Motion Picture Conservation at the Library of Congress
by David Francis, Chief National Audio-Visual Conservation Center
From 1893, when Thomas Edison first used 35mm perforated film
in his Kinetoscopes, until 1951, when acetate, or safety, film
replaced it, the film base chosen by the industry was made of cellulose
nitrate, an extremely flammable substance that, like all polymers,
undergoes continuous chemical decomposition.
This problem more than any other has dominated film archivists'
thinking since the first archives were established in the early
1930s. Most works of art spend the first part of their lives in
private hands because the assessment of artistic importance often
requires hindsight and national museums and art galleries are traditionally
conservative in their acquisitions policies. Except for some modern
sculpture, which also suffers from polymer degradation, most works
of art normally survive the experience.
Film, however, with its beginnings in fairgrounds and the vaudeville
theater, developed its own form and language during the 1920s and
1930s and is only now being recognized as an art form and an important
historical record. To a large extent, films did not survive their
time in private or, more accurately, commercial hands. Only about
10 percent of the movies produced in the United States before 1929
still exist. Hence, the film archivist is continually under pressure
just to ensure the future of films content. As for the artifacts
themselves, there is no way the archivist can prolong their lives.
In the past the Library's policy has been to make exact copies
of all the nitrate films in its collection, leaving it to others
in the future to determine whether the duplicate would win the
approval of the original production team. However, Congress's establishment
in 1988 of the National Film Registry and the deliberations of
the National Film Preservation Board have started to change the
public's attitude toward the country's film heritage. This is providing
a more favorable climate for "film restoration," that
is, the reconstruction of a film so that it represents as nearly
as possible the intentions of its maker.
Nevertheless, the federal government, like governments the world
over, has realized that it cannot singlehandedly pay for the preservation
of all aspects of the national heritage, which by definition grows
with the passing of time. The search for partners in this preservation
enterprise has been directed toward businesses, charities and wealthy
private individuals. These groups, however, are now besieged by
requests for funds, and more and more require an identifiable commercial
benefit or need to see a tangible result from their generosity,
such as media attention, before allocating resources.
In the past, the preservation of an important film has not given
donors the same satisfaction as saving a major painting for the
nation. How then can film preservation be made more appealing?
It would undoubtedly help if archivists looked at their own image.
The film archive must be moved from the world of commerce to the
realm of the fine arts. The terms "vaults" and "laboratory," "printing" and "processing" are
associated with an industry. A name like our own Motion Picture
Conservation Center, staffed by conservation specialists and film
historians, seems appropriate for an organization responsible for
safeguarding part of the national heritage.
There must also be a shift in emphasis from preservation-- the
action of duplication or making the best copy from existing material--to
restoration--the determination of the original form prior to copying
and the reconstruction of the work from a multitude of sources.
In short, the scholar and the technician must work more closely
In 1991, the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation
Center in Dayton, Ohio worked on Frank Capra's 1939 classic "Mr.
Smith Goes to Washington," one of the 25 titles on 1989's
National Film Registry List. Surprisingly, there were only two
nitrate elements still available for such an important film: the
original negative, which was full of "replacement footage," and
a heavily used release print made from the European negative that
the Library borrowed from Britain's National Film Archive. In addition,
we had at our disposal two safety fine-grain(1) film elements from
the producers, Columbia Pictures, and a rather flat safety negative
from which we recently produced the print shown by David Packard,
an important supporter of LC's film preservation efforts, in Palo
Alto in his tribute to Frank Capra.
The nitrate negative presented an unexpected problem. A large
part of the sequence at the Lincoln Memorial had been blown up
from 16mm to 35mm. This was likely inserted in the negative in
the mid-1950s. As a result, all prints made from the negative during
the past 35 years have significant image degradation in this section
of the film.
Our first task was to make certain that we knew which version
of the film we were trying to restore. Capra had a reputation for
changing his films, even after previews and sometimes even after
the film had been in limited release. This meant that the original
script and even the published script were not necessarily reliable
source material. We therefore had to turn to contemporary reviews,
articles about the making of the film and biographies of the members
of the creative team. In the case of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," there
appeared to have been no changes after release. The National Film
Archive print therefore became a valuable reference source.
Hollywood tended to dispatch the European duplicate negative as
soon as the film was completed so that it could be released in
major cities while the positive (it was hoped) critical reaction
received in the United States was still firmly in the public's
mind. Since the National Film Archive print was made from the European
duplicate negative for London release, it was probably an accurate
record of the film's form when it left Columbia's Hollywood Laboratory.
The next step was the preparation of a restoration script. It
had to indicate accurately all of the sections in the original
negative that needed to be replaced and from whence the replacements
had to come. In the end the script prepared by Ken Weissman, Dayton
Laboratory supervisor, totaled nearly 30 pages.
