Documentary in the Age of Digital Reproduction (7/7)

7. Preservation and Restoration

Okajima Hisashi
Curator, National Film Center, Tokyo

Documentary Box (DB): How is digital technology used in film preservation and restoration?

Okajima (OH): Film archives will be increasingly dependent on digital technology, so we’re currently collecting information on how to proceed from here. Everything is at the experimental level right now. At meetings of the International Federation of Film Archivists (FIAF), we discuss the current possibilities available, and what we can and can’t do. This last is a question of ethics, and we’ve yet to reach any conclusions. Advances in digital technology occur at such a fast rate, but the more advanced the technology, the greater the ethical issues.

Restoration is an important part of archiving, but as a rule, we film archivists are against enhancement. For example, say you’re watching a Japanese science fiction movie, and you can see the string holding up the flying saucer in the sky. We’d say that making the string invisible when you restore the movie is against the rules. It’s also possible to improve the sound in films from the era when recording equipment wasn’t very good when you transfer them from film to video, but we’re also fundamentally against this.

As soon as digital begins to take off in Japan, I think we’ll see the impact too quickly in a variety of areas. For example, there’s danger that the infrastructure around film could atrophy. Film developers may not finance any new films, and so on. In addition, Japan is one of the few countries to have a film stock industry. We’re very lucky that Fujifilm is based here, but if a large company like Fuji were suddenly to stop producing 35mm film, it would have an extremely serious impact on the preservation of film culture.

At the 1995 FIAF conference in Los Angeles, a Disney executive made the fairly incendiary announcement that “Over the next ten years, we’ll go from film to nonfilm, and from analog to digital. Film won’t even be around in one hundred years.” His argument was that, “Digital is different from anything we’ve seen to date. Digital information is really digital, and there’s no way to lose binary information.” Digital information is just zeroes and ones, so there’s no way for it to decay. But you still run into problems with the permanence of its storage material. Film has its problems, but we’re in trouble if we forget that film has already lasted at least one hundred years. No one can promise now that digital storage media won’t decay, and if it turns out that this doesn’t last, then data transfer is a lot more difficult than it would have been from film. We can still repair film projectors from one hundred years ago and use them, but no one can fix a videotape [for play] from even thirty years ago. Even if you could, it would take an awful lot of money to do so.

When you scan film to work on it in a digital domain, you end up with something much better than [what you can get using] the standard photochemical restoration process. And you can watch what’s going on in the monitor as you work. The output is digital, but it goes onto film, which is crucial. If the output destination was video, people would be satisfied with the resolution and skill [appropriate for video] and you’d end up with something that looks good on a television screen. If the end medium is 35mm then you can see how the restoration compares to the original, how scratches have vanished and colors improved. The starting point for thinking about digital technology must be “film-digital-film.”

DB: How do you preserve works on media other than film?

OH: Cinema is one type of experience, so we should employ digital technology more and more in the environment that surrounds this experience. First of all, archives are a paradox: whether it’s books or film, showing things means damaging them. From a preservation point of view, it’s clearly better not to show things, but we can’t do this. The classic way to solve this problem is to have two books, one for show and one for preservation. But this takes money. In similar cases, it’s imperative that we make microfilm copies or put the books on the internet. We’re also moving in this direction with film.

DB: Have communication tools like the internet and e-mail been useful for exchanging information among the archival community? How about for training of new archivists?

OH: I think that the internet is a true wonder. It does bring on “global anglophonization,” though. It takes time for the Japanese to read English, and if you make everything into one culture, then you’re really getting into a sort of cultural imperialism. Regarding training, an on-line training course, Film Archives On Line (FAOL; http://www2.iperbole.bologna.it/faol/) has been started up in Europe. FAOL starts out with “What is film preservation?” and goes from there.

DB: It sounds like no matter how much digital is employed, the human element will always remain intimately involved.

OH: Jean-Luc Godard said that film’s ultimate defining characteristic is that you can carry it. In Keep Up Your Right (Soigne ta droite, 1987), Godard himself carries around a film print. If you can’t carry it, it’s not film, it’s something else. To carry something means that it has weight. I think that it’s important to preserve a culture in which people carry films and go to see them. The film festivals that have lasted have to get films to the venues, and people have to get themselves to the venues to see these films too.