The Cinematic G.A.T.E.: Access & the Moving Image

It’s Elemental, dear Watson!: Film Restoration in the Photochemical Realm

This piece was written for MIAS 220: Archeology of the Media, taught by Professor Michael Friend for the Moving Image Archive Studies Program at UCLA during the Winter of 2013.

“First rule of restoration: follow the intention of the artist. Never try to improve on him.”

–J.M. Coetzee

Film is an area of much variety and subjectivity. Aside from the filmmakers and product “creators” there are other camps that are less widely recognized: the caretakers of information. These groups exist on a wide variance of levels, from the academic to the practical, many straddling all dimensions. The primary goal of some is to argue for film’s cultural value and entertainment purposes while the target of others is its social value and political relevance. Many disregard theoretical or critical rhetoric altogether in order to concentrate on films’ technical purpose and examine the machinations of the moving image and its equipment. Branching off from this latter colony is another arm of the “film informationists”: the population that cares for the film works themselves, making sure that this highly debated medium continues to exist throughout time. As the field of moving images as continued to grow and change, the amount of information on every level has also shot upwards, meaning that the Caretaker community has had their hands full every step of the way.

The goal of this study is to explore the restoration methods of photochemical film materials. Within these pages we will look at preservation (both passive and active), authorial intent, and how the physical construction of filmic elements can affect the end result of a given project. Through the assistance of preservationists Ross Lipman at UCLA Film and Television Archives and Joe Lindner at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and their examples and expert knowledge, we will be able to glean exactly how it is that we are able to make what is filmically old new again via chemical processes.

In the discussion of “film,” understanding its original physical construction is essential in order to understand its reconstruction. Original film used for shooting motion pictures is made of very separate and distinct layers. It begins with a base which we can look at as the “plate” for what holds the image. The image itself is carried within the emulsion, the layer bound to the base, made up of light-sensitive silver halide crystals contained within gelatin.

The basic structure of film, depending on the base make-up. It may not always be plastic- while now it is a plastic, it was previously organic (acetate or nitrate) causing its fair share of difficulties in the industry).

The basic structure of film, depending on the base make-up. It may not always be plastic- while now it is a plastic, it was previously an organic base (acetate or nitrate) causing its fair share of difficulties in the industry.

Tragically, what has been found as film history has progressed is what we had considered to be safe dishes for our cinematic meals had more in common with radioactive Fiesta ware: some of these bases, while able to carry information with efficiency, were unstable and risky due to their chemical make-up. While the three primary bases for film are nitrate, acetate (or safety film) and polyester, it is the first two (nitrate and acetate) that have proven to be historically problematic. Due to their organic compounds, they were prone to deterioration or, worse, self-destruction. Nitrate film’s basal make-up caused it to be a slow burning chemical causing many a fire while acetate’s chemistry led to what is know commonly known as “vinegar syndrome.” In either case, as Leo Enticknap notes, “eventually, both nitrate and acetate film will decompose to the point at which the images and sounds on them can no longer be recovered.” (Enticknap 2005) While many have expressed their faith in polyester due to its inorganic structure of plastics and not the cellulose ester polymerizations of nitrate and acetate, no one knows exactly how long polyester will be the answer (or if).

Due to the chemical volatility of film and its tendency to deteriorate, it is no surprise that many of our works are in trouble and in need of assistance. Film is an inherently fragile material that is sensitive not only to heat, humidity and rapid temperature changes but also to use. While this may seem antithetical to its very concept, the very access of the material leads it to breakdown. The mechanical damage of a print can amount to scratches in the emulsion or base, torn perforations, or even tears in the actual film due to general mishandling or splices coming apart. To specify, however, these “wear and tear” damages primarily apply to the prints used for exhibition and not necessarily to negatives or a fine grain print (the non-projected film prints). One last crucial note: as a film is printed, in its journey from original camera negative through its various iterations (answer prints, dupe negatives, etc.) to the release print, there is an image loss in each generation. As the print gets further from the what was originally struck, so does its image quality. While we may look to the photochemical as a form of origination, it is of the essence to note what generation a print is due to that very issue.

But photochemical work and 35mm film has lasted for a long time and continues to do so. It continues to be a gorgeous and delightful way to view our cultural heritage. How is it that we are able to keep this going, knowing what we know now? We depend on the hard work of skilled professionals who spend immense amounts of time and energy making sure that the future of the cinema doesn’t disappear. When I spoke with Joe Lindner at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, we discussed the methods and work that goes into a photochemical film restoration and some of the challenges involved.

