Breathing new life into faded cinema classics is like being an archeologist, a surgeon, a cinematographer, a sound designer, a film director and an art restorer, all rolled into one.
Every day film preservationists like James Katz face an emergency room of unearthed negatives in advanced states of disintegration and warehouses full of decayed prints, neglected for dozens of years. Every day people like James Katz rescue a few more feet of film history.
And every few years Katz and his comrades get to roll into theaters a cherried-out new print of a great American movie that without them might have been lost to the ravages of time.
In the past 14 years, Katz has had a hand in reclaiming "Lawrence of Arabia," "Spartacus," "My Fair Lady" and "Vertigo" from faded, dusty fates. And this year he's unveiled a rebuilt "Rear Window," the second Hitchcock masterpiece to be treated to his preservation pampering.
The new print is gorgeous and melodious -- if a bit less crisp than its multiplex competition -- and it's the culmination of three years of daily restoration work using dyes, sound filters and enhancers, and in recent years, computer re-imaging.
So what did Katz and his almost 100-person crew start with?
"We had a negative that was run about 400 times. We had a negative that was fading. We had physical damage from handling," the 60-ish Katz said on a recent trip to San Francisco, running an apprehensive hand across his forehead as he remembered all too well the beginning of the project. "For a period the picture was not stored properly. (For years) it was in a warehouse with inconsistent temperature. There were a lot of problems we had to solve."
As recently as the mid-1980s, the vast majority of Hollywood's film libraries consisted of unstable, atmospherically sensitive negatives sitting in film cans on the shelves of vast storage facilities, often in advanced states of decay.
But in recent years film technicians like Katz and studio executives like Bob O'Neil, head of Universal Picture's restoration department, have lead the charge -- slow as it may be -- to save the industry's proud past, pioneering the use of refrigerated vaults, among other preservation techniques.
"(We) want to keep that culture," offered O'Neil, the man who green-lighted the "Rear Window" project. "It's all cultural record and you want to make sure you have it."
To that end, O'Neil and Katz keep up on cutting edge imaging technology, which has changed their process dramatically over the last few years.
"The big change going on right now is digital restoration," O'Neil said. "We're (now) taking film elements, scanning them into a digital world, then scanning them back onto film."
But O'Neil insists on being faithful to the original medium of the pictures in his charge. He sees this technology only as a tool. "The important thing (is) at the end you still have a common, analog-signal piece of film you can shine a light through and have full resolution."
Katz has become a fan of the precision he gets with digital restoration, in part because it has gotten him out of a couple jams. "We did a lot of digital work on 'My Fair Lady.'" he said. "We recreated a title sequence digitally (because) the negative didn't exist at all."
But he too is nervous about what he sees as the risk of becoming reliant on virtual mediums.
"Digital is not the panacea that everybody who is in the digital domain wants you to think it is. There are a lot of snake oil salesmen out there trying to sell digital archiving and nobody knows what the life of the (digital storage mediums) is. Technology is changing so fast, how do you'll have the machines to play it on? Remember the eight-track?"
Not to mention the fact that in the digital arena the technicians are computer geeks first and film buffs second, O'Neil points out with an uncomfortable laugh. "They think when you get into the digital world you can compress. We don't want compression. We start out with 100 percent resolution and we want to end up with 100 percent resolution."
"When you watch a DVD with 10 trailers in three different languages, that's taking all those ones and zeros on the disk and using them up, and what's going to lose is the quality of the feature."
Compression concerns aside, O'Neil has other fish to fry -- namely rescuing as many as he can of the 2,700 titles under his domain in the Universal library.
How can he begin to prioritize which films to hand to people like Katz to restore? We hear about famous film like the ones mentioned in this article getting fixed up, but the priority is not by title, but by situation: "Any title that is in jeopardy of being lost to decomposition is right at the top of the list," O'Neil explained. "You want to save that title first. Next down would be titles that only have nitrate film with no safety elements on it."
With this kind of never-ending task hanging over him every day, does Katz enjoy his work?
"When it's going right, it's great. We've saved five movies, and they all look great," he said, his voice building up an ironic pitch. "But it's 14 years of our lives and we haven't even made a ripple in the pond!"
Film restoration can be frustrating for that very reason. In addition to the 2,700 titles at Universal awaiting the meticulous attention of someone like Katz, the preservationist estimates there are 3,000 at Sony, 5,000 at Turner, "and we haven't even hit Fox yet or gotten to the old Republic films," Katz sighed.
He wonders who will be around to do the work down the road, too. Despite the aide of a few Silicon Valley types helping digitize the processes, the preservationists' ranks are small and recruiting is more difficult that one might think.
"There are not a lot of people out there who want to devote their lives to this," Katz laments. "People who come out of film school want to make films. They want to write films, they want to act in films, they want to produce films. They don't want to restore films. You can get awful hungry doing this."
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