Thursday, December 30, 2010

RIP


What is there to be said? News articles abound, generally containing accurate info about this very, very special film stock. Kodak announced its discontinuation on June 22, 2009, and the last day you can get your Kodachrome processed (by the indefatigable Dwayne's Photo) is today, Thursday, December 30, 2010.

The photo above shows the one and only roll of 16mm Kodachrome I ever managed to shoot in my life. I bought it a few years ago before I even owned a 16mm camera, and shot it only a month ago or so, and just sent it to Dwayne's two days ago. Very curious about how it'll come out. I also sent six super 8 rolls, from which I expect varying levels of successful/unsuccessful processing - one of them was shot in 1986 by me as a kid, one was shot in 2007 on stock from 1984, and the rest are of more recent vintage, but stored inconsistently over the last couple of years. Hopefully there will be some positive surprises.

In my restoration work, Kodachrome can present some unique issues in duplication via internegative, particularly because it's a direct projection stock, i.e. meant to be viewed/projected as an original. Its higher contrast and unique image qualities mean special steps have to be taken for its successful duplication. Some labs flash the internegative slightly and then pull two stops, to lower contrast. Or one stop. Or 1.5 stops. Or ...? I'm sure there are other tricks of the trade employed at various facilities sensitive to the special needs of Kodachrome, some of them perhaps proprietary secrets, who knows?

I've had the pleasure of working on preserving/restoring various films shot on Kodachrome over the past seven years, and here's a list of some of them off the top of my head (alphabetical by filmmaker name):

Mirror (Gary Beydler, 1974)
Hand Held Day (Gary Beydler, 1975)
The Wonder Ring (Stan Brakhage, 1955)
Gnir Rednow (Stan Brakhage & Joseph Cornell, 1955/late '60s)
The Act of Seeing with one's own eyes (Stan Brakhage, 1971) (some sequences)
Odds & Ends (Jane Conger Belson Shimane, 1958)
Sam Fuller's WWII home movies (Samuel Fuller, 1945) (some rolls)
The Assignation (Curtis Harrington, 1953)
Mother Goose Stories & Fairy Tales (Ray Harryhausen, 1946-1953)
Angel Blue Sweet Wings (Chick Strand, 1966)
Five Film Exercises (John and James Whitney, ca.1944-1946)
Yantra (James Whitney, 1957)
Lapis (James Whitney, 1966) (both Yantra and Lapis projects involved a test approach to digital restoration of the films, which yielded very intriguing results) (collaboration w/ John Whitney Jr.)
Mozart Rondo (John Whitney, 1952)

...not to mention the various avant-garde films that were saved and ONLY preservable/restorable thanks to the existence of a Kodachrome (7387) print. Common through the early '70s, Kodachrome prints were color reversal prints on a variation (?) of Kodachrome, usually meant for printing from lower contrast originals, like ECO (Ektachrome Commercial). Like the camera stock, these prints are gorgeous, and have incredible color stability.

With the introduction of a higher contrast Ektachrome print stock in the early '70s, use of the Kodachrome print stock diminished until it was discontinued altogether in August 1981. But because these 1970s ECO originals are often faded, or originals may be lost, it's the ultra-fine, ultra-stable Kodachrome prints that can alternatively provide the basis for a restoration, to impressively high quality results.

Some films I've worked on that were preserved from (or with the help of) a surviving Kodachrome print include:

Dear Janice (Adam Beckett, 1972) (originals lost) (collaboration w/ iotaCenter)
Evolution of the Red Star (Adam Beckett, 1973) (originals lost) (collaboration w/ iotaCenter)
Heavy-Light (Adam Beckett, 1973) (originals faded) (collaboration w/ iotaCenter)
Los Ojos (Gary Beydler, 1975) (originals lost)
Nothing Happened This Morning (David Bienstock, 1965) (color section only) (originals lost) (still in progress)
Brummer's (David Bienstock, 1967) (originals lost)
The Riddle of Lumen (Stan Brakhage, 1972) (some faded shots in the original)
The Room (Carmen D'Avino, 1958) (originals lost)
A Trip (Carmen D'Avino, 1960) (originals lost)
The Maltese Cross Movement (A.K. Dewdney, 1967) (originals lost)
Bertha's Children (Roberta Friedman & Grahame Weinbren, 1976) (originals faded)
Murray and Max Talk About Money (Roberta Friedman & Grahame Weinbren, 1979) (originals lost)
Now That the Buffalo's Gone (Burton C. Gershfield, 1967) (originals lost) (still in progress)
The Wormwood Star (Curtis Harrington, 1956) (originals lost)
unc. (Bruce Lane, 1966) (originals lost)
Go Oh Wow (Chris Langdon, 1972) (originals lost)
various color trailers (Chris Langdon, ca.1973-74) (originals lost)
The Alphabet (David Lynch, 1967) (originals partially damaged) (still in progress)
Sears Sox (Pat O'Neill, Chick Strand, and Martin Muller, ca.1968) (originals lost)
Mirror People (Kathy Rose, 1974) (originals lost)
Throbs (Fred Worden, 1972) (originals lost)

