The Reel Thing XXV

I was invited to attend this past weekend’s 25th edition of “The Reel Thing,” the annual technical symposium for the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). The event offered an impressive line-up of some of the top film restorationists and preservationists working today, who presented their work and discussed problems and solutions they encountered. It provided a potent mix of film history, technology, and genuine concern for the past and future of the art form that was positively infectious.

One of the best aspects of the symposium was its cinematic egalitarianism, with attendees offering equally rapt attention to the finer details of classic studio films, foreign productions, independent films, television broadcasts, animation, live action, and more. The challenges of the craft were more unifying than any commercial or non-commercial definition; a 4K projection of The Sound of Music (1965) seemed as vital as a PowerPoint presentation of audio clips from Jean-Pierre Gorin’s essay film, Poto and Cabengo (1979).

Sony’s Grover Crisp, who organized the event with his colleague Michael Friend, presented the studio’s second 4K restoration, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and noted that previous restorations included “defects” caused by the production’s use of poorly-made opticals; a horizontal jitter in the original camera negative and subtle ghosting have now been corrected, and for the first time, the film’s original 2.55:1 aspect ratio has been resumed. (Crisp made everyone in the room cringe when he described how a previous editor had literally etched a scratch on each frame of the negative denoting what he or she felt was the “proper” 2.35:1 framing.)

Jack Theakston offered an encyclopedic, if at times bewildering, overview of the scores of stereo, widescreen, and 3-D formats developed between the 1910s and the 1950s. Among his assertions that took me by surprise: Edwin S. Porter worked with 3-D (and red/green anaglyph glasses) as early as 1915; theatrical screens until the 1940s only varied between 14 and 20 feet in width (with the latter reserved for the largest 3,500-seat auditoriums); intended aspect ratios often suffered during times of transition, such as in 1953, when films shot in Academy ratio, such as Shane, It Came from Outer Space, and 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, were released in widescreen.

Robert Heiber and Ralph Sargent talked about the challenges of digitally scanning optical soundtracks; they addressed variable-density formats such as Fox’s Movietone (used for films such as Murnau’s 1927 Sunrise) and explained why its AEO Light technology and “toe recordings” resulted in higher noise than Western Electric’s ERPI system and later variable-area formats.

Cinematographer John Bailey livened up the proceedings when he challenged the restoration of Bus Stop (1956), claiming it didn’t look like he remembered seeing it in the theater; like many digital restorations (and contemporary films in general), he felt the new print had poor gamma, showing too much mid-range detail and exaggerated contrast. Crisp conceded that this was a common critique of digital restorations, and acknowledged that it is impossible to make a film look exactly as it did in, say, 1956. Old prints were made on now obsolete film stocks using dye transfer processes that are simply no longer practiced. Modern restorations are more about getting things as close to original as possible.

Disney’s presenters proved to be the most polished–at times uncomfortably so for a technical symposium–as they showcased their first-ever digital restoration of Tron (1982), as well as their efforts to “fix” facial distortions in the close-ups of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954). The latter is a work in progress; they plan to remove the visible wires of the famed squid sequence as well, once again blurring the line between restoration and makeover that haunts every digital decision.

One of the most impressive presentations was John Polito’s demonstration of the sound work he performed on Poto and Cabengo, Gorin’s first solo feature and an utterly fascinating exploration of the linguistic mystery posed by two young San Diego twins who appeared to have invented their own language. (The restoration has been touring, and plans are in place to release it as a Criterion DVD.) When standard de-essing software failed to correct sound distortions on the original master, Polito separated the sibilance and the vowels into separate tracks, processed them individually, and recombined them. Gorin (who was in attendance) emphasizes the dialogue by an ingenious use of intertitles and subtitles, inviting the viewer to listen closely and pick out the pidgin words, so optimal clarity was crucial.

Ken Weissman offered an overview of the Library of Congress’ state-of-the-art Packard Campus in Culpeper, Virginia, which opened in 2007 and houses the national collection of audiovisual material (consolidated from seven previous locations). The center aims to provide wide access to its holdings, and it was exciting to hear Weissman describe a plan for a “National Jukebox” that will make tens of thousands of pre-1925 Sony (Victor and Columbia) sound recordings available for online listening, complete with personal playlists, guest curators and scholars, and social media applications.

As someone who saw the 2010 reconstruction of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) projected earlier this year, I can attest to the phenomenal power of its nearly completed length (with only about five minutes still missing). Thomas Bakels, the technical director for the film’s reconstruction in 2001 and 2010, was on hand to talk about the process. By now, everyone knows about the 325 shots (about 25-minutes of footage) that came courtesy of a 16mm print found in Buenos Aires in 2008, but the print was cropped and severely damaged, displayed variable focus, intense scratches and exposed oil splotches. Using special software, Bakels and his crew managed to make the 16mm footage watchable. I was surprised to learn that a handful of 2010 shots have been sourced from an archive in New Zealand, and newly inserted shots featuring lettering or signage were hand-painted in German to replace text on the Spanish print.

