Did you know that 50% of all full-length features produced before 1950 have vanished? Fewer than 20% of features from the 1920s survive in complete form; survival rates of 1910s is <10%?[i]
While more than 90% of the world cinema produced before 1929 can no more be restored and are lost forever, the major players – from restoration agencies to film production houses – are trying to revive old classics digitally.
Film restoration is an archaeological expedition for curators. Apart from factors like dust, scratches, film grains, shrinkage, and color fade, heritage films are also at-risk due to climate conditions, lack of training in film preservation, and sometimes, unstable political conditions.
Film restoration is crucial for the preservation of films, especially those whose original elements have substantially deteriorated. The critical steps of restoring a film are as follows:
- Film identification: Film restoration is a costly and labor-intensive process, sometimes consuming more than 1,000 staff-hours to repair a film. Therefore, it is essential to identify the films that need to be restored.
- Film treatment and repair: Curators clean the films using chemicals, cleaning machines. Further, they use splicing tape, film cement, or ultrasonic splicers to repair perforations and tear on a film before using it on projectors, printers, and other sprocket-driven film equipment.
- Digitization/ Scanning: Curators scan each frame into a digital file before proceeding with restoration. The back-up copy replicates the video and audio content of the film and ensures the copy can be used in the future to create subsequent viewing copies.
- Film comparison: Before proceeding with the restoration, curators compare all the known surviving source materials to ensure the chosen version is the best available version for restoration.
- Digital restoration: A widely used restoration format today, the films are restored using digital or hybrid techniques, and the output can be in film or digital form. Digital restoration also incorporates the following:
- Comparing each frame to its adjacent frames
- Fixing the frame alignment
- Restore areas blocked by dirt and dust by using parts of images in other frames
- Restore scratches by using parts of images in different frames
- Reducing film grain noise
- Restoring sound
- Correcting flickering, lighting, and color changes, even minimal, from one frame to another due to the aging of the film
- Digital asset management: It is essential to create a set of database records with metadata and other relevant information that allows end users to identify, locate, and retrieve a film from the archive.
From documentaries to fictional narratives, newsreels, industrial films, home movies, political ads, and travelogues, films are a witness of the past. By restoring these works, we can illuminate our heritage with the power and immediacy unique to film. To know more about film restoration, read:
- Film restoration: From pix to pixels, celebrating the yesteryears in reels
- 5 classics films restored for the digital age