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To the rescue of old film
By Christian Toto
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
August 7, 2003
Patrick Loughney considers his offices in the Library of Congress’
Moving Image Section as a triage center for aging films. Mr. Loughney,
head of the Moving Image Section’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and
Recorded Sound Division, says it’s an archivist’s job to determine which
old films require immediate care and which ones can wait a few years
before getting a face-lift.
Film — be it the theatrical motion picture variety or homegrown reels
stored in the family attic — is made of a plastic base topped by a thin
layer of emulsion with silver particles and color dyes, or, in the case
of black-and-white images, simply silver particles.
Any of these elements can break down, forcing archivists to improve
storage or attend to them should degradation occur. The enemy is “father
time,” or, more specifically, excess or fluctuating humidity levels,
moisture or high temperatures.
Mr. Loughney estimates that “over half of films made in America are lost
or survive in badly degraded form.”
Films made before the 1950s are much more of a concern, and not simply
because of their antiquated nature. Film in those days was made of
nitrate cellulose, a highly flammable substance with sulfuric acid as
one of its building blocks. The material also was susceptible to
shrinkage and brittleness.
In the early 1950s, Kodak introduced a “safety film” made of cellulose
acetate plastic that didn’t have the flammable properties of the old
film. The new film did, however, feature unstable color dyes that could
fade over time, as well as shrinkage.
The cyan, or blue, and yellow dyes used in the color process reacted to
heat and humidity, he says, and would leave behind a red tint after
years of damage.
Ken Wlaschin, vice chairman of the National Center for Film and Video
Preservation with the American Film Institute’s Hollywood office, says
the newer film also suffers from “vinegar syndrome,” which some say
makes it not so much better than the pre-1950s films.
The syndrome, named after the sharp smell the film emits, involves a
slow chemical deterioration that makes the film buckle and shrink over
time when exposed to unfriendly storage atmospheres.
The Image Permanence Institute in Rochester, N.Y., part of the Rochester
Institute of Technology, created and sells A-D Strips, dye-coated paper
that detects the level of deterioration in acetate photographic film
collections. The strips can tell how extensive the damage is to a
particular piece of film and whether it should be duplicated.
Film manufacturers in recent years have improved their products so color
fading is much less of a problem.
The best way to avoid deterioration is to store older films properly.
Generally, films are kept in a cold storage area with steady humidity.
An ideal temperature is 45 degrees Fahrenheit, with a 35 percent
humidity level, Mr. Loughney says.
Dwight Swanson, archivist with Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport,
Maine, says while major film studios are storing films properly, many
homeowners still are not.
“Moisture really is a thing that does the most damage,” Mr.
Swanson says, particularly if the films sit in rusty metal cans.
The best way to store film is in archival-quality metal or plastic
cases. As long as the housing material is chemically inert, the film
should be fine, he says. Old 8 millimeter films came back from the labs
in metal cans that weren’t meant to be archival-quality, he says.
Another source of potential damage for home movies is a poorly
maintained projector, which can “do huge damage to the sprocket holes
... and can eat up the film,” Mr. Swanson says.
Key allies in the preservation movement are the film studios themselves.
Grover Crisp, vice president of asset management and film restoration
for Sony Pictures Entertainment, says most studios have had preservation
programs in place for at least a decade.
One motivating factor is economics. Studios can restore and rerelease
old films for new audiences as part of theatrical releases and DVD
“The entire business of DVD has impacted what I do in a very positive
way,” Mr. Crisp says.
Preservation typically means making a film-to-film copy, ensuring that a
film has a solid backup should anything happen to the original.
Restoration is more complex and more expensive.
The restored version of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic “Mr. Smith Goes to
Washington” took source material from five copies of the film. The
project, which took more than three years, cost $100,000.
Mr. Crisp says the film restoration process begins with a thorough
examination of the source materials available. Those materials could be
either the master negative from which film prints were made or those
prints themselves. If the latter are in good condition, they can provide
enough detail to create a new, crisp print.
“If we were fortunate that other materials were made from the [film´s]
negative prior to the damage, that’s where we can pull clean material,”
he says. “If we don’t have that ... then we may consider newer digital
The film’s audio track is always restored through some version of
digital processing, Mr. Crisp says, with computers removing anomalies,
pops and crackling sounds.
His company takes that digital approach when restoring the film’s
visuals, he says. “It’s not always achievable. You’re always captive of
the material you have and the quality of that material.”
Most of the software used to blur away wrinkles, cracks and other film
imperfections is built upon software used to create today’s special
effects, Mr. Crisp says. Filmmakers can make an actor fly using wires,
then erase the wires later using that software. Film defects are
eliminated the same way, he says.
“If you have one frame that has damage to it, you merge the information
from the clean frame before or after it, in essence paint over it,” Mr.
Crisp says. “That one-frame difference is unnoticeable.”
Among the hardest conditions to fix are the color abnormalities caused
by degraded dyes, says Mr. Crisp, who describes the work of recouping
fading colors as “hit or miss.” Just two laboratories in the country
handle such requests, he says.
Once all the bumps and bruises are straightened out, the restoration
team records the new material onto a new negative and print for future
Mr. Loughney’s team helps catalog the many films shipped to their
offices. Should a film need work, it is sent to the Library of Congress
Motion Picture Conservation Center on Wright Patterson Air Force Base in
Mr. Wlaschin, along with other archival experts, says films stored in
digital formats aren’t considered truly “preserved.”
“We preserve film on film,” Mr. Wlaschin says. “We don’t know how long
digital will last.”
Plus, who knows if today’s DVD format, for example, will even exist in
“You have to have the machinery on which it’s made, in a sense, to use
it again,” he says.
The fruit of archivists’ labors can be seen in retrospectives such as
this month’s showcase devoted to early Warner Bros. films. The Library
of Congress and the National Gallery of Art will present films from the
early 1930s, the bulk of which reflect preservation efforts made through
the Library of Congress.
The free screenings will be held over the next four weekends in the
National Gallery’s East Building auditorium on Constitution Avenue and
Fourth Street NW. For more information, call 202/737-4215.
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