What is restoration?

Lawrence of Arabia - before restoration
Lawrence of Arabia – before restoration

Today I attended What is Restoration?, a one-day conference on the subject of film and video restoration, organised by FOCAL International and hosted by the BFI Southbank. FOCAL International organises an annual set of awards for use of footage in film and television productions. The awards include two for film restorations: one for best single title restoration, one for best multiple-title restoration project. For the past seven years, I have been one of the judges for the restoration award. And it was the thoughts of the judges over several years about just what it was that they were judging that led to the conference.

Originally we had just the one award, for best restoration, and each year we were sent a bundle of DVDs (not in itself the ideal medium for judging a restoration, but often it is all that can be made available) from which to make our scoring, judging each title according to overall quality of the restoration, its fidelity or integrity to the original content and form (e.g. aspect ratio, correct silent film speed), the use of digital technology in the process of restoration (where relevant), the suitability of the title for restoration, and how it has been presented to the public. So we try to be as scientific about the process as possible.

But increasingly we have found it difficult, not to say impossible, to compare like with like. We were judging feature films alongside large-scale multiple-title projects (even entire news archives have been submitted). We were seeing television titles on videotape, for which the processes of restoration (if that was even the right term) were quite different to film. We were trying to compare work undertaken by small archives subsisting on minimal funding with work undertaken by major film studios. It was not a level playing field.

We successfully persuaded FOCAL to add another award, for multiple-item projects, and since 2006 these are the titles which have won the awards:

2006 Mitchell and Kenyon Collection (1900-1913), restored by BFI
2007 The Master’s Edition Norman McLaren, restored by National Film Board of Canada
2008 Documentaries Centenaries, restored by BFI
2009 Set of Kinora reels of golf (c.1911), restored by R&A Archive and Blue Post Production
2010 The Red Shoes (1948), restored by ITV/BFI/The Film Foundation/UCLA Film and Television Archive
2011 Single title: The Great White Silence (1924), restored by BFI
2011 Project: The Chaplin Keystone Project, restored by Lobster Films
2012 Single title: A Trip to the Moon (1902), restored by Lobster Films
2012 Project: The Desmet Collection, restored by EYE Film Institute

(for the 2013 winners, you’ll have to wait until you get to the bottom of this post)

But we would like to see more awards, indeed a full set of awards that represent the full diversity of film and video restoration work by archives, facility houses and studios, large and small. Needing to walk before we run, however, FOCAL suggested a one-day conference ahead of its evening main awards ceremony, in which we would debate issues around preservation and restoration, and present extra awards to some of the most noteworthy productions sent for judging this time around. Hence today’s event, What is Restoration?

Lawrence of Arabia - after restoration
Lawrence of Arabia – after restoration

The question is a pertinent one. Film archives have found themselves at a crossroads, as celluloid comes to the end of its commercial life, and digital restoration takes over. Digital is what audiences want, and it is changing how audiences see. Several speakers at the end lamented the bright, flat, synthetic look of some many digital versions of feature films from the past, but what looks (supposedly) good on large screen HD TVs across the sitting rooms of the land is what is determining the aesthetic. For most archives a full restoration means producing 35mm film elements as well as digital outputs, but this is expensive, and in any case is a restoration what meant to recover what was seen once in the film’s heyday, or what audiences expect now?

And then there is the question of video restoration. Why does it not have the same cultural cachet as film restoration? We judges rarely get to see video or TV titles submitted, yet some excellent work goes on in broadcasters and studios that needs championing. Without such championing, others may treat video with less than the attention it deserves. I have been dismayed by some slapdash, cheap releases on DVD of what should be regarded as TV classics, but because the market was presumably deemed small, and because few seem to think in terms of restored TV (unless it was shot on film), so you get lowest common denominator results. We need more opportunities to see video restorations, to get people talking about them, to encourage more such work, and to praise those doing the best work. We need to be giving out awards.

Then there is the work of smaller archives, whose collections often comprise amateur films, industrial production, home movies and the like. How can you compare their work to restoration work on a feature film? Is what they do ‘restoration’? Some would say no, but surely restoration is not just a technical process but also a process of restoring a film (or video) to public consciousness, delivering it to new audiences in appropriate contexts. That’s the sort of work regional film archives do, restoring local films back to their communities. As judges we’ve always been interested in this broader concept of restoration, as the process of bringing the film (or video) fully back to today. Restoration is about making the object meaningful.