*

And for those of you who have found yourselves with some Kodachrome you didn't get around to shooting in time for the processing deadline: Remember that Kodachrome can be processed as black and white, so it's not entirely useless now, and I've heard you can get interestingly high contrast results. (In fact, Kodachrome is technically a black and white stock, with the color dye only being created in the processing - this is a large part of why it's so complicated to process.) Or, consider donating an unused box to a local film archive or film museum to be saved as an artifact.

Hope everybody who had wanted to shoot it got to shoot it. Crazy to think of an analog in other arts/media - is there one? I suppose one could lament never having had the chance to shoot on 1/2-inch open reel video, but the decks and cameras still exist and you could always use old stock, which is plentiful, though it might involve taping over something. Obscure forms of printmaking are still doable, as are numerous uncommon photographic processes. You can still paint with centuries-old oil paint recipes if you really want to and people are making absinthe traditionally again. What other art form besides photographic film (and definitely video too) is so technologically dependent as to render entire avenues of creative and/or technological exploration utterly obsolete, unattainable, killed? Then again, Polaroid was saved from this fate by passionate supporters, so maybe there are possibilities for Kodachrome, though I'm very doubtful.

In the meantime, I'm glad I like the 7285 Ektachrome so much (available in 16mm and super 8). It's really quite beautiful, give it a shot if you haven't tried it yet.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Deteriorated 28mm diacetate.

Not much to say here, other than that these are some particularly nice photos I managed of a badly deteriorated 28mm diacetate print of Les Misérables (maybe the 1917 version?). Broadly speaking, as a format 28mm was more or less killed by the introduction of 16mm in 1923. Enjoy! (?)



Sunday, November 21, 2010

This one frame...

...is the reason why we had to print Ben VanMeter's S.F. Trips Festival - An Opening (1967) without cleaning it, or via a liquid gate printer. But that's OK! Ben is a filmmaker who was particularly attuned to the physical qualities of cinema, and I don't mean just its usual textures and surfaces.

This film was shot on January 21-23, 1966, at the massively significant Trips Festival, which occurred at Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco. I can't imagine what it must have actually been like to attend, but from all accounts, the Trips Festival was a pretty startlingly rapturous event. All the arts were on display, often intermixed, whether it be light show performance, electronic and tape music, film projections, performances, the Grateful Dead, interactive displays, any number of other possibilities. It was an incredibly extensive interactive multimedia event that allowed attendees and participants to utterly free associate their way through the nearly limitless artistic and aesthetic endeavors then brewing and boiling over from the Bay Area underground.

Ben VanMeter, who had arrived in the Bay Area from Oklahoma in the very early '60s, was already a known filmmaker, having made several significant 16mm shorts that were playing regularly around town and elsewhere on the underground cinema circuit. Ben's approach was in many ways marked by a deep and intuitive lyricism, letting internal and external energies often direct his improvisatory responsive, but disciplined camera, resulting in a free-flowing "river of images" (to quote Robert Nelson) that is beautifully free-associative and ephemeral.

Ben seems to have first (successfully) tried this approach with the remarkable Olds-Mo-Bile (1964) (recently renamed Bolex Peyote Bardo by Ben), a 12-minute b/w film for which Ben intuitively filmed a full roll, rewound it, then filmed over it again, then again, to create unexpected in-camera superimpositions. But it's not a film of total chance - it's a quite successful combination of certain preplanned layer interactions and a basic trust of his own muse, a highly integrated mix of the intentional and the fortuitous.

