From Negatives to Digital: Preserving the History of Film

From Negatives to Digital: Preserving the History of Film

By David Fox|2018-10-26T15:04:45+00:00March 24th, 2016|

Remember the analog days before social media and the digital world took over? When the internet had yet to be born, photos were kept in an album in the closet and movies were made with unstable film that could either catch fire at any moment or slowly deteriorate into a useless vinegary mess? Unsurprisingly, when you take these two possibilities, and then add that many studios simply threw out much of the older films that were cluttering their vaults, you end up with a precarious situation regarding the survival of our earliest movies. According to The Film Foundation, created by director Martin Scorsese in 1990, “half of all films made before 1950, and over 80 percent made before 1929 are lost forever.” It isn’t a totally bleak situation, however. Although they can’t bring back the destroyed and lost films, the combined efforts of Scorsese’s foundation, the National Film Preservation Foundation and others with similar goals have used modern technology to save more than 2,000 other films from suffering the same fate.

The key to reviving these relics is through locating the original negative, or the film that went through the camera when the movie was shot. The quality of this negative, along with time and budget constraints, determines whether the film is digitally scanned in either 2K (2048 × 1098 pixel resolution) or 4K (the preferred, cinema-standard 4096 × 2160 pixel resolution).

Many negatives of classic American films have been preserved in fairly good condition at the Library of Congress, making a restoration viable. Such was the case when Criterion Collection recently restored Alfred Hitchcock’s classic film Foreign Correspondent.

However, many other films aren’t as lucky. Criterion also worked on restoring Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy consisting of Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) and Apur Sansar (1959). The trilogy is an epic coming-of-age story considered by Empire online as one of the “Best Films of World Cinema.” Unfortunately, the negatives for this all-time great had been partially damaged in a 1993 fire in South London, totally destroying some reels and turning others into a warped and brittle mess. However, after a year of scouring the globe, Criterion was able to find a film restoration house skilled in the obscure art of rehydrating brittle and burnt negatives. At the end of the process, about 40 percent of the negatives from the trilogy’s first installment were usable, and more for the other two films. This may not be enough to produce a breathtaking 4K image, but it does ensure that future generations will be able to watch at least some of this once-endangered classic.

Right now, the biggest obstacle in film preservation is its prohibitive cost—even a 2K restoration runs for hundreds of thousands of dollars. But hopefully over time, as technology improves and these processes become more affordable, we will be able to save more and more of our cinematic heritage.

Did You Know?

On June 4, 2015, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced grants to save 57 films, covering a wide range of topics and genres. The films range from early color home movies of President Hoover and his family to Winston Churchill speaking in Cuba to Jessie Maple’s 1989 independent feature film Twice as Nice, which tells a tale of twin sisters playing basketball in the days before the WNBA.

About the Author: David Fox

David Fox was a 2015 Summer intern.
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