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Wex festival to project light on old films again

A restored fram of 'Asparagus,' a 1978 animated short by Suzan Pitt. 'Asparagus' is one of the films in included in 'Cinema Revival.' Credit: Courtesy of Suzan Pitt

A restored fram of ‘Asparagus,’ a 1978 animated short by Suzan Pitt. ‘Asparagus’ is one of the films in included in ‘Cinema Revival.’
Credit: Courtesy of Suzan Pitt

Many things can ruin film: Floods, fires and dirt are just a few examples. Time takes its toll, too. Reversing that process is much more difficult, and only hard work and dedication can restore a damaged film.

The Wexner Center for the Arts will celebrate the work of film restorationists with “Cinema Revival: A Festival of Film Restoration.” The festival will take place from Wednesday to Sunday and will feature 12 restored features from directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Luchino Visconti and Howard Hawks.

“Most of these films, people wouldn’t have any way to see in the condition they’re in, but also they would never get the chance to see them in theaters,” said Adam Skov, a fourth-year in international business and first-year graduate student in Chinese, currently serving his third year as the president of the Film and Video Society.

“I think it’d be hard to find a Midwestern college film center as cool as the Wexner Center or that offers as much content as the Wex,” Skov said. “I think we’ve really got something special in Columbus.”

The festival will feature several of film animator Suzan Pitt’s recently restored films. Pitt’s most famous work is “Asparagus” (1978).

“One of the great things that the Wex is doing is they’re making public this work which has really been hidden because it was lost, or damaged, or whatever reason,” Pitt said. “The very nature of film is that it can degrade. Over time, it can go through all kinds of changes.”

Pitt shed some light on the difficulties involved in restoring one such degraded film.

She is currently in the process of restoring a 24-minute film and has been working on it for about three weeks.

“We have to go back to the original negative and go shot by shot … in a lot of ways it’s like repainting the film,” she said.

She added that during restorations, “the work you come out with is never exactly like the original because it just can’t be, but you do the best you can.”

The process of film restoration can be difficult and time consuming. First, the negative, or a print, in decent condition must be found. Next, the film is scanned, frame by frame, into digital files. An average old movie will feature about 24 frames per second. Consequently, a one-hour film will involve scanning about 86,400 frames. Color is then graded, scratches are retouched and the audio is fixed. The process can take weeks or months, depending on the original condition of the film.

In the case of “Why Be Good,” one of the films which will be featured in the festival, “the film was though to be lost, but two film historians finally (and heroically) tracked down a print in Italy, the original Vitaphone disc soundtrack in the U.S., and married the two for the first time since the film’s original release”, according to a statement from the Wexner Center.

The festival will feature live and animated films, recent and old films, films from the Western and Eastern Hemispheres, and films with topics ranging from Hiroshima to Donald Duck.

What ties all of them together is that the “work that’s being restored is work that’s … deemed important both culturally and for the history of film,” Pitt said.

The price to attend the festival is $35 for general audiences and $30 for members, students and seniors. This price includes admission to all talks and screenings. Tickets for individual screenings are also available for $8 for general audiences and $6 for students, Wexner Center members and senior citizens.

One comment

  1. Film restoration is not always a digital process as suggested by this article. In fact, Suzan Pitt’s films were NOT restored digitally, but using traditional (and still extraordinarily high quality and viable) laboratory techniques, the same that have been used for decades. The best surviving elements for each film were photochemically printed, processed, color corrected, etc., all analog, and the results have been beautiful, thanks to the excellent work of the lab (FotoKem in this case) and their amazing staff (especially the fantastic color timer Doug Ledin). Audio was modestly restored digitally, but then shot back to an analog optical soundtrack negative for printing. For my part, particularly with independent artists’ films, for which the original medium often plays an important aesthetic or even conceptual role, digital is a tool usually employed ONLY if necessary (e.g. bad color fading, damage, elaborate reconstruction), though this may sadly and inevitably change with the gradual phasing out of the necessary film stocks. But I’m thrilled to say that the overwhelming majority of artists’ films I’ve worked on restoring (including Suzan’s) have been done photochemically, on film.

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