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COVER STORY : Reeling in the Past : Preservation: Thousands of old films may be gone with the winds of time because of chemical deterioration. But UCLA’s archive is trying to save the best of them.

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Hunting through a Warner Brothers film vault three years ago, Bob Gitt, chief preservationist of the UCLA film and television archive, came across what looked like a gem. there, amid piles of corroded film canisters and dusty shelving, sat a 12-reel original print of “The Divine Lady.”

A long-lost, Academy Award-winning work of 1929, the film featured one of the period’s great beauties, Corinne Griffith. It portrayed the romance between Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, all spliced between sea battles (off Catalina Island).

With great excitement, Gitt ripped open each can--only to find a sticky brown powder, the residue of deteriorated nitrate film stock. Of the 12 reels, only two could be salvaged.

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Such disappointment is familiar to movie historians and archivists. Experts say that of the 21,000 Hollywood-produced shorts and feature films made before 1950 on nitrate stock, the primary material of the period, about half have been lost forever, including 90% of all silent movies.

Perhaps the problem is most evident at UCLA’s film and television archive, the world’s largest repository of feature films next to the Library of Congress. In the archive’s cinema department, an underfunded team of three specialists has had to resort to an unnerving triage to decide which of the thousands of films are most in need of preservation for future generations.

“Many of our films are under siege, and as the years go by the process is accelerating,” Gitt said. “We’re doing the best we can and preserving the most important rare films. But we can’t always predict what people will think is important in 30 years.”

The effort is considered crucial, particularly given the growing historical importance of visual media. Some experts suggest that, one day, historians will rely on moving images as much as on the printed word to understand 20th-Century culture.

“The UCLA archive is truly staggering in terms of its cultural significance, but is still viewed as a nonessential specialty,” said Michael Friend, director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive. “Film resources are as integral as books but are not recognized as the art form of our times.”

UCLA’s Film and Television Archive holds about 40,000 short films and feature titles in the old Technicolor plant, now called the Television Center Building, on the corner of Romaine and Cahuenga avenues in Hollywood. In addition, the archive houses about 27 million feet of Hearst Metrotone newsreel footage and more than 40,000 television programs and titles.

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The archive’s feature film department was founded in 1972 after Paramount donated a large number of its old nitrate-film prints to UCLA. Prints from Twentieth Century Fox, Warner Brothers, Republic and RKO Pictures soon followed. The archive began a television collection in 1965 in association with the Academy of Television Arts and Science.

The feature-film collection includes camp classics; movies considered important for artistic, historical or technological reasons, and “orphan films”--features discarded by studios or original prints donated by a director’s widow, for example.

The archive also receives prints from independent and retired producers, celebrities and private collectors, and it borrows films from archives all over the world. Staffers also hunt for obscure movies in forgotten studio vaults and warehouses and act on tips from movie aficionados.

In the archive’s cool, dark corridors, roughly 10,000 nitrate films are stored in 60 double-door vaults on three floors. A separate section of the building houses about 30,000 acetate-based films, a stock widely used after 1950.

Many of the acetate-based films are in need of preservation, but that stock is slightly more durable than the older nitrate-based films, which have spawned the preservationists’ caveat: “Nitrate won’t wait.”

In all, Gitt says, about 400 feature films, 5,000 hours of newsreels and about 300 videotaped television titles are in urgent need of preservation at UCLA. The archive is concentrating most of its limited resources on its huge--and aging--feature film collection, mindful that an increasing number of titles will require attention every year.

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Features on the center’s critical list include Gene Autry’s 1946 film “Sioux City Sue”; “Shantytown,” a 1943 movie starring John Archer and Marjorie Lord; a late ‘20s short titled “A Day With Jack Dempsey,” and the complete 12-film Sherlock Holmes series made by Universal Pictures from 1942 to 1946. Gitt says one movie in the series, “Sherlock Holmes and the Spider Woman,” has suffered significant nitrate deterioration on three of its seven reels.

The projects are among many cinematic rescue efforts under way at the archive. The center’s three feature film technicians manage to preserve or restore only about 25 shorts and 15 longer features per year--a pace, they admit, that does not match the deterioration rate of movie footage.

“When I first started working here, I felt awful,” said Jere Guldin, the archive’s vault manager. “There are certain things you just can’t save.”

Preservation means lengthening the life of a film, often by transferring a movie from nitrate stock to longer-lasting acetate or polyester film. Restoration involves the enhancement of an inferior or incomplete original print so a copy can be made.

