Restoration and digitisation: a visit to the Czech National Film Archive

Photo: NFA

On July 5, the Karlovy Vary Film Festival screened a fresh copy of the New Wave classic Ostře Sledované Vlaky (Closely Watched Trains, 1966). This is the latest Czech film to have undergone a major restoration. At the same time, the Czech National Film Archive is waiting to see if funding is made available for the restoration of a further ten films from its renowned collection. In this special programme, Dominik Jůn visits the archive to discuss issues related to restoration, digitisation - and the difference between the two.

National Film Archive,  photo: NFA
I’m on the edge of Prague in a street called Malešická, which is one of the locations of the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic. And I am here with Jeanne Pommeau, a curator who also heads the restoration efforts of the NFA. She has very kindly agreed to talk to me about the organisation’s work and to show me around the archive.

“Here we have two film projectors, because for the archives it is very important to have two projectors.”

And apparently you have a very special guest in there right now. Who is that?

“It is David Bordwell, who is just watching some Czech films.”

He is the famous film historian. And he is currently on a visit to the Czech Republic.

“He was invited by the revue Iluminace, which is published by the National Film Archive.”

So that is where you screen films.

“For work purposes. To check and identify films. And to check the quality of the material, and make sure it is OK. There are some materials which cannot be run through a projector because they are not in good condition. We also have some films from the earliest days of cinema, which means from 1895.”

As many listeners will no doubt detect, Jeanne, you have a French accent. So how did a French person end up working at the Czech National Film Archive?

“I decided to apply to work in the National Film Archive because it is one of the most renowned archives in the world in terms of conservation and preservation. I undertook and internship there and it was so interesting that I decided to apply for a job. That was ten years ago.”

Why is the Czech film archive one of the most renowned in the world? Have they done a particularly good job in terms of preservation?

“We have a many former directors of the archive who did a very good job in terms of preservation and ensuring the correct conditions exist for films to be properly stored. They also built strong international relationships to learn industry best practices.”

Are there any lost Czech or Czechoslovak films?

Photo: NFA
“There are some from the silent era, mostly. There is no nation anywhere that has not lost some part of its early cinematography. That is the sad part about working with silent films; unfortunately, many of them have been lost. Because those films were on nitrate film stock, which is fragile and dangerous.”

And flammable.

“Yes, flammable too. So because of that, many early films were destroyed after release. And there were no archives in the early 1920s. So after talking pictures arrived, we were still only at the very beginning of coordinated efforts to preserve the earlier generation of silent films. Sadly, these early efforts were insufficient to preserve the whole world’s heritage.”

“Let’s go to see my colleague. Hello? So now we are entering a room where my colleague is at work. Over here is a viewing machine where we have two screens. And we can check two different film materials.”

We have spools on either side and the film is threaded through and then projected onto these small screens that resemble computer monitor screens. Except they are bigger.

“And all of this is analogue. The other thing about this special machine is that on one side, we can view modern film stock, and on the other side we can see some shrink material.”

Shrink material? What is that?

“Because nitrate films, when they age, sometimes they begin to shrink. And so it then is no longer possible to watch them in normal machines without hurting them, if I can use the word ‘hurting’ for films.”


“Sometimes, you know, we archivists end up dealing with films as if they were people.”

And we can see that here, because in front of us is an archivist by the name of Lenka Šťastná, and she is handling some pieces of film. Can I ask you – do you speak English?

“No [laughter]. [In Czech:] I know how to read and write in English, but that is all.”

Jeanne then explains: “So here we can see and check film materials, and, for example, make sure the number of frames correspond for each shot. If something is missing somewhere, that can be discovered here.”

So you’re looking at an original negative and then a print.

Photo: NFA
“Yes, or you can have two prints, or any number of combinations. In an archive, you have all kinds of different sources.

Lenka then explains in Czech: “This here is nitrate negative. And this here is polyester film base. I am adding sound from an old nitrate copy source and creating a new soundtrack for a new print.”

Jeanne takes the baton: “It’s a synchronisation of sound and image. This machine is also very useful for combining images and sounds.”

So how old is this strip of film that we can see here? It’s obviously black and white and has Kodak written on it.

Jeanne again: “On the edge of the films, there are identification numbers which can tell you the year.”

Lenka locates the year: “1939.”

