NOTES ON FILM & RESTORATION

08/31/2021

What are the differences between seeing a movie at home and seeing it projected on a big screen? Back in the 80s, when the film critic Serge Daney decided that a VHS was the equivalent of a photographed reproduction of a painting, the answer was clear. Now, not so much.

The first answer that comes to mind for many people is “community,” the feeling of sharing a viewing experience with strangers. Even before the pandemic, the tendency has been to skew the theatrical experience closer to the convenience and coziness of home viewing, and to skew home viewing further in the direction of sensorial richness. On the one hand, reserved stadium seating; on the other hand, bigger screens and more elaborate sound systems and higher and higher resolution.

And now, of course, it’s possible to see films at home while they’re still playing on big screens. Of course, this has been true of older films for a long time. For those of us lucky enough to live in cities with repertory houses, the majority of the programming can be duplicated at home.

But can it really be duplicated?

What is the difference creating a new HD master of a film and actually restoring it?

On the one hand, this is a technical matter. “Technically, there are significant differences in sound and picture processes,” writes Schawn Belston, my old friend and one of the real heroes of film restoration. “HD color space is different than Theatrical, so we usually work in the theatrical (P3) space and then create r709 (HD) after. Similarly, audio dynamics are different between Theatrical and Home, requiring mixes specifically creatively imagined for the different experiences.”

“HD remasters can be beautiful and are frequently made with great care and artistry,” he elaborates, “and they can even be used to create DCPs for distribution. The line between ‘HD master’ and ‘restoration’ has definitely gotten blurrier as technology and creative savvy have improved.” Anyone who has paid close attention to the extraordinary work done by Lee Kline at Criterion will agree with Schawn, although not everyone has Lee’s sensitivity or attention to detail.

We really need to understand that an HD transfer and a 4K restoration do not simply differ in terms of quality and information, but they serve completely different purposes,” writes the Cineteca di Bologna’s Cecilia Cenciarelli—another good friend, another true hero(ine).Restoration, in the way we intend it, draws from figurative art. In Europe the urge to ‘restore’ emerged in the mid-eighteenth century (although we know that Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel was repaired as early as the sixteenth century due to water damage), but it was not before the 1930s that this field was fully theorized, assigning a new status to in-depth research and study.”

A proper restoration should have an eye to longevity as well as all types of viewing experiences,” says Schawn, “notably the original experience of seeing a film on a large screen in a theater.”

“Restoring entails researching the history of the piece of art (the film),” says Cecilia, “its color, texture, style, just as you would with an ancient fresco. The final objective is always two-fold: immediate accessibility (through home video release, which today means many different things, of course) and long-term preservation: creating film elements that can last and extend the film's life for 50-80 years.” It’s worth reiterating that film is still the only proven long-term preservation medium.

Another obvious but important point: the work of actual restoration costs money. It is labor-intensive and time-consuming, it is logistically complex, and it stands or falls on the presence of people with the knowledge and sensitivity of Schawn and Cecilia and their dedicated co-workers and peers.

Whenever I’ve written about any given title in this series of posts, it’s been with the underlying thought that whoever reads them will try their best to see those titles on a big screen, whenever possible. That goes for The Film Foundation’s two most recent restorations, funded by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation—All That Money Can Buy, otherwise known as The Devil and Daniel Webster (a collaborative effort undertaken by UCLA, with Janus Films, MoMA and the Library of Congress) and King Vidor’s Hallelujah (Library of Congress). When you watch the restorations of these two extraordinary films, think of the work that, to paraphrase Dickens, recalled them to life.

- Kent Jones

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ALL THAT MONEY CAN BUY (1941, d. William Dieterle) 
Restored by UCLA Film and Television Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Janus Films, The Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress. Restoration funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

HALLELUJAH (1929, d. King Vidor)
Restored by the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation. Funding provided by the Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. 

The Film Foundation

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