Restoring old films is not just a tribute to cinematic excellence; it is also a rewarding exercise
Noted Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa, once said that never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or the moon. Imagine what generations of Indians would have missed out on if the Apu Trilogy (comprising Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apur Sansar) had not risen from the ashes like the proverbial cinematic phoenix.
Not many know that a year after Ray’s demise, original negatives of some his movies were destroyed during a fire at London-based Henderson’s Film Laboratories. These included the original negatives of The Apu Trilogy. Whatever was retrieved was badly burnt or considered damaged beyond repair.
The Academy Film Archive at The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences entrusted the salvaged content to agencies like L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna and the Criterion Collection for restoration where technicians used their skills and the latest technologies of the time to repair it. This included rehydrating the film, scanning the prints, removing traces of adhesive, tape and wax, rebuilding sprocket perforations on the sides of the film–at times manually.
Since the infrastructure of public domain entities are not on par with international standards, indigenous filmmakers often resort to private restoration facilities, like Shemaroo Entertainment, or freelance artists.
Fortunately, Janus Films had preserved duplicate negatives of the movies. Using this and fine-grain masters, suitable replacements were found for the unusable or missing sections of the original negatives. Importance was given to uphold the look and character of the original material, at times even preferring to leave the damage untouched. Peter Becker, president of the Criterion Collection and partner at Janus Films, said, “This monumental restoration and national re-release is the culmination of seven years of work by dozens of people on three continents from the Academy Film Archive, the Cineteca di Bologna, and our own team at Criterion.” The Apu Trilogy was released across the US in 2015.
Another Bollywood classic that was recently restored was Guru Dutt’s 1957 film Pyaasa, which starred Mala Sinha, Waheeda Rehman, and the veteran director himself. A team of 45 experts from Mumbai-based production house Ultra Media and Entertainment restored the damaged movie, prints of which had even melted away in parts. The team laboured over two lakh frames for more than four months, digitally transferring the original camera negative to retain its original essence. Later, scratches, mildew, patches, dirt, etc, were manually removed from each frame and the audio was mastered and enhanced. The movie was re-released at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival to critical acclaim.
This might lead one to believe that film preservation and restoration is a serious endeavour in India. However, this is not the case.
According to Jai Maroo, director of Shemaroo Entertainment, part of this indifference stems from the traditional mindset that Indian filmmakers have of concentrating more on a movie’s revenue upon its theatrical release. “A movie’s restoration and preservation, till recently, was considered to be a time-consuming and expensive affair, and storing the reels suitably was not their top priority. It was only after cable TV gained ground and terrestrial TV networks started launching channels airing classic movies that they realised that these films could be monetised,” he stated.
Over 45 experts from Ultra Media and Entertainment laboured over two lakh frames of Pyaasa for more than four months to restore the badly damaged movie.
Sonia Huria, head – communication and CSR at Viacom18, felt that the lack of skilled practitioners in this niche field was another reason for this apathy. “Film handling and care is not looked upon as a career option. By the time the National Film Archive of India was established, most of the silent films were lost. Film producers, after the commercial run of the film was over, used the footage to extract silver from the nitrate component. This was one of the major factors in losing precious film footage,” she stated.
Rajiv Shah, a business development consultant who represents MTI Film and Belgium’s Memnon Archiving Services in India, agreed with Maroos and Huria. He stated that it was only after 2004 that media companies realised the importance of film and video programming content. According to him this interest was spurred by two major reasons. The first was the availability of new digital technology platforms by which content could be digitally restored, repurposed, stored, and delivered globally where there is great demand for Indian cinema and video programming. Second, this became a good business model for media organisations to buy, restore, subtitle or dub, and sell to international broadcasters (where the demand for old movies was high amongst the diaspora) for one-time or multiple telecasts.
In contrast, the US and European markets took to film restoration and preservation more earnestly in the mid 90s with the advent of DVDs and the realisation that significant non-theatrical revenue was available, which encouraged studios to spend money on upgrading the quality of aging elements. A good example of this is Universal Pictures, which, as a part of its Centennial celebration, restored and remastered some of its popular classic films in 4K. This included Jaws, the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller, where the original prints were scanned to remove scratches and the audio was enhanced.
The original prints of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws were scanned to remove scratches, the colour was corrected, and the audio was enhanced.
The Hollywood studio has announced that during the next three years, it would restore 15 silent film titles from Universal’s early years in collaboration with outside film historians, institutions, and preservationists.
