Robert Byrne on Restoring Silent Films in the Digital Age
Robert Byrne, longtime president of the board of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, remembers when he first got his hands on the original camera negatives of Italian Straw Hat and Les Deux Timides, two René Clair films he recently restored that play at this year’s festival. “There are a hundred years of age in these films, and they were used in most cases to make film prints, so there’s certainly wear and tear. But the quality and depth of the image is just gorgeous!” For a film restorer dedicated to providing the best possible viewing experience, it doesn’t get any better than that. Yet film preservation is rarely so ideal. Byrne talks about his work in an age when digital technology has largely supplanted the photochemical process in both making films and restoring them.
What changes have you witnessed on the silent film landscape?
In terms of archives and preservation, there hasn’t been a huge change. There is far too little money for film preservation. That’s not just the silent era, that’s in general. It is a very hard sell on an institutional level to get public money for the preservation of motion pictures. The biggest change over the last ten years is that film preservation and restoration have gone from being completely analog and photochemical processes to more and more digital, which has its plusses and its minuses. Digital allows for things, especially 5in restoration, simply not possible when it was strictly photochemical. And certainly digital is a great platform for access. You don’t have to have a 35mm projector to watch a film. So films can get into venues and into homes. The downside is that people tend to see digital as the solution to a preservation problem. Digital is not a preservation medium. That’s a conversation I find myself having over and over again when I tell people what I do. To truly preserve a film, you have to go back onto film, create a 35mm negative, and properly store it.
Why is that so?
Digital media is incredibly fragile. If a disk or a drive is damaged, it goes from being a film to being junk. There’s nothing you can recover. And, there’s hardware obsolescence. I went to a presentation in Amsterdam about a computer video artist whose archive came into EYE Filmmuseum on floppy drives, a hard drive, and zip drives. The archive went on Marktplaats, the Dutch version of eBay, to find a twenty-year-old computer so they could get it to work. Then there’s format obsolescence. There are hundreds of image formats. If you go back ten, fifteen, twenty years, you would be stuck in whatever technology you were in then. If you’re digital and you’re going to preserve something digitally that means that every five years, you’re going to reformat and migrate to a new technology. If you break that chain, you’ve lost the artifact forever. Compare that to 35mm film. You make a negative, and you make a print on modern polyester film stock that the manufacturers say can be stored for five hundred years. You can always recover the image. You can hold it up to the light and look at it. It can always be rescanned. If you take a pushpin and scratch it across the top of a DVD, you’ve just created junk. If you take a pushpin and scratch it across a frame of film, you now have a frame with a scratch problem.
What is the outlook for film manufacturing and photochemical processing?
Film has always been a business. I believe that there will always be a demand. There is money to be made manufacturing film stock. If there weren’t, they wouldn’t do it. Some of the newest stocks are preservation film stocks. Likewise with film labs. Some are going out of business or consolidating, but you’re also seeing others expand. The lab we use in Bologna for a lot of our restorations, L’Immagine Ritrovata, is actually expanding into Hong Kong and Paris, and all they do are restorations. I think there will be fewer labs, but I think they will hit a steady state where they have a good business.
Is projection becoming a problem around the world?
It’s becoming a challenge. A number of European countries made a specific decision at a government level to go all digital, and government money went to converting cinemas to digital. Having said everything I have about film, most restored films have digital versions available.
One of the festival films gave you a unique preservation opportunity. Tell us about it.
Film scholar Laura Horak was programming films for her Girls Will Be Boys cross-dressing series to be shown at the Pordenone festival. She came across one 16mm reel of What’s the World Coming To?, but Pordenone cannot show 16mm, so she was going to have to get it scanned. When we found the film’s second reel at New York University, I said, “Let’s do some work on it.” So much of what survives from the silent era only survives in 16mm or 24mm, and these shrink and fall apart, too. So I wanted to use this as a test case for preservation because small-gauge prints are rarely preserved or restored to new 35mm stock.
Is the film loss rate still at about seventy percent? Are new recoveries coming along at a faster clip?
The rule of thumb is fifteen to twenty percent of the silent era survives. There’s no real metric because you’d have to know how many silent films were produced and have an accurate inventory of what’s left. We don’t have either one of those numbers. The International Federation of Film Archives maintains a database of information from its members, but everyone knows that database is incomplete, and that doesn’t even account for what’s in the hands of private collectors. Then there are things that exist but nobody knows about, the stuff that turns up in barns and closets. Giant collections come into archives without labels, leaders, or titles, and it takes years to work through them. My favorite story is when Beyond the Rocks, starring Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, came to light. The archive got it from the estate of a collector who had this one film scattered all over the Netherlands in his miscellaneous stashes. It was a very long time until the final reel showed up.