Jamuura EXCLUSIVE: Expert Film Preservationist David Walsh Explains The Hows & Whys Of Film Archiving & Preservation!

By Aditi Patwardhan. Posted on March 14, 2016

“I must say that the saviours of films are as important as their creators," said Indian filmmaker and archivist Shivendra Singh Dungarpur during the inauguration ceremony of the The Film Preservation and Restoration Workshop India, that took place from 26th February to 6th March at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune. Indeed, film preservation & restoration is a thing of great importance. Taking that into account the dire need to restore the heritage of Indian cinema, Dungarpur's Film Heritage Foundation has taken upon itself the task of educating Indian archivists to undertake the massive task of film restoration in India.

The workshop, which was organised in collaboration with NFAI, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF), Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation's World Cinema Project, George Eastman Museum and L'Immagine Ritrovata, was curated by veteran film preservationist David Walsh. Walsh is the Head of Digital Collection at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), London and Head of Technical Commission of FIAF. He has worked at the IWM since 1975 and is an expert in the preservation of film and video. He has also played a key role in the FIAF and was appointed Head of the Federation’s Technical Commission in 2011.  He is a great mentor when it comes to teaching the new generation and teaches film archivists from across the globe at the annual FOCAL International Footage Training Week and at the FIAF Summer School.  He is currently responsible for IWM's strategy for digitization and for the long-term preservation of digital media.

We caught up with Walsh at the workshop and tried to get a sense of the various aspects of film archiving and preservation. He spoke about the ultimate goal of a film preservationist, about ethical archiving, the challenges a modern day archivist faces and how the history of film archiving has evolved.

According to you, what should be the ultimate goal of a film preservationist?

Well, I think there are two ways of looking at this. When we're talking about feature films, fiction films, the Hollywood, Bollywood kind of output, then really what the archivists strive to do is to retain the original experience of viewing that film. So, it's not just the matter of keeping the content, it's also trying to retain something about the way it was shown. So that in future, people can get an authentic viewing experience from that time. That means there's always a slight conflict between preservation and restoration, where the restorers are often tempted to improve things. Which, in the strict ethical archiving way of thinking, is not entirely satisfactory. It's not really what archivists should be doing.

On the other hand, if you're looking at non-fiction film or news reel footage or movie footage, there's much less concern about the authentic experience, because there may not have been any such thing. It may be shot for inclusion in television or news reel or whatever. In a sense, there's a feeling that what you're trying to preserve is the actual content, what was in front of the camera at that time. There's less worry about the formats and the method of presentation.

david walsh

David Walsh during the Film Preservation & Restoration Workshop 2016

There's history of filmmaking on one side and then there's the history of film archiving. You have been in the field of film archiving for so many years. How has it evolved over the years?

Filmmaking & film archiving have developed entirely separately. Filmmakers, the majority, traditionally failed to appreciate the future value of their works. And I have to say that still goes on; if you go to film schools these days, you don't find out much about archiving. Filmmakers today worry about producers, budget and getting their films made. But the last thing they're worried about is what happens in the future.

Well, there's more awareness now than there used to be. Because there are so many different platforms now and it's possible to see old films in all kinds of places, not just in cinemas but on the web and even on the intercontinental air flights you see classic movie selection very often. So people are much more aware of the need of film archiving.

Really, film archiving followed along from filmmaking and it was initially a few enthusiasts desperately doing their best to save films. It's a history of mishaps and failures. Studios were deliberately destroying things and really, although they're linked, there's quite a gulf between the two activities of filmmaking & film archiving.

You just talked about ethical archiving. When you're restoring a film, you have the entire access to it. And sometimes, when there are bits and pieces missing from the film, it needs re-editing or sound needs to be recreated if chunks of sound are missing and so on. Is there an ethical question that comes into the picture? Where can we draw the line between restoration and say, alteration?

I can write a 10 page long article on this one! The technology is so complicated and the way people made films were so variable. Anything that was possible, someone would have done it at some point. So, the master stored on the shelf in the archive, that one film may consist of dozens and dozens of reels, and very often there are elements missing. So, the primary duty of the archivist is to preserve it in its original form as far as possible, everything that they feel is necessary to preserve. So if it's possible to put the original films in perfect conditions, that's the ideal, but it's not always possible. Because sometimes the film degrades quite rapidly.

