Film preservation

Film preservation
Stacked containers filled with reels of film stock.

The film preservation, or film restoration, movement is an ongoing project among film historians, archivists, museums, cinematheques, and non-profit organizations to rescue decaying film stock and preserve the images which they contain. In the widest sense, preservation nowadays assures that a movie will continue to exist, as close to its original form as possible.[1] 90 percent of all American silent films and 50 percent of American sound films made before 1950 are lost films.[2]

For many years the term “preservation” used to be a synonym of “duplication” only. The preservationist’s goal was to create a durable copy without significant loss of quality. Film preservation now holds the concepts of handling, duplication, storage, and access. The archivist seeks to protect the film and share the content with the public.[3]

Film preservation should be distinguished from film revisionism, in which long-completed films are subjected to outtakes never previously seen being inserted, new music scores and/or sound effects being added, black-and-white film being colorized or converted to Dolby stereo, or minor edits or other cosmetic changes being made, regardless of reason.


Film decay

An example of nitrate decomposition.

The great majority of films made in the silent era have been lost forever. Movies of the first half of the 20th century were filmed on an unstable, highly flammable cellulose nitrate film base, which required careful storage to slow its inevitable process of decomposition over time. Most films made on nitrate stock were not preserved; over the years, their negatives and prints simply crumbled into dust. Many of them were recycled for their silver content, or destroyed in studio or vault fires. But the largest cause was intentional destruction. As film preservationist Robert A. Harris has said,

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.[4]

Silent films had little or no commercial value after the silent era ended in 1930, so they were not kept. As a result, preserving the now rare silent films has been a high priority amongst film historians.

Because of the fragility of film stock, proper preservation of film usually involves storing the original negatives (when they have survived) and prints in climate-controlled facilities. The vast majority of films were not stored in this manner, which resulted in the widespread decay of film stocks.

The problem of film decay is not limited to films made on cellulose nitrate. Film industry researchers and specialists have found that color films (especially ones made in less expensive, less permanent processes than Technicolor) are also decaying at a rapid pace. A number of well-known films only exist as copies of original film productions or exhibition elements because the originals have decomposed beyond use. Cellulose acetate film, which was the initial replacement for nitrate, has been found to suffer from vinegar syndrome. Indeed the preservation of color films has now been found to involve a compromise, because low temperatures, which inhibit color fading, actually increase the effects of vinegar syndrome, while higher (normal room) temperatures cause color fading.

Decay prevention

"Preservation" of film usually refers to physical storage of the film in a climate-controlled vault, and sometimes to repairing and copying the actual film element. Preservation is different from "restoration." Restoration is the act of returning the film to a version most faithful to its initial release to the public and often involves combining various fragments of film elements.

Improving storage is the single most important step that institutions can take to protect their film collections.

In most cases, when a film is chosen for preservation or restoration work, new prints are created from the original camera negative or the "composite restoration negative" which is made from often a combination of elements, for general viewing.

The composite restoration negative is a compilation of duplicated sections of the best remaining material, recombined to approximate the original configuration of the original camera negative at some time in the film's release life, while the original camera negative is the remaining, edited, film negative that passed through the camera on the set. This original camera negative may, or may not, remain in original release form, depending upon number of subsequent re-releases after the initial release for theatrical exhibition.

In traditional photochemical restorations, image polarity considerations must be observed when recombining surviving materials and the final, lowest generation restoration master may be either a duplicate negative or a fine grain master positive.

Preservation elements, such as fine grain master positives and duplicate printing negatives, are generated from this restoration master element to make both duplication masters and access projection prints available to future generations.

When restoration and preservation budgets are lower the images are transferred directly to video or digital media for easy transport and copying. Film preservationists would prefer that film images be eventually transferred to other film stock, because no digital media exists that has proven truly archival, while a well-developed and stored, modern film print can last upwards of 100 years.

Today it is universally agreed that the foundation of film preservation is proper protection from external forces while in storage along with being under controlled temperatures.[1] These measures retard deterioration better than any other methods and is a cheaper solution than replicating deteriorating films.

While some in the archival community feel that conversion from film to a digital image results in a loss of quality that can make it more difficult to create a high-quality print based upon the digital image, digital imaging technology is increasing to the point where the resolution in filmed images and digitally transferred images are equal.


