film deteriorate?"
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