Jim Hannafin, senior VP-business development at MTI Film, explained the rationale of these studios saying that media companies continue to evaluate the condition of their libraries and selectively choose which ones can capture incremental revenue for the investment in quality. “Since most or all of the ‘platinum’ titles have been restored in 4K, the decision to spend on second- and third-tier titles is generally market driven.”
CHALLENGES IN THE PROCESS
The biggest challenge in film restoration lies in the films not being stored or archived properly. Sometimes, the original prints even go missing. Huria pointed out that it is a common mistake to focus on just cinema. “News reels, TV shows, documentaries–all were initially shot on film and need to be restored and preserved.” Shah pointed out that till date India does not have a facility for nitrate film restoration to restore movies that are badly damaged and are chemically decomposed. Non-availability of skilled preservationists, archivists, and restoration experts and lack of good quality film scanners, restoration software, physical storage facilities, and high costs of digital storage are the other challenges.
“Till 2008, there were few service providers that offered film scanning and telecine facilities for archiving purposes. Those who did charged high prices. Hence, many content owners decided to sell their content to studios or invest in only commercially viable films. Digital asset management entered the Indian post-production market very late. The biggest challenge was to find out service providers who offered physical inspection, film cleaning, ultrasound, scanning, telecine, restoration, colour grading, HD mastering, storage in open file format, metadata tagging, cataloguing, and connecting content to the digital asset management platform,” Shah stated. He pointed out that that barring Prasad Studios, Prime Focus, and Crest Animation Studio, few fell in this category and while the Films Division of India created millions of newsreels, it lacked an integrated approach and, hence, most of its legacy content got damaged over the years.
Professor Alexander Petukhov, CTO of Algosoft Tech USA, added that the real technical challenge is getting a restored copy of everything one scans by fully automatic, reliable, and real-time processing. The technical challenge is creating the software that makes all this work simpler by clicking a single button rather than doing in manually.
“Massive film restoration cannot be commercial. The only chance is getting the support of governments and private philanthropists. While restoration of popular titles is commercially successful, massive restoration is mostly unprofitable. These kind of processes to date have only really been applied, at least at the highest quality levels, to commercial titles with the potential to earn back their restoration budget through video sales, broadcast rights, and online access. For 99 percent of what sits in archives, those kinds of budgets are impractical,” Petukhov stated.
According to Hannafin archiving is just as important and requires diligent and constant oversight and recordkeeping. “The archivist must deploy best practices to ensure that elements are kept in the best condition possible and are up to industry standards and migrate to the latest formats as required. Regarding India, it has a low cost labour pool and has done quality restoration work on many titles,” he said.
India lacks a good pool of preservation and restoration experts who can preserve, archive and restore movies. Shah, who has worked with most leading production houses involved in restoration projects–be it Pixion Studios, Prime Focus, Famous Studios, Prasad Studios–believes that the best impetus for this industry can be given by the government. “The National Films Development Corporation of India and the Films Division of India have created some infrastructure but it is not at par with international standards.” Hence, indigenous filmmakers either resort to private facilities, like Shemaroo Entertainment or Ultra Studio & Digital Labor, or freelance artists.
Huria noted that for restoration, while digital is of utmost importance, celluloid is still much more valuable. It has lasted for more than 120 years; so it will never lose importance. Digital as a technology keeps changing with time. “It is a misconception that a film needs a certain temperature or preservation techniques to stay good. Digital also employs similar techniques of preservation. In fact, in digital a lot of migration is required. You have to bring it back to film because that will last for years. If you shoot it on digital platforms, you have to keep changing the format as there is no set format,” she said.
THE FUTURE LIES IN THE PAST
When our favourite classical novel gets frayed after being thumbed through repeatedly, we can order a new copy since it can be reprinted. However, one can’t do the same for a classic movie or documentary from several decades ago because the master print is subject to aging and damage due to exposure to the elements. It, therefore, needs to be archived properly so that the image quality does not deteriorate, or the colours do not wash out, and ensure that no scratches or stains damage the film.
Media perseveration and restoration can help future generations enjoy our rich cinematic heritage and also make movies that are sometimes beyond repair look better than before. With so much at stake, it should be a mandate for every filmmaker and media company to ensure that their content not only gets significantly longer shelf time but also better monetisation so that it is showcased for many more years to come.