Film containers--boxes or cans—should be convenient to use and should protect the film from dust and physical damage. As the physical unit for organizing collections, containers should also provide a rigid surface for shelving and give some measure of fire and water protection. Some also give additional protection in shipping.

Manufacturers make film containers from archival cardboard, plastic, and metal. The ISO publishes standards for enclosures for photographic materials. These recommend that plastic cans be made of polypropylene or polyethylene. Cardboard boxes should be either neutral or buffered and composed of lignin-free materials. Cans, made of non-corroding metal, are also acceptable. Also, containers should not include glues or additives that might have a chemical reaction with the film, as measured by IPI's Photographic Activity Test . The cans or boxes you choose will depend on your institution's storage conditions and funding. Whatever type you select, make sure that the container is chemically inert, physically stable, and expected to last as long as the film it houses. The enclosure's size should match that of the film. Always stack containers horizontally so that the film lies flat.

When reusing old cans, make sure that they are completely free of rust, dirt, and structural damage. Any metal can showing signs of rust or breaks in its coating should be discarded.

The movement

In 1926 Will Hays asked studios to preserve their films by storing them at 40 degrees at low humidity in an Eastman Kodak process, so that "schoolboys in the year 3,000 and 4,000 A.D. may learn about us".[5]

In 1935, New York's Museum of Modern Art began one of the earliest institutional attempts to collect and preserve motion pictures, obtaining original negatives of the Biograph and Edison companies, and the world's largest collection of D.W. Griffith films.[6] The following year, Henri Langlois founded the Cinémathèque Française in Paris, which would become the world's largest international film collection.[7]

For thousands of early silent films stored in the Library of Congress, mostly between 1894 and 1912, the only existing copies of them were printed on rolls of paper submitted as copyright registrations.[8] For these, an optical printer was used to copy these images onto safety film stock, a project begun in 1947 and continuing today.[9]

The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film was chartered in 1947 to collect, preserve, and present the history of photography and film, and in 1996 opened the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, one of only four film conservation centers in the United States.[10] The American Film Institute was founded in 1967 to train the next generation of filmmakers and preserve the American film heritage.[11] Its collection now includes over 27,500 titles.[12]

Beginning in the 1970s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, aware that the original negatives to many of its Golden Age films had been destroyed in a fire, began a preservation program to restore and preserve all of its films by using whatever negatives survived, or, in many cases, the next best available elements (whether it be a fine-grain master positive or mint archival print). From the onset, it was determined that if some films had to be preserved, then it would have to be all of them. In 1986, when Ted Turner acquired MGM's library (which by then had included Warner Bros.' pre-1950,[13][14] MGM's pre-1986, and a majority of the RKO Radio Pictures catalogs), he vowed to continue the preservation work MGM had started. Time Warner, the current owner of Turner Entertainment, continues this work today.

In 1978, Dawson City, Yukon Territory, Canada a construction excavation inadvertently found a forgotten collection of more than 500 discarded films from the early 20th century that were buried in and preserved in the permafrost. This fortunate discovery was shared and moved to the United States' Library of Congress and Library and Archives Canada for transfer to safety stock and archiving.

The cause for film preservation came to the forefront in the 1980s and early 1990s when such famous and influential film directors as Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese contributed to the cause. Spielberg became interested in film preservation when he went to view the original master of his film Jaws, only to find that it had badly decomposed and deteriorated — a mere fifteen years after it had been filmed. Scorsese drew attention to the film industry's use of color-fading film stock through his use of black-and-white film stock in his 1980 film Raging Bull.[citation needed]

The film preservation movement has resulted in a number of classic films being restored to pristine condition. In many cases original footage that had been excised — or censored by the Production Code in the U.S. — from the original negative, has been reinstated.

Another high profile restoration by staff at the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive is the Mitchell and Kenyon collection, which consists almost entirely of actuality films commissioned by travelling fairground operators for showing at local fairgrounds or other venues across the UK in the early part of the twentieth century. The collection was stored for many decades in two large barrels following the winding-up of the firm, and was discovered in Blackburn in the early 1990s. The restored films now offer an unparalleled social record of early 20th Century British life.

In the age of digital television, HDTV and DVD, film preservation and restoration has taken on commercial as well as historical importance, since audiences demand the highest possible picture quality from digital formats. Meanwhile, the dominance of home video and ever present need for television broadcasting content, especially on specialty cable channels, has meant that films have proven a source of long term revenue to a degree that the original artists and studio management before the rise of these media never imagined. Thus media companies have a strong financial incentive to carefully archive and preserve their complete library of films .

