The Reel Thing
Grover Crisp (Sony Pictures executive vice president, asset management, film restoration & digital management) and Michael Friend (Sony Pictures director, digital archive, asset management) are creators and co-organizers of The Reel Thing, a symposium on restoration and archiving of moving image and sound, from the beginnings of the late 19th century to the digital present. Debra Kaufman had a chance to ask them some questions about the 38th edition of The Reel Thing, which will take place 18-20 August at the Academy’s Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.
What are we going to see at The Reel Thing this year?
The Reel Thing will feature presentations on using digital technologies (scanning, color correction, frame rate adjustment, color space and gamut) to present legacy films optimally in digital formats, modern tools for audio restoration, the excavation of a ‘jukebox’ format for presenting band shorts, the complex process of restoring Olympic films, the evolution of modern scanners, and efforts to restore the work of Louis Delluc, a stylish French innovator of the 1920s.
There will also be premiere screenings of several films: John Huston’s Beat the Devil, restored to the original, uncensored version; Marlon Brando’s only directorial effort, One-Eyed Jacks, restored by Universal in collaboration with The Film Foundation, and Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller, recently restored by Criterion Collection.
What is the current state of films that need restoration?
Hundreds of millions of feet of film have been transferred from nitrate to safety film, and many films transferred to high definition digital formats. Today, we are bringing that legacy up to a new, much higher standard of quality at 4K with high dynamic range. In addition to re-visiting preservation work done previously, we are also applying new technologies for restoration (stabilization, dust busting, flicker correction and color restoration) in ways that vastly improve upon what we could do in the 1970-1990s, which was the modern era of film preservation. Many nitrate negatives, even those with damage, are still serviceable. But they are at risk and, whenever we can, we go back to those negatives using modern scanners and other technologies to reveal the quality of the original films. Many films could still benefit from modern preservation techniques.
How do the studios choose which films to restore?
Our core mission is to make sure all the films in the library are preserved and, if necessary, restored. At the studios, our work to restore a film often relates to some market driver, for home entertainment or a unique television sale or theatrical release. But what also comes into play is the condition of the film, if it’s deteriorating, faded, missing something, or has ever been properly preserved. These considerations are always in conjunction with specific modes of exhibition, from theatrical release to 4K streaming. Films need restoration because, as the media of display evolve, the underlying legacy film must be prepared to accurately represent the original achievement of the filmmakers. If you need a film for Blu-ray, but it doesn’t exist on HD, or you want it for 4K UHD but it has never been scanned at 4K, it always comes down to this: you need to go back to the most original film materials and work at whatever the current highest quality format. And the formats change rapidly, of course, and keeping up with it is challenging.
How long does the typical film take to restore?
A restoration can be completed in a month or two if all the film is available and in good shape. More typically, the underlying negatives are not in perfect shape, and so different elements must be compared, methods of extraction may be tested to determine how to derive the best result, and many more hours must be expended in restoring color, removing defects, rebalancing audio and so forth. A difficult or complex restoration can take from six months to a few years, depending on the nature of the problems in the source elements and the resources available for the work.
What happens to the films not owned by a studio?
Films not owned by studios – “orphan films” as they are sometimes called – are often acquired by archives in the public sphere and restored and preserved as a part of our cultural legacy.
Will the Reel Thing be of interest to the Los Angeles post community?
Absolutely. Many people in the post-production community contribute to the work of preservation and archiving, and they are a part of our audience. Many people in the post industry are very interested in these kinds of topics and work with us to develop presentations related to their own work. As we have moved into all-digital workflows, the post community has come to realize how important archiving is to the whole project.
Can anyone go to The Reel Thing? Where should they sign up?
Anyone can come to The Reel Thing. To register, go to www.the-reel-thing.org. There are multiple levels of registration, including discounts for certain industry groups and students. One thing that is important to point out is that this event is a non-profit initiative and all donations and revenue goes to support the programs and services of the Association of Moving Image Archivists. AMIA is the key association for archivists, students, industry individuals who are working in the field of sound and moving image preservation and we are pleased that The Reel Thing symposium has been able to help support them, and they us, for many years. It’s a true service to the archival community.