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Recently Restored 2015

Through August 6

From July 3 through August 6, the Gene Siskel Film Center presents “Recently Restored,” a series of seventeen films showcasing recent achievements in film restoration. Also attached to the series is the Chicago premiere of FROM CALIGARI TO HITLER: GERMAN CINEMA IN THE AGE OF THE MASSES, a film-history documentary of related interest.

Film restoration is distinguished from conservation (storing prints and other media in optimal conditions) and preservation (transferring a film to a more stable storage medium, such as from nitrate stock to safety stock). Restoration involves a more active intervention designed to return a film to an original state that has been compromised by such factors as deterioration, damage, fading, loss of footage, and loss of information (such as color-tinting). It is a relatively recent phenomenon in the timeline of film history, seldom undertaken before the 1970s. Stimulated by the advent of the home-video market and cable movie-channels, restoration efforts gained momentum in the 1980s and 1990s, with several high-profile examples (NAPOLEON, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, VERTIGO) winning attention and even a degree of box-office success.

The most important — and potentially problematic — development in the history of film restoration has been the shift from photochemical, film-based processes to digital processes. The first feature film to be restored digitally was Disney’s SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS in 1993. The prevalence of higher-resolution home-entertainment formats such as Blu-Ray and HDTV has increased the demand for superior copies that more closely approximate the film’s original theatrical quality.

Digital tools have given archivists greater control over such factors as dirt, scratches, shrinkage, color grading, and even the replacement of damaged or missing areas by culling information from other, more intact areas of the print. Digital restorations are currently considerably more expensive than photochemical ones. They also carry the danger of overzealously removing such perceived imperfections as grain, flicker, and jitter to produce a sterile, excessively smooth, and inauthentic result.

These problems highlight an essential principle of film restoration: that it is not simply a matter of replicating a universally agreed-upon original version of the film. The differences in the tools, materials, and conditions by which the restored version is produced and presented make such purity impossible. This was true of film-to-film restorations (such as those involving movies originally filmed on nitrate stock and/or projected on arc-lamp projectors), and it is even more true of film-to-digital ones. Film restoration necessarily involves a negotiation between the original source and the current technology, and, accordingly, it requires a high degree of informed but inevitably interpretative judgment on the part of the restorationist.

Reflecting the increasing dominance of digital tools and processes in film restoration, this series includes only one movie on 35mm film (LITTLE MISS MARKER). The rest are presented in the reigning exhibition format of DCP, and, of those, eleven are in 4K, the current high end of digital movie resolution. We want to emphasize, however, that important achievements in photochemical film restoration and preservation continue to be made, as will be demonstrated when we host the latest edition of the UCLA Festival of Preservation in October.

— Martin Rubin

Special thanks to Tim Lanza, Cohen Film Collection; Clemence Taillandier, Film Movement; Brian Belovarac, Janus Films; Gary Palmucci and Jonathan Hertzberg, Kino Lorber; Paul Ginsburg, NBC Universal Distribution; Chris Chouinard, Park Circus Inc.; Eric Di Bernardo, Rialto Pictures; Michael Horne and David Jennings, Sony Pictures Releasing.
If you are interested in learning more about film restoration, we recommend the following online articles, all of which contributed to the writing of the above introduction: