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Film Restoration in Global and Indian Contexts

 | Transcript |

  BY Sudarshan Ramani

Mike Pogorzelski, Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Davide Pozzi, Kimball Thurston, Margaret Bodde, Schawn Belston & Ian Birnie

1.     Preservation and Restoration – Two Separate Processes

Ian Birnie:  It is a great honour for me to be on this first restoration panel. There are a large number of screenings at the festival focused on restored titles - eight films from Fox, two films from Film Foundation and two films in particular that the Academy has restored as part of its Satyajit Ray Project. Obviously all of us agree that a restored film looks better than an unrestored film, with its print covered in scratches and dirt. I wanted to start with Margaret because Film Foundation has been such an important art venture, involving various archives, studios, various countries around the world. I know you have restored over 500 titles in the last twelve to fifteen years that you have existed. How do you make a decision in terms of what’s next? Is it four or five films that are important?

Margaret Bodde:  Yes, to be clear, Film Foundation restored The Red Shoes, The Leopard and Once Upon a Time in America, films that are well-known, loved and acclaimed films. But our mission absolutely includes an interest to preserve documentaries or films that may not have commercial value but scholarly value. Our preservation program works in that we have a meeting once an year, where archives from around the world and in the US, submit proposals and these are based on materials that they have that are in great need of preservation. We work with the archives to identify the best available materials from which to make a restoration and then once we have those proposals, Marty [Scorsese] and the board will see how much money we have and how much money we’ve raised in projects that year.

Of course, sadly, there are many more projects to preserve. We’ve done that over the years and that’s why there is a critical mass – we have over 560 films actually.

Ian Birnie: We can talk about this in the Indian context. Shivendra, you could talk about the scene of restoration here, is there a crisis in preservation and restoration here?

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur:  I think first of all, it’s important to understand that we in India don’t understand the concept of preservation. What we normally do is, once the restoration is done, it’s all about scanning the film and putting it on the DVD. We had a most horrific thing concerning the National Film Archive right now. All the films that are being shown here are being shown in the context that the Mumbai Film Festival had to organize for the DCP. The NFAI (National Film Archives of India) gave the negatives to Reliance and took back only the DVDs, saying that we do not need anything else! So you had only DVD copies in your archive. And that’s what they thought is important to preserve. How can that be possible? So we need to bring in that awareness of film preservation.

Ian Birnie: What about the rights holders? Do they not see the commercial value of this?

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: 
I don’t think the producers are aware of the issues. We make about a 1000 films an year. 60% of the films come from the south. We have the industry in four major cities; we have the industry in the south, in Calcutta, in Orissa alongside Bollywood, all that constitutes a large number of films. If the producers just donate one print, from 800 prints, some films have 3000 to 4000 prints also but if they donate a print than that would help. Otherwise only the National Film Award winning films happen to go to the Archive. Television brought in some awareness because it brought some revenue. Sholay (1975) is not there at the Archive. It was a major blockbuster and the Director and the Producer feel that the film is still making money, so in their mind, if you put the film in the Archive, it is like killing it. So I think we need to break that, because we need to reach out to people.

Davide Pozzi: A so-called restoration is a true restoration for me, when a preservation element has been made, because you have to consider long time preservation. Preservation should be the first step of restoration. With the thing preserved, you could set about to restore it, because restoration is quite expensive while preservation is cheaper. Once you preserve the film, make a duplicate or a copy of the film, and then decide what to restore or not.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur:  What is long-term preservation then?

Davide Pozzi: Well, it’s a bit of a question, but for me a film is preserved when you make a new 35mm negative for preservation. I’m sure that Michael, Schawn and Margaret could add their opinion to this question. After that, when you launch a big project on restoration, you have to go on two fronts, first you have to stop the degradation of the film, and then you can start restoration. This is my point of view. You can also prioritize and see which film is most in danger, most in need of restoration.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur: I think everybody’s mind is on digital. And I think that’s a concern. Now we have Blu-Rays and DVDs and there’s a sense of why preserve it on film when that’s gone. 

Schawn Belston:  We know that film, properly stored and cared for, last longer than any DVD or Blu-Ray. We hedge our bets with digital preservation as well but for us, we know that, despite, perhaps, becoming obsolete celluloid will be something that anybody with a lens and a light source will be able to see.

Kimball Thurston: From a technology standpoint, one of things I’ve been working on in the Academy’s Technology Council is defining color for digital restoration for an archival format, such that it’s a standard that everyone can follow.

Margaret Bodde: I am just going to say that that there is currently no preservation life-stance for digital. And everyone making films on digital cameras, which are fantastic since so many people can make films cheaply, but you need to arm yourself with the knowledge that you need to be very active in the preservation of the material. To make sure you are migrating on hard drives and keeping your knowledge of current recommendations. Not everyone can afford this but if you can make a copy on film from the digital state to make an output onto film…it’s really the best recommendation.

