Roughly 80% of the films made before 1950 no longer exist. This loss of cinematic creations great and small inspired MoMA film curator Josh Siegel to create To Save and Project, a film series that celebrates restoration and preservation efforts by filmmakers, distributors, studios, and archives around the world. In anticipation of the series’ 16th iteration, Siegel and film collections manager Katie Trainor sat down to discuss the importance of film preservation and restoration, MoMA’s role in the process, and the difficulty of sussing out filmmakers’ true intentions.
Josh Siegel: Hi, I’m Josh Siegel. I’m a curator of film at The Museum of Modern Art. And I’m also the founding curator of a festival that we’ve presented for the past 16 years, To Save and Project, which is a celebration of restoration and preservation work by filmmakers, distributors, studios, and archives around the world.
So, film is a uniquely 20th-century medium. It’s one of the most singular contributions that was made in the 20th century to new art. And the essential reason why we preserve films is not only to save that history, and trace that history, and present it to new generations, but also essentially to save our own understanding of ourselves. How do we think about ourselves? How do we film ourselves? How do we tell stories about ourselves in 1910, or in 1950?
The harrowing statistic usually thrown around is that roughly 80% of all the films made before 1950 no longer exist. They were either lost or neglected, and either because of misuse or neglect—or willful destruction for that matter—they’re no longer with us. And so, our efforts are actually a race against time to save what does still exist. This festival is opening, again, and it’s the 16th edition, on January 4th, with a great many films spanning the world and many guests, including filmmakers like Barbet Schroeder, Peggy Ahwesh, Yvonne Rainer, and others [who] will be coming to talk about their own films as well as the films of forgotten filmmakers like Doris Wishman.
And I thought we would talk to Katie Trainor, the manager of the film archive at MoMA, about how we go about restoring a film, how we go about choosing the film to restore, what new technologies exist that enable us to restore things better than we were able to in the past. And perhaps we could take, as a good case study, a kind of fun example, our restoration a couple of years ago of George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. So, Katie, maybe you could tell us about that.
Katie Trainor: Okay. Hi, I’m Katie Trainor, and I manage the motion picture collection here at The Museum of Modern Art, and also manage our preservation pipeline, and our vault and preservation center in Pennsylvania.
Night of the Living Dead was actually a film that the Museum had the wisdom to collect just a year after it was made. They were very protective of the elements. So they really did nothing with them over the years aside from standard-definition transfers to VHS, laser disk in the ’90s. So, when it was mentioned to them that they should start thinking about what to do with those elements, I began conversations with them. And it took a couple of years to massage them into thinking that they should do something. After we convinced them that it was safer to be in an archive, and that we would be able to find funding for it, we started working on it. And it was immediately after that that George was brought into the picture.
Siegel: So restoring a film involves making a great many decisions. And in an ideal world, we can work with a filmmaker like George Romero to tease out some of the things that they aspired to in making the film, how it looked, how it sounded. Aspects that need to be drawn out better in terms of color, or tonalities in black and white. Those are kinds of decisions that ideally a conservator wouldn’t make on her own.
Trainor: The sound, especially, was a really treasured journey with George because there was a moment towards the end of the film where there’s a series of gunshots, and there was one moment where he said, “This is the exact reason why I wanna restore this film.” So he could correct the gunshots to match the image of the gun shooting. So, he was particularly thrilled that he could make those changes with the digital technology now.
There was also some moments, in doing the picture restoration, that we kind of had to talk him off the ledge because he wanted to remove things visually that had bothered him. But we convinced him that he needed to keep them in there because we called them Easter eggs for his fans. Because it was really the fans that made this film what it is, or the cult that it is, because they kept it going.
Siegel: But more often than not, the filmmaker isn’t alive anymore, and so these decisions have to be made really judiciously and also carefully. You don’t wanna over-restore a film, you don’t wanna clean it up too much. You don’t want to freeze the image through...
Trainor: It’s a really fine line.
Siegel: Yeah. There are technologies that exist that enabled you to do things, but you don’t necessarily wanna use those technologies and turn them up to 11. Stabilizing the image can sometimes make the image look embalmed and makes the image look lifeless and dead.
Trainor: I call it giving it the soap opera effect.
Siegel: Soap opera effect.
Trainor: Making it look like a soap opera on TV. And for us at MoMA, I’d like to think we’re pretty conservative in that arena. We like to keep some of the filmic artifacts of the materiality of 35mm or 16mm and not over-clean it. I think today’s audience, or the younger part of today’s audiences really, they’re getting too used to things looking so digitally scrubbed that they expect that. And I think some of the film artifacts give it a certain life and breath, and a warmth.
Siegel: So I think a good example is that you can now do 4K digital restorations and even upwards of 6K restorations that are extreme in their ability to scan a still image of a film and bring out so many of the details that are latent in the image. However, if you scan too much, for example, with The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, a great German Expressionist film, you get too much detail. You have the actual nails that were used in the building of the set, something that obviously...