And is it a fiction or documentary film?

“A fiction film. What I have here is an old non-synchronous sound copy, and I am using that to add sound to a new copy.”

Basically it is a meticulous process. She is, to put it simply, making a new copy with synchronised sound which can then be taken and screened in a projector, because you don’t screen original materials.

Jeanne then makes a crucial point: “Don’t forget that the original is a negative. You cannot project a negative [because the tones and colours would be reversed].”

Back in the studio, I ask Jeanne about the general condition of the National Film Archive’s library; if it is well preserved, deteriorating, or if any films are in desperate need of restoration.

“By the 1950s and 60s we already had state management of film archives, so the condition of films from this era is not too bad. From the silent era we have many negatives of feature films. Of course, we also have documentary films and newsreels. There are many kinds of problems that afflict these sources. Some of them are lost, but in terms of feature films we have quite an incredible collection. I would say that it is not standard for a country to have a collection in this good a shape. From the 1930s, there are only a few Czech feature films that are missing.”

I just recently read a story relating to a well-known American film The Alamo (1960), the western. And apparently the original 70mm negatives from that are in such poor condition that restoration costing millions must be initiated at once or the original will be lost forever. There is nothing comparable like that in the Czech archives is there? Something in danger of deterioration...

'Hoří,  má panenko',  photo: NFA
“Many film materials from the 1950s were still in nitrate. By the 60s we have acetate film, which has its own problems. And by the 1970s – I wasn’t yet in the archives – but we already had conservation practices in place. So it is very rare, for example, that we see poor care leading to so-called ‘vinegar syndrome’ which is the most dangerous syndrome for acetate films. What it means is that acetate based film becomes acidified and begins to smell of vinegar, which is where the term comes from. And once this condition begins it is impossible to reverse. Fortunately, I do not know of any Czech feature films that have this syndrome at all. I’m not in the preservation department, but I have not heard of it happening to a Czech feature film.”

So in recent years, we’ve seen restoration efforts taking place on a number of Czech films held in the archives. The first of these was The Fireman’s Ball (Hoří Má Panenko, 1967), if I am not mistaken...

“This is digitisation. For a number of years we have already been undertaking analogue restorations. We began with Marketa Lazarová (1967), and in 2011 the film underwent digitisation with cleaning and grading.”

So that was the first film that underwent proper restoration.


OK, so let’s explain...

“You cannot say that analogue restoration is not proper restoration.”

So what is the difference between restoration and digitisation? Surely these days both are the same thing.

“In the archive, we are still undertaking analogue restorations. We are still working with these methods. It means that whenever you restore a film – whatever way you do it – you are trying to go back to the qualities of the image and the sound from the date of the release. And also you are trying to make the closest possible version from the date of release. This means sometimes you are dealing with films that have cuts...”

Due to censorship?

'Marketa Lazarová',  photo: NFA
“It’s not always censorship. Sometimes it just happens that a part of the film is missing because it was destroyed. Or it is missing because someone took it. Many things can happen. In the silent era, for example, there are almost no prints that are totally complete. I’ve never experienced finding such a complete print. So whatever restoration you do, you always have to undertake major historical research beforehand to try to find out how the film was supposed to be. This doesn’t merely apply to sound and image quality, but also even the way it was edited; the way it was presented. So this is the job of restoration. We make analogue restorations, which means that from different source materials we end up printing new ones which are more complete. For example, we have a negative prints and duplicate positives and none of them are complete so we find out in our historical research how the film was actually supposed to run. Then we are able to make new prints from the different sources to reassemble what is missing from others. That is traditional restoration.”

And that is entirely analogue. It doesn’t go through a digital intermediate at all? Say if you wanted to fix a scratch, then you are painting that out or what?

“We are not painting out anything. There are certain scratches which can be eliminated while making a new print. This is called a wet gate system and means that in the laboratory the film passes through a gate containing a liquid, and via the use of optical solutions, the scratches will not be visible in the print. So there are laboratory methods to make scratches invisible. Then there is also mechanical damage. So the restoration is not only the restoration of the image, but it can also involve reconstruction. Sometimes you have an existing print in poor condition, while the negative is fine, so you restore image quality just by making a new print.”

