Friday, June 8, 2012

The Archivist's Corner

Film restoration work is always a blend of archaeology, artistry, and a little bit of luck.  A perfect example of the balance of all three can be seen in the recent restoration of THE SPANISH DANCER (1923) by the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands.

A lobby card from THE SPANISH DANCER
The film, directed by Herbert Brenon, is widely credited with launching the American movie career of Hollywood-newbie Pola Negri.  Negri was the first in a slew of European starts to be imported to Hollywood in the early and mid 1920s, and THE SPANISH DANCER was the first film which made audiences take notice to the young starlet.  Unfortunately, time was not kind to this film about a gypsy dancer and her love affair with a poor nobleman.  Over the years the film was edited, shortened, condensed, and reissued in versions which eliminated much of the original release's humor and charm, leaving behind a stuffy costume drama with a thin plot.  It was this false perception, and the availability of many of the film's original intertitles which was the impetus for the film's restoration.

Like many restoration projects, some of the more major concerns facing the archivists in charge of restoring THE SPANISH DANCER were missing footage, damage and deterioration of the existent footage, and a lack of reference for how the complete film should be constructed.  The latter problem was the first to be solved, when an original cutting continuity was located at the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.  A cutting continuity, in addition to detailing the order in which shots and titles are to be cut together also provides the footage for each shot in the film, making continuities an archivist's best friend.

With the continuity located, the next step was to locate the film material in the best condition.  The majority of the restored film's footage came from four sources: a nitrate 35mm print from the EYE Institute, a nitrate 35mm print from the Belgian Film Archive in Brussels, a 16mm print from Lobster Films in Paris, and a 16mm Print from Photoplay Productions.

With the necessary material assembled to constitute a true restoration of the print, the dirty work of repairing, piecing together, and restoring the images commenced.  In order to properly restore the film's images and remove damage such as what's shown in the image below, all film elements were first scanned at 2K resolution to be worked on as a digital intermediate (DI).
Nitrate film deterioration in THE SPANISH DANCER
In order to repair the damage and deterioration in the film elements, the archivists used DIAMANT's film restoration software.  After the digital files were created from the 2K scan, the folks at EYE and Haghefilm, a specialized restoration laboratory in the Netherlands, set to work removing damage, deterioration, dirt, and excessive instability from the film.  Below are some before and after examples of their results.

This image shows severe nitrate decomposition at the left and right edges of the frame.
Before digital restoration...
...and after.

Restoration software can borrow information from similar images to restore a frame where information has been lost due to a poor splice, such as in this frame.  Notice the top of the man's head.
 Another example of digital restoration...
Once the painstaking process of removing the damage was complete, the restoration work began on reintroducing the film's original tinted color back into the restored film.  The cutting continuity also provided tinting instructions, and by using the tinted Dutch nitrate print for a color reference,  new Desmet prints were created.  Thanks of the nature of the Desmet printing process, a black and white negative, which won't fade the way a color negative will, was created for preservation purposes.
A picture showing an original, tinted nitrate print.
As Rob Byrne, one of the archivists who worked on the project, is quick to point out, the restoration software was only used to repair what has been done to the film since it's release.  Care was taken not to remove instability that was present in the original camera or film printers, eliminate frame lines which would have been visible in 1923, etc.  In this way, the archivists in charge of this project have not only restored a beautiful work of cinematic art, but also preserved the experience of seeing a silent film in 1923.

To see THE SPANISH DANCER (1923) in all its restored glory, come out to the 17th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, where the film will be screened on Saturday, July 14th at noon.  See you there!

Special thanks to Rob Byrne, president of the San Francisco Silent Festival, for providing me with the images and background to this fascinating project, and for helping to bring this wonderful film back to life.

1 comment:

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