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Film restoration: Rising from the ashes

Restoring films is not only a walk down the memory lane, but also ensuring that celluloid expressions, which have left footprints on the sands of time, are preserved for generations to come. Tessa Idlewine, the short film preservationist at the Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), Hollywood shares the trials and tribulations experienced during the restoration of films
It has been more than 120 years since the Lumière brothers screened the first moving pictures on the screen, and since then countless films, both silent and talkies have been made, and unfortunately many of them have disappeared or are in a deteriorated state due to their improper preservation. The Los-Angeles based Academy Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) has been doing pioneering work in the restoration of such films since it officially began in 1991.
Tessa Idlewine, the short film preservationist with the Academy said that it is much easier to restore and preserve movies in bad state on the celluloid films, then restoring them digitally, since the digital world is still unknown when it comes to film preservation. “The digital restoration is still in its infancy, and we don’t know how it will affect our work in saving pictures,” she added, pointing out: “With the digital tools at our disposal, we are entering a whole new world of film restoration – 2K and 4K (resolutions) scanning being the most common digital preservation technique – and therefore, these tools could be used for celluloid-supported restoration, which is more stable restoration that can preserve films for over 100 years.
The Academy Film Archive has already restored and preserved 21 out of the 37 films made by celebrated Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, including his Apu Trilogy and the 1964 short film, ‘Two’.
“When Ray was presented with a honorary Academy Award at the 64th Academy Awards in 1992, the AMPAS team found it difficult to find quality clips of his films for the Oscar award show package,” informed Tessa while delivering a lecture, during a film workshop on ‘Film preservation at the Academy Film Archive: Satyajit Ray and more’, at the Black Box, Kala Academy. “Soon after Ray received the award, the negatives of some of his films including the Apu Trilogy were taken to Hendersons Film Laboratories in London under a restoration project, but unfortunately were damaged in a fire at the laboratory in July 1993,” she informed, maintaining that the Academy decided to have all the negatives shipped to Los Angeles and tucked them away in their vaults for the next 20 years.
Meanwhile, a survey on holdings of Satyajit Ray films and other related material was also taken up, and it was found that his films had deteriorated over the years, while many suffered from the vinegar syndrome, a problem similar to nitrate base deterioration.
“Two decades later, when the digital era had arrived, the Academy spoke to dozens of people at film laboratories all over the world, and was advised to approach the experts in the field – L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy,” Tessa maintained, observing that when the film restoration laboratory saw the negatives in bad shape including the charred and fused mass, it came up with a plan, which included rehydrating the negatives to make them less brittle, repairing the splices, removing the glue and tape and wax, and fixing all the sprockets, even using the sprocket scan.
“Every splice was rebuilt, and once the full assembly was there, the 4K restoration was taken up, which was almost unheard for the Indian films,” the short film preservationist stated, mentioning that the sound recording problems were handled, as also new translated subtitles prepared. “And we were able to match the original quality of his films, which existed at the time of their release,” she stated, noting that Ray was a visual story teller and the digital restoration of his films would now allow audiences to enjoy his films in their full visual glory,” she noted.
It was further informed that the Academy Film Archive has taken up restoration of close to 1,000 films, including those made by avant-garde and experimental filmmakers, because of their cultural and historical value. The 1982 film ‘The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez’ based on the life of the Mexican folk hero, and ‘Aloha Wanderwell Baker’, a series of amateur black and white, silent, short-films, covering the global travels by Aloha Wanderwell between 1920 and 1930 are part of such films.
The Academy has given new lease of life to both professional as well as amateur movies; those made in film gauges ranging from 8mm to 70mm; produced with nitrate, acetate and polyester as their film base, and in many more categories. The priceless pieces of history on celluloid now reside in the vaults of the Academy of Film Archives.

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