Individual preservationists who have contributed to the cause include Robert A. Harris and James Katz (Lawrence of Arabia, My Fair Lady, and several Alfred Hitchcock films), Michael Thau (Superman), and Kevin Brownlow (Intolerance and Napoleon). Other companies such as the UCLA Film and Television Archive have also preserved and restored films; a major part of UCLA's work includes such projects as Becky Sharp and select Paramount/Famous Studios and Warner Bros. cartoons whose credits were once altered due to rights taken over by different entities.

A number of "lost" movies have become legends in themselves. These movies were either extraordinarily successful or controversial, but all prints of the original films have been lost because they decayed or were destroyed, and thus they were unable to be preserved. Examples of such "lost" films include the original eight-hour version of Greed, and London After Midnight.

Video aids to film preservation

In 2005 "Video Aids to Film Preservation [2] became active on the Internet. The VAFP site was funded as part of a 2005 Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grant to the project [3]. The purpose of the site is to supplement already existing Film Preservation Guides <> with video demonstrations. These preservation guides, while excellent and thorough, are mostly text. Handling film is like working with a sewing machine. Basic activities like splicing, rewinding, cleaning, and repairing are best demonstrated by moving images.

The site is set up as a dynamic database of video clips that can build over time. The clips can be streamed in Real and Mpeg 4 or be downloaded in Mpeg 4 files. The films and clips are under the rules of Creative Commons which allows anyone to use these clips with attribution --in this case, attribution to the VAFP site and to the author of the clip and his company.

The project is directed by the filmmaker Tom Davenport [4] and this web site was designed by Steve Knoblock [15] who developed the code that runs which is video streaming documentaries on American Folklife. Video streaming is provided by ibiblio at the University of North Carolina. The clips are provided by skilled craftpersons working in film preservation.

Film restoration issues

Main problems in restoring film

  • Dirt, dust
  • Scratches, tears
  • Color fade, color change
  • Excessive film grain - a copy of an existing film has all of the film grain from the original as well as the film grain in the copy
  • Missing scenes and sound; censored or edited out for re-release.
  • Shrinkage: linear and "across the web" (width), as well as localized puckering around large 1 to 2 perforation film cement splices, most common in silent and very early sound films. Highly shrunken film, 1.5% or higher, must be copied on modified equipment or the film will likely be damaged.

Modern, digital film restoration follows the following steps:

  1. Expertly clean the film of dirt and dust.
  2. Repair all film tears with clear polyester tape or splicing cement.
  3. Scan each frame into a digital file.
  4. Restore the film frame by frame by comparing each frame to adjacent frames. This can be done somewhat by computer algorithms with human checking of the result.
    1. Fix frame alignment - Fix jitter and weave - the misalignment of adjacent film frames due to movement of film within the sprockets. This corrects the issue where the holes on each side of a frame are distored over time. This causes frames to slightly be off center.
    2. Fix color and lighting changes - This corrects flickering and slight color changes from one frame to another due to aging of the film.
    3. Restore areas blocked by dirt and dust by using parts of images in other frames.
    4. Restore scratches by using parts of images in other frames.
    5. Enhance frames by reducing film grain noise. Film foreground/background detail about the same size as the film grain or smaller is blurred or lost in making the film. Comparing a frame with adjacent frames allows detail information to be reconstructed since a given small detail may be split between more film grains from one frame to another.

Modern, photochemical restoration follows roughly the same path:

  1. Extensive research is done to determine what version of the film can be restored from the existing material. Often, great pains are taken to search out alternate material in film archives around the World.
  2. A comprehensive restoration plan is mapped that allows preservationists to designate elements as "key" elements upon which to base the polarity map for the ensuing photochemical work. Since many alternative elements are actually salvaged from release prints and duplication masters (foreign and domestic), care must be taken to plot the course at which negative, master positive and release print elements arrive back at a common polarity (i.e., negative or positive) for assembly and subsequent printing.
  3. Test prints are struck from existing elements to evaluate contrast, resolution, color (if color) and sound quality (if audio element exists).
  4. Elements are duplicated using the shortest possible duplication path to minimize analog duplication artifacts, such as the build-up of contrast, grain and loss of resolution.
  5. All sources are assembled into a single master restoration element; most often a duplicate negative.
  6. From this master restoration element, duplication masters, such as composite fine grain masters, are generated to be used to generate additional printing negatives from which actual release prints can be struck for festival screenings and DVD mastering.

