What follows is the transcription of a fragment of an article intitled "Universal Upbeat in Studio Fire Aftermath" by Robert Marich for Broadcasting and Cable, published on June 20th. You can read the original here.
In February, 1993, a symposium was held by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. to discuss the problem of the decay of motion pictures. Excerpted from the transcript of the February 26 testimony is this submission by film preservationist and restorer Robert A. Harris. Few people in the world have the ability to judge the condition of our film heritage as does Bob Harris. Working with David Lean, he gave us what is arguably the best presentation of Lawrence of Arabia ever seen, even after the original negatives and sound were considered to be virtually lost. With his equally fastidious partner, James C. Katz, Bob has worked miracles on the deteriorated likes of My Fair Lady, Spartacus, Vertigo, and Rear Window, not only saving these films from loss, but providing vivid new prints that rival the originals in many ways. Before placing this transcript in the American WideScreen Museum web site I asked Bob to review and update his statements. He altered one sentence. And that, boys and girls, says a lot about the condition of the films, good and bad, that many of us grew up with.
Robert A. Harris' Statement at the Film Preservation Study:
Washington, D.C. Public Hearing, February 1993
We have all heard many times that we have already lost some 50% of the films made before 1950, that our nitrate heritage is slowly turning to powder before our eyes while budgets and time are running out. This is all true. However, with little mention of our post-1950s film this perpetuates the myth that film preservation is dedicated to our remote past, something that belongs more in museums than on theater screens.
Robert Harris and David Lean during the restoration of Lawrence of Arabia
Further, it gives the impression that all of these nitrate films simply decomposed while attempts were being made to preserve them. This is untrue. Most of the early films did not survive because of wholesale junking by the studios. There was no thought of ever saving these films. They simply needed vault space and the materials were expensive to house. There also seems to be a feeling that we must save it all. Like art and the written word, there was as much junk film produced during the first half of the century as is being produced currently. I made one of those in 1987, a junk film, which we can add to the pile of junk. It simply is not all worth saving with today's limited funding.
If our greatest problem were nitrate, then my chosen work in the archival field would be incomparably simple. But it is not. In 1988, while completing work on David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia, I was asked to look into Tom Jones, the 1963 Academy Award-winning Best Picture, newer than Lawrence by only one year. Try as I did searching vaults worldwide, the best I could come up with was a single dye-transfer Technicolor print with an Italian soundtrack. It was so worn that it could not be used for duplication.
I was told that the feeling when Tom Jones was in post-production was that it would not amount to anything. A judgment call. UA never made protection separations to back up the original negative. Today, a proper print of Tom Jones cannot be produced.
Although I do not necessarily have the answers to our preservation problems, I can at least raise or help reevaluate some of the questions.
Since the early fifties, we have been dealing with the Eastmancolor negative. There is nothing inherently wrong with this material except that it fades. We have lost the original negatives to many important films of the fifties, and we are now going into the sixties; films of the seventies are now showing signs of fading.
Lawrence, a 1961-62 production photographed in Eastmancolor and processed by Technicolor London was fortunate. For some reason, the work done at that particular laboratory seems to survive years longer than film processed elsewhere, possibly the water from the Thames, I am not sure. Lawrence was still in good enough shape, although the negative was cracked and falling to pieces, that new color protection materials could be produced. We could not produce new black-and-white protection material, because the negatives would not run three times to produce separations.
The camera negative on Universal's 1960 Spartacus was totally faded, totally unusable. Nothing could be done to produce any printing material from that element. We worked from black-and-white separations and had to create the equipment to manufacture a 65mm preservation internegative on the film. We worked from the seps but those seps had been produced defectively. They had been vaulted 30 years before and never tested. I will not go into the problems that were encountered, but the lesson learned was simple and dramatic: black-and-white master separations, when produced, were routinely vaulted and forgotten, assuming they would yield beautiful results when needed. We now know that this simply is not accurate in all cases.
No one knows what materials can be produced from separation masters unless they have been printed, not selectively tested or reviewed on a Rank [film-to-tape transfer machine], but printed. This should be done before the negatives that they protect are no longer viable printing elements. If the protection is defective and the negatives have gone, nothing further can be done. Without doing so, we may have no protection for the last 40 years of color film history. Every film worth saving which has not been backed up should be looked into with immediacy.
