What's the oldest piece of footage you've restored?

What’s the oldest piece of footage you’ve restored?

It comes as no surprise that restoration is something we, at Filmworkz, feel incredibly passionate about. It would be like saying the Pope is into Catholicism, right? But we know we’re not the only ones who live and breath piecing together bits of history, making a ruined image clear, making a film out of something that once was and now will be again. But how far back have we actually been restoring film – is there any limit to what the work of incredible restoration artists can do? Does the software know no bounds? We spoke to the A Team of the Filmworkz Academy to find out a little more about what was the oldest piece of footage they’ve worked on and whether they were able to bring it back to life…

8. Ahmad Hossam – Victory of Youth (Intisar al-chabab) (1941)

Holding such old material was an incredible experience. Victory of Youth, or Intisar al-chabab, is an old Egyptian musical-comedy, where two siblings travel to the capital with no money and no future but their beautiful singing voices opens up new horizons for them. There was a profound sense of history and responsibility, knowing that each frame carried stories from over eight decades ago. The physical condition of the reels was a mix of awe and challenge; seeing the wear and tear of time, yet recognising the importance of preserving it for future generations.

Our journey with this project began with a physical inspection of the 15 reels of film that were around 300 metres each in length. We had to use the 35mm duplicate because the original negative was damaged beyond repair. Since this was a positive work print, which is the rough draft used by the film editor, the duplicate retained all editor markings from grease pencils. Most scenes had heavy scratches, dirt, tears, and tape splices. Additionally, there were cinch marks due to rounding the film without sufficient care, and white stains were found in the gelatine of several frames. This presented a significant obstacle that required our expertise and technical capabilities to overcome.

Then we moved on to cleaning the film using an ultrasonic vibration technique and special organic film cleaners to remove all visible signs of mould, dirt, and dust. The digital restoration phase was then initiated with specialised software tools such as Phoenix – the game changer in the restoration process.

7. Vincent Vardnoush – Somewhere in England (1940)

This film was the first in the ‘Somewhere‘ series and is the story about a lovestruck corporal is who framed and then demoted but his friends rally round to help clear his name. The condition of the source reels for Somewhere in England was terrible and heavily damaged; they were riddled with scratches, tears, and extensive warping. The film had clearly been through a lot over the decades, and honestly, no one was expecting too much from the restoration. The initial goal was modest: to make it look acceptable for a DVD release and to archive it for some universities that were interested in preserving this piece of British film history.

Working on such old footage was both a challenging and rewarding experience. At first, it was daunting. The film reels were incredibly fragile, and each frame required meticulous care. Despite the poor initial condition, it was thrilling to hold such a piece of history in my hands. There’s something profoundly moving about working on a film that was made during such a tumultuous time in history, right in the middle of World War II. It felt like connecting with the past in a very tangible way. Every frame we restored was a small victory, and the process was like peeling back the layers of time to reveal the original artistry.

One of the most satisfying moments was seeing the final product. We managed to bring the footage up to an acceptable quality, which was much better than anyone had hoped for. It was incredibly gratifying to see the film come back to life and know that it could now be enjoyed by future generations.

6. Louie Soto – The Little Rascals Series aka Our Gang (1930)

I helped restore the Our Gang (later retitled The Little Rascals for TV) comedies for the 100th anniversary of this iconic film series. In 1922, producer Hal Roach introduced the kiddie troupe known as “Our Gang” to theatre audiences and kicked off one of the most popular and prolific franchises in the field of short subjects, with 220 one-reel and two-reel comedies released over two decades. In the late 1920s, they transitioned from silent films to ‘talkies’, and introduced the 80 sound shorts made at Hal Roach Studios.

The biggest issue with Our Gang/Little Rascals was extreme warping due to film shrinkage. Over time, the nitrate film shrinks, and eventually to the point where it would cause warping and stability issues during the scanning proses. Alongside this there were plenty of rips and tears as well as giant positive debris that we had to paint out – this took a while but was honestly quite a fun challenge to figure out. DVO Steady and DVO Warp did a good job at mitigating these issues. This wasn’t the case for every episode though; some episodes looked shockingly good for 1930s nitrate! The collection was even reviewed by Leonard Maltin who said that “these films have never looked this good”.

5. Fabio Bedoya – Tacna & Arica (1925)

The oldest footage I worked on was a 1925 nitrate film from the government of Chile about the annexation of Arica and Tacna, aptly named Tacna & Arica. It was shot by an Argentine woman director named Rene de Oro, who is quite renowned as one of the first female directors for hire in the region. I wasn’t part of the digitisation team, but it had to be scanned manually because there wasn’t a suitable digital scanner for handling the nitrate, and there was significant degradation in some of the reels.