Most of the titles that we spoke of seemed to have the same basic roadmap although many had differing results. For any project, however, the first step was the same: a title is marked for restoration. Lindner differentiated significantly between concepts of preservation and restoration, going even further as to delineate kinds of preservation as well. Once a title is marked for restoration. He said that most of the work done at the Academy is indeed preservation work but that when you do a restoration, it is also preservation. However, as Lindner is careful to point out, not every preservation is a restoration. As one of their primary targets, Linder defines preservation and its relation to the restoration process:

Our goal is always preservation. The idea of “passive preservation”? Just storing things. I don’t consider that preservation. Conservation is [a better term for that]. Preservation is an active process of  duplication and distribution. You do preservation to protect the content…you want to make a duplicate master but at the same time you have to make it available. To duplicate it and lock it in a vault without access copies is almost no different than it being lost altogether.  You have to make access copies, especially in the photochemical world so that when people are seeing it they’re not going back to the original over and over again, putting it at further risk…In the process of this (and maybe it’s never so clean), you have to decide- am I just duplicating this so that it’s protected (and it depends on the condition of the material you’re starting with) [or am I restoring it]. You have to deal with restoration in my terms if what you’re dealing with is damaged or no longer represents the way it looked originally. Did someone go through and make a shorter version and cut out pieces? Did they redo the soundtrack because someone objected to the way the narration was in the documentary? Is the color faded? Is there nitrate decomposition? Was there a color section that was seen for most of the release but was later left out? Is there a widescreen process or a 3D process or some other odd process that’s been lost? Tinting or toning in nitrate? (Lindner 2013)

As we continued our conversation, he emphasized the importance of research, especially when gathering the elements for a restoration. He mentioning examples of situations where filmic elements have been found sitting in a vault simply because of poor or inaccurate documentation and other times when they turned up after the restorations have been completed. The variety of formats that can be used in a photochemical restoration are many (you can use a 16mm with a 35mm print) but it is always better to try to find elements that match.

Lindner brought up a fascinating example for which the location of materials brought about a re-examination of condition and the creation of new materials even though that had not been the original plan. During an Alice Guy-Blaché retrospective the Academy got a request for one of her films. They had a tinted nitrate print located at UCLA, from the original 1914 release. The Library of Congress also had the film, but as a 35mm safety negative made in the 1970s. Joe was concerned that the LOC’s negative might have more content than their print so he had a look at it, and determined that it was the source for their print. However, as Lindner states, “You would not only not believe it, you would swear it’s impossible if you saw them side by side. You would think: there’s no way you could intentionally make this negative look so bad that it no longer looks like that nitrate. I mean, the nitrate was rough, but no more than a print that’s 100 years old would be.” (Lindner 2013) Apparently, the negative was badly scratched, blown out and likely printed dry. Not only was this element printed poorly, but Lindner estimated that it had probably been mishandled as well, adding insult to injury. After establishing that the nitrate print that the Academy had was superior, what they ended up doing at this was a preservation wetgate copy.

The idea of wetgate printing as a restoration process in and of itself came into the picture as we discussed its place in photochemical restoration. As Lindner was quick to point out, this process is a strong restorative tool. According to the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the definition of wetgate printing is a “method of film printing, usually optical, in which the negative is temporarily coated with a liquid of suitable refractive index at the time of exposure to cover physical scratches and abrasions on the base and emulsion surfaces.” (NFSA 2008) While wetgate printing certainly cannot fix everything (it cannot assist in the deepest of emulsion damage) it is certainly an option and before digital tools became available, it was much appreciated.

Lindner spoke of a variety of other restorations, mentioning acetate’s ability to shrink and form a “hockey puck”-like state if it is not properly stored or printed correctly and other issues surrounding the Satyajit Ray films that he restored, such as locating correctly subtitled prints or having to solve issues of reinserting scenes into films that were always intended to be there but had been removed by other countries due to cultural “clashing.” While there is certainly a struggle within the photochemical domain to bring these films back to what Lindner sees as the filmmaker’s original intent with no alterations, the work that is being done seems to strongly show both preservation and restoration. Lindner’s own concepts of accessibility and his goals of preserve-and-restore, may add an extra layer of difficulty to each project he works on, but by making these works accessible again through their usability, they allowing the audience to enjoy these rare cinematic elements, a wonder in and of itself.

Discussing restoration with Ross Lipman of UCLA’s Film and Television Archive was quite exciting and gave the process even more depth. The work that he has done on avant-garde and independent cinema such as the Kenneth Anger collection and the John Cassavetes works is widely recognized to be extraordinary and his perspective on film work is delightful. One of the areas I had only briefly covered with Joe was that of color within the photochemical landscape so I was hoping to learn more about this with Ross. I did get a very good look at the way in which color might be handled in photochemical film work when we discussed his restoration of Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence.

