Making old films accessible calls for passion and patience

Old film reels in the restoration studio at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands i

Old film reels in the restoration studio at the EYE Film Institute Netherlands in Overamstel.

by-nc-sa Images for the Future

View all the photographs from the visit to the restoration studio

In the restoration lab at the EYE Film Instituut Nederland old films are restored and digitised. They also recently started work on the processing and storage of digital films. EYE is the Netherlands’ new film institute, consisting of the Film Museum, the Filmbank, Holland Film and the Netherlands Institute for Film Education. In 2006, the Film Museum (as it was then still known) received funding to the tune of €35 million as part of the Images for the Future project to preserve, digitise and enable access to the collection. 

Anne Gant, restoration and digitisation coordinator at EYE, and film restorer Guy Edmonds provided a guided tour of the unremarkable building close to the Overamstel underground station in Amsterdam-Zuidoost. It is here that a team of 20 people work with passion and at times the patience of a saint enabling access to old films and developing strategies for the preservation of digital film. During the tour, restorer Annike Kross provided a demonstration of how a film from the early 20th century has been digitally restored.

How does the restoration lab work?
Anne Gant: "What we do here in Overamstel involves chemical restoration, digital restoration and digital preservation. We recently also started adding born-digital films to our collection. These were created using digital technology and are delivered digitally."

How many people are actually involved in the film restoration?
AG: "We have a total of five film restorers and one digital film specialist."

The former Film Museum was home to an enormous collection of old films. How long does it take to restore and digitise these?
AG: "Restoration is very much a manual process and takes a long time. Every year, we restore 160 hours of acetate film and 50 hours of nitrate film. The process of digitisation is much quicker."

How do you decide what should be restored?
Guy Edmonds: "We receive requests from the collection specialists. A restorer then collects all the copies of the film and sets to work. You first examine the film as a whole and then frame by frame and estimate what will be needed to restore it. Occasionally, you have to reassemble the film from various different copies because there is no single complete or undamaged version. The final result is a copy of the desired film in good condition."

Is it an analogue copy?
GE: "Yes, and that can then be digitised."

What do you do with digital films?
AG: "In principle, digital films do not need to be restored, but they must be preserved. This is an exciting new development for us. We recently appointed a new member of staff who will focus exclusively on that. Digital films present new challenges for us."

What kind of challenges?
AG: "Digital films are not defined by their medium. You cannot take a digital film out of a canister as we are used to with films actually shot on the medium of film. The types of digital media we have to deal with vary significantly: a digital film may be stored on a server, a hard disk, a USB stick, etc. And they can be continually transferred from one medium to another. Digital film calls for a different approach to storage from the existing museum structure in which we work. This is something new for us, since we are still used to thinking, for example, that a film consists of five canisters that will be stored on a specific shelf. We are currently in the process of establishing a new structure for digital materials."

How do you store digital films?
AG: "We have developed a roadmap for the migration and storage of digital materials. Digital media quickly become obsolete. Currently, we are storing everything on LTO tapes. We have just started using the LTO 5 format, the latest generation of LTO tapes. A single LTO tape can accommodate 1.5 terabytes of data. The tapes are a safer storage medium than hard disks. Incidentally, they were not specially developed for museums and archives, but are also used by banks, hospitals and other large organisations. They are replaced every five years."

Is it difficult to get hold of digital films?
AG: "No, it isn’t. A lot of new material is offered to us, both analogue and digital. We also collaborate with several filmmakers, including Pim de la Parra and Olof Seunke, who give us all their materials for storage. This is something we especially appreciate because it means that we have complete films at our disposal from the outset, even including negatives in the case of old films. New filmmakers who have recently graduated from the Film Academy also do this. This is why we are now receiving increasing numbers of digital films."

What is actually the difference between digital restoration and digital preservation?
AG: “Born-digital films, meaning films that were originally made in digital form, tend to be in good condition and do not require restoration. Older films, shot on film, can be restored using digital technology. The parts that are damaged are scanned, repaired and then reinserted into the film. This was how the film J’accuse was restored."

J'accuse is an anti-war film from 1919 that lasts for 170 minutes. The Film Museum had the only coloured copy of the film. This copy was restored and digitised as part of Images for the Future. Annike Kross is one of the restorers who worked on J'accuse. She shows how she used the Diamant computer program to process every single frame of the film, which was premiered at the Stadsschouwburg Theatre in Amsterdam during the Holland Festival in 2009, to remove bacteria, cracks, dust and distortions.

Diamant is an advanced program. Can't you just let it do its own thing?
Anne Gant: "Every single frame has a dynamic of its own. You cannot simply use one good frame that requires little restoration forty times in a single scene. It would create a static effect. The human eye sees more than the computer."

When you restore a film in this way, do you also create more material?
Annike Kross: "The size of the film is quadrupled. Including all the additional processing, this film was 2 terabytes in size. This means that you need a lot of room for storage. The good news is that storage space has become much cheaper. Just five years ago, we had to borrow storage space from another organisation when we were working on a different restoration project."

Does that mean that you can now restore more digital films?
AK: "Yes, it's true that film storage is no longer a problem, but the time available is. I spent more than six months working on J'accuse and the work was nowhere near finished. In all, we spent two years on it. We now outsource the digital restoration of longer films. It is now done in such countries as India."

Will you be relocating to the new EYE building on the IJ?
Anne Gant: "No, we are staying here. The new building is primarily intended for public activities. Furthermore, we have a nitrate licence for this building and a nitrate room. A nitrate licence is something quite special. The restoration lab is the only organisation in Amsterdam that is permitted to work with nitrate. Without nitrate, our work would be impossible. EYE has approximately 13,000 nitrate films and a collection of 2,000 canisters containing nitrate films that have yet to be identified." (See the Backstage article on the nitrate bunker in Overveen). 

What happens to the films that have already been restored and digitised?
AG: "We recently posted the film Rose of Rhodesia online. We plan to post more films online and invite the public to add comments and tags to the films. We would also really appreciate it if people would share their personal experiences with us. For example, we have some unique film footage about the repatriation of people from former Dutch Indonesia. We would really like to know who the people featured on the film actually are."

Marie-José Klaver