Trainor: And were never intended to be viewed...
Siegel: ...[F. W.] Murnau wanted you not to have to see. It distracts you from the aesthetic and the atmosphere created by the expressionism. Similarly, if you go too bright on a Hitchcock film, like Dial M for Murder in the ‘50s, you’ll see occasionally things like the gaffer, the lighting man, under a chair in a shot because he knew that the way he lit the film, and the way he printed the film, that lighting gaffer would not be seen. And simply because you scan it and you bring that out, you have to be mindful of the fact that obviously not everything that you can see should be seen.
Trainor: But the opposite of that is, that is another example, is digitizing the Warhol collection. We actually want to see who’s standing in the background, and the detail that we hadn’t seen before, because scanning it, like you said, brings out these moments. So it’s actually raising and will intrigue, especially of Warhol scholars, to see, like, who else was in that room, or what was going on around what was being actually shot.
Siegel: That idea of intention is a tricky question because it’s hard to imagine what a filmmaker like Hitchcock intended. And it would be presumptuous of us to assume that we know what he intended. So, the ideal is to try to find, around the world, release copies, or ideally negatives, or fine-grained masters, all of these elements that can more faithfully represent how the film looked when it was first released.
Trainor: I think we go back to, yeah, we definitely look for reference copies, the best reference copy, but I think we try to always...in the back of our mind when we’re restoring something is, what did it look like on the very first time it was ever projected? I think that’s the look we’re actually trying to get.
Siegel: And then there’s also this misconception that if something is preserved digitally that it will survive forever. And that’s a really dangerous assumption, because in fact, when you preserve a work of film, we always like to talk about how if you preserve a piece of celluloid properly and you put it in the right conditions and the right storage facility, it could last upwards of 500 years.
Trainor: Oh, absolutely. There’s actually a thing called the preservation calculator. So, for us, where we store our films at our preservation center, we’ve decided on a 45-degree temperature and a 35% humidity. And when we do that on the calculator, that gives us 500 years, plus.
Siegel: So, and the remarkable thing about film technology is that it’s essentially the same today as it was in 1895. However, digital technology is a totally different beast. Digital technologies change every five, 10, 20 years. Formats change. If you think back on all of those floppy disks you had when you had your first computer, trying to retrieve information from those floppy disks is not so easy anymore because you don’t have the right equipment. So, when we do digital preservation, we have to educate people. And I’m talking about people who are filmmakers, and I’m talking about studios who may not actually know the best practices. But even people making home movies of their poodle chasing a Frisbee have to understand how best to preserve that material for their generations to come.
So, it’s not simply taking something and putting it in the cloud, it’s not simply taking something and putting it on a hard drive and putting it in a freezer. For me, I think the greatest concern is that the many independent filmmakers, marginalized filmmakers, filmmakers of color, women filmmakers, independent filmmakers who didn’t have the backing of studios, when they die, or even if they don’t have the financial means to do so, their work may be lost with them once again. So we could be facing another catastrophe in terms of our film legacy that we’ve faced in the ’50s, when people were openly neglectful or willfully neglectful.
Trainor: We should actually stop calling it digital preservation and call it digital migration, because that’s what it comes down to, is just migrating all the time. As opposed to when it was in analog, you know, that film could sit on a shelf for years and you could just pop it right back out and project it. They used to say, oh, every five to 10 years you need to migrate. Now it’s every three.
Siegel: When you create a digital repository, you need to actually create more than one to communicate with each other. And then ideally you put it in two separate locations, or three.
Trainor: It’s actually three. That’s the standard.
Siegel: Three locations, so that, you know, if North Korea drops the bomb on New York...
Trainor: Geographically located in separate locations, like not three different things in the same building, it’s like it’s three different states.
Siegel: Exactly, so three different locations. So if something catastrophic were to happen to one of them, then you could be assured that the two other repositories would be intact. And we are fortunate to have trustees who understand how critical this is. But I think a great many places in the world don’t have such means. So, our job in part is not only to preserve our own collection, but to help others preserve theirs.
We’re fortunate, for example, and giving the example we gave before of Night of the Living Dead, to work with filmmakers who’ve championed film preservation. Martin Scorsese started the Film Foundation several, I think probably about 20 years ago at this point, to specifically save films that were in danger of their oblivion, literally, or a lack of exposure to audiences because they were not so easily seen. And, similarly, George Lucas has now become very involved in funding these preservation efforts. And so we work very closely with certain filmmakers who have had the foresight to understand that we’re at a really critical inflection point in how a film will or will not endure in the future.
Trainor: You mentioned, like, you know, that number that came up: 80% of our film history is lost pre-1950. And the reason there’s that marker of 1950 is because moving images were made on nitrate film base, which was extremely flammable. So, a lot of the film collection, or a lot of our history, disappeared because it actually burned, plain and simple. Early on it was just this entertainment medium where you show it and then it goes away.
