A Golden Age and a Dark Age for Film Preservation

We know the past by what they left behind. This is as much true of ancient Greek art as 1920s America, and in both cases we are impoverished when that legacy is lost. We will never recover from the loss of Aristotle’s works, and we can only ever have a fragmentary knowledge of early film. Too much has been lost which will never be reclaimed.

75% of silent films are lost. Imagine three-quarters of a medium being simply lost to time, never to be seen again. Let that sit with you.

We have lost the work of actors, artists, directors, and musicians, people like you and me who poured their heart into their art. It’s simply gone.

As a culture, we should strive to ensure this never happens. And on that front, there is good news and bad news.

The Golden Age of Film Preservation

The medieval scholars had the right idea. A work of art cannot be lost if it is copied. Though your monastery may be ransacked, though a book may be burned, the art lives on if another copy has been sent across the country, and those other monks in turn have made a new copy to send farther out.

True security, in art, comes from proliferation. If it only exists in one copy, it is already on the edge of destruction. It is a miracle we have Beowulf. It came down to us in a singular copy, and survived a fire to reach us. There are a handful of missing words where the fire devoured the paper. If art exists in ten copies, the art has a chance to survive. If art is preserved in hundreds of copies, its survival is nearly guaranteed.

But there is also the matter of quality. A work of art is technically preserved as long as it exists, but how much you may enjoy yourself depends on the quality of transmission. In prose, a corrupted text or one with poor preservation will make reading difficult. In canvas-based art, poor transmission requires repairs and (in worst case scenarios) significant work that leaves the restorer to guess at the artist’s intentions. In film and television, the quality of the medium reigns. A film is not lost if we have it on VHS or a production tape. But even apart from the degradation of tapes, it is a low quality preservation. We live in a world on the edge of totally adopting 4K resolution, and tape-based media doesn’t cut it for our sharpened senses.

There are two different wonderful things happening right now in the world of film preservation.

First, there are a number of companies producing Blu-ray or 4K HUD versions of classic and indie cinema. Kino Lorber, Arrow Video, Vinegar Syndrome, the Criterion Collection, and many others are creating beautifully restored versions of films. I am blessed to live in a world where I can get not only beautifully restored and vibrant copies of Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Arsenic and Old Lace– but copies with a list of special features as long as my arm (and I say this as someone with very long arms). Studios are releasing more of their back catalogue, and even using print on demand services to create Blu-rays of films with a smaller audience.

Second, films that previously received shoddy restorations are receiving new transfers that bring the film back to life. It is heartbreaking to read about how previous Disney teams used low-quality scans of films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, and Snow White (really, every major Disney film prior to 1960), and then merely spackling digital paint over these scans to make “high definition.” Beautiful details were lost. They didn’t even use the right colors. But now a new team is set on doing it right, truly restoring the films.

How is any of this possible? Almost everything I am talking about above was shot on film. Film is an analog medium that captures the scene in a chemical process. This is important because it means that unlike a digital file, which will always be locked at the quality pre-set, film does not have a locked resolution. 35mm film is generally projected at the analog equivalent of 4K, and as we will discuss can likely go higher (depending on the film and filmstock that ceiling is lower or much higher). As long as a physical source exists, these films will always be with us in the latest, sharpest formats.

And as long as more copies are kept, via both specialized library holdings and normal public release, the films of roughly 1930-2000 will always be with humanity.

The Dark Age of Film Preservation

Later in his career, David Lynch shifted from shooting on film to exclusively shooting on digital. Inland Empire was filmed solely on off-the-shelf camcorders and is locked in at 480p.

The recent Criterion Collection release of the film has done a heroic job essentially re-editing the movie, correcting the balance issues, and upscaling it. For the first time, you can see Inland Empire in higher resolution.

But there’s a problem.

You’re not really watching the movie. You’re watching a computer’s best guess at what the movie looks like.

Outside of fixing the lighting, etc., it’s a well-made computer upscale. The digital files the original movie exists within do not contain the information necessary to render it at a higher resolution. A computer program was sent in to take a swing at inventing fake information to fill in the gaps. Even with all the human oversight in the world, you’re not watching the movie, you’re watching a suggestion of the movie. Visual artifacts and a waxy look are two examples of what happens when inventing visual content. The Criterion Collection took the time necessary to make sure the film looks right, but as we will see, Disney won’t. And as Disney tries to gobble up more and more of our planet’s artistic legacy, this will grow to become a greater problem.

Let me be clear, the problem is not using computer aids in restorations. The Criterion Collection’s Alfred Hitchcock restorations are a necessary counterpoint. Their restoration teams have the film in their possession, and in some cases they have filmstock positives that are only one generation away from the footage that went through the camera on set. The computer aids only help do what a human could do, but faster, and have significant human oversight.

Film can be rendered at at least 6-8k, and possibly higher. There might not be a limit on how high a resolution film can be rendered in: because it’s a physical medium created via a chemical process all of the information is there. We still do not have the technology to reach all of the visual quality in film. It is futureproofed in a very real way. If there is a limit to film, it’s so far beyond what is useful to humans that it might as well not exist.

Digital films are locked at their created resolution. Each “step” of quality you take the film higher, the gaps are filled with more invented information; these leads to artifacts, and that particular waxy shine.

We have already exceeded what the Star Wars prequels were shot at. They were “futureproofed” at only 1080p.

The 4k version Disney released? You’re not really watching the movie. You’re watching a computer’s best guess at what the movie looks like. And the difference between the original files and 4k is profound. Artifacting, blur, and a waxy pallor reign. It will only get worse with every new edition that pushes the resolution higher.

Worse yet, Disney – home of the Splash butt shimmer and hacky edits to Star Wars and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? – does not care about at least making it look right like Criteron. Some teams within Disney do. Others are not given the time or resources to care, or are ordered not to. It is the corporation at fault, not the technicians.

Decades of our culture are not merely relying on computer files, which are easily lost, but are gated behind formats that age-out of use and are locked to resolutions which are already passé and perceived as blurry.

In the future, outside of the handful of movies like La La Land that fought to be shot on film, we won’t be watching the films of the 2000s. If they survive in source files, we’ll be watching a computer’s best guess at what those movies looked like. As resolutions creep ever higher, there will be less of the original film to be seen. The same will happen to family films and our photographs, as we rapidly outpace the medium we use for our art and memories.

And yet, that is not all. Streaming dominates the market. Hundreds of film and television series sit only as digital files on a central server. Maybe some of these files are properly backed up. But again, maybe not. Look at the razing of HBO Max, and consider how many series may not merely be taken down from the public but simply gone.

While there have been some recent improvements, with more of these works being in some sense preserved, producers care far too little to preserve their catalogue. We could easily face a loss as extreme as silent Hollywood’s.

Unless something changes, we sit on the edge of losing the bulk of art created in our lifetimes.

Featured Image: Dmitry Demidov

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2 thoughts on “A Golden Age and a Dark Age for Film Preservation

  1. Great article! It has to be some kind of irony that recordings – things literally on record – can so easily be lost. The “HD” Disney classics hurt so bad to look at. I remember being repulsed by Alice in Wonderland’s which looked like someone smeared neon Vaseline over a direct-to-video knock off.

    1. I’m relieved they have a better team granted the time and budget to fix them. The interview with the new restoration team is interesting because while he stays polite, you can feel the confusion and horror in his words as he describes how the old team handled the work. I’m excited for the promised new versions of Alice and Sleeping Beauty.

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