The Artist, Hugo spotlight film preservation

While The Artist and Hugo are showered with attention ahead of the upcoming Academy Awards, cinema experts say the movies are also shining a much-needed spotlight on the issue of film preservation.
Jean Dujardin stars as silent-film actor George Valentin in the Michel Hazanavicius film The Artist. (Alliance Films)

While The Artist and Hugo are showered with attention ahead of the upcoming Academy Awards, cinema experts say the movies are also shining a much-needed spotlight on the issue of film preservation.

Michel Hazanavicius's silent movie The Artist evokes a long-ago body of work that has been poorly maintained or in some cases outright lost due to decay. Such issues are directly addressed in Martin Scorsese's 3D Paris adventure Hugo as it tips its hat to early cinema, most notably the works of Georges Melies.

Experts say the cause of film preservation has risen in cinephile circles in recent years thanks, in part, to the efforts of Scorsese and several other directing giants. They now hope the success of The Artist and Hugo will push the issue into the mainstream. 

"I hope that The Artist will get people at least thinking about silent film, that it isn't some horrible little relic of the bygone era which isn't worth watching," says Shirley Hughes, organizer of the Toronto Silent Film Festival that kicks off its third annual edition on March 29.

"It has put a spotlight on silent film, along with Martin Scorsese's Hugo, which wasn't silent but was certainly a homage to early filmmaking masters. 

"And Martin Scorsese's also very much involved in film preservation too, which is an important part of our festival as well ... because over 80 per cent of silent films have been lost."

Few silent films preserved

Indeed, the majority of films from the silent era aren't around today (the figures vary, but most experts say it's between 70 and 80 per cent) largely because they either weren't preserved properly and decayed, were deliberately destroyed, or the flammable cellulose nitrate film caught fire.

And many of the silent films that are around today are either damaged or missing parts and in great need of preservation and restoration. 

Martin Scorsese, second from right, has been a vocal supporter of film preservation efforts. ((Francois Mori/Associated Press))

"At the time they were made, they were just seen as throwaway objects," explains Christina Stewart, a media archivist in the Records and Archives of Exhibition Place in Toronto.

"They were very ephemeral. They made their money, they're done, so on to the next greatest thing."

Today, of course, some films from the silent era — that is, image-driven motion pictures with musical accompaniment but no dialogue — are considered works of genius that represent a part of history and contain masterful storytelling, acting and cinematography.

"A lot of the films which we screen nowadays echo what films were doing back in the 1920s," says Hughes. "Films in the 1920s brought up an awful lot of social issues, a lot of economic issues. Everything which we do nowadays was done back then."

As Hughes's festival demonstrates, silent film has also enraptured a new generation of fans, with musicians composing original works for the pictures and providing the live accompaniment at screenings around the world.

"It's a huge event now when we actually rediscover new, important silent cinema," says Noah Cowan, artistic director of TIFF Bell Lightbox, noting the hoopla surrounding the recent discoveries of extra footage from Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi drama Metropolis and a new silent film by John Ford.

"So to anyone out there who has film in their basement, celluloid in their basement, don't throw it away! Bring it to us or bring it to the National Film Board or do something with it so that we as archivists can just take a look."

Preservation can be complicated, costly

Film preservation is much more than just transferring the film into a digital format, as many people believe, explains Stewart. It involves saving the physical element of the film itself as well as its content (the image that's projected onscreen), and putting it in a storage vault with proper temperature and humidity controls.

Even films that are shot in digital these days still have to be preserved properly to ensure the data won't be corrupted and that it can be migrated to different platforms as technologies change. The process of storing nitrate film is "enormously  complicated" because the material is "so combustible," notes Cowan.

"We don't have this possibility, but I was down at the UCLA film archives in Los Angeles and within their projectors they have these little fire protection guards, so they can actually run the nitrate films through their projectors," he says.

Another problem is cost.

"It's very expensive to do it because ... it's so much more than just transferring a film, so there's never enough funds for it, unfortunately," says Stewart, a graduate of New York's Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House. 

In the U.S., organizations devoted to the cause include the National Film Preservation Board, the National Film Preservation Foundation, and the Film Foundation, which Scorsese established in 1990.

In Canada, the majority of silent film is held at the Library and Archives Canada, says Stewart. Meanwhile, a lot of Canadian films from the middle of the century exist within the National Film Board, which tries to make its materials available online, notes Cowan.

TIFF is also actively engaged in the preservation of Canada's film history with resources including a Film Reference Library and the Canadian Open Vault programme. Still, Cowan adds, the situation surrounding film preservation in Canada "is difficult."

"It would not be false for me to say that our heritage is under threat. There's much work to be done," he says.

Experts urge knowledge, understanding

Cowan's advice to filmmakers here is to "always know where their negatives are, and they should always ensure that there are preservation copies within their possession."

"Where it becomes difficult for filmmakers is they often don't own their own negatives," he adds. "So even a leading Canadian filmmaker such a David Cronenberg wouldn't actually own the key material for actually striking a new print for over 50 per cent of his catalogue."

Stewart says she, too, believes Canada needs "to have more of an understanding in this country of our film heritage and the films that we do have."

But she also notes that "the more people become aware of it, the more they'll understand the need for it and then understand why it's so expensive to preserve a film."

That's why she and other cinephiles are celebrating The Artist and Hugoboth of which are up for best picture at this year's Oscars, slated for Feb. 26.

"There's been a heightened awareness of film preservation world-wide over the last 10 years, especially. A lot of that energy and effort has come from Martin Scorsese and his Film Foundation," says Cowan.

"And for many of us, the film Hugo is actually an extension of that effort, just to show what could be lost, what magic could be lost should we fail to preserve our audio-visual heritage."

Asa Butterfield, left, portrays Hugo Cabret and Chloë Grace Moretz portrays Isabelle in a scene from the 3D Paris adventure film Hugo. (Jaap Buitendijk/Paramount Pictures)