Siegel: I think that it’s safe to say that most Hollywood studio executives thought of film as a disposable commodity. So, you showed the film and had its run, and had its success. Nobody ever imagined there would be streaming platforms, and other forms of distribution in the future that would enable them to keep a library intact and present in other ways and to monetize it. Were it not for MoMA and other institutions like it, a great many more of these films will be lost to us.
And there are thousands of films that people lament having lost and wish they could see—entire bodies of work of filmmakers that are gone.
Siegel: There are wish lists of things that are hoped to appear someday. You know, there’s a long wish list of lost films. And you know what? And there’s always this possibility, because there’s still basements that haven’t been, things in basements, and garages, and attics—that’s why there’s always still this hope that something could be found, because the collector world is also very fascinating and important in terms of the preservation of history. Because collectors, not institutions, hoarded things, and they’re still being discovered, you know. It seems like every few years something is found.
And I think a good example of something hiding in plain sight is our colleagues Ron Magliozzi and Peter Williamson unearthing what is believed to be the first feature-length film with an African American cast, made by an African American crew and director, from 1913. It was a Biograph film that was never finished; it didn’t even have a title. And they’ve spent the last few years doing, assiduously researching the history of this film, the people who were involved in the making of it, who appears in it. It’s an incredible avocation. It stars Bert Williams, and people knew it as a Bert Williams film that it wasn’t unknown to us, this film. But what was unknown to us is all the people behind the scenes, or the people who appeared in the film behind Bert Williams.
And as you begin to tease apart this history, you realize you have an incredible record of performance of African Americans in the 1910s, many of whom came from the Broadway and off-Broadway stage. And so I think that there are things that we have in our own collection that have yet to be discovered. And one of the films that we’re showing in the preservation this year is what’s believed to be the first image of an African American couple kissing. It was made in response to the Edison film The Kiss, from the 1890s. And because it’s been preserved, now people can see an image of blacks in the late 19th century kissing rather than the stereotypes, the ugly and virulent stereotypes of blacks that so often appeared, especially during the Jim Crow era, or during reconstruction. So, the story is not always so grim. You know, we can find images that make us reassess our own history. And I think that’s one of the points of restoration, is a way of reassessing around history and the way that we made art then and the way we should be making art today
So, one of the reasons we created To Save and Project, the festival of film preservation, is not only to celebrate the efforts of our colleagues around the world to save film, but also of our own efforts. It occurred to me and some of my colleagues, our colleagues, that we were restoring or preserving films at MoMA that would just go back on the shelves and nobody would ever have a chance to see. And so this was really an effort to bring together the programming side of the department and the archival side of the department to celebrate our own colleagues’ work. And so, for the last 16 years, we’ve had a much more dedicated platform in which to do so.
But how we come about deciding which films to preserve is something maybe Katie can talk about it.
Trainor: Yeah. We call it our preservation pipeline, and we meet once a month. And who meets is, basically everyone in our film department is welcome. There is a core group that meets, but all the curators, we welcome and encourage them to attend this meeting because it’s at this meeting where we go through what’s currently in the pipeline and what stage of preservation it is, but also where we decide what to preserve. And how that comes to be, as the curators, we are very exhibition-driven, as Josh just mentioned. So, we see what the curators are looking to show, possibly from the collection, and whether it needs preservation or not. So that is a priority for us. We also...it’s fund-driven, when we have interest from a funder for a specific title, that puts it in the pipeline. But we also have longstanding relationships with certain filmmakers where we’ve dedicated to preserve their filmographies in their entirety. We’re always maintaining anywhere between 15 and 20 titles at a time in the pipeline.
Siegel: And one of the things I like about our preservation program is that there’s no differentiation between so called high and low culture. We have restored D. W. Griffith films which are essential to any understanding of the development of narrative, and in classical cinema. But we’ve also preserved Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, which is Melvin Van Peebles’s groundbreaking blaxploitation film, or Bill Gunn’s Ganja and Hess which is a riff on the vampire theme. A horror movie made by an African American writer-director, or animation. At the time when Alfred Barr and Iris Barry started collecting films for this Museum, it was already unnerving, I think, to many people that we would be collecting film. But the idea that we would also collect Walt Disney cartoons was unheard of. I mean, even Walt Disney himself was somewhat incredulous that a museum of modern art would consider this art, that Mickey Mouse cartoons were art, and belonged in a museum.
So I think that, you know, it’s incumbent on us to champion those films as much as any other. It’s not simply the films that win the most awards that are the most important. It’s the films that also are meaningful in many different ways.
I think one of the things you’ll see in the next year and onwards is the presence of many more moving images in the galleries. There’s an effort among all the curatorial departments here at MoMA, with our expansion, to integrate the mediums in a more concerted and thoughtful way. And so the last couple of years have been dedicated to wrestling with how to go about that in an interesting, entertaining, but also educational way, informative way. And I think that our preservation efforts are fundamental to this, not only in terms of what we’re gonna be showing in the theaters but also what we’re presenting in the galleries.