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From Art House To Iconic: Film Restoration On Display At The Reel Thing

By: Marjorie Galas

There’s a bright golden haze on the meadow.  Or at least there is now, thanks to the preservation of the 1955 feature film “Oklahoma.”  A short clip, featuring lead Gordon MacRae singing “Oh, What A Beautiful Mornin’” as his dazzling white horse sauntered along healthy green corn stalks framed by a brilliant blue sky, looked as if had just been shot.  Advancements such as those used on this classic musical and many other developments in restoration and preservation of film, video and audio preservation were the focus of “The Reel Thing.” presented and co-founded by Grover Crisp, executive vice president of asset management for Sony Pictures, and Michael Friend, director of digital archives and asset management at Sony Pictures.  The event supports the programs and services of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA).  Held at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the three day annual event concluded August 20th, 2016 with a screening of the recently restored 1971 feature “McCabe & Mrs. Miller.”

Looking at the example of the restoration effort on “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” gives a digestible representation of the spirit of “The Reel Thing.”  Directed by Robert Altman and captured by director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond, the feature was shot on Panavision cameras with a 35mm Eastman 100T 5254 film and processed as Panavision anamorphic.  Zsigmond used unconventional camera tricks to record lighting and snow effects, such as flashing the original negative, creating an optical matte and assigning unique lighting angles to highlight the actors in dark interiors.   The vibrancy of the visual intent was suffering through the passage of time.  Upon being approached by Lee Kline and the preservation team at The Criterion Collection, Zsigmond was enthusiastic at being invited to participate in the film’s restoration.  He saw the concept of using digital tools to capture the renegade effects in a 4K master as an opportunity to present the look the film was intended to have.  Although Zsigmond passed away before the restoration project began, colorists at The Criterion Collection engaged in a “profound and comprehensive examination of the cinematographer’s intentions” to create a master that reflected the DP’s original intentions.  The restoration process involved referencing multiple prints as well as interviewing film historians, film makers and cinematographers and took years to complete.

In addition to  “McCabe & Mrs. Miller”, a number of restoration and preservation projects were discussed throughout the conference.  The Academy Film Archive’s Michael Pogorzelski and Audio Mechanics’ John Polito discussed the complex work that revolved around presenting a fully restored version of 1931’s “The Front Page.”  Because so many copies were made, most contemporary audiences have seen highly manipulated foreign versions of the film instead of the original print.  The Criterion Collection’s Ryan Hullings described the ethics involved in up and down mixing soundtracks during digital audio restoration of 1964’s “A Hard Day’s Night”, 1967’s “Don’t Look Back” and 1979’s “Quadrophenia.”  Adrian Wood and Jonathan Erland from the Pickfair Institute each presented panels describing restoration work and advancements in projection that allow classic silent area films and pre-sound era documentary and newsreel footage.  And staff members from Cinelicious shared a presentation of their work in restoring and distributing arthouse films including Leslie Stevens’ lost 1960’s California noir “Private Property” and the forgotten animated 1972 feature “Belladonna of Sadness” by manga artist Eiichi Yamamoto.

In addition to the restoration studies and panels that focused on the latest restoration techniques, The Reel Thing attendees were treated to a performance the Academy’s recently renovated FotoPlayer.  Built in 1907, the FotoPlayer is one of a handful of known surviving instruments used during the screenings of silent films in medium sized theaters.  A player piano at its core, the instrument runs of a paper music roll.  However, the instrument contains organ pipes, snare drums, a xylophone, an assortment of bells, whistles and horns that enabled the performer to create any desired sound effect to enhance the drama or comedy of the film is music accompanied.


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