The story of the restoration of Captain John Noel’s film of the tragic 1924 Everest expedition, and how the footage came back down the mountain by yak to be preserved by the BFI National Archive.
Captain John Noel was the official photographer on the 1924 British Expedition to Mount Everest, famed for the tragic loss of mountaineers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.
Noel was an adventurous explorer who had tried but failed to get to Everest through Tibet in 1913. It is this centenary that the BFI is celebrating with the restoration of his film, which Noel financed himself and released as The Epic of Everest in 1924. He toured extensively around the world, lecturing with the film footage and beautiful colour slides.
The BFI National Archive’s restoration, undertaken in collaboration with Sandra Noel, the director’s daughter, has transformed the quality of the surviving elements of the film. It has reintroduced the original coloured tints and tones and overcome some serious damage and deterioration inherent in the material, to do full justice to this heroic feat of exploration cinematography.
Credit: Courtesy of The Bill Douglas Cinema Museum, University of Exeter
It was the film print which Noel carried around for his lectures which was the key to the film’s eventual restoration, safeguarded by his daughter Sandra and donated to the BFI National Archive some years ago.
Its superior condition meant the restoration team could substitute many shots from this print to improve the replace damaged sequences from the Archive’s full-length original nitrate print.
However, the Sandra Noel print was incomplete and lacked the intertitles and the film’s original colour tints and tones. These were scanned at a resolution of 4K using a wet gate to eliminate scratches. A new technique was developed by our image quality specialist to scan selected scenes using individual colour LED’s to get the best possible results from parts of the image compromised by deterioration of the blue toning and the severe mould damage. The team then chose the best quality shots from the two source prints to make the final continuity.
Noel’s film was made under extremely difficult conditions at high altitudes and in very low temperatures. The negatives were sent down the mountain and across the Tibetan plains by yak to Darjeeling where Noel had set up a special laboratory to process the films.
During processing some marks were introduced which appear in the surviving film as black specks – these were left in as being original to the artefact. Other processing marks which appeared as white marks in one print but not the other were restored out and 89 years of wear and tear were cleaned up by our commercial partners at Deluxe Digital.
The Epic of Everest is now fully preserved for future generations on film as well as in digital versions and the original nitrate films have gone back to the new sub zero vaults at Gaydon in Warwickshire.
See beautiful restored images from The Epic of Everest