Moving Image Collections (MIC)

Moving Image Collections, or MIC (pronounced ‘Mike’), is a preservation, access, and education initiative co-sponsored by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) and the Library of Congress (U.S.). The MIC website <> delivers a union catalog, archive directory, and informational resources on archival moving images, their preservation, and the images themselves to diverse constituencies, including archivists, researchers, educators, and the general public.

MIC’s Union Catalog and Archive Directory not only help people locate films and collections, they enable collaborative preservation decision-making and management on an international scale. Detailed Archive Directory descriptions allow archivists to evaluate archival activities in similar repositories, identify organizations with common missions to sponsor research and education portals, and offer training and development in areas of mutual interest. The Directory also enables the Library of Congress and AMIA to identify community needs, potential collaborations, and emerging trends, in order to focus community training and support.

MIC seeks to raise awareness about preservation issues and risks to our film, television and video heritage by enlightening readers as to the care of home collections, the role of archives, and the preservation process. MIC’s expert contributors have created and gathered hundreds of informational resources to illuminate these issues and fulfill the daily informational requirements of working archivists.

MIC’s mission is to immerse moving images into the education mainstream, recognizing that what society uses, it values, and what it values, it preserves. Originally designed to address the crisis in film preservation, MIC demonstrates that recommendations rooted in the practical requirements of preserving analog artifacts can evolve into a visionary R&D platform which serves a clientele beyond archivists and explores the leading edge of non-textual indexing, digital rights management, and educational use, all the while continuing to meet the daily needs of archivists by supporting collaborative preservation, access, digitization, education, and metadata initiatives.

List of restored films

Television.svg This film, television or video-related list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it with reliably sourced additions.

List of restored films with enhanced/altered/upgraded effects


Film decay as an artform

In 2002, filmmaker Bill Morrison produced Decasia, a film solely based on fragments of old unrestored nitrate-based films in various states of decay and disrepair, providing a somewhat eerie aesthetic to the film. The film was paired together with a soundtrack composed by Michael Gordon, and performed by his orchestra. The footage used was from old newsreel & archive film, and was obtained by Morrison from several sources, such as the Fox Movietone Newsfilm Archives at the University of South Carolina, and the archives of the Museum of Modern Art.

See also



  1. ^ a b McGreevey, Tom. Our Movie Heritage. Rutgers University Press, 1997.
  2. ^ Dave Kehr (October 14, 2010). "Film Riches, Cleaned Up for Posterity". New York Times. Retrieved 2010-10-15. "It’s bad enough, to cite a common estimate, that 90 percent of all American silent films and 50 percent of American sound films made before 1950 appear to have vanished forever." 
  3. ^ The Film Preservation Guide: The Basics for Archives, Libraries and Museums. National Film Preservation Foundation. San Francisco, CA, 2004.
  4. ^ Robert A. Harris, public hearing statement to the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., February 1993.
  5. ^ "Films put in Ice for Fans Yet Unborn. Movies Deemed Peculiarly Worthy of Preservation Will Be Treated to Last Forever. Screen Cornerstones. Films for Fans Yet Unborn". New York Times. October 24, 1926, Sunday. "Will Hays has sent a call to the motion-picture companies to search their vaults for ancient films of all kinds and for news reels of possible historic interest. The most important of these are to be treated by a process developed in the Eastman laboratories for making films immortal." 
  6. ^ [1][dead link]
  7. ^ Passion Cinéma
  8. ^ "Early Motion Pictures Free of Copyright Restrictions in the Library of Congress". Library of Congress. 2010-08-31. Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  9. ^[dead link]
  10. ^ "Museum History · George Eastman House". Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  11. ^ American Film Institute. "History of AFI". Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  12. ^
  13. ^ You Must Remember This: The Warner Bros. Story (2008), p. 255.
  14. ^ WB retained a pair of features from 1949 that they merely distributed, and all short subjects released on or after September 1, 1948; in addition to all cartoons released in August 1948.
  15. ^ "Homepage - Steve Knoblock". Retrieved 2011-04-14. 
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h "A Digital Restoration Retrospective". American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre. Retrieved January 19, 2010. 

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