We are losing older movies at a record rate.
What happens when movies get old? Just like the people who made them, movies age and yes, they can also die and decay. There are many lost films. It is estimated that 75% of American silent films are considered lost. But that’s why we need to do much better to find and preserve the films we still have.
Some experts are dedicated to this work at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, New York. Their team rescues old movies and restores them to glory.
The Eastman Museum runs one of the best film preservation programs in the world, with an archive of 28,000 films, including the personal collections of Spike Lee and Martin Scorsese. The museum’s preservation projects include the silent films of Cecil B. DeMille, Georges Méliès and Stanley Kubrick’s first film, fear and desire.
Check out this video from Initiated on how this team keeps old movies alive.
As we said above, chemical decomposition destroyed 75% of silent films made in America. As we mourn those lost, this team is doing its best to save the movies for a long time.
So how do you do it? For a movie like an old silent movie, on a reel of nitrate, you have to see what’s left of it first.
Old nitrate smells of wet dog and sour milk. Amusing!
Historians unwind the reels to visually check the damage. Although some parts are lost forever, they serve to mark sections that can be repaired. This includes scouring the frames, adding teeth so they can be rolled up in a machine, and even cutting up rotting pieces, so they don’t contaminate other pieces.
Once the coil is ready, it is introduced into an ultrasonic cleaner. They remove all the microbial grime and dust that we can’t see.
Once clean, the film can be digitally scanned. A two-hour film passes very slowly through the scanner. It will take about two days to scan completely. And they don’t just digitize one copy, they digitize a few copies of the same movie if they’re available. Then they take the best quality portions of each print to form the best digital version on the other side.
This is where human-made work comes in. Restoring elements to digital files, color correcting, and using contrast and color grading to create something uniquely end. As we compile digital copies of all these important films, they are preserved for generations to come.
Does this work interest you? What was your favorite part of the video? Let us know in the comments.