Early Hitchcock Films Resurrected for Posterity

Published on website: March 21, 2013
Categories: Archiving , Feature Films , Film Capabilities , Archiving
The Ring - BFI National Archive
The Pleasure Garden - BFI National Archive
The Pleasure Garden - BFI National Archive
The Lodger - BFI National Archive
Blackmail - BFI National Archive

There is no more venerated name in the world of cinema than Alfred Hitchcock. His movies and methods have been studied and emulated by filmmakers around the world, and his impact on the art of directing is unsurpassed. The master of suspense made films in the United Kingdom and in Hollywood, demonstrating the adage that moving images speak a global language.

Surprisingly, in light of these facts, Hitchcock’s very early silent era work — films that offer a fascinating glimpse into the development of his style — has been in bad shape. Deluxe and the British Film Institute (BFI) have corrected this, gathering as many elements of these early films as possible and using the latest restoration techniques to resurrect them. The project required thousands of hours of painstaking work. Hitchcock fans have rejoiced.

Hitchcock aficionados of future generations will also be certain to benefit, as the BFI and Deluxe used film technology to safely archive and future-proof the restored classics. Archivists note that these movies would not exist today had they been stored on a less reliable medium. Black-and-white archival emulsions promise centuries of easy and accurate reproduction of these cultural treasures, regardless of future display formats.

The films were made in the UK between 1925 and 1929, and the titles include The Ring, The Manxman, Blackmail, The Farmer’s Wife, Champagne, Easy Virtue, The Lodger, The Pleasure Garden and Downhill. The Lodger was previously the best known of the bunch, and that film is cited by film historians as a turning point, displaying many characteristics that would later come to be called “Hitchcockian” and enjoying a degree of commercial success that boosted the director’s career trajectory.

The BFI — one of the world’s largest collections of film and television with over 180,000 titles — laid a strong foundation for the restorations with technical and curatorial research, gathering elements from its own archives as well as from various collections around the world. Under the direction of the BFI, Deluxe carefully catalogued the images from delicate and irreplaceable source material, and assembled versions based on the best scholarship.

Deluxe used cutting edge restoration and preservation technology and a staff of two senior graders and eight digital restoration artists. Some of the films were scanned by the BFI itself, and others were digitized at Deluxe’s London restoration facility. The task was made more delicate by some highly flammable nitrate negatives. Elements gathered also included nitrate, acetate and polyester fine grain positives, and nitrate prints. After examination, preparation and cleaning, each element was scanned through ARRISCAN or Spirit 4K scanners to create 2K data files (in DPX format). BFI archivists reconstructed the films shot by shot.

“As would be expected with films made on nitrate and other unstable films stocks of that era, the original source material had seen a fair amount of wear and tear as prints were repeatedly made from the original negative,” says Deluxe’s Paul Collard. “The celluloid had degraded and parts of the film were either lost or unusable. In places where the original celluloid had deteriorated too far, we seamlessly replaced it with copy material. The key was not to try to improve or enhance the original in any way, but to present it authentically, in the way it would have been seen by our grandparents and great-grandparents.”

The ARRISCAN scanner has a number of adaptations that make it perfect for this delicate work. The registration pin can be disabled and the LED illumination means that highly flammable nitrate materials are not exposed to any heat during the scan. Dry-and wet-gate scanning are also options, depending on the type and condition of the materials. Sometimes a “double-flash” technique was used to better capture the rich tonal range on the nitrate material.

The next stage was a 2K digital intermediate, graded by Deluxe restoration colorists Stephen Bearman and Trevor Brown, again with supervision by the BFI. The graded, conformed scans were then digitally restored to remove defects such as scratches, warping, fluctuations, mold and frame damage. Newly re-created polyester inter-titles were incorporated based on existing prints and extensive research.

Three of the films were originally released as tinted and toned prints. Tinting and toning were early color processes used to add expressive colors to black-and-white images. In the days before color film, these colors were applied by dyes and toning baths after the printing stage. “We worked to reproduce those colors in the digital grade and the color management translated them to intermediate negative and new prints,” says Kieron Webb, film conservation manager for the BFI.

After a final review screening with the BFI, a 35mm fully restored color or black-and-white polyester digital negative was recorded out to KODAK Film frame-by-frame on the latest ARRILASER film recorders. Show prints of the new restorations were made along with a 2K data archive of all scans and restored files, a digital cinema package and television masters.

Webb says that several restoration masters were produced, including film, digital cinema, HD video and data. “In our full restoration projects, we always make a new film negative,” says Webb. “This is important not only for the long-term conservation of the film and the restoration work, in addition to the preservation data, but also for the creation of excellent 35mm show prints which are screened internationally. Early in the Hitchcock project, we carried out extensive comparison tests in conjunction with Deluxe of the various black-and-white intermediate stocks. Deluxe recorded the new negatives on their ARRILASERs and we processed and printed them in the archive’s lab.

Echoing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences Digital Dilemma reports, Collard notes the challenges of storing and archiving larger and larger data files as the demand grows for 4K and greater resolution in feature films. “What better permanent, low-cost solution could you have than a film recording of the final 4K master data onto black-and-white separation masters, ready for re-scanning back to data up to 200 years into the future?” he asks.

In June and July 2012, The Pleasure Garden, Blackmail, The Ring and The Lodger were presented with specially commissioned scores in a series of screenings during the London 2012 Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad. Newly restored prints of those films, as well as Downhill, Easy Virtue, Champagne, The Farmer’s Wife and The Manxman were presented as part of a major Hitchcock retrospective at BFI Southbank from August to October 2012.

“Archives are working incredibly hard to ensure our moving image heritage is reproduced as accurately as possible,” says Webb. “And there’s always something very reassuring about being happy with the new print at the conclusion of a restoration project.” Today’s black-and-white archival emulsions promise centuries of easy and accurate reproduction of these cultural treasures, regardless of future display formats.