By Gordon Meyer
In some ways, what you’re about to read a sequel to my most recent blog entry. Shortly after posting it, I read an article from TheAtlantic.com that was posted on November 22. Keep in mind that I literally just posted a piece in which I discussed the esthetic closeness of film and digital and why, theatrically at least, film is probably on its last legs. But I forgot all about the repertory circuit where film buffs can enjoy older movies the way they were meant to be seen, on a big screen in an actual theatre with a live audience.
The problem is, it’s getting harder and harder to find 35mm prints of these older films, even if a benefactor were willing to pony up the thousands of dollars it would cost to strike a new one. We all know about Kodak’s bankruptcy and Fuji’s decision to stop making film altogether. According to the Atlantic article, when Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese’s longstanding editor, approached Sony’s Grover Crisp about getting a 35mm print of Scorsese’s 1993 movie THE AGE OF INNOCENCE, she was told that, not only did Sony no longer have a 35mm print, they couldn’t strike a new one because Technicolor in Los Angeles no longer makes film prints. It’s shocking until you think about it, but fewer and fewer labs still process film, especially on the scale needed for theatrical releases.
This would be OK if it weren’t for the fact that there are still countless great movies that simply aren’t available in the DCP format. Many of these movies have yet to even be released on the high definition Blu-ray format, which looks surprisingly good when projected on a theatre sized screen, but it’s still a quarter of the resolution of standard 2K digital cinema and certainly not up to the gold standard of a pristine 35mm film print. So for many classic titles, repertory houses are forced to run either really beat up film prints on their last legs or relatively low resolution DVD copies, assuming there even is a DVD version available.
As for those higher profile older films that are getting digital restorations, Schoonmaker is quoted in the Atlantic article as being “appalled” by some of the digital "restorations" she's screened. "I saw a digitized version of a film that David Lean made during World War II, and it looked just like a TV commercial that was shot yesterday," she said. "It was wrong, the balance was completely off. Originally it had a slightly muted look, and now here were all these insanely bright blues."
The challenge for contemporary preservationists is in accurately recreating the original look of the film because, according to Schoonmaker, the current crop of colorists "have no idea what these movies should look like anymore." The best way to digitally restore these films is to have the original DP or director available to tell you how each frame was supposed to look. As we get further and further into the 21st Century, those filmmakers are literally a dying breed. The next best solution is to find a properly preserved archival print as a reference. But if it’s a film shot in the early Eastmancolor format, the dyes are often so badly faded that restoration artists can only guess what the colors were supposed to look like.
In the photochemical process, specialist called timers, who were functionally similar to today’s colorists. Timers would work with the filmmakers to insure they got the desired look by compensating for variations in things like batches of film stock, the temperatures of the chemicals used to process the film and even the water used to rinse the negatives after processing. But without proper guidance digital colorists can inadvertently change the look and feel of a movie in dramatic ways. Schoonmaker observed, "I saw a digitized version of a film that David Lean made during World War II, and it looked just like a TV commercial that was shot yesterday. It was wrong. The balance was completely off. Originally it had a slightly muted look, and now here were all these insanely bright blues."
It gets worse because as an archival format, digital leaves a lot to be desired. Digital formats frequently change. Hard drives and other digital storage media can crash or become corrupted. As old school as it sounds, it turns out that after over 100 years, the best way to preserve movies is still on motion picture film using color separation negatives. But even then comes the challenge of educating future generations of film restoration specialists on what the original vision of the filmmakers was supposed to be. Nobody’s figured that one out yet, but it’s coming to be sure. It has to if we want to preserve our cinematic heritage.