The historical film as a title or a collection of physical elements

Historical films are often referred to as universal unchangeable forms. However, the fact that a film is not only motion picture content, but also a plastic carrier with a gelatine emulsion layer on one side has serious implications for the study of film history that may not be very apparent on the available video version most often used by scholars.

By Thomas C. Christensen


Film technology 

Naturally, the film technology of the time of production influences the style of a film. It is often recognized that the introduction of panchromatic fine-grain stock in the 1920s was embraced by filmmakers and led to a different look than the earlier orthochromatic stocks. Also the stylistic and film production changes following the advent of sound have been studied in great detail. However, knowledge concerning the problems of reproducing orthochromatic on panchromatic fine-grain masters is less prominent, though all available films from the orthochromatic era are preserved this way in black & white, though most prints prior to 1920 were in color. I mention this to emphasize that retention of authenticity is not a distinct problem to the electronic or digital age of motion pictures, though the multitude of formats today makes the issue even more pertinent. 

The study of a film is the study of an object, or several objects relating to a specific film title. My concentration here will be on the study of a film title as a moving image object. Many other types of documents such as still photos, posters and trade papers should be included in a historical study of a film title, though the extant film elements are of course the primary sources for the study of the film narrative and style.

Versions and duplicates

Many versions of a film may survive, without any single one being exhaustive as to the content or style of the title. Though I will not go as far as to say that every print of a film title is a unique object as does Paolo Cherchi Usai in Silent Cinema (2002, p. 147 and p. 160), I will give an example of a film that might be instructive as to the complexity of a single short title: "København ved Nat" / "Copenhagen by night" (Biorama, DK, 1910). 

"København ved Nat" is a one-reel comedy from the golden age of Danish silent cinema. A number of different film elements survive as well as two different written programs for the film. Also we know that the film was re-issued in 1915, with two scenes cut by the censor. 

The surviving film elements are: 

1. Original tinted nitrate 35 mm print with cut down titles (1910) 
2. Nitrate duplicate b/w 35 mm negative (1940s) 
3. Nitrate b/w 35 mm print with full length Danish intertitles(1940s) 
4. Acetate 35 mm b/w duplicate positive (1960s) 
5. Digital intermediate (2K) color 35 mm negative with stretched intertitles (2002) 
6. Polyester 35 mm color print (2002) 
7. Data backup (2K/1920x1440) on DTF-2 tape (2002) 
8. Downscaled (SD/720x576) 25 fps TV-masters in b/w and color (2002) 

The original print (1) is a representation of the film as it was. However, due to the flammability of nitrate stock, only a handful of venues worldwide show nitrate on screen. Also this particular print has major perforation damage and seems to have had decomposed parts cut out, since the duplicate negative (2) contains scenes no longer present in (1). The b/w nitrate print (3) has had new titles made up from the print and the programs. The editing of this elements differs from the original print, however, neither of the prints (1) and (3) adhere precisely to any of the two programs, which themselves differ in the continuity of scenes. The duplicate positive (4) is a direct duplicate of (2) for preservation purposes. 

For the 2002 restoration of the film, several routes were possible, however, the route chosen was primarily dictated by the fact that a color (simulated tint) print had to be ready within six weeks. The original nitrate (1) was used as a color reference, though the material itself was in to poor condition to allow transport through conventional film equipment. The nitrate duplicate negative (2) was the second most original element and even retained some scenes no longer present in the original. The negative was transferred in high resolution (1920x1440) to a workstation in which the tints of the original were simulated and the flash-titles stretched to full length before re-recording the film content onto a new color negative. 

What is now available is a new version that is slightly longer than any of the surviving elements. The amber tint of the indoor scenes appears to be a close simulation of an original tint, whereas the blue for night scenes and red for intertitles are too dense compared with the original print.

What you see is what you get 

The new version, or a video version of it, will be the version seen by future historians. Though it is not a bad representation of the original, I nevertheless hope that the above description of the process gives an impression of the intricacies of film duplication. Maybe every film viewing should be informed by a similar description, or possibly an even more detailed one. Especially where the object of study is not studied in its original form, the path of representation should be considered when trying to analyse a film at face value. 

This brings us to the problems of the present. If a scholar of film relies on VHS video for serious study, there is little reason to discuss style in great detail. Narrative is of course another matter, though the stylistic and narrative elements of a film may not always be easily distinguished. The emergence of DVD and soon digital projection brings quality to the end user without the need for film projection. However, there are serious pitfalls in the digital era when it comes to historical films. 

A historical film can survive as any element, ranging from the original camera negative to subsequent elements, such as original prints or duplicates from either negative or print. Some problems that occur when displaying historical films on video systems are well known, such as too high a frame-rate or the lack of resolution. Now, and in the future, other problems will raise new issues regarding the maintenance of authenticity and fidelity in duplication and display of films in new media.

A film is a film is a film

Duplication in analogue media is lossy. This lossiness together with the grain and photochemical nature of cinema film stocks is one of the primary qualities of cinema. As films move into the digital domain, the disappearance of film stocks may be a reality within a decade or so. As a digital process replaces the analogue nature of film, the well-known qualities and deficiencies of cinema will be replaced by something different, which will be the cinema of the future. It will probably be possible to simulate old films in the new formats; however, the processes will be much less transparent. It is possible to degrain old films, and new films may very well no longer look 'wrong' without grain as spectators get used to the grain-less look that digital is capable of. The grain 'quality' of old analogue films might become an unwanted artefact, which will be removed when restoring old films. 

The historical film is the object of film history. However, access to the object may only be possible through a duplicate or a simulation of the original film material. In this case it is of imperative importance to be aware of the possible changes that could have impaired or changed the integrity of the content. As new digital media take the place of conventional filmmaking, the paths of duplication and display of historical films may become so multifaceted that it will be impossible to say anything definitive about the title without also describing the version viewed, and the display system in great detail. 

Of course this paper only regards those films that do survive in some form. For lost films we do not have the luxury of discussing whether their representation in other media retains original authenticity.


Thomas C. Christensen

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