The reconstruction of Metropolis has been highly venerated around the world, but Bakels was equally enthusiastic about his work on Munich 1945, a documentary shot in the ruins of his hometown shortly after WWII. Software corrected a severe jitter problem with the film, which has subsequently been released on DVD by Edition Filmmuseum.

UCLA’s Ross Lipman, the filmmaker who has restored key independent works by John Cassavetes, Charles Burnett, Shirley Clarke, and others, presented his latest project, the searingly cinema-verité Wanda (1970). The only film directed by actress Barbara Loden, who tragically died of cancer in 1980 at the age of 48, it follows the small town exploits of a divorced female drifter who gets involved with an abusive crook. Loden saw the film partly as a critique of the false glamor of Bonnie and Clyde (1967), and the grungy settings, natural light, and non-professional actors lend the film (originally shot on 16mm) potent verisimilitude. Lipman–who places it in the vanguard of American neorealist films that includes The Exiles (1961) and Spring Night, Summer Night (1967)–chanced upon the original A/B rolls at a local lab just one day before they were scheduled for destruction.

Lipman restored the film with a largely photochemical process, judiciously reserving digital tools for specific problems according to two general criteria: 1) Does the problem interfere with the intended aesthetic? and 2) Does the problem tell us something about the film’s making? Thus, an occasional hair might remain in order to “keep the film alive.” Grain was considered an important part of the film’s overall aesthetic, so Lipman left it intact. He focused on an awkward break in tinny choir music that accompanies a church event, noting that the producers of the American DVD opted to “fix” the sound, whereas Lipman believes it was an intentional ellipsis meant to suggest a faulty diegetic source.

Wanda will have its world premiere on September 2nd–its 40th anniversary–at the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Critics Prize in 1970. Apparently conceived as a tax write-off with no intention of commercial success (it was purportedly released in just one New York theater), the film’s strong reception in Europe made it, in the words of Lipman, “a failure at being a failure.” Here’s hoping the new restoration joins the other titles and processes featured at the symposium to preserve and promote the accomplishments of cinema.

7 thoughts on “The Reel Thing XXV

  1. Very informative, Doug. Sounds like it was an educational symposium. I didn’t know that there were widescreen films as early as 1953 — my original understanding was that widescreen had developed about four or five years later (sort of right around the time that stereo did). Some of the articles I just Googled on the web after reading this post also mention ’53 as a starting point. Interesting. (Also, 2.55:1 for “Bridge on the River Kwai” — now that’s a wide ratio!)

    I suspect that, as we continue into the digital age, we’ll have to come to accept some of the inherent differences between digital and film. Digital seems to allow restorative techniques previously unavailable, but at the same time can only approximate some of the unique aspects of film. If that’s the case, a fare trade off, perhaps? Though makeover does raise some interesting questions about how far the restorative process goes.

    Enjoyed the post. Thanks for writing about the symposium.

  2. Thanks very much for this write-up of the symposium! I couldn’t attend this year, and this was the only summary I could find, so I greatly appreciate it =)

  3. Michael, it was a really dense symposium–lots of info flying fast–but it was really fun.

    My takeaway was that studios started experimenting with large format gauges (like Fox Grandeur, a bona fide 70mm process, and I’m sure you’re familiar with multiple camera experiments like Abel Gance’s Napoleon) as early as the ’20s, but the Great Depression brought those to a halt (Academy ratio was standardized in 1932), and WWII effectively kept technology at a standstill, so it wasn’t until the postwar years that it could resume. CinemaScope dates to ’53, and was largely a response to television (box office had been dropping since ’46), which is why a bunch of 1.33:1 films were improperly projected–to get on the “craze.”

    Fantasia in 1940 was actually the first commercial release with stereo sound.

    Your description of the digital cunundrum is well stated. It does seem like technology we have to live with, and we can just hope that restorationists are as sensitive as possible to the issues.

    Glad you enjoyed it, Esther!

  4. Doug, some interesting historical perspective there (and how events directly affected experimentation), and the decision to project some 1.33:1 films in widescreen almost reminds me of the current 3D craze, which, like widescreen, is likely a response to decline box-office returns and competition from home video. I had forgotten about use of stereo in “Fantasia.” Stereo records didn’t begin showing up in abundance until the late 50s, and so I wonder if the relative expense of the process at the time (along with other factors) kept it in limited use for a time.

  5. Stereophonic sound films began to play theaters quite extensively after the release of HOUSE OF WAX in April, 1953.

    All studios switched to widescreen cinematography around that same time, April and May of 1953. As Mr. Theakston pointed out in his informative lecture, every studio had their own preferred ratio, ranging from Paramount’s 1.66 to Universal’s 2.1

    Widescreen and stereo movies did NOT begin with THE ROBE!

  6. Speaking as someone who did attend it was a great gathering with some tremendous information from everyone. The Friday evening screening of FANTASIA was stunning.

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