Although this approach in some ways reached its zenith in Ben's feature Acid Mantra (1968), perhaps the most striking and near-perfect articulation of the technique is to be found in S.F. Trips Festival.

Ben had three camera rolls of 7255 Ektachrome Commercial, which he fully ran through his camera each day of the 3-day Trips Festival. The end result was three 100ft. rolls of film that each had been triple exposed in-camera, each layer of exposure representing a day of the festival. Aside from just two or three necessary structural edits, Ben just spliced the three rolls together essentially unedited. This was then set to a soundtrack that was achieved in roughly the same manner, via triple layering of sound he recorded throughout the festival.

Ben calls the film "a documentary of the Trips Festival from the point of view of a goldfish in the punch bowl." Indeed, it seems that a participatory, impressionistic, kaleidoscopic piece such as this would be the only way to document such an event, in which simultaneity and multimedia (both intentional and accidental) ruled. Ben's dual approach of open and considered pre-structuring, plus an intuitive embrace of the happenstance and unexpected, results in a hypnotic audiovisual cornucopia which nevertheless also does well to document the event in a strange sort of impressionistic semi-clarity. The whole film hovers between kinetic psychedelic light show and home movie informality.

As for preservation of the film (since this blog is about Preservation Insanity)....

Well, the preservation wasn't that insane. Having viewed a 1967 Kodachrome print a number of times, I was surprised to discover the single hand-painted frame shown above once inspecting the film's camera original - I had never noticed it during my viewings of the film. Winding to the same spot on the Kodachrome print, there it was, but really washed out and not very visible. In fact, overall, the Kodachrome print was missing a lot of the original's subtle shadow and highlight detail, which is not surprising, given that the Kodachrome print stock (7387) was gorgeous, but would inevitably gain contrast and lose shadow and highlight detail particularly in a dark, richly colorful film like S.F. Trips Festival.

Color-wise, the Kodachrome print basically looked identical to the original. After talking to Ben, it became clear that we could match the original in terms of exposure, and since his intention in printing the film was essentially to duplicate the original as-is, we didn't seek to color-correct or boost contrast or any other particular thing. Since the one frame of hand-painting meant the original couldn't be cleaned conventionally, I basically just wound through it a few times with a dry velvet, and also checked it carefully throughout for any schmutz or gunk, of which I found none - the original was thankfully quite clean.

FotoKem Labs carefully printed a new polyester internegative, dry gate, without further cleaning, and timed the new print to match the original as closely as possible. We were, in a sense, treating the original as a sort of neutral canvas on which all the recorded events happened in the colors and light/dark relationships as they did. Similar to Gary Beydler's Venice Pier (1976), the original was treated as much as a one-light as possible - the film stock being sort of a scientific control, upon which all the individual events recorded could express themselves as they did, with no additional photochemical or artistic intervention.

Does that make sense? J.J. Murphy's Print Generation (1974), about which I've been promising an entry here for a year or two, is similar - the filmic space is on its essential level a neutral one in which the activity/process unfolds, unblemished and unmodified by additional tinkering. The process by which the film is made is tied to the material in a way that would make any extra superficial changes dishonest and destructive. As freeform as it plays, Ben's film is precisely this as well, so we basically timed the restoration to match the look of the original, hand-painted frame and all.

Incidentally, the hand-painted frame is over what would otherwise be a flash frame. Though there are other flash frames here and there throughout the film, I guess Ben took a liking to this one and decided to decorate it!

Thanks for reading. I'll try to post a bit more regularly than I have been... Let me know if you enjoy this sort of thing! I should do an entry on Ben's Acid Mantra, come to think of it... maybe that'll be up next...

One other note - if you attended the opening night of PFA's Radical Light series on 10/15/2010, you may have seen S.F. Trips Festival, which quietly premiered there in its restored version. But I'll be doing my best to get it around so folks can see it, it's a film I like very much and think many others will too.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Slightly tarnished?


I've been working with Pacific Film Archive on restoring 8 films by the wonderful Chick Strand. One of them, an early favorite called Waterfall (1967), is comprised almost entirely of hand-processed, solarized, black and white negative. I was surprised to discover, upon winding through the original, that some odd tarnishing/discoloration had occurred in a few spots. This probably gradually developed over the years. An internegative made ten years ago displays these artifacts too, so they've been there for some time. Vintage prints from ca.1972-73 don't have them. At any rate, they're in only a few places, Chick accepted them in the previous internegative, and they're not very out of aesthetic character with the rest of the film, so it was decided to leave them alone. I've attached a photo of the original here so you can check it out.