The restoration process was relatively straightforward; however, since the reels were scanned manually, most of the frames were not aligned, necessitating a heavy and involved stabilisation process. DVO Framelock proved to be very useful in this case, which is why I always use that footage for training and demonstrations. Then, deflickering was also a significant challenge, especially with nitrate, where sudden changes in luminosity are quite noticeable. The frame rate was around 16fps, not precisely exact since these old films were shot with hand-cranked cameras without a constant speed, so it’s an approximation. Nevertheless, it was quite an experience.

4. Randy Fortunado – Japanese glass plates (1890-1912)

The thing that probably started me down the restoration path was actually in photography; I discovered someone selling glass plate negatives on public auction, which were from Japan during the Meiji Era, which were probably taken between 1900 and 1912. This era was a profoundly important time for Japan, as they moved away from being an isolated, feudal society, to an emergent great power with advancements in industrialisation and scientific, technological, philosophical, political, legal, and aesthetic ideas that would go onto affect its social structure and internal politics.

Cleaning and scanning these plates took me back to my early photography days when processing my own negatives. While most of the images are simple family portraits, they preserve a moment in time before the ‘modern era’ began. These plates were invented before film became mainstream and used light-sensitive emulsions of silver salts on glass plates that are usually thinner than window glass. I always have an eye open for rare and unique glass plates and do my part to preserve this medium. Once a glass plate shatters, the moment captured on it is gone forever.

3. Michael Coronado –The Son’s Return (1909)

This recently re-discovered biograph short directed by D.W. Griffith features Mary Pickford playing the sweetheart of a country innkeeper’s son who heads to the big city and becomes a successful banker. After five years, he returns to his poverty-stricken parents, who do not recognize him and plot to rob their own son.  Fortunately, Mary steps in to help the drama end happily.

Restoring this film was a joint effort between the UCLA Film & Television Archive and Cinelicious. The restoration process began with the 35mm nitrate Biograph 1 perf camera negative and it was scanned using the Scanity, with the initial challenge being image stabilisation.

In 2015, we did not have DVO Frame Lock, so Tyler Fagerstrom had to devise a custom setting on the Scanity to stabilise the image. After stabilisation, Craig Rogers performed an automated pass with Phoenix, and I handled the manual pass. I distinctly recall repairing a significant tear in a shot featuring Mary Pickford and Charles West, set against a backdrop of numerous branches, which turned out exceptionally well. It’s certainly a project I take great pride in and am delighted to have contributed to its restoration.

2. Gabriela Plazas – Operaciones del Doctor Posadas (Doctor Posadas’s surgeries) (1899)

The oldest footage that I have ever worked with was: Operaciones del Doctor Posadas, which was originally filmed by Eugenio Py as a 10 minute film of Dr Alejandro Posadas performing the surgical intervention of resecting a hydatid cyst of the lung on a patient in the old Hospital de Clínicas in Buenos Aires. However, only five minutes of the footage remains preserved by the Argentine Cinemathique Foundation and was restored to be projected in an art exhibition at the Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University last year. It was a 35 mm IP, B&W (with some tinted) Nitrate, and the original material was in very poor condition. There was severe flicker, issues with stability and color loss problems, as well as lots of spots, scratches, and the presence of fungus. Unfortunately, there was also burns on the original nitrate material where 12 lost frames lost were not able to be recuperated. As such, several frame-by-frame cleanings were carried out because it was an audio-visual historical document. Although the material was incomplete, it was very important for me to recover it so that it could be projected again and preserved in a quality digital copy. It is the feeling of leaving my small grain of sand in the preservation of our oldest audio-visual heritage. I really enjoy the challenge of trying to recover very old material to be enjoyed by new generations and I especially enjoy working in black and white for its brightness and contrasts.

1. Koushik Bhattacharya – 6 one minute Kinetoscopes shot by Thomas Edison himself (1894)

I consider it to be a blessing to work on footage shot by Thomas Edison. The Kinetoscope was duplicated on to fresh 35mm film negatives by Paul Rutan Jr at Triage Archival Lab at LA, which was then scanned by Christopher Dusendschon in 3K resolution on his custom-made film scanner specially built to scan archival footage only.

It wasn’t hard at all to restore the footage because we had the DVO tools at our disposal; apart from Combustion to paint the tear the only part that was a little tough was the stabilisation. We were able to over come this by using the practice of frame by frame paint with DVO Fix – it’s amazing! We take pride in being the only company to have 11 DVO license back in 2009 and used Nucoda too. I also want to thank the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to trust Eque Inc. (Radhs in India) with the digital restoration and Triage with the Photochemical part. I was overwhelmed by the kind response we got from the AMPAS.