Davide Pozzi: 
We've all heard that “Film is Dead” but everyone knows, Fuji knows that it’s tough to produce this stock except the film preservation master. It follows that Fuji will continue to produce this stock for preservation. There is still a market for that. On the restoration project one usually uses 35mm. 

2. Collaboration between Studios, Archives and Other Organizations

Ian Birnie: I think it’s relatively recent in the last twenty to twenty-five year with the rise of home video, in DVD and Blu-Ray systems that the studios have realized the worth of restoring and putting out their library for public viewing. Fox has been a leader in that, in putting out their fantastic library.

Schawn Belston: It’s true. We’re lucky that the chairman of the studio at the time was insistent that the films we put out on DVD or Blu-Ray were of the very highest quality. So instead of just making a digital scan and making video masters for Home Video, we used the money to go back and actually restore the films preserved in our archive. Having said that, the number of films we put out on Blu-Ray or DVD is a very small part of the archive. So we ourselves struggle to justify the costs for putting out restored titles on the market, when it’s probably not going to return its investment. That’s one reason why the idea of the Film Foundation is so important. The idea, even in Hollywood, of the cultural importance of all movies and not just The Sound of Music or Die Hard is a tricky thing to pull off even there.

Ian Birnie: And yet, recently you put out a collection of early John Ford films. I don’t think there was a great deal of money in that and yet you found a way of convincing the studios to take that initiative.

Schawn Belston: 
Yeah. The Fords were an interesting example. How Green Was My Valley (1941) had more of a budget compared to Four Sons (1928) Steamboat ‘Round the Bend (1935). Films that are less evergreen if you will. So we had to adjust the approach to get them out on DVD. I’m really lucky though, because the movie-lovers high up in the company and they are like, “Oh, John Ford! How can you not restore all of his movies?”

Ian Birnie: And you worked with your partners, with the Academy Archive and the Film Foundation on a number of titles.

Schawn Belston: Yeah, we really value our partnership with the archives, the Film Foundation, the Academy Film Archive, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Film Foundation and AMC (American Movie Classics), a television channel in the states. It’s important for us to maintain that team spirit with other archives, because I have a very small staff and we don’t have the resources to restore every single film in our library and in the order it needs to be worked at. So, we get the archives their expertise and skill and knowledge of what a film from a certain era ought to look and sound like, even in a silent film. The archives in return get preservation material which is an important thing because if something was to happen and Fox were to lose the material, it still survives at the Academy Archive or UCLA.

The Leopard

Ian Birnie: Maybe we can continue on with the precise example of The Leopard?

Schawn Belston: When we began The Leopard, it was actually complicated. It’s fun to work on these expensive projects because you see that it’s the same problem in Italy that exists in most of the rest of the world. We had to deal with the producer, the original producer of the film. The company called Titanus and we had to convince them to move the original Technirama negative from Italy to Hollywood for the restoration.

Ian Birnie: And how was the negative once you saw it?

Schawn Belston: It was faded and damaged. The good thing about Technirama was that the image goes sideways. It was like VistaVision and so limited in the number of times it could be printed incorrectly. So it was faded but it was important to know that one of the first things we did was to make an interpositive from the negative, a preservation element before we started any handling the film. After a long and elaborate restoration process, we also recorded a 35mm negative of our restoration effort. This was a massive collaboration between the Film Foundation, the Cineteca Bologna, Fox, The World Film Foundation, Gucci. It took quite a village and at the end we had a film print, a DCP, a master for Blu-Ray and probably most important, a film negative to be stored in the archive for future generations.

3. Issues of Aesthetics.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur:  I read that Scorsese saw the restoration [of The Leopard] and he had some issue with the colour of “red roses” in one scene?

Schawn Belston: Well the nice thing about digital is that color correction is simpler than it was before. The danger is that you can do things that were not possible at the time the film was made. So you can change the color of the roses and not anything else. This would obviously not be possible when working on film. But the process of restoring a film like Il Gattopardo is incredible because Scorsese has this amazing memory of seeing films at the time of its release. He knows that the flowers weren’t disposing the right kind of red. And we also have the great advantage of the original cinematographer still being alive. So we went to Rome and screened it for Giuseppe Rotunno and got his inputs. So at the end, we got both Scorsese’s memory for seeing the film and the original DP’s inputs as well.

Margaret Bodde: To add to that, there is a relatively subjective nature to restoration and preservation of film. And it’s really important that there be someone in the room with an aesthetic sense of what films looks like and what film’s nature is, the grain structure, the colours that are possible in a certain film stock. And in the future as less and less people will know how films look like when it was projected in the theatre, or a flatbed, it becomes more valuable. It’s there now but may not be available in the future. We should take advantage of that while it’s very much with us.