The large format films, 70mm, Technirama, etc., are in the highest risk group. Since most 70mm prints were made directly from the camera negatives, many are extremely worn. Most large format masters are untested. They probably will not register very well and they generally are not backed up by large format color interpositives of any vintage no less recent.
My single hard and fast rule is do not rejuvenate original negatives; and this keeps happening continuously in laboratories around the world. Do not put chemicals on preservation materials. This will go against everything that you will hear if there are people coming here representing rejuvenation and scratch-removal vendors. They will tell you that the panacea for saving our film heritage is to coat it with chemicals.
There is a problem right now with the original camera negative of a very well-known 1968 film. Someone allowed the negative to be chemically treated and a lab wetgated the footage. That film is now a solid block. We are trying to ease it apart and remove the coating without the emulsion coming off.
Rejuvenation causes film to shrink, warp and shed its emulsion. Particles of dust and dirt are caught under the coatings and become a part of the picture never envisioned by the director of photography.
The overall quality of preservation work done by some vendors is a joke. What they produce is generally in the "good enough to get us paid" category. Once materials are delivered, they are generally accepted. Although much preservation material was produced before the advent of wetgate printing and therefore wear was more apparent, there were still materials produced after this process was available, which just was not done professionally.
If someone 15 or 20 years ago had made decent materials on pictures like Casablanca, they would look a lot better than they do today, and they would not have to be constantly redone. There are not adequate materials produced on hundreds of films; but there are materials. You can generalize that the more popular the film, the worse shape it is going to be in. Quality is a problem that has been with us for decades.
Nitrate is preserved once, then again and then possibly a third time, hopefully the right way. Original negatives are sometimes pulled to create non-preservation elements to be used for a video transfer. This places wear and fade on the negative without accomplishing anything.
One final point on this subject. Once materials are preserved properly, that does not then mean that the original nitrate should be junked. I have to assume that today's technology will be constantly supplanted in the future with new means of creating even higher quality preservation materials. You never want your finest surviving asset to be a dupe when you can have the luxury of going back to an original element.
If someone asked what I would do if I could selectively control all film preservation except that being done by the few studios and archives who are doing it correctly, my initial answer would be very simple: nothing. I would shut it down completely. Vendors should be checked for quality and accredited to do preservation work rather than just offering it on rate cards. Preservation work should not be synonymous with lab work. Simply producing a set of separation masters does not mean that a film is preserved. Producing a finegrain from a nitrate original does not mean that it is preserved. All these materials have to be produced correctly not just produced, shipped and billed.
There are too many situations in which the wrong material is produced from the wrong material. This does nothing more than spend preservation dollars for masturbatory or "voodoo" preservation. All this junk has to be stored, placed on databases and occasionally checked but it will always be junk. Years from now, someone will come along and wonder why it was produced but the good materials will already be gone. Once all these problems were solved, then I would start the wheels turning again.
Some people who work in preservation do not know what a preserved or restored film should look and sound like. This is exacerbated by the fact that few titles have an original print. Without a reference print, you have no idea what the intentions of the filmmakers were regarding color, density, contrast or even major points like "day for night" scenes. When a reference print is available, it may not be an approved print. It could well be left over from a reissue or have survived as a lab reject.
Work is accepted which should be rejected because some people are either too lazy or just not knowledgeable enough to know what to do. People with a background in business as well as film history, film elements and lab techniques should be running motion picture asset protection programs.
Studios and rental vaults are now placing inventory on computer. Sometimes, as in the case of Universal, people actually open cans, inspect and listen to material. However, all too often these inventories are simply perpetuated error. An element is incorrectly listed on a label, insecurely attached to a can, then transferred to a card, and then years later, from the card to computer by someone who cannot quite decipher the original handwriting. All of this with never a look back at the actual materials, especially if they are in another country or vaulted underground.
There have been too many occurrences in which I have called someone to see if they have protection on a long version or stereo tracks, only to be told that the film was monaural or that there was no long version. It is simply bad recordkeeping.
If we are going to really start taking all this seriously, now is probably a good time to begin. If we do not, here is what we can do. Make a list of films produced since 1953, then draw a line around 1965. That is the date before which it is safe to assume we will not be able to protect anything much longer unless it is already protected.
Take a look at the titles and then dismiss every great film that you would like to share with your children or grandchildren or possibly just see again. They are not going to be there when we want them. It is all as simple as that. Either we do something now and do it right or let's forget it all. It will soon be just so much junk.