“If you don’t have a pristine print that looks exactly the way it did when the film was originally released, then you don’t have a guidepost for setting your parameters,” adds Crisp, who has since collaborated with a number of other ASC members on the restoration of their films. Unless one of the original filmmakers is on hand to advise, “it becomes your best guess — albeit an educated guess based on knowledge, experience and the technical information inherent in the film — as to how the image should look, because there are any number of directions to go when you’re printing something at the lab.”

Utley, who worked at MGM and Technicolor before taking charge of Pro-Tek’s archiving service, points out that restoration has become a top priority for studios because their film libraries fuel huge revenue streams generated by DVD sales. “Some of the major studios may be willing to pay billions of dollars for MGM’s library, but it’s not because they want to re-release those movies theatrically — it’s because they want to put out the DVDs,” he says.

Utley agrees that cinematographers’ involvement in the restoration process will only enhance the integrity of the work, especially in the new digital environment. Even so, he says, “Filmmakers and others need to be aware that although digital tools are wonderful, the technology isn’t holding still long enough to establish firm standards. When a technology is moving as quickly as digital is, the only way you can protect that data is to record it onto film and put that film in a cold vault. That way, you can store it in perpetuity.

“AMIA is an educational organization, and we stress to people that protecting a film asset on film is a tried and proven archival procedure,” he continues. “Some may accuse us of not wanting to move forward with technology, but that’s absolutely untrue. Someone has to say, ‘We’re the keepers of our cultural heritage, and we have to raise a red flag when we see it being jeopardized.’ That’s the message AMIA tries to convey.”

“In the digital world,” says Shefter, “the biggest is non-standardization, and it occurs on a daily basis. If the technology continues to change, almost at the manufacturers’ whims, there will be no industry-wide system, no standard, and no universal acceptance. And that means there’s no guarantee that what is captured today will be accessible in the future. To prove the point, Shefter notes that approximately 70 video formats have been unveiled since the mid-1950s, and almost all of them are now extinct.

“One of the areas many of AMIA’s members consider a major concern is defining a system for preserving information,” he adds. “When a system is developed that will basically capture all the content we need in an economical fashion and will not require excessive processing for each scene or detail, that will be the magic bullet. It’s going to come. In this digital era, it’s crucial to stress how important it is for the film community and cinematographers in particular to be more aware of these new preservation issues — what kinds of images are being captured, and what’s going to happen to those images.”

In the meantime, Crisp and other AMIA members are counting on cinematographers to help set the historical visual record straight. “Cinematographers are the most proactive among the filmmakers I’ve encountered who actually care about the longevity of the images they’ve created,” says Crisp. “For a cinematographer, getting that shade of green exactly the shade it’s supposed to be is really important. That’s what preservation is all about, and maintaining the integrity of that is the goal of restoration.”

Four years ago, Crisp was reminded of just how passionate cinematographers can be when Sony restored A Matter of Life and Death, shot by Jack Cardiff, BSC, in collaboration with the Academy Film Archive and the British Film Institute. “That film was complicated because it was a 3-strip Technicolor movie, but it also had black-and-white photography in it; the imagery dissolves back and forth between color and black-and-white sequences. I called Jack Cardiff in London and asked him if he’d like to take a look and give his opinion on the direction we were taking.”

Crisp shipped the answer print to England for Cardiff to review. “The next day, Jack called and said, ‘You know, there’s one scene that takes place kind of late in the day, but I didn’t really want it to be golden-looking. I really wanted it to look lemony — not really yellow, but not gold, either.’ We went into timing and tried our best, but we couldn’t get it to look that way. I called Jack back and said, ‘I just don’t think we’re going to be able to go quite as far as you want it to go.’ There was a moment of silence, and then Jack said, ‘You know what? I couldn’t get it to look that way back then, either!’ And I thought, ‘Here it is, 50 years later, and he still has that one scene in his head that he’s trying to get right.’”

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© 2004 American Cinematographer.