The restoration process is costly and time-consuming. From the
original negative we have to make two fine grains. One will be
held as security in case the first fine grain is damaged during
reconstruction and we are unable to print another fine grain from
the nitrate negative. The other will form the basis of the restored
master. At the same time the nitrate optical sound track is rerecorded
on magnetic tape and a safety optical negative produced. This operation
now has to be done by commercial laboratories; I hope that someday
the Library will exploit all the expertise it has acquired in the
field of sound restoration and tackle this within the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center.
We then had to find the appropriate material in other copies to
replace damaged sections and missing or incomplete shots in the
original negative. The resulting sections then had to be converted
into the fine grain format so they could be cut into the restoration
master. The sound track and picture elements were then be matched,
producing a fine grain with numerous splices and many untimed inserts(2).
This copy is the restoration master because it is the closest to
However, we still have to produce a "performance copy," as
well as satisfy the copyright owner's need for access to the restored
version. We can either produce a one-light negative or a partially
timed one(3) if the differences between the original material and
the insert sequences are too prominent. If the copyright owner
also wants material, then we would make two such negatives at this
stage, one in the form of a composite for the copyright owner,
the other with separate sound track for the Library. From the latter
we will make a timed answer print. This will then be screened in
a normal theatrical environment, because the purpose of the performance
print is to help re-create the experience of cinema and therefore,
it should look its best on the screen of, say, a 500-seat theater.
Further timing adjustments will be made and it is hoped the second
answer print(4) will meet archival "show print" standards
and be available for screening.
The above is a straightforward account of what we have to do in
restoring a film but does not take into account the difficult ethical
problems. For instance, it is now possible to remove all the scratch
and hiss from variable area and variable density sound tracks using
electronic enhancement techniques. Such changes will undoubtedly
make the track more acceptable to today's ears. I believe the restoration
master optical sound track should only be equalized to reflect
material from different sources (if sections have been edited into
the sound track from elsewhere) and not electronically enhanced.
On the other hand, there is no reason why a separate rerecording
should not be made using all available sound track enhancement
techniques for public reissue use.
In the same way, except for archival audiences, it may be necessary
to trim slightly incomplete shots or even cut out, say, two frames
of damaged image or insert material in a show copy so that these
technical imperfections do not interfere with modern audiences'
enjoyment of the film. The cinema is basically an entertainment
In short, we have not lost the opportunity to present the film
almost as it was seen originally, nor do we forget that today's
audience has a different perspective from that of the moviegoers
who saw "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" in 1939.
Of course, the Library's preservation specialists and their counter-parts
elsewhere in America cannot restore all 100,000 films in their
collections to the standard described above. The basic process
of making the best copies of nitrate originals, that is, preservation,
will still be essential. Then at least archivists will be able
to undertake full restoration in the future. Indeed, this will
be easier when archives the world over have copied all their nitrate
holdings, accurate and comprehensive copy data has been captured
and made accessible, and international cooperation in the field
has become the rule rather than the exception.
There will of course be those who feel this is too great an undertaking
for the federal government to finance, even with the help of the
film industry and the sponsor. These people suggest that we must
therefore copy some material onto an inferior format--16mm film,
videotape, etc.--or indeed copy only the most worthy among the
100,000 films that have fortuitously survived. I oppose both suggestions.
We have recently celebrated the 100th anniversary of film and soon
will celebrate the end of the first century in mankind's history
whose development has been chronicled by the motion picture camera.
By 2000 I feel certain that the importance of the nation's film
heritage will finally be given the recognition it deserves. If
we could turn back the clock and save all the great manuscripts
and works of art that were destroyed or allowed to deteriorate,
I am sure we would jump at the opportunity. Today, we are in a
position to save all extant motion picture film from the nitrate
era and avert the reproaches of our descendants for a failure to
allocate what in today's terms are minimal resources to the safeguarding
of our heritage.
To those who would promote the idea of holding part of this heritage
on an inferior format, I would simply remind them that each new
technological advance in the fields of image recording and dissemination
requires a master of the highest quality. Never will this need
be more apparent than in the revolution that is just around the
corner, namely digital television. The new system will be able
to capture and disseminate more of the information contained in
the motion picture frame than ever before. The Japanese market
makers need to be able to demonstrate the advantages of higher
quality images. They will undoubtedly seek out film archives with
inducements. We must be ready to meet the challenge.
Not only are we undergoing a quality revolution but also a quantity
revolution. Today every moving image, whether fact or fiction,
is potentially valuable. The archives are the great untapped storehouses.
But we must not sell ourselves short. We must cooperate with the
copyright owner, the sponsor and the disseminator and use government
funds for the "everyday images" that do not have a benefactor.
We must also shout about our achievements, make certain that the
archive's name is above the credits and have a say in the way in
which the products of our labors are displayed, presented and performed.
- Safety Fine Grain: A type of positive copy of a film specifically
made for duplication purposes.
- Untimed Insert: Inserts into a film are "timed" to
make them match the material into which they are inserted; an
untimed insert does not match.
- One-light Negative is made using an average overall exposure.
Timing changes are then made when the positive prints are produced
from it. This helps achieve integration between original material
and insert sequences.
- Answer Print: The first print from a newly made negative. Such
prints are used to help achieve the highest "show print" standards.