NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

04/12/2021

In 2007, I moderated a discussion after a screening of a recently restored print of Drums Along the Mohawk. The restorations of that film and of Leave Her to Heaven, another Fox title, comprised a joint effort undertaken by Fox and the Academy Film Archive, with Film Foundation funding. The process was arduous. In the 70s, Fox decided to take all of their nitrate materials and transfer them to CRIs, from which improper YCM (yellow-cyan-magenta) separations were created, which resulted in extremely flawed prints. The rumor is that the original camera negatives were subsequently dumped into the Pacific—it may or may not be true, but they are long gone. The restoration team worked from the YCMs and color reversal protection copies, and they had their work cut out for them. As Mike Pogorzelski of the Academy pointed out in last week’s post, digital scanning remained a time-consuming process until the early 2010s. Adjusting the image for misregistration (resulting from different rates of shrinkage of the original three negatives that combined to create the Technicolor image) was arduous. I remember the result being fairly breathtaking, if not quite as stunning as an original Technicolor print. Both films have subsequently undergone a second round of restoration, performed by the same team.

Back to 2007. After screening, the estimable Schawn Belston took questions from the audience. A young man raised his hand. He had a point he wanted to make. Why, he wondered, was it necessary to go through the motions with substandard materials when all that really needed to be done was to scan a good Technicolor print and then perform a standard clean-up. Schawn calmly answered him point by point. And the crux of his response was a question: “Which print?” Fox had many Technicolor nitrate prints to look at, and not only had each one degraded differently and suffered different levels of wear, but each separate reel of each separate print had aged differently. Well, said the man, just take the best reels from the different prints and put them together. “But what does ‘the best’ mean?” asked Schawn. How could anyone be sure that all of these different reels would match? And then, what would be the guiding principle of unifying them? And, in the act of unifying them, wouldn’t you be back to square one?

Greater visual uniformity is now more easily achievable in film restoration, but the questions that Schawn raised haven’t gone away. In fact, as we get further in time from the moment when those films were created and from a common memory of the Technicolor image in general, and as it becomes increasingly easier to adjust and manipulate the images, the question of interpretation becomes more pressing. This is especially so with color films. As Mike P. points out, with black and white “there’s only one light source that can be changed,” whereas with color “you need to assign a value to the yellow channel, a value to the cyan channel and a value to the magenta channel.” The changes in film stocks add a whole other level to the problem. Gordon Willis once told a friend of mine that the first two Godfather films looked better than the third because the film stocks were less predictable and yielded more interesting results. The painterly manipulation of images that DPs like Vilmos Zsigmond and Laszlo Kovacs achieved with flashing the negative, underexposure and bleach bypass complicates matters even more. And then, there’s the question of grain. As Martin Scorsese has often pointed out, most of us who grew up with grain love it, but odds are that most DPs would have gotten rid of it if they’d had the option.

There is no avoiding the necessity of interpretation. The question is: who’s doing the interpreting? When it’s people like Mike and Schawn, that’s one thing. When it’s a choice made by QC engineers in conformity with current norms (i.e. streaming platforms), that’s something else again. The first is love, the second is business.

- Kent Jones

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DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939, d. John Ford)
Restored by Academy Film Archive and Twentieth Century Fox with funding provided by The Film Foundation.

LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945, d. John M. Stahl)
Restored by Academy Film Archive and Twentieth Century Fox with funding provided by The Film Foundation.

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