Scorsese’s Film Foundation Preserving Lifetime of Movies

Raeanne Marsh 09/20/2010

“The future of film itself was at stake. The celluloid reels, whether catalogued in storehouses or gathering dust in an attic corner, were succumbing to the ravages of age. Against the forces of nature-and corporate indifference-Martin Scorsese began deploying his own forces: the not-inconsiderable weight of his own name and a prestigious starting cast of Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas, Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford and Steven Spielberg.”

“There was no system in place or incentive to make sure films would be around in the future. Now, with 545 restored films to The Film Foundation’s credit since he founded the organization dedicated to that purpose in 1990, Scorsese remains passionate about the continuing need for film restoration. In addition to the narrative feature films “we all respond to,” he says, there are “avant-garde films that are deeply compelling and can change the way you look at cinema. Or the earliest silent films that show everyday events and remind us how life has-and hasn’t-changed in over 100 years. There are documentaries, newsreels, home movies that can show the spectrum of human experience and open our eyes to moments and events from the past in a most powerful way.”

“Scorsese, as a young filmmaker, had been inspired by the old RKO films and others from the past. But he noticed that the prints he say, whether from a library or a studio, were pink; the colors were faded. He spearheaded a campaign for Kodak to develop a low-fade stock so the color would be more stable, advocating for it during his press tour in 1980 for “Raging Bull”-which he shot in black-and-white specifically so as not to be worried about it fading 10 years down the line.”

“The board (The Film Foundation) helps select the preservation projects the foundation will fund, based on historical and technical significance such as a director’s first use of color, a specific color process or wide screen. Explains Scorsese, “The archives send in a proposal each year, outlining and prioritizing the films most in need of preservation, and the board reviews the titles and proposals, the materials available and the additional information on the cultural and historical significance of the pictures provided by the archives. And then we decide.”

“Two years after launching The Story of Movies, TFF grew in another direction: It consolidated with Artists Rights Foundation, whose mission paralleled TFF’s. ARF’s focus on protecting the films’ creative elements over issues such as colorization and unauthorized editing underscores concerns that restorers constantly grapple with: Using today’s advanced technology to make something look as good as it can without adding one’s own aesthetic.”

“Choices inform the look of the final product. Archivists and TFF’s board study films and look at reference prints (and, in ever more rare cases, even talk to the director) to know what a director may have been going for in his body of work or specific film.”

“John Huston and cinematographer Oswald Morris used a subdued color palette that was almost sepia, even though it was done with the three-strip [Technicolor] process.”

“Three-strip Technicolor films used three different cameras, each creating a color record for the red, blue or yellow section of the color chart. Digital technology enables the color records to be aligned exactly, which give Technicolor a new look. ‘The original was a soft look,’ says Bodde (Margaret Bodde executive Director of TFF), ‘but did the director want that, or would he have wanted a sharp look?”

“Using “The Phantom of the Opera” as an example-it was shot in black-and-white but has one sequence featuring Lon Chaney wearing a brilliant red cloak-Jackson describes the dilemma of leaving the color in the “rather crude, hand-painted-look, two-color process of the time” or improving the appearance and making it more perfect.”

“Assume nobody’s an expert,” he says. “[Offer] the view of how audiences would have seen ‘Phantom of the Opera’ in 1925 and how it would have looked if [the director] would have had access to our technology. …The capacity on discs is such that there’s no reason you can’t offer both versions at no extra cost.” And he adds, “It wold inspire interest, and may make some young viewer into a future historian.”


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