So once a film has undergone a restoration, and then that restoration is then subsequently re-released for the cinema and also for high definition for Blu-ray release. Is that correct?

“Well, there are other small corrections which are made for the home video releases. Of course, when we undertake restoration, we are carrying out considerable cleaning to produce a print of the best possible quality for film projecting cinemas and to make it authentic. And after that we make the Blu-ray and other home video formats. For the digitisation of the upcoming Closely Watched Trains (Ostře Sledované Vlaky, 1966) we used the duplicate positive to source the sound because it was in better condition than that on the negative, which was severely damaged. So it depends on the state of the materials. Sometimes something is in a very bad state – fortunately that is not really the case with Czechoslovak films from the 1960s.”

OK Jeanne, so now we are standing in front of a door that says “Sklad Filmů”, so this is some kind of film storage facility, is that right?

'Ostře sledované vlaky'
“Yes, and if you touch the door, you will sense that it is cold because inside we have nitrate films.”

Which have to be refrigerated in order to prolong their shelf life.

“When we go in, we have to close the door behind us. And we will have to be quick.”

OK, so we are going inside. And yes it is a warm day outside, and in here it is quite cool. We are in a relatively small room with shelves on either side. And they are full of film canisters.

“These are nitrate materials that we are in the process of identifying or we are preparing for new prints to be made. So this is not the definitive storage site, but more of a working temporary store.”

So the actual facilities where you store films long-term, where are they?

“We have two. One is in Hradištko [a village just to the east of Prague] and is for safety films, acetate and polyester films. And then we have our nitrate storage, which is in Třebsín, which is also outside Prague [just to the south]. Let’s go...”

Because we don’t want to warm the films up too much, right?


So nitrate is the very oldest form of film.

“That’s right.”

And after that is acetate...

“And then polyester. This is a very new form, from the 1990s, and is supposed to be OK to store for two-hundred years. And this is much more than a hard disk.”

Because we live in a digital age. But there are no guarantees for the future. You can have something digitised on a hard drive, but in a hundred years it could be useless.

“Yes, it has to be copied over and over again. But the good thing there is that you don’t lose any information. The problem is that it is not immediately readable. Imagine that Martians come and find a roll of film.”

In the case of a hard drive, they would need Windows or some operating system to view it.

Photo: NFA
“So if you can directly see it, as with film, you can find out right away that there are a series of pictures and they are all a little bit different, and that perhaps it is moving...”

Am I right in saying that every single Czech film so far that has undergone restoration and release on Blu-ray is from the 1960s? Limonadový Joe (1964), Marketa Lazarová (1967), Všichni Dobří Rodáci (1968), Hoří, Má Panenko (1967) and now Ostře Sledované Vlaky (1966). These are all New Wave films.

“Of course these are some of the most important films in Czechoslovakia. But it doesn’t mean that we are only restoring New Wave films.”

I suppose it is because this period is the most cinematically interesting period for Czech cinema and that is why these films were selected.

“I think there is a real public demand for these films, too.”

And not just the Czech public, but around the world.

“Yes, I think that demand is very important. That was especially so in the case of Marketa Lazarová. The demand to have this film restored was very high... Digitisation costs around a million crowns. The financing for this is provided by the Nadace České Bijáky foundation – they finance the entire digitisation part. Prior to restoration, a research phase is undertaken by the National Film Archive, and we prepare all the materials.”

So basically it is a two stage process – first the Czech film archive does the restoration, and then that undergoes digitisation.

“We have to repair the [where possible first generation camera] negative before it is sent for scanning. Without this it is not possible to safely let it be handled. After all, this is the nation’s film heritage we are talking about. Destroying it in any way as it is being digitised is simply unthinkable. So we have to handle it very carefully. One thing we do before it goes out is to repair the perforations [the holes in the sides of the film], and also to undertake cleaning – this in itself cannot be called restoration, though.”

Because the restoration is the creation of a fresh copy – a fresh roll or reels of film, right?

“It is always hard to talk about film restoration because we don’t have the same notion of an original non-reproductive source as exists, say, with a painting. We are trying to make the most authentic film that can be seen in cinemas, and of course, also on DVD and Blu-ray. In the case of Closely Watched Trains...”

Which is one you yourself worked on.

“We worked on it this year.”

How long did the process take?

