Lossless in Seattle: archive film’s digital future

Film archivists from all around the world gather in wintry Seattle to discuss and enjoy the latest digital developments in film restoration.

Dylan Cave

In the pre-Christmas melee of sleety Seattle, members of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) huddled together for their 22nd annual conference. The AMIA conference attracts some 500 film, video and digital archivists from across the US and the globe to meet and discuss the latest developments in the sector.

The BFI National Archive was represented by Head of Conservation Charles Fairall, who presented a paper on the archive’s new digital acquisitions strategy which, since this summer, has seen DCDMs (Digital Cinema Distribution Masters: the lossless digital equivalent of a pristine 35mm final negative) accessioned into the national collection for long-term preservation.

The news of the archive’s first acquisition of this kind – Mike Newell’s visually stunning Great Expectations (2012) – was greeted with keen interest among the AMIA community, not least because it addresses one of the biggest dilemmas currently facing moving image archives: how to deal with the shift in cinema distribution from 35mm film prints to digital DCP (Digital Cinema Package) projection.

Elsewhere, the latest technical developments in archival restoration formed the basis of The Reel Thing, a programme that delighted a packed audience at the city’s restored uptown SIFF cinema.

Chris Lewis, director of Jerry Lewis Comedy Classics, introduced clips of his father’s performance in a 1959 TV adaptation of The Jazz Singer: a rare straight performance restored to its original colour (very unusual for 1950s television).

The Jazz Singer (1959)

Lewis’s polychromatic television spectacle paved the way for The Reel Thing’s other delights, including a striking restoration of Paula Gladstone’s The Dancing Soul of the Walking People (1980), a Super-8mm documentary of life on Coney Island set to a ‘needle drop’ soundtrack of Duke Ellington, The Drifters and Alice Coltrane.

Dirk Förstner of the Deutsche Kinemathek spoke about early 1900s German experiments in creating synchronised sound for film. Six titles have been dutifully restored, allowing singers from 1906 to serenade audiences over a century later. Here’s an example:

Rauschlied aus “Künstlerblut” (1906)

The conference is also an opportunity for delegates to engage with pressing issues across the archive community. The open plenary was given over to discussion of recovery strategies called into action following Hurricane Sandy. New York-based arts centre Eyebeam had suffered near devastation of its archive as a result of the storm.

Elsewhere, members of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and the Harvard Film Archive led a discussion addressing the declining availability of 35mm viewing prints. A roomful of projectionists, film technicians and cinema bookers made the case for the continuation of 35mm projection alongside DCP projection, their vigour and fervour illustrating a passion for the moving image that is still very much at large in the US: my taxi driver revelled in the Twilight, The Killing and Northern Exposure locations we drove past.

But AMIA is also engaged internationally. One panel explored an online archive that formed part of a Rwandan reconciliation initiative, while members of the Albanian Cinema Project reported on the plight of the country’s national film archive.

The conference finished with a celebration of two major studio centenaries. Paramount supplemented its film restorations of Wings (1927) and Sunset Blvd. (1950) with a series of lavish costume and jewellery restorations, one of which – the peacock costume from Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah (1949) – can be seen at the V&A’s current Hollywood Costume exhibition.

Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

Meanwhile Universal curated its top 100 titles and showcased 12 digital restorations ranging from All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) to Schindler’s List (1993). These exuberant celebrations dovetailed nicely with the inaugural ‘Festival of the Archives’, a roundup of recent restorations to emerge from international archives.

Familiar inclusions, such as the much-lauded 4K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), screened alongside less expected fare, including a full blown restoration of Star Trek II The Wrath of Khan (1982) and The Making of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia (1937), a barely-seen promo showing Riefenstahl shooting the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The final word, however, should go to the regional screening day, presenting the Pacific Northwest in all its glory. Particularly special were the treasures of Boeing’s Museum of Flight, showing the Taylor Aerocar III Flying Car in action. Here’s a clip, not screened on the day but showing the car in use.

As Seattleites would say: “Awesome”.

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