Schawn Belston: One of the things we tell our archivists so to save as many prints as possible so that future generations who were not present at the time of the restoration can know what the film should look like. So to those working in Indian archives, the context, the background on the making of the film as well as the print that shows us exactly what the film looked like in the period of the film’s release, that’s an exciting opportunity you have right there.

Davide Pozzi: Regarding the point about digital color correction and with all the digital tools you must avoid using modern colors and respect the look of the cinema of that time. You have to see if all the technical staff was alive. You have to find if possible, a vintage print for reference. Because the color looks different today than it did then and you have to take care to respect that, otherwise you make a fake restoration. This is the most delicate aspect of film restoration because when you have to fix a scratch, a scratch is a scratch depending on how delicate the film is. But what color? Not only color but also black and white. A black and white from a French film of the 20s is different from a film from the same period in Germany, for instance. You have to respect the original look of the film you are restoring.

Kalpana (1948)

Ian Birnie: You’ve also done a restoration in black and white, Kalpana, if you can tell us something about it?

Davide Pozzi: Kalpana is interesting because it’s a 1948 film and the original negative is lost and the only element we had was a third generation print that Shivendra was able to find, a duplicate. In this case, there’s no choice since you don’t have as many prints as you would like to compare. So we started to digitize this print, which was fourth generation, and we used the copy as reference for color correction. The print was in bad shape. Not physically but from a photographic point of view. There were a lot of scratches, a lot of white spots. That means it was much more complicated to fix. The most important thing is that at the end of the restoration, we created a new negative for conservation. So today you can choose which output you want for next screening. But the most important thing is that a duplicate negative exists for preservation.

4. Traditional vs. Digital Models of Restoration

Ian Birnie: I feel that, briefly, given the limits of the time, we could speak about the future of film restoration. Is technology going to get cheaper, or better or more expensive? What does it look like, the landscape over the next ten years?

Kimball Thurston: From a technology standpoint, software is constantly improving. One of things we do is look at frames and find information surrounding it, here and there. We can remove scratches. We can go from the beginning of the shot to the end of the shot. This wasn’t possible when I started ten years ago. With modern computers we can look at the entire length of the shot and that adds to more information.

Ian Birnie: What about storage facilities? Are there new technologies to keep the original materials in the best possible shape?

Mike Pogorzelski: The short answer is no. Film is happiest when it’s cool and somewhat dry.  And air conditioning technology hasn’t changed much.

Ian Birnie: And what about deterioration, has there been any changes to help with that?

Mike Pogorzelski: We are understanding more and more about deterioration. More and more studies have been made. Though I have to say they’ve been made by non-archivists. Archivists don’t have the education and background to do the experiments. Experiments which benefit their work but archivists lack the expertise to understand what really happens on a molecular level when a piece of nitrate decomposes or when a piece of acetate decomposes. We benefit from this research in great ways. My last word on this would be to say that this is a moment of transition that we, the archival field, have not seen before, when it comes to motion pictures. And we see that in India, the same issues as elsewhere. Whether in Italy, the US, India, there’s always the questions of politics, the budget, and the hard decisions that have to be made. About which films to preserve first and how best we can do that but now we have to add all the technological changes that are upending the traditional models.

Ian Birnie: I know that the Academy Archive is involved in this Project to restore Satyajit Ray’s films. I was wondering if you can talk about that. Because you saw a problem with the work of this important artist and it’s a credit that the Academy came forward and took the initiative to preserve these films.

Mike Pogorzelski: Yeah, it was the first of its kind. In 1992, Satyajit Ray was awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar for his contributions to World Cinema. The producers of the show were preparing an assembly of clips of his work for the telecast but they were completely surprised at the condition of the prints and the small number of clips that could actually be used for the show. So after the show, instead of moving on, they said that it could be a serious issue. This film-maker who received a lifetime award for significant work and that work could be in danger of disappearing, so the Academy sent an archivist along with my predecessor, the director of the Film Archive, Michael Friend, to inspect the elements of his prints and prepared a report on the condition of his films. There were several films in danger of deteriorating. In 1995-1996 we started with the first group of eight titles, thanks in part to support from the film Foundation as well as support from the Merchant-Ivory Foundation and since that time, the project has been preserving one film every year. Ray made 28 features and we’ve preserved 19 of them and he made 8 short films of which we’ve preserved five. Our latest restoration is the 1977 film The Chess Players.

Since we started the Project, we followed the model for preservation that had been in place for thirty years, which David described. But over the course of the Ray project, all that has changed. If what you want is the restored image, that super clean, crisp, detailed and defect free image, the model we were using will not get that. So it brings the question if we should use the model.

Ian Birnie: Are you saying you can overclean-up an image?

Mike Pogorzelski:
No. The issue is if we are going to spend 100,000 dollars on photochemical restoration which, in the model we follow, is only to going to lead to disappointment when what you want is the clean image. So the question is do we wait until the costs for digital restoration comes down or you increase the amount of the budget so we can do it digitally. This is how technology is fundamentally changing everything.