I recently read A Light Affliction: A History of Film Preservation and Restoration, written by Michael Binder and originally published in 2014. As the title suggests, the film is an overview of the history of film preservation from its early days to modern times. Here are ten quotes from the book that particularly stood out to me.
Matuszewski felt that movies could be used for education if significant events could be captured but was well aware that “history is far from being composed uniquely of planned ceremonies.” He had faith that the cinematographer of the future would risk his life to seek out newsworthy events to capture.
It was the potential loss of silent pictures that began the archive movement in a number of countries around this time.
Since the Cinémathèque had emerged from a film society, their main focus was always to be on exhibition. Neither the British Film Institute nor the Museum of Modern Art had dedicated premises for showing films until several years after their inception, but the Cinémathèque from day one was all about presentation.
After its initial concentration on 1912-1942, the American Film Institute widened its net to incorporate any title which had been unseen for many years and was not currently held by US archives. The intention was nothing less than to change the way film history was written: “A great deal is going to have to be revised on the basis of what turns up,” said David Shepard, employed in 1968 as Associate Archivist and interviewed for a magazine three years later. He went on, “In every case, good, bad or magnificent as the film itself might be, each restoration adds to our knowledge, and is as significant to film history as the unearthing of one more ancient human skull is to the palaeontologist.”
Filmmakers had protested comparatively little at the various indignities their work had suffered previously on television, such as frame-cropping, cuts for timing and content, and commercial breaks. Once it became clear they were not entitled to benefit financially from colourisation, the complaints shifted from profit-sharing to artistic integrity.
Criterion offered cineastes who wished to see the original version of a picture their only practical alternative to visiting an archive and lacing up the film themselves on a viewing machine. The company was dedicated to presenting movies uncut, using transfers sourced from the best available elements and, beginning with Invasion of the Body Snatchers, their eighth release, presented in their original theatrical ratios.
One other important aspect of Criterion’s laserdisc packages was the section entitled “About the transfer.” Every release would detail exactly how the film ended up on the silver discs, specifying at times the make and model of the printing machines used.
Production of the new format was delayed by disagreements between the Hollywood studios, with Warners in particular balking at the lack of adequate protection against copyright theft. With release dates of their films being staggered across the world, it was possible for a movie to be available on video in the US before it had received its theatrical outing in some countries. If pirates made a digital copy – an exact copy – of a title, they could distribute it quicker and wider than ever, owing to the emergence of the World Wide Web. After much discussion, the global market was divided into six regions and discs were digitally locked. A chip inside each player decoded only those discs appropriate to the region in which they were sold.
Shepard grew disillusioned with the archive movement in the early seventies, recalling, “I came to feel strongly that a film that was just on the shelf in the Library of Congress for posterity, although preserved, was not alive. It didn’t live until it was an emotional or at least an intellectual experience for people who wanted to see it.”
Shooting a picture without film worried many in the industry, especially cinematographers who feared that they might become obsolete. Filmmakers tempted to adopt the process were dissuaded by the low resolution of the cameras, but the manufacturers required greater interest in their products in order to develop the technology further.