Another thing to note in this photo - the perforation damage. The last time the original was printed, it was damaged somewhat extensively, but thankfully only resulting in torn perforations - albeit 30ft. of torn perforations. But no image damage. Some of it was edge-taped at the time, some not. At first I was concerned that, even with better tape repairs, the original was too fragile to risk printing again. But realizing the original is entirely double-perf stock (as seen in the photo here), I came up with an alternate solution which would simply involve printing it from heads-to-tails using the other side of the perforations. Normally, this original, which is A-wind, would need to print from tails-to-heads, because of its emulsion position (16mm can have the emulsion on either side in relation to perforation/soundtrack placement). But as it's double-perf, we can do it the other way around too. So the perf damage will still be fixed better, but we won't have to be as freaked out printing it, since we'll be using the undamaged perf side to drive the film through the printer.

One final thing I discovered in working on this film also concerns emulsion position (B-wind vs. A-wind). Upon inspecting some early Kodachrome (7387) prints, I discovered that the original lab that had printed the film (Deluxe Hollywood), had treated the film, not surprisingly, as B-wind. Most 16mm originals are B-wind, and in fact there's a mix of both A-wind and B-wind material in the film, though it's almost entirely A-wind. So when Deluxe originally printed this original, they printed it with the emulsion flopped for almost the whole film, so all the early Kodachrome prints were soft, except for the three or four short shots that were B-wind in the original. (All the other shots printed as slightly soft, because the film was printing through the base rather than emulsion.) When the original was printed again by Chick in the late '90s (at FotoKem this time), they got it right, printing it correctly as A-wind. I didn't want to just assume anything though, so I did a close inspection of several prints and the original, and talked to some folks very close to Chick (she had passed away before I could ask her about this). We all concluded that printing it as A-wind was the better way to go.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

My cup runneth over.

Since Criterion announced the release date of volume two of by Brakhage (May 25), I thought it would be nice to post a number of photos here that relate to it somehow. These 9 images show the ORIGINAL 8mm edited picture roll for reel 4 of 23rd Psalm Branch (1967), a film that is included on the volume two DVD. The original is really quite incredible, having been assembled in a veritably sculptural way, with much rapid cutting and surface modification. It's a wonder that it's still in one piece - in fact, the originals are so far in excellent condition, with no real damage (as of this writing, I've been through 4 of the 10 reels). You'll see hand-painting/-tinting, found footage, heavy cutting, and adhesive pattern applications. The first photo here, of the film on its original reel, hopefully gives you an idea of the amount of attention and energy Stan put into this material.







Tuesday, February 23, 2010

To Gary Beydler


















The wonderfully poetic and imaginative artist/filmmaker Gary Beydler passed away on January 16, 2010. I had the great fortune to work with him on restoring his films beginning in 2007, but the great misfortune to have never gotten the opportunity to meet him in person. These four images above are from his final film, Venice Pier, which was completed in 1976. Running 16 minutes in length, it's his longest film by far, and also his only sound film. I wanted to share these few images and a telling of the story of its restoration as a tribute to Gary and his work. (This entry will run longer than the usual.)

I first contacted Gary in 2007 to inquire about his films. I had seen Pasadena Freeway Stills and Hand Held Day thanks to David James, and thought they were wonderful works. As I had begun to eagerly search out L.A. filmmakers and their films, I called Gary and asked him where they were kept, if he wanted to deposit them at the archive where I work, and so forth. I found him a very interesting conversationalist, with a great and unexpected sense of sometimes dry, sometimes absurd humor. He did indeed have his films, and he would dig them up and send them to me.

All told, Gary made six films that could be considered finished pieces: Mirror (1974), Pasadena Freeway Stills (1974), Hand Held Day (1975), Los Ojos (1974), Glass Face (1975), and Venice Pier (1976). All are 16mm except Mirror, which was made in super 8. There is something miraculous about each one - in fact, the more I think about them, the more I feel that word really fits. I think anyone who's seen the films will at least partly agree with me on that.

