- All films undergo chemical breakdown – a process which, past a certain point, is irreversible.
- We visited The George Eastman Museum to find out how archivists save old films that might otherwise be lost forever.
- Eastman’s team has restored the quiet Western “Pinto Ben”, addressing age-related damage ranging from scratches to discoloration.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Here is a transcript of the video:
Narrator: It’s a scene from the silent western “Pinto Ben”. And this is what it looks like after its restoration. All that filth in the past is chemical breakdown, which destroyed about 75% of American silent films. But this is where they are saved: the George Eastman Museum, where archivists rescued the lost works of filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Orson Welles.
One of his ongoing projects is this: a century-old western starring and directed by William S. Hart, one of the biggest movie stars of the day. And it’s especially tricky because it’s made of nitrate. The material is known to be highly flammable and chemically unstable, making it prone to decomposition.
Antoine L’Abbate: I’m sure you can start feeling that. It smells of nitrate starting to break down. My colleagues feel like it smells like wet dog. When it gets really bad, it’s more like taking a dirty gym sock and putting it in a glass of sour milk.
Narrator: Although “Pinto Ben” did not reach the sour milk stage, the transparent film base began to discolor. This is the first step.
Anthony: As you go through it you can see how it becomes more and more brownish yellow. It was the second stage, where the image started to fade.
Narrator: This is where the emulsion in the film broke down.
Anthony: At the third stage, the film begins to ooze and bubble like a honey-like substance. Until then, some parts can still be salvaged. And then the fourth stage, it crystallizes into a hockey puck. After that, it becomes a very fine brown powder.
Narrator: This process is irreversible and can happen surprisingly quickly. Archivists like Anthony must therefore identify decaying films and restore them to new rolls before it’s too late. In silent movies like this, they can start looking around at title cards.
Anthony: Headlines were generally photographed and processed worse than images. Much of the breakdown can start from the titles and then work its way through the rest of the movie.
Narrator: Then they will begin physical repairs. Each of these welds marks a tear in the film that an archivist glued together with liquid cement or damaged frames that had to be replaced with blank film. Some of these repairs were made before the reel came into Eastman’s possession. Another area to mend: those perforated edges. If these perforations are torn, the tear may spread inward and begin to affect the image. Additionally, these perforations, when intact, allow the film to move safely through the cleaner and scanner during subsequent steps. So in areas where the damage is significant…
Anthony: The edge and perfs are completely lacking.
Narrator: Anthony will use this special tape to replace the missing perforations. At the end of this process, the film will look like this, with all these white bands marking the puncture repairs.
Once all of these weakened areas have been reinforced, the film goes through this ultrasonic cleaner to remove any dust or dirt on the surface. Then the film is finally digitized. It goes through the scanner, which captures each image and turns it into a digital file. This process can take up to 48 hours for a two-hour movie, and the team must do this for each version of the movie they are going to use for the reconstruction.
Eastman reconstructs “Pinto Ben” from six sources, each providing different puzzle pieces from the film. Two of the sources are from the 1917 reissue of the film as “Horns and Hoofs”. The Library of Congress has retained the nitrate for reel one, the first half of the film, and the negative for reel two, the second half of the film. These sources have the best image quality – the shots are sharp and have good contrast – but the Library of Congress nitrate is the least complete item. These frames have a bit of yellow slime on the side, which marks the beginning of decay, while these frames show it in its final stages.
Graham: We can’t restore this digitally because there’s very little image information for our software to look at, so we’re going to want to use that for as many scenes as possible, but if there’s any missing frames or the decomposition and the damage is so distracting and irreconcilable, we’ll move on to the other nitrate print that we have.
Narrator: This nitrate was sent from France, where “Pinto Ben” was released as “Le Poney de Rio Jim”.
Brian: Some parts have actually been excised over the years, possibly due to decay or damage, we don’t know.
Narrator: To fill in the remaining missing pieces, the team will rely on one of three low-resolution prints of the film from a 1924 re-release. Overall, these prints contain the most information, as they have the highest number of intact images. But the image quality here is probably the crudest.
Graham: You can see the focus is a bit blurrier, it’s a bit flatter, the contrast isn’t as good.
Narrator: They can play with contrast to help fix obvious quality jumps between frames, and color grading will help tie it all together.
Graham: And then from all these different elements and all these different frameworks, we put together as complete a version as possible.
Narrator: Once a timeline of all the best shots has been created, the digital restoration begins. The first thing to fix is that shaky motion you see between frames. This is often the result of the film shrinking over time. The shrunken film also doesn’t pass through the scanner, so you may end up with an unstable image.
Cris: We know that in analog film there is a bit of slight vibration in the film image, but if it was moving steadily up and down, we would try to eliminate it to some extent. The thing that this element suffers from is mainly scratching.
Narrator: The software helps to detect them, but it is not a perfect solution.
Cris: In this film, there is a lot of wallpaper and a lot of vertical lines that look like this kind of stripes, so I put a very thick stripe, it goes, well, I follow this line on the wallpaper, no ? I should delete that.
Narrator: It can use the same type of programmed filters to help detect dark dirt, light dust, or other stray artifacts, like stray eyelashes or hair that may have become embedded in the print.
Cris: So it was just a stray piece of dirt that fell on the film at some point.
Narrator: Other artifacts can be captured in the image itself, for example, if there was dirt on the printer or a camera negative when the film was printed many years ago. You tend to find the most dirt and dust at the ends of the film.
Brian: These would be more exposed to the elements. Just sitting in a box, it would either be heads or tails, which would gather dust when you put it in the box, take it out.
Narrator: In general, the more popular a movie was and the longer it was shown in theaters, the more likely it was to have suffered heavy wear, scratches and thumbprints in places like this where the emulsion got erases, a common effect. repeated projection. Last step in the process: color grading. Here the team has the digitized images of “Pinto Ben” on the screen and the nitrate film on the inspection table. The goal is to make the colors on this screen match those of the physical reference as closely as possible. It requires a lot of precision and teamwork.
Brian: Hotter, colder?
Graham: I would say warmer, but I feel like we’ve lost some of the saturation. It is a very deep, vivid, almost radioactive yellow.
Narrator: They must be very gentle with an impression like this as they go through and inspect the color of each scene.
Graham: As you can see, the film bends in one direction, so these edges here warp a bit. These are all signs of warping and physical deterioration of the film. If it gets worse, this item may not be able to be analyzed in the future. And so when we inspect it, we move very slowly, because the last thing we want to do is further damage the film print.
Narrator: At the end of the process, the film looks like this – pretty close to how it was originally seen by audiences in 1915. And that’s the point.
Anthony: We try to present the film as an artifact and an art form as it was originally presented.
Narrator: This whole process can take up to two years, which means many films deteriorate faster than archives can preserve them.
Anthony: If we have a unique copy where we know it’s the last surviving element of a movie and we notice it starting to break down, that will go to the top of our preservation priority list.
Narrator: “Pinto Ben” is one of nine William S. Hart films Eastman is restoring, and one of thousands of films the museum has helped save from forever loss.