Friday, June 17, 2011

Film Preservation Fridays #4: Title and Intertitle Re-creation


Several weeks back, my post on the restoration of William Desmond Taylor’s Huckleberry Finn discussed some of the issues involved with title and intertitle re-creation.  Because this work is an essential component of silent film preservation practice, it is important that archivists utilize an aesthetic, technical and historic framework to produce results that are both gratifying and consistent with some sort of overall governing logic.  This post will use two examples – one completed and one in process – to illustrate some of the variables that must be considered.

First, 2010 Silent Film Preservation Fellow Ken Fox will provide readers with a brief look at his work on the recently unearthed Douglas Fairbanks comedy Mr. Fix-It.  Although Ken is sharing a taste of what he has been up to over the past year, he will be presenting in much greater depth at the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Amazing Tales from the Archives program on Friday, July 15 at 11:00 am.  I encourage everybody to attend both that event and the restoration premiere of the Mr. Fix-It on Saturday, July 16 at 6:30 pm.

The second project that will be discussed is title and intertitle re-creation for Tod Browning’s Drifting, a film made in 1923 for Universal Pictures Corporation. Zuzana Zabkova, a student at the L. Selznick School of Film Preservation has been working in this capacity under the supervision of George Eastman House Preservation Officer Anthony L’Abbate. 

Because of his considerable experience in these matters, Anthony has also been providing guidance to Selznick School student Clara Sánchez-Dehesa around her effort to write a general style guideline for title and intertitle creation.  While I am unable to do this project justice in today’s blog entry, I would describe it as an attempt to create institutional best practices by standardizing terminology, advocating procedure and furnishing illustrations to accompany each step of the re-creation process. Clara’s research surveyed a number of historic and contemporary sources to arrive at an understanding of specific details like the difference between a dialogue intertitle and an exposition intertitle, or why, for instance, the convention of white letters on a black background is the rule. By creating a visual “title library” to serve as a reference source, she furnishes details of aesthetic patterns around things like margins, typefaces and studio copyright logo to provide  GEH and the Selznick School with the sort of framework that I allude to in the opening paragraph. 

Part One:  Mr. Fix- It:


Douglas Fairbanks and Friends

As the 2010 Silent Film Preservation Fellow, Ken Fox has spent the past year recreating titles for George Eastman House (GEH) restoration of Mr. Fix-It. His summary of the project reads below:  

For years the only known extant print of this delightful romantic comedy belonged to Roberto Pallme, a Neapolitan film lover who over the years amassed an important collection of 35mm nitrate and 9.5mm prints. In 1998, 14 years after Signor Pallme's death, the entire collection was donated to George Eastman House where it has since provided invaluable material for a number of recent preservations. Mr. Fix-It was originally transferred from the original 35mm nitrate stock to color safety film in 2001, but an important step was still necessary before the film could be considered "restored." Like many films in the Pallme Collection, this particular print of Mr. Fix-It was designed for distribution in Italy; not surprisingly, all the intertitles were in Italian. Complicating matters was the absence of any surviving script that might have indicated what the actual original English dialogue and text might have been. All Eastman House had to work with were the Italian translations that had been edited into the Pallme print. With a careful ear to the timbre of the era, Eastman House senior curator Paolo Cherchi Usai translated each title back into English, thus recreating the missing script. However, it would not be until nearly 10 years later that the funding -- always the biggest challenge when it comes to film preservation -- necessary to transform that translation into nearly 165 recreated intertitles and strike a new negative and print would become available. Thanks to generous contributions from William and Nancy Goessel and the Goessel Family Foundation, the plan for a restored English-language Mr. Fix-It
finally became a reality.”


Part Two: Drifting

Czech intertitle
Corresponding re-created intertitle

The George Eastman House recently began a restoration of Tod Browning’s Drifting, a 1923 crime drama starring Wallace Beery, Anna May Wong and Priscilla Dean.  The roots of this project go back to 1991, when GEH received a tinted, nitrate Czech language print of Drifting in an exchange with Národní Filmový Archiv (the Czech National Film Archive).  Although the restoration is still in its infancy, Zuzana Zabkova has re-created titles and intertitles for the film over the past several months.  Her first step was to make a comprehensive inspection of the nitrate print. The poor physical condition of Drifting prevented its being viewed on any sort of sprocket driven equipment such as a flatbed or projector, so she wound through each of the seven reels of film on a manual rewind bench.  She noted every scene change, photographed each Czech language title and intertitle, and recorded the entire tinting scheme of the film.  She then created a text and image based document collating this information shot by shot.


Hoping to find a script that would have provided confirmation of the film’s order and original language, Zuzana contacted Universal Pictures and several other repositories without success.  As a Czech speaker, Zuzana brought a certain degree of fluency to the translation of the text. Nevertheless, several additional language filters had to be balanced against one another: contemporary 1920s diction, the underworld slang of the characters, and a tendency towards a lyrical expression of the Chinese settings and characters.


Original Advertisement

Zuzana conducted extensive research into other Universal films of the genre and time period, looking at examples of the titles employed in those productions.  She also consulted various newspapers and trades and located advertisements for screenings of the film. These provided a sense of the typefaces and layouts which characterized the initial presentation of Drifting to potential audiences.  For instance, nearly every advertisement seemed to feature a diagonal display of the film’s title, so this feature was incorporated into the re-created main title card. Such advertisements would occassionally supply examples of the original intertitle text as well, as the example at the top of today's post illustrates.

The software used for title and intertitle re-creation at GEH is Adobe Photoshop.  Ultimately, Zuzana chose the same typeface as Browning used in his 1920 film Outside the Law.  One might wonder why she did not stick with the same typeface employed by the Czech language version.  The simple answer is that it does not aesthetically correspond to the original domestic release of the film, but rather, it was a unique creation for the Czech print. Other nuances of presentation factored into graphic design. For instance, there are slight differences between the style employed by a dialogue card versus the style used in an exposition card. These subtleties are reflected in the completed title cards. 

It is important that the desired screen time for each title and intertitle be calculated, so that the number of total frames can be determined before lab work begins. Ultimately, Zuzana created nearly 150 titles for Drifting, and when the rest of the film is restored, these titles will be sent to the preservation laboratory via File Transfer Protocol. The digital files will be transferred to film and integrated into a new, duplicate negative. Although the Eastman House strives to achieve a certain degree of historical authenticity, the status of the titles as re-creation is indicated by a logo noting the date and identity of the institution responsible for the work. 
  
Anna Mae Wong in tinted Drifting scene


I would like to thank Ken Fox, Anthony L’Abbate, Zuzana Zabkova and Clara Sánchez-Dehesa for their assistance this week. And thank you readers. 


Please tune in next week for an interview with the Dryden Theatre’s Chief Projectionist Kyle Westphal who will discuss archival projection and other subjects. 


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