Archival Spaces 278
Amazing Tales Online: Library of Congress’s Paper Prints restored
Uploaded 17 September 2021
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been hosting screenings and special Zoom webinars, an extension of their in-person “Amazing Tales” program during the festival, where film archivists report on preservation projects. On 29 August, SFSFF hosted two women from the Library of Congress who have been restoring the so-called Paper Print Collection at the Library, Megan Holly and Erin Palombi. Moderated by Archivist Kathy Rose O’Regan, and with a cornucopia of visuals in their PowerPoint, Erin and Holly presented a history of the unique paper prints and their most recent restoration, utilizing the newest digital tools.
The paper print collection came into being at the end of the 19th century, due to the U.S. copyright law which made it impossible to register films, since they had just been invented. However, since one could register photographs at the Copyright Office, film producers almost immediately began putting films on paper rolls – either whole films or single images of every scene- in order to protect themselves from piracy, which was a huge problem in the early days of cinema. Indeed as some historians have noted, piracy was the film industry’s business model. The first copyrighted film was Thomas Edison’s Record of a Sneeze [Fred Ott’s Sneeze], copyrighted 7 January 1894. Finally, with the passage by Congress of the Townsend Amendment in 1912, films could be copyrighted, though some producers did continue to send paper prints until 1917. As a result, virtually every American film made between 1894 and 1913 existed in a paper print, although a major gap exists between late 1894 and October 1896, and other prints also disappeared over the years. Nevertheless, given that 75% of American films made during the silent era have disappeared, due to nitrate decomposition, the paper prints constitute an amazing survival rate. Ironically, the paper prints were completely forgotten until 1942, and would have been completely lost, had not two employees at the Library, Howard Walls and Theodore Huff, discovered a dusty room filled with thousands of film rolls.
I first heard this amazing story when I published Gabriel M. Paletz’s seminal piece, “The Paper Print Collection and The Film of Her,” as founding editor in the inaugural issue of AMIA’s The Moving Image (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001), and, then, followed up with Charles “Bucky” Grimm’s “A Paper Print Pre-History,” in Film History (Vol. 11, No. 2, 1999). I won’t go into the details, because they are now a matter of public record, but will note that Walls and Carl Louis Gregory built an optical printer and began copying the paper prints on 35mm film in the 1940s. Unfortunately, funding was lacking, so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences eventually got involved and forced out Walls, hiring Kemp Niver who copied the paper prints onto lower quality 16mm film, for which he won a special Academy Award in 1955. The situation is more complicated and worthy of a detective story, including the fact that Niver started out as a bodyguard in – ahem – private law enforcement.
In any case, what film historians saw over the next fifty years from that early period were often dupey 16mm prints from the Niver collection. Now, two L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduates, Meghan Holly and Erin Palombi, have begun digitizing these invaluable documents of film history. In explicating the restoration process, the archivists note that after placing rolls on plastic cores and in acid-free archival boxes, they prepare the rolls for scanning, by removing all extraneous objects, dirt, then repairing tears, using heat-set tissue, which is a long-fibered repair tissue that activates between 176°F and 194°F. The tissue is coated on one side with an acrylic adhesive, allowing the tissue to be attached to the non-emulsion side of the paper, allowing the rolls to be automatically advanced through the scanner.
The films are then scanned with a Stokes scanner – especially built by Stokes Imaging, Inc. – at the Library in 2K, creating 16 bit TIFF files. The archivists noted that they had experimented with 4K, but that at that resolution, the image picked up all the imperfections on the surface of the paper, making images less legible. I have noticed a similar phenomenon when silent films are scanned at 4K, revealing the previously invisible wood grain on the sets. In any case, after scanning, digital image stabilization, clean-up, and contrast tools are utilized to produce high-quality images that almost approximate the original films, as exemplified by The Fatal Hour (1908) and The Ingrate (1908), two early D.W. Griffith Biograph films previewed. As is proper in today’s restoration technology all interventions and actions are documented for every print.
The new results are remarkable and certainly belie the “fractured flickers” reputation of such early material. Unfortunately, while many paper prints are now available for viewing online, many were restored in the late 1990s with a previous generation of digital tools that did not include image stabilization. Hopefully, these Spanish-American War actualities will be rescanned in the kind of quality Holly and Palombi demonstrated with their new restoration efforts.