Many old films require both types of this work, which is arduous and expensive. Gitt estimates that the cost of preserving and restoring a 90-minute black and white film is about $20,000 and can exceed $60,000 for a color feature. The archive’s vinyl-gloved technicians must remove all dirt and grit on the film with razor blades and cut out scratched portions with scissors. Film sprockets often need replacing and ripped splices re-gluing.

New images must be edited in--sometimes after being culled from other archives. Gitt eventually restored “The Divine Lady” after the Czech Film Archives found two separate prints of the film, though these were slightly damaged and speckled with Czech titles. Often sound must be enhanced and synchronized with the original track. And, throughout, extreme care must be taken with nitrate film, which is extremely flammable.

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“You have to be passionately meticulous and sometimes it’s difficult to just relax and enjoy the art of these films because the clock is always ticking,” said Eric Aijala, a UCLA archive preservationist. “I try to make sure I get the space I need to be creative and do the detail. Otherwise, I wouldn’t sleep at night.”

Adding to the pressure is the difficulty of prioritizing restoration projects. Even if there’s a consensus now on which movies merit immediate attention, there’s also the concern that future generations may disagree. Film buffs cite film noir, a genre from the ‘50s expressing urban anxiety and paranoia, as an example of a discarded style that decades later became popular.

Ironically, the UCLA archive’s struggles come amid a surge in film restoration work by the major studios.

Over the decades, as films evolved from silent to sound to color, many Hollywood studios shunted their old pictures off to warehouses. But yesterday’s film dust has turned into today’s nitrate gold with the proliferation of video, pay-per-view, cable and satellite transmissions--and the prospect of fiber-optic distribution.

Programmers are now scrambling to feed the entertainment maw, hunting for--among other things--old films.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t get money for film preservation,” said Ralph Sargent, president of Film Technology Inc., a Hollywood-based restoration lab. “The studios now realize preserving their old films is a form of asset protection.”

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Ted Turner’s purchase of the MGM film library in 1986 for $1.3 billion was once viewed as a gross overpayment. With the “information superhighway” on the nation’s horizon, the move is now recognized to have been extremely shrewd.

Turner Entertainment has already preserved and restored 20 of 115 classic MGM Technicolor films from the 1938-1953 era--including “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone With the Wind”--at a cost of about $70,000 each, says Dick May, vice president of Turner Entertainment, which owns the film libraries of MGM, RKO Pictures and parts of Warner Brothers.

The company spends about $1.4 million a year on restoration and preservation, May said.

“Our policy is to preserve everything. We are making protection masters of our 3,300 feature films,” May said. “Eventually we’ll have high-definition television, and the public is becoming more knowledgeable about a quality image. They want beautiful pictures and they deserve to be seen that way.”

Some studios are experimenting with advanced restoration techniques that involve transferring old film images to a digital medium, electronically enhancing them and then transferring the pictures back to 35-millimeter film.

“The high-end electronic technology can make images pristine, get rid of the scratches and blemishes. But it can be so expensive,” said Phil Murphy, an archivist for Paramount Pictures. “Completing 10 minutes of film can cost $250,000.”

Murphy said that in the past six years, Paramount has made two sets of negatives of all 900 of its studios’ films, storing each print in separate, refrigerated and humidity-controlled vaults, one on each coast.

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The UCLA archive, however, has far fewer resources for restoration than the studios do, so expensive, high-tech film rescue projects must be chosen carefully. Archivists say that until the costs of technology come down, which could take years, their technicians are stuck with the time-consuming dirty work of manual repair.

UCLA’s preservation efforts receive thousands of dollars a year from such sources as Martin Scorcese, the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, Sony Pictures Entertainment, the Mary Pickford Foundation and Hugh Hefner. Sometimes the studios sponsor a joint project with the archive. Other funding comes from the university and from government grants.

But with an annual budget of only $350,000 for feature film preservation, the archive’s resources pale in comparison to the task. Bob Rosen, director of the UCLA Film Archive, says it would cost $50 million to save all the archive’s endangered features. “The cost of two big-budget movies or a B-1 bomber would cover it,” he said.

With thousands of titles needing prompt attention, he added, time could run out.

Said Rosen: “Five hundred years from now, people will look back on this century, the century that discovered film, and ask, ‘Why didn’t they take better care?’ ”

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