I had only known about four of the films (the first four mentioned above), from an article David James had written in the mid-'70s (David's first published piece ever, he tells me). Glass Face, it turns out, was never really shown, and, like Los Ojos, it's one of Gary's more sweetly silly films, perhaps not as profound as the others, but just as jewel-like and heartfelt in their way.

At first, Gary had only turned up some of his material. Aside from some material for the films I already knew, he told me he had found "this other film I made about the Venice Pier - you probably haven't seen it." He proceeded to describe it to me- he had filmed it over the course of an entire year, shooting at different points on the Venice pier at different times of day, every couple of days. The finished film unfolds as a spatially "correct" procession down the entirety of the Venice pier, but with the shooting chronology all mixed up. Each cut could be a jump forward or backward in time, go from night to day, from September to June to January, rain to sunshine, populated to empty, but always moving forward to the end of the pier, one cement block at a time.

The film sounded amazing to me. Knowing his other films, I automatically trusted Gary's talent and creativity. There was no way this film could be a stinker. I was extremely eager to see it. He sent it to me in the first batch of stuff he found, but it wasn't a print of the film - it was the original picture and sound rolls. He couldn't find the print.

The originals also had the beginnings of vinegar syndrome, a deadly, uncurable disease among acetate film stock. It can potentially be slowed down with good climate-controlled storage, but not stopped. So I was faced with a situation in which I needed to decide if I should spend a good chunk of my allotted preservation money on a film I'd never seen, a film which, though it had shown in a premiere few-week run at an opening Gary had at the Gagosian Gallery, had otherwise never been seen, and certainly never written about at any length. It was more or less a forgotten, invisible film.

Gary had also told me it was his favorite of his films, and he was really bummed that people in 1976 hadn't seemed interested in it. It was his last film - he gave up artmaking and filmmaking soon after that showing. How could I need any more impetus to preserve this film? A master filmmaker, whose favorite and most ambitious of his own films was neglected in its time... there was no question of preserving Venice Pier.

It was incredibly tantalizing - but not very revealing - to hear the full soundtrack, after I had it transferred and reviewed it for dropouts and other problems (using DJ Audio and Audio Mechanics, two great audio houses). The original picture roll, all shot in the same kind of Ektachrome, offered me a look at the imagery from beginning to end - but only on the rewind bench. Knowing the film's concept, the roll of film on the bench made sense to me, but at risk of sounding overly dramatic, I sincerely felt its magic and beauty was still totally unreachable.

The original was in great physical shape, with no damage, other than the vinegar syndrome. I sent it to Colorlab in Maryland, who had done some great work with me on other projects. Meanwhile, a new optical track negative had been created from the sound restoration work, and it was sent to Colorlab as well. After talking to Gary about the color, I told Colorlab to just match the new print to the original - Gary had never manipulated the timing, and wanted to print to look just like he had shot it.

The first print finally arrived, I believe, on August 1, 2008, and it honestly was the most eagerly anticipated screening of my archival career. I grabbed my colleague Joe Lindner, who had been interested in the film as well, and we immediately threaded it up in our small screening room, and watched Venice Pier for the first time.

At this point, it would be ludicrous to try to describe the experience, but the film totally exceeded all of my expectations. It is breathtaking. Almost a year had passed between Gary's first description of the film to me, and my first opportunity to see it, with a fair amount of lab work and waiting in between.

I work on a lot of "well-known" avant-garde filmmakers' work, but I also work on a lot of obscure stuff. It's so hard to figure out sometimes how to get people to take a chance on showing or teaching a film they don't know. When films get preserved that don't have some built-in scholarship behind them, they sometimes need an incredible push to bring them into visibility. New scholarship is urgently needed on previously unwritten histories of forgotten and unknown works. Outside of the academic realm, these works simply need to be shown and seen.

Although Gary is a known filmmaker, Venice Pier is not a known film. But it is an absolute masterpiece. I'm not one to mindlessly promote, and I certainly don't make anything off of doing so, but before Gary died, he eagerly agreed to let prints of his films go to Canyon Cinema as they got preserved, and we were able to get Venice Pier (and Pasadena Freeway Stills) in there, much to his pleasure (and more to come). I hereby enthusiastically challenge those of you that teach and curate film to give this amazing film a chance - show it to students, show it in museums, microcinemas, cinematheques, on rooftops, wherever. It really is as wonderful as it sounds.

It can be rented (on 16mm) from Canyon Cinema. Thanks for reading this extra-long entry.