Library and Archives Canada (formerly National Archives of Canada) has been tasked with collecting and preserving our nation’s historic moments since 1872.
Sometimes taken for granted, the archives only captures the public’s imagination on special occasions – such as Remembrance Day – when images of Canadians landing on Juno Beach on D-Day are broadcast on the news and splashed across newspapers.
Yet, day in and day out, conservators at the Gatineau Preservation Centre (GPC) in Gatineau, Quebec, go about their jobs of restoring books, maps, photographs, audio recordings, videotapes and motion picture film.
However, once in awhile conservators are able to work on a title of significant national importance.
The film The Royal Visit to Canada and the United States of America May 17 – June 15, 1939 is a good example of this.
The film is silent with English inter-titles and was shot on 16mm Kodachrome. It measures approximately 6,700 feet with a running time of 186 minutes and edited into 26 parts.
The Royal Visit is an important title for several reasons. The year 1939 marked the first time a British monarch had travelled to Canada during his reign.
A lesser-known but equally important Canadian fact, is that the National Film Board was created in 1939 through an act of Parliament. The birth of the NFB meant an end to another federal film department – The Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau. That department would eventually be absorbed by the NFB by 1941. The Royal Visit also marked the first time the two agencies joined forces to make a film.
When film conservators started looking at the 26 reels of original Kodachrome they discovered the film was in pristine condition, with little, if any, discernible colour fading (a common occurrence in early colour film). This was due to the inherent archival qualities of Kodachrome and the ideal cold storage facility at the GPC.
Invented by two concert musicians – Leopold Mannes and Leo Godowsky Jr. – Kodachrome was first released by Kodak in 1935 in 16mm motion picture format. A year later 35 mm slides and 8 mm home movies came on to the market.
With a film speed rating of approximately 8 ISO, it was not a photojournalist’s dream under low light conditions, but the film won wide acceptance for its colour, saturation and its unique “look.”
“Professional photographers I have talked to speak to the colour of Kodachrome – the colour palette is unique,” said Charles Smith, vice president of communications (film and photofinishing group) at Eastman Kodak, in a telephone interview.
“Kodachrome is an iconic product,” said Mr. Smith.
The 26 reels had been recanned into new, inert plastic cans. This is a common archival practice for housing motion picture film – replacing metal cans with plastic – a step taken to prevent exposure to rust that might contaminate the film.
Film conservators inspected each reel by hand and took shrinkage readings to determine their ability to be re-printed. Numerous cement splices, many of which had dried up, were in need of repair. More common defects were the base and emulsion scratches that ran throughout the reels. Other irregularities were dirt in the original camera gate, camera movement by the cameraman, and some processing issues.
After the film was hand inspected and conservators were happy with its condition, it was screened on a film-editing machine. The screenings confirmed the quality of the well-preserved Kodachrome stock. Each reel was measured and an inspection report was made.
“I was amazed and pleased to see how well the colour quality of the film has withstood after so many years,” said Dale Gervais, a film conservator at GPC. “Kodachrome is such a treat to work with.”
What distinguishes Kodachrome from other films is the way it is manufactured.
“Kodachrome is a black and white film,” said Mr. Smith. “The colour is added at various stages of the processing. Ektachrome and other chromes are colour films. The colour is in the film when the picture is taken. During the chemical processing, the colour is essentially released.”
After inspection the reels were sent to Luc Morisset, the archives’ timing specialist.
Timing a film is a process where values of light are given to a scene in the film to be copied, in this case, using a Bremson colour analyzer. This means, for example, if the original scene is too dark or too light then a light value is given to correct the deficiency.
Timing takes a lot of patience and a trained eye to properly correct a film.
Fortunately there were no undue complications in the 26 reels that required anything above and beyond normal timing procedures. The only area requiring attention was the “timing out” of the numerous cement splices that were found throughout the 26 reels of film. This meant leaving instructions for the printer to skip those frames that held the splice so that they would not be printed through into the new copy, thereby making a more pleasurable viewing experience for those watching the film.
Printing the film turned out to be a very challenging and trying experience for the archives’ printers – Richard Tremblay and Gerald Berard.
The wide range of film shrinkage in the originals posed a problem for the printer. Permanent shrinkage is caused by the loss of residual solvents. Since the shrinkage varied shot to shot within a reel the printer had to use a new film gate to handle the shrinkage. If the next shot happened to be of a greater or lesser shrinkage value, then a new gate had to be installed. This necessary but mundane task was time consuming and often took a whole day to copy one reel of film.
“This title was abnormal because it meant taking the film gate apart and re-adjusting the transportation pins,” said Mr. Tremblay.
“Sometimes every shot needed adjusting.”
As the films returned back from the lab, they were checked for residual hypo (a technique to measure the amount of fixer that remains in the film’s emulsion after processing) and any other processing factors.
Once all the 26 reels were checked they were then compared alongside the originals and any defects or splices were removed (spliced out) or noted as inherent characteristics in the original.
The original Kodachrome film was returned to the colour vault for long-term storage. The new Kodak 35mm internegative will be used to make release prints when financing becomes available.
Because Kodachrome has such impressive storage characteristics, The Royal Visit will be around for many years to come.
“The storage characteristics of Kodachrome – you’re probably talking somewhere in the 50 to 100 year range for dye fade,” said Thomas Moody, a worldwide film manager at Eastman Kodak. “The early Ektachromes were nowhere near that, but the new Ektachromes – the dye fade on that product is comparable to Kodachrome.”
Sadly, Kodak no longer manufactures Kodachrome motion picture film, although Kodachrome 64 and 200 slide film are still available for still photographers. Kodachrome’s highly complex K-14 processing was for year’s proprietary to Kodak, however Kodak has now allowed a small number of labs to process the film for them.
“For competitive reasons we don’t reveal statistics for individual products, but with more photographers shooting Ektachrome or digital, Kodachrome is really declining in demand,” said Mr. Smith. “It still has loyal users, but it is certainly under one per cent of the total film volume we sell.”
“There is a realistic sense (at Kodak) that the market is turning to digital, but we see a continuing role for film. The film market is not going to be as big a market as it used to be, but it is going to remain an important market for the industry and for Kodak,” said Mr. Smith.
For archives around the world, film may be old-fashioned technology, but it is one with a future.
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