Photo: NFA
“It represents six months of work for a lot of people. We worked with UPP, who [digitally] cleaned the image, and Soundsquare for the sound. There was also the grading, and before everything all the research that was undertaken. The purpose of the this was to make the film as authentic an experience as possible for viewers. The aim of digitisations is to make the film as widely available to the public via this new method of projecting films. These days, there really are hardly any possibilities left to show people 35mm copies in cinemas. So we have to undertake digitisation to make the film available. As we undertake digitisation, we don’t want just to make a scan of the film, and show that. We want it to be a quality process. That is why we are happy that we have funding available from České Bijáky. This allows us to use digital tools to undertake further cleaning, including the sound. Because we are sourcing the image from the negative, we have to then try to make the grading [balancing of colours and contrast levels] match the original prints that were shown during the premiere as closely as possible. Because the negative by itself does not have all the information, because it lacks the grading.”

Because the original grading was done to the positive print...

“Yes, in the laboratory when making the print. So we have to try to replicate this.”

You’ve mentioned straight analogue restoration, and also digitisation and further digital restoration. These days, prints are now also being made – film prints – for purposes of preservation of the digitally assisted restoration. You don’t consider that then to be the final restoration?

“No. I don’t. I think that is good for preservation. It is important to preserve that restoration. But right now there is debate among the international restorer community about whether it is a good idea to preserve digital projects in an analogue form. Of course, this helps the work to be better preserved. But now come the questions about which object did we produce? And is it philologically acceptable? This means: is it possible for someone who does not know about digitisation, they might end up thinking that this digital restoration is an original from the film period.”

So your concern is about revisionism.

“Yes, I am concerned about that.”

Examining restoration efforts related to Czech cinema, we find that very few films are actually being restored and digitised. The National Film Archive recently issued a tender that by 2016 ten additional films will be digitised, including Spalovač Mrtvol (1968), Ucho (1970) and Obchod na korze (1965). Again, these are New Wave films considered classics. Ten films by 2016 – it’s not much, is it?

'Spalovač mrtvol'
“It is much better than five in four years. We are asking for this grant. We don’t know yet whether it will be approved.”

So even this isn’t 100 percent?

“We will know in two weeks. This is all a question of money.”

OK, Jeanne, so now we are entering yet another room. This is a slightly more modern-looking facility. We can see sound-proofing on the walls, and a computer in the corner. So this is the more digital side of the NFA...

“Here we have a projection room digital cinema enabling us to show DCP [Digital Cinema Package] films. The room is mostly used for cataloguing purposes, and to check the quality of what we have received.”

And you have an Italian intern working here.

“Yes, she is helping us with video production, actually.”

What is your name?


So you are helping work here as a restorationist?

“For the [upcoming] Karlovy Vary Film Festival; there will be a screening of Milenky Starého Kriminálníka...”

Which is a 1927 silent film starring actor Vlasta Burián.

“I am doing a short documentary, about three minutes long, featuring some interviews with the restorers...”

Jeanne explains further: “It is a video to explain the analogue restoration process that this film underwent.”

Greta continues: “It is designed to inform people about such an important movie from the past. And, above all, to make people aware that this will be the second official presentation for fifty years. The film was re-screened in the 1960s, from a nitrate source. Now it has been printed in polyester, so we have the opportunity to re-experience this film.”

A fresh print.


Jeanne, for the most people now who are unable to watch an analogue film-film on the big screen, how would you describe your efforts in the field of digitisation?

Photo: NFA
“Sometimes, companies produce DVDs and they just change the grading in ways in which we really don’t know why they made this decision. Or they are transforming a mono film soundtrack into a modern 5.1 soundtrack. These kinds of things – and then they are putting in the DVD that it is a ‘restoration’. We can’t act this way. We want digitisation to be an authentic experience, as much as the digital tools allow us. Because the final projection medium is different. But we try to create something that is as authentic as possible. We don’t want to improve anything. We don’t want to add the technology of the 2010s to something made using 1960s technology. We just really want to stay as close to the original as we can. Of course, we cannot have analogue projections of these films anymore, so we just have to compromise and understand that this is not the original way of seeing the film. But for many people in 2014, this is now the closest they will get. I have to say, though, that digital tools are quite incredible. We even are able to do some things that we don’t want to do and don’t do because it is dangerous.”