Although there are still a few exceptions and holdouts, the vast majority of movies, cartoons and other cinema and broadcast content today is shot digitally. In the 20th century, though, digital wasn’t really much of a thing. At least, not until we got right to the very end of the century. Most movies and even cartoons back then were created on film or later recorded to film for use in movie theatres.
The problem with film, though, is that it degrades over time. Depending on the material the film’s made of, that degradation can happen quite quickly, too, causing many films to become quite rare. In this video, Norm from Tested takes a visit to see Steve Stanchfield at Blackhawk Films to see how old films – in this case, cartoons by Max Fleischer, animator of Superman, Popeye, Betty Boop and more – are cleaned and restored.
In the 21-minute video, Steve goes into a lot of detail on the process, explaining the differences between some of the films and how the creation/mastering process changed and evolved in order to account for new technology – like early forms of embedding sound along with the picture. Some of the advancements, such as sound, also came with disadvantages, too, like having to crop off part of the image to make room for it.
Other issues also plague old films, particularly cartoons, were entire chunks of frames would be missing, cut out as it travelled from cinema to cinema back in the early 1900s. Between this and missing frames, it might meant that several sources would be required to fully restore an old film. And sometimes, even just finding a single copy can be virtually impossible because there’s no record with those early films of who has what in their possession. A lot of it boils down to luck.
Even after you have the films, they need to be cleaned up, scanned, digitally restored and brought back to their original glory. There’s 100 years worth of dust and dirt build-up, along with big reductions in colour and contrast that need to be fixed. Composite shots might need to be recreated entirely from scratch using original source material – if they can get their hands on it. It’s not a quick 2-minute fix.
Although the processes used in the video are largely irrelevant for those of us shooting digitally today, it’s a fascinating look into film history and how it’s being restored and preserved for future generations.