So that's the preservation side of archiving, but there's still the need to show the film. And then, in order to show it to the masses in a meaningful way, you have to make some kind of a presentation copy. It might be a film copy or a digital copy. There, the recreation part is involved. Sometimes you simply cannot restore the film exactly the way it was, because the material  may have degraded too far or there may be something missing.

In that case, it's up to the archivist to try to find a solution that doesn't change things too much from the original. And one of the important parts of doing restoration is to record what you have done, if you have to recreate some elements in some way. So you make a note of the fact that these are the modern creations. You don't necessarily have to present that to the audience, but for future archivists, it's important to know what the archivists have done in the past. And I think that's common to any medium. The art conservators, conservators working on paintings carefully record things that they're doing and whenever possible, they try to make the processes reversible. So if in the future, when better technology comes along, they can undo what's been done.

How did you get started with film preservation?

I did a Masters degree in Chemistry and I started at the archives, working on a project to see if we could find a way of depicting the life expectancy of nitrate film. But actually, the experiment wasn't very successful. So then I branched out into looking at the archiving in more detail. Less as a chemist and more as an archivist.

Do you have your favorites among the films that you have restored? Also, which was the most challenging project that you've worked on?

Well, it's always dangerous talking about favorites. It's usually the one we're working on at the moment. But still to say, from our point of view, the key film in our collection is called the 1916 film Battle of the Somme. We did a big restoration job on it a few years back and we are just about to have a major release in the UK and Europe. We're coming up to the centenary of the battle of the Somme, which was fought in 1916. The battle started on 1st July 1916, so we have a massive commemoration going on where the film will be shown. It is going to be shown in lots of venues all over Europe. So, that's quite interesting! The footage is preserved from the time of the war and we were able to preserve the material without much loss even after all these years.

In terms of challenges, the most challenging project was a film we restored from the First World War. It's a German film, shot on board a submarine, recording and going around the Atlantic, sinking ships. It's a fascinating subject and has some amazing footage. We did a project to gather all the copies that we could find, from Germany, from our own archives of the War Museum, and the quality of the footage was just terrible in every single copy. Though we produced the final restored version considerably better than the damaged copies that we had, it still looks pretty bad. We really think that even when it was first released, it wasn't very good quality. So despite the amazing subject, it remains a frustrating film.

I'm curious to know, how as an archivist do you prioritize which film to work on first?

Well, when it comes to restoration, it's sort of a special job. We have a fairly good idea what the most important films are. We know which ones are our favorites as well as viewers' favorites. So, I don't think there's much problem when it comes to restoration. Because we only have one or two restoration projects in a year. Most of the time what we're doing is managing the collection and these days, we're digitizing the collection to make it accessible. We have a clear idea about how to do that. We're planning to digitize most important and popular films over the next 3 years. So that we'll be able to make these available online. And that'll keep most of our users happy.

How do you see the film archives across the world?

I think the problems in front of film archives are broadly the same because almost the same technology is used. However, different countries take a keen interest in different areas. Archives in the US and Europe are very well-funded. On the other hand, in Asia, it’s a mixed scenario. There are countries where there's a lack of support and it’s difficult for archives to function smoothly.

Another major difference is the cultural perspective. In some places, people are willing to preserve their cinematic heritage at any cost; and cinema is considered a part of the cultural heritage. But in some other places, cinema is considered only a form of entertainment. In those places, government support is needed, otherwise the culture gets lost. It’s good to see that NFAI has got Indian government's support.

What are the challenges in front of the modern day archivists?

Well, challenges have always been there, like funding and resources, there's never enough money. But beyond that, what's really changed is the advent of digital technology. Digital technology opens up all kinds of possibilities and fantastic opportunities. So the modern archivist needs to understand the digital technology as much he needs to understand the film technology. The big challenge is that the archivists are now expected to be experts in film technology, experts in information technology, digital storage, scanning and all kinds of stuff. It's really a huge subject these days. One person can never manage all this. But we're hoping this course will give people enough idea about what areas they need to enlarge on, to see their own particular interest and also to give a wider perspective on what archiving is about, covering all the major aspects.


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