Movies play a vital role in recording human history, but many early silent classics have been lost or destroyed, from pre-talkies to directors’ cuts. Even digital copies aren’t safe; metadata often gets stored separately from the core asset in vast data warehouses, while hardware playback devices change, and software upgrades refuse to play old file formats.
Leading the charge for film preservation at Paramount Pictures is Andrea Kalas, VP of Archives, who also serves as president of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA). She’s restored or preserved more than 2,000 films, and is a technical innovator in systems for digital preservation and archive-based analytics.
At Paramount Pictures—which produced geek classics like Star Trek and Indiana Jones—“we’re responsible for preserving the films that are made today—an important part of what we do—as well as going back into the catalog to preserve the films from our history,” Kalas told PCMag.
“Everything ends up in our digital preservation archive. It took us 100 years to get 1.2 million objects into the archive—including reels, tape and so on—and just 15 years to get 1.2 million digital artifacts. We now have over 40 petabytes of data, and it’s growing fast.”
A vault on the studio lot stores Paramount’s original camera negatives at the optimal temperature—27 degrees Fahrenheit and 35 relative humidity—in order to make sure they endure for as long as possible.
“At that level, everything stops,” said Kalas, “including color fade and acetate deterioration, which is known as ‘vinegar syndrome.’ That’s huge for film preservation because, how long do you want The Godfather to last? Forever, right?”
To preserve films, the original negative is scanned at the highest resolution and bit-depth, painstakingly, frame by frame, on a motion picture scanner.
“We then screen it on the lot, inviting the director and/or cinematographer, if they’re still around, to collaborate with us, to do color correction and cleanup. That process can take anywhere from six weeks to six months, depending on complexity.”
Much can get lost (or enhanced) in translation. For example, a gloriously flattering 35mm film, such as Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (1955), shot on Paramount’s own VistaVision, with perfectly preserved prints, is ripe for reproducing on digital, keeping the colors of the Riviera truly popping.
An early 80s sci-fi film offered Kalas’ team some unique challenges.
“Often we’ll see things that aren’t meant to be there,” she explained. “For example, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the makeup on the Klingons would have been softened by layers of emulsion on the celluloid, but once we clean it up, digitally, it starts to look very artificial. Same with miniature spacecraft that fly—you can often see the strings when we clean it up.”
“We want to honor the original movie, but we don’t want to show anyone up either. They just didn’t think those things would be seen through the layers of emulsion,” she said.
Seventy-five percent of Paramount’s films are shot on digital today, but Kalas still put archival principles in place in order to make sure the filmmaker, and the studio, retained the finest versions for the future.
“Digital preservation is still thought of by many as an oxymoron,” said Kalas. “But we have a storage policy of making four copies of every film today. Before I put that rule in place, there was often just a single digital copy of a movie, and that’s not cool. Since we’re international, we needed to make sure we had copies in different languages as well.
“Each year the system checks itself and, if there’s a problem with a file, it automatically swaps it out for another exact copy. We also built some custom software in-house to manage the system, storing all the assets and metadata together, creating transparency and security. This took a lot of engineering to transform existing processes. Often big data centers were more focused on just storing the ones and zeros, but we needed to see our archives as containing distinct assets, not just raw data. We reframed what the studio archive should be.”
The dawn of high-speed broadband and video streaming services meant digital archives had to adapt to meet demand. But it also made many more feature films available to cinephiles around the world.
“Our number of titles in regular distribution tripled over the last 10 years,” confirmed Kalas. “The efforts of the Paramount archive to preserve older catalog titles by scanning them in high resolution means more and more of Paramount’s 3,000-title library are available for distribution in a very high quality.”
As part of her role at the AMIA, Kalas is also keen to inspire a new generation of cinema preservationists, particularly those with technical expertise.
“In November 2018, for our annual conference, we’ll be in Portland, Oregon, doing our 6th Annual Hack Day. Last year, we were in New Orleans, and over 800 people came to learn and hack solutions, bringing open-source technology concepts into movie archives worldwide. We keep the conversation, and code, going on GitHub, throughout the year.”
A long-lost classic Kalas is especially proud of restoring is Wings, a silent movie made in 1927, starring Clara Bow, Buddy Rogers, and Richard Arlen.
“It’s such an important movie because it was the first film, ever, to use aeronautical camerawork,” Kalas said. “The actors had cameras fixed on them, to capture footage and close-ups, while actually flying the planes themselves. But the original negative was lost. All that remained was a negative which had been copied from a deteriorating nitrate print. So we had practically nothing. But we did it—we scanned it, did color correction, cleaned it up—and it’s beautiful.”
Film preservation, although increasingly technical and professional, is still a personal passion for those involved, and help can come from many different quarters.
“The sound effects designer, Ben Burtt, best known for inventing the Star Wars lightsaber audio, loved the movie Wings and collaborated with us during the restoration. Many silent movies had what were called ‘roadshow performances’—where a full orchestra would play along with the silent movie and studios would send out an original score with sound cues. We located the original score for Wings, with these sound cues, and Ben Burtt put together the final mix for the restored version. It sounds amazing, I’m so proud of our work on bringing this film back to life.”
Due to efforts from studio executives like Andrea Kalas, this means there are no “old movies” anymore, just ones we haven’t watched yet. To learn more about Kalas’ work, and that of the AMIA, their Digital Asset Symposium is taking place in New York City this month.