What Does “Restored” Mean?

Sometimes ignorance bugs me. I just can’t help it. And I try to let it go, but I can’t do it, because it just builds up and gets worse, so I have to confront it.

Several years ago, I was at the Syracuse Cinefest (now defunct) premiering King of the Kongo, Chapter 5. There were some students in the crowd who came in late and missed my scintillating introduction, and I happened to bump into them on the way out, and I heard their conversation.

“Dude, like I don’t understand what the big deal was on that serial thing. It wasn’t even like restored.”

OK, well, I knew what the big deal was. It was the first time the soundtrack had been heard with the film for something like 80 years, which was cool, and the picture was restored. A lot. But, rather than be a whiner boy, which no one likes, I pursued his reasoning. I asked him what he meant by restored.

“You know, it didn’t look real good. Have you seen the Blu-Ray of Casablanca? They really restored that. This one didn’t look like that. He should have restored it.”

My further contacts with people have cemented the idea that most people have. To be restored, a film has to look like the Blu-Ray of Casablanca. This, apparently, is the gold standard of restoration. Anything less is sub-par.

Further, since digital restoration techniques are magic, this means that if one were willing to put in the time and money on it, all movies that are restored could look like Casablanca, and they all should. It’s simply laziness on the part of restorers who have not put in the required resources to clean up the film.

I heard this again earlier this year with some films I didn’t work on. Universal (bless them) restored several Marx Brothers films, including Cocoanuts, Animal Crackers, and Horsefeathers. Now, Universal had been lagging the field in doing restorations, but their work for the last 5-6 years has been astounding, so I’m a huge supporter of their efforts. But apparently I’m not in good company. I started to see people dogging Universal’s efforts right out of the gate:

Cocoanuts is not restored. There were always sections of picture that looked bad, and these sections still look bad. They lied when they said they restored it.”

And worse yet:

“How dare Universal claim they restored Horsefeathers! There is a splicy section that’s been there since the 1930s and it’s still choppy! They didn’t restore it at all!”

Wait, what?

So let’s back up. Cocoanuts had several reels where dupe sections were made badly in the 1940s because the negative was rotting, and they had only poor copies. Those reels have not been replaced with better ones, but Universal did what they could to clean up said reels, rebalance the contrast, and match what they could.

Horsefeathers was censored for reissue, and certain things were considered too risque for post-Code audiences. Paramount, who then owned the film, in its wisdom, took the censored footage out of the original negative. In order for this to be found, someone would have to find an original issue 1932 nitrate print of Horsefeathers that is in good enough shape to use. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. Universal cleaned up the footage as best they could, but the missing footage remains. (Let’s give Universal credit and admit that they found a great deal of missing footage from Frankenstein that they diligently restored from discs and alternate prints sources for years. For some time, you could pick up a new issue of Frankenstein, and they’d patch in a scene of Maria getting dumped in the water, or Frankenstein yelling in the lab, or Edward Van Sloan injecting the monster, etc.)

On the other hand, someone did find original nitrate material for Animal Crackers. Apparently the BFI had a near-mint dupe negative of the film that contains about 4 minutes of footage that was also censored for reissue. And, to top that off, it’s about two generations better than what Universal was working with for this title, so the picture is greatly improved. There was nothing but praise for Universal on this one, which was quite deserved.

But why trash them for the other films? They did the best they could.

I know I sometimes sound like the Monty Python 4 Yorkshiremen sketch, but when I first got to be a movie fan, the prints we often had were terrible, and we felt lucky to have them. The studios didn’t care, the foreign archives didn’t care, and the only people who did care were the collectors, who were being raided all the time by the studios and the archives.

I get a little more confused when I consider that every 18 months, it seems like a new restoration of Metropolis takes place. Each time, footage is inserted that hasn’t been seen in years. The last restoration incorporated some footage from a South American 16mm dupe print that looked like a steam roller flattened it, and then sandpaper was run over it for cleaning. No one seems to complain about this, but poor Universal gets the lynch mob called on them for not finding 5-6 minutes of footage. How is this fair?

The idea that I can see Animal Crackers with 4 extra minutes of footage is enchanting to me, but so is the idea that I can see detail in Horsefeathers and Cocoanuts that I’ve never seen before. OK, I’d like to see better material, but it just plain doesn’t exist.

Let’s hit some of the myths here:

MYTH 1: Digital restoration techniques are like magic. If you spend enough time and effort on something it can look like Casablanca.

FACT: This is completely untrue. It’s also putting an unfair burden on Casablanca as the standard-bearer for restoration. The original negative for Casablanca still exists, and backup copies of it, made carefully over the years, are stored around the world. Not to trash the people who did the restoration (which is excellent), but they had a lot more to work with than the Universal did with, say, The Cocoanuts. There was one print of that made as a backup, poorly, in the 40s. That’s it.

Digital techniques are wonderful, but they can’t bring back stuff that isn’t there. When detail is lost in a copying process, it’s gone. I can take dirt marks out, some degree of scratching, splices, and I can rebalance the contrast a little, but if the sharpness is gone, it’s gone.

MYTH 2: The original negatives of just about all the films ever made are stored safely in a salt mine in Kansas or New Jersey, and the studios are just too lazy to go get them.

FACT: There are some salt mines that do have BACKUPS in them, but not original negatives.

I’m working on a restoration of Little Orphant Annie (1918) right now, and it’s going to look worse than King of the Kongo did. With Kongo, we had a 16mm duplicate print, which was copied from a deteriorating and splicy 35mm positive.

With Annie, we have a 16mm Kodascope that’s been censored (they took out some of the scarier scenes), but is more-or-less complete. We have reel one and three of a second Kodascope, which is much darker. We have a 35mm that was about shot when it got scanned, and we have two different reference prints on video from various sources.

And you know what? I assembled a rough cut of all the footage in the film, and I had to use scenes from every one of these prints. Each one had a shot that was different or in the wrong place. I will never, ever get these to match seamlessly. It can’t happen.

On the other hand, you’d get to see some 5 minutes of footage that you’ve never seen before in any other print. Does that mean Little Orphant Annie is restored? Yes, to the best of my ability with the materials that currently exist. If you gave me a million dollar grant to fix it (which I would welcome!), there’s only so much I can do to clean it up.

It will never look as good as Casablanca.