Of all the Cassavetes films that Lipman worked with, Woman was one of the easier titles, he said. It wasn’t a heavily damaged work and wasn’t in deep need of restoration. But one of the things that was necessary was some color work. He began with the 35mm color negative, which seemed to be facing some color fading. So they printed from the color internegative (the print that has been made from the color-timed interpositive which came from the original OCN) and made a full answer print from the original negative. Lipman did notes that the original negative is “super sharp and looks stunning although in the color negatives the dye fading is on the yellow axis so you tend to get yellow highlights. Color had a lot to do with the restoration of [this] one.” (Lipman 2013) Because of the dye fading in the film, the color fluctuations were obvious. Although there was likely less color fading in this film than others, due to the face that it was made in 1974. As James M. Reilly notes, by that time, people had begin to notice the “dye loss” issue, developing testing solutions such as the Arrhenius method to cope with the problem and seek out solutions. (Reilly 1998) On the other hand, how a film ages, and how color can change from shot to shot simply due to chemical changes in its make-up made a difference in the restoration of A Woman Under the Influence (1974).

Ross continued, “We made black-and-white color separations and then we did a recombined color internegative and then we also did full answer prints off the color internegative. That was down a generation but there was something about that that tended to smooth things out, so that although we still had a little bit of color fading (we hadn’t done anything to digitally address that), it seemed a little bit more stable throughout. And although we’d suffered slightly in sharpness, the color balance was a little bit better…” (Lipman 2013) While it may seem that there was an exchange happening in the process of sharpness for color, this situation harkened back to something that Joe Lindner had said about proper printing processes. Sometimes all it takes is the correct and careful method of doing something to make a film return to its proper state. It takes methodical diligence and returning to the piece in its various forms, but with something like Woman Under The Influence, there are a variety of things to be looked at when restoring it, as I learned with Ross.

Lipman told me that different restorations associated with different film genres have different needs. We discussed blowing 16mm films up to 35mm and whether that would be changing authorial intent if that was not the way the film was originally seen and how that affects the visual quality of the film. On certain elements (the Kenneth Anger films that Lipman had restored) it works beautifully, perhaps based upon the colorful and explosive nature of many of them. On others, Lipman stated, it simply doesn’t work so well. (Lipman 2013) But for many people (and many film professionals) it’s a very subjective thing. For color and restoration issues in the Cassavetes films, there is a certain level of “how rough did he mean for it to be” and “how rough do we leave it” in the restoration realm. I believe that would be why the Influence example works so beautifully. That is one of Cassavetes’ few color films and his style is quite rough so trying to salvage color substance over sharpness is not a poor choice. So authorial intent, restoration extent and how far does one go?

The interesting thing about the photochemical work on Influence was that, much like the unintentional dye fade, the dye “smooth” was just as unintentional. It happened as a result of taking the pieces apart and putting them back together; like the chemical puzzle that they are. Is this what photochemistry is? Perhaps. And perhaps there is a little bit of magic still left in that world that we can’t name. Film itself is a medium that produces an emotive reaction between viewers and content out of a process that is technically just a series of light and shadow. So I will vote for at least a modicum of magic. While Lindner and Lipman have different styles of preservation and restoration, their approach is similar. It is based in high levels of research and careful analytics that help in translating pieces of fragile chemically treated materials into entertaining works for human consumption. There is a science and a technology to it. Taking a section from this reel to drop into that reel because this print was less damaged, then printing a new reel, repairing damages and not putting anything new into a film that was not there to begin with. Replacing things that may have been taken out so that the piece can retain its original flavor.

Ironically, the machines that create the light destroy the materials. In the digital world we’re heading into, current film materials are treated differently by the machines that they are projected by. This does not affect Lindner and Lipman’s work at the moment however, as the next stage of it (ideally) will be to scan the restorations and create digital preservation copies of these works (if it has not already been done). There is a great deal of photochemical preservation and restoration work to be done and the tools that these men possess are equally viable in any preservation realm if not moreso. The kinds of analysis and dedicated visual doggedness to look at over 30 identical elements (as Ross had to for a silent film called Tillie’s Punctured Romance) or to look at two seemingly identical elements as Joe did in the Alice Guy-Blaché situation and tell them apart is necessary. The world of photochemistry in production may be slowly waning, but the skills and tools developed therein are crucial for the development of the future of our field.

Works Cited

Enticknap, Leo. Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital. London: Wallflower Press, 2005.

Lindner, Joe, interview by Ariel Schudson. Photochemical Restoration Interview with Joe Lindner (February 12, 2013).

Lipman, Ross, interview by Ariel Schudson. Photochemical Restoration Interview with Ross Lipman (February 15, 2013).

NFSA. National Film & Sound Archive, Australia. 2008. (accessed February 18, 2013).

Reilly, James M. Storage Guide for Color Photographic Materials. Image Permanence Institute, Rochester: Image Permanence Institute, 1998.


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