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New Electronic Technologies — Help in the Restoration of Film Material

Film art has more than any other art marked the 20th century, however it is in grave danger of being completely lost or destroyed. The data about the destruction of film stock are terrifying. 90% of all the stock from the pioneering period of cinematography (made before 1910) is lost forever, along with 50% of the film stock made after the appearance of sound film (1927) and 50% of all the material made after the replacement of nitrate based film tape with a secure film tape with acetate base (in the period from 1950 till 1954).

The efforts of film archivists to restore and preserve the existing material are only partially successful since they are encountering many problems, starting with technological limitations, problems of storage, lack of competent workers and institutions, specialised laboratories and finally, lack of financing. We have to add that each film needs to be restored two, three or four times during the lifetime of an archivist. In the domain of classical film storage, they are trying to produce a more stable film tape and to ensure storage conditions that would prolong the life of film stock for additional 30-50 years, but even such solutions have their limitations.

Film technologies and researchers estimate that in the course of next 20-30 years another 50% of presently preserved film stock will be lost forever due to untimely protection of nitrate film footage, the spreading of vinegar syndrome on film material with celluloid base, while a part of film stock will be lost due to colour fading and deterioration of film emulsion as the two most fragile elements of film tape. These alarming figures are being partially reduced by the production of replacement film stock (new copies of film), which can be used for reproduction and storage. However, limited financial sources are the reason that some films do not have replacement copies.

Moreover, in many small, poor countries even the filmmakers do not make copies, nor do the archives. The introduction of electronic recording (videotape), with all its advantages, the possibility of widespread usage, and finally digitalisation is opening new ways of dealing with the situation, but also introduces its share of problems. These particularly refer to the production, restoration and long-term storage of replacement copies. When working with an electronic medium, restoration and reconstruction happen at the micro level.

In other words, digital system is used for the reconstruction of a single frame of film. Digital restoration begins with the scanning of each frame producing a digital video recording. Such video (electronic) recording is restored in a computer with the help of a specially devised software designed to make all the possible improvements (add colour, focus, eliminate vibrations, etc.), as well as eliminate all non-original parts of film footage added subsequently (mechanical faults, scratches, dirt, etc.). Eventually we obtain a new digital recording that is stored in the digital image store. Such a restored film picture is then being transferred on film tape via a film recorder.

Digital recording does not only improve the technique of restoration of the original material but also enables the production of copies whose quality will not deteriorate over time. This was not possible with the classical mechanical and electronic analogue processes. Digital restoration makes it possible for a film to be well stored, while at the same time the stored material is more accessible. However, digital storage and restoration are facing serious problem.

For example, it is difficult to establish the resolution of original films and to achieve the adequate resolution of the digital recording. The process of scanning presents another difficulty. There are no standardized procedures for scanning films that would satisfy the demands of archives, while the process itself is very slow and expensive. And finally, it is unavailable to most archives. The transfer of film footage to digital form and back does not yet give best results and the original picture looses some of its quality. These are the reasons why archivists display so much distrust and hesitate to accept the existing digitalizing technologies. They are particularly distrustful to the idea that digital recording should completely replace classical storing techniques, in other words, that we should allow the deterioration of the original footage on film tape. They emphasize that we should not preserve only the ’software’ picture, but also the hardware base of the original film footage and its representation — i.e. film tape and the original technology of storage and reproduction.

Nevertheless, it is obvious that we must take into account the possibilities of digital technology, however, only as a parallel technology to the classical-archivist or as one of the phases in the process of restoration. Digital future demands that archivists set standards that the transmission — film — digital recording — film — has to satisfy. (For example, the demand for transparency — the ability of digital technology to read all the information from various original film tapes and copies made in different phases; the demand for resolution that would correspond to the original (and reach the highest film resolution where achieved). A universal standard of transmission must be established among various digital (software) standards used in different countries and by different producers of digital technology. And finally, of course, the technology has to be economical and affordable to all).


The limitations of film medium / The progress of film technology / Video technology and various generations of electronic recordings / The restoration of film stock with the help of digital medium / The issue of resolution / Resolution in pixels / Necessary resolutions in pixels for particular film footages / The scanning of film stock / The restoration of scanned picture / Transfer to film tape / The cost of digital restoration / Film tape used in transmission from digital recording to film tape / The restoration of faded colour films / Achievements and limitations of the photographic-chemical method of restoration of film footage / Improvements of technical and technological quality of film / Limitations and long-term passivity of the system of film archives / Photographic-chemical and digital restoration — subjective methods / Limited effectiveness of digital system / Distrust of film archivists due to unavailability, slowness and partial solutions of the digital restoration of film footage (Europe-USA) / European experiences / American experiences with the application of digital technology in the restoration of film stock / Conflicted interests of film archives and producers / Conclusions / Film archivists facing a new challenge / Disappearance of film infrastructure / Discovery of a new ideal medium for permanent storage of moving pictures / Epilogue / Notes / Bibliography.

Mato Kukuljica

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