There was a great line-up of speakers to address the issues. The keynote address was given by the doyen of film restorer, Grover Crisp of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who spoke about the celluloid/digital divide, and the great importance of respecting the original vision – usually of the cinematographer rather the director, the latter being more prone to changing their mind about things and wanting new technologies to ‘rectify’ the limitations of the old. He showed us a clip from the mind-boggling 8K restoration of Lawrence of Arabia, where you can now pick out more detail than was seen at the time i.e. it has gone beyond the capabilities of the best film print to show fine detail that is nevertheless there in the negative. Is this restoration, or something beyond it? Crisp said the aim was to achieve what was in the eye of the filmmaker.

Cecilia Cenciarelli, Restoration and Archival Manager at the Cineteca di Bologna and the World Cinema Foundation (an organisation founded by Martin Scorsese to restore world cinema titles) reminded us that restoration was not just a technical process – “it’s about recovering the past”. It is great to see the WCF’s true dedication towards world cinema, devoting attention to titles from Brazil, Turkey and Indonesia, as much as the USA.

Michael Barrett presents Nationwide, from http://www.cinemamuseum.org.uk
Michael Barrett presents Nationwide, from http://www.cinemamuseum.org.uk

Charles Fairall and Steve Bryant from the BFI spoke about video restoration, where the challenge is more the obsolesence of video equipment (with consequent need to keep obsolete equipment in good shape and scour eBay for spare parts) that deterioration of the medium itself. It was heartening to see clips from a 1970s edition of the homely BBC magazine series Nationwide – as worthy a candidate for ‘restoration’ as Lawrence of Arabia, just totally different in its cultural value. These were recovered from tapes made with the now very rare Shibaden videotape recorder, with bespoke parts having to be constructed by the archive to make the machine function once more.

Frank Gray of regional film archive Screen Archive South East ruffled a few feathers when he asked whether what we were doing was more re-creation than restoration. He didn’t mean by this that we’re manipulating the past (i.e. using digital to change films for the supposedly better – though there are some who believe they can do this). He meant that we are not in any real sense returning these objects to a former state. We’re not going back to an original – we’re building something from it. Art restoration involves repairing an original, but film restoration builds generation upon generation, taking us further away while we imagine we are getting closer. Is restoration just a romantic conceit?

Zuzana Zabkova of Cinepost Production presented a case study on 1936 German musical comedy Glückskinder, which raised questions for some about what was a suitable subject for restoration, because Glückskinder is no masterpiece. But do we only restore ‘masterpieces’? Isn’t that just snobbish, or narrowly auteurist? Surely restoration has to be about more than bowing before the elected few?

A panel discussion followed, with Clyde Jeavons (curator of the London Film Festival’s archive strand and one of the FOCAL judges), Grover Crisp, Davide Pozzi (L’Immagine Ritrovata, Bologna), Elif Kaynakci (EYE Film Institute), James White (Film Restoration and Remastering Consultant), Bryony Dixon (BFI), Adrian Wood (Archival Film Consultant and another of the FOCAL judges) and David Walsh (Imperial War Museums). It was an interesting, wide-ranging debate, that focussed on training, on the value of film (they love film, they work with digital) and on how very much they were not involved in re-creation, thank you. They weren’t fully representative of the restoration world, with film still very much to the fore, and I asked my question whether we should be thinking of video restoration in the same terms, so that it might one day gain the same cultural clout. Film has glamour, video does not, admitted David Walsh. Bringing glamour to video is what I think we should try and do. The rewards will be great.

In the middle of all this we gave out our extra awards, and then in the evening the two main restoration awards were made, as part of the full FOCAL awards ceremony. That’s over now, so I can announce the winners now. Warm congratulations to all:




SINGLE TITLE AWARD: Sony Pictures Entertainment for LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

So television won an award – but it was TV shot on film! I hope next year we’ll be judging another fine crop of works, and this time there will be works from across the full spectrum of our moving image heritage – and that they can be awarded appropriately.


  • Details of past winners of the FOCAL International awards can be found here
  • A good place to learn about film restoration today is the site of Immagine Ritrovato in Bologna, perhaps the world’s leading specialist restoration lab (site in English and Italian)
  • Film and video preservationist Josh Ranger recently wrote an interesting and provocative post on the ‘elitist’ nature of much film restoration, focussing on so-called great works when the greater part of film and video productions to be found in archives lie neglected
  • The BFI holds an annual Missing – Believed Wiped event which shows recovered TV shows


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