Some things you may not know about film, why things are the way they are, and why film continues to be so important!
Perhaps the one most important thing to know about preservation is that there really is no perfect preservation, and no perfect media. Collectively, we’re up against really tough odds in preserving the history of film in that every medium has it’s troubles. As technology advances, interestingly, we trade our old preservation problems for a set of entirely brand new ones. The digital age produces the ability to preserve materials more efficiently space-wise and with much less expense, but also leaves us with formats known to have issues in much shorter lifespans.
For the Thunderbean DVDs and Blu-rays, we have been transferring and doing digital restoration to materials in HD. While these are now available to be seen and appreciated in good quality, this is far from true archival preservation. Interestingly though, it is now leading in that direction, with some of the materials we’ve been using now actually being preserved on film thanks to the success of the latest titles.
Film continues to be a hugely valuable archival format, even well into this new era. Years back, I remember doing a job where we were using the same studio as Warner Brothers to finish the cel work, and learned that Warner Brothers continued to do all their jobs on cels so they could be shot in 35mm rather than computer colored (in standard definition back then). They said they did this for archival reasons. I’m sure they’re glad they did now; it gives this TV library of animation a much higher quality second life with time and resources in re-transfer and editing.
Many companies are not as smart in preserving their materials. Only a few years ago, the entire Filmation catalog was transferred to HD by the owners of the library, who then had all the original materials destroyed; they sent to a silver recovery lab to save the archiving space. The highest quality that will exist on this material is however they transferred them to HD.
As material is passed from one company to another, often mistakes are made, materials turn up missing, and the material continues it’s slow march back to the earth. Materials internally belonging to a company can be mislabeled or mistaken.
You would think in these more modern times that the collections that managed to survive all these years have made it past danger and are now in safe hands. When people who have expert knowledge in the area of a certain collection are involved, these mistakes can often be avoided- but even the biggest companies can make big mistakes. I was amazed to find out that one of the most famous companies with a large animation library tossed much of its nitrate materials with original titles within the last 20 years or so, thinking that the original materials contained complete versions and, therefore, there was no need to keep all those extra reels. Another large company had made time-coded versions of many cartoons in one series, but when it went to look for a few key titles it had transferred, they were now gone entirely. I’m experiencing this as well right now, trying to track down versions of several cartoons that have a specific title card on them that were transferred 20-some years ago, only to discover it doesn’t seem to exist on the master materials at their respective archives.
So, what are ‘master materials’ anyway?
The simple answer: whatever the best materials are that still exist. If you went to hunt for the ‘original materials’ on old films, you’re met with a series of possible options on some films, a single option on others, and the hunt doesn’t stop with just knowing what material exists- an evaluation needs to be often done to figure out what material is the best option to use to yield the best results.
On the current project I’m working on, 35mm materials exist on most of the titles, while some of them only have 16mm prints and negatives. Sometimes the original negative is extant, though often that material has seen its share of wear, and ALL had the original titles missing entirely, if any titles were on the neg at all. The newer versions were often edited as well, removing some of the more outrageous and racy gags for reissue in the 40s. Clearly, the original neg, though the highest quality, is not the best choice for a complete version of the film.
Often, the master positive material is a better option if it exists. This is a ‘master’ print that is made from the original negative. That print (often called the fine grain master positive) is then used to make what is called a duplicate negative. THAT negative is then used to make the release prints. If the Fine Grain is still around, it’s often the one piece of material on a film that hasn’t seen much action, and is therefore in pristine condition. These are sometimes called a ‘protection’ print. In the 30s, Kodak often printed this material on a blue-tinted stock. Sometimes these materials are referred to as ‘lavenders’. The lavenders on this particular series are a thing of beauty when they are extant, with complete original titles and not a scratch or edit to be found. ‘Lavenders’ were on Nitrate-based stock, and only made for black and white films, and discontinued when Kodak switched to all-safety film stocks in the late 40s.
These days, with the advent of Blu-ray, there is more information available, but I’ve found that the basics described above seem confusing without a basic explanation. I hope this makes it at least a little easier to understand when you hear a few of these terms!
It would be nice at some point to highlight some of the collectors and archivists in this space. They’re the true heros of preservation, allowing these things to continue to exist and given availability for transfer.
Here is a neat article by Ken Weissman showing how the Library of Congress preserves and stores it’s films.
..and a neat little article showing a well-loved nitrate print of A Star is Born.
And, since there has been no cartoon this week so far, we need to show SOMETHING, so, here is the first Flip the Frog cartoon, for no better reason other than to show it. Notice the lack of an MGM title on this color release print. Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the other Flip the Frogs made in color surfaced too?