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Preservation and Restoration: UCLA Film Archive

  • By Judy Lin Eftekhar
  • Published Jul 1, 2002 8:00 AM

With DVDs selling briskly and movie rentals in every strip mall, it's easy to assume that movies last practically forever. But all the copies eventually trace their descent to a single camera original. And camera originals are fragile: Film stock can scratch, tear, fade and shrink. Even the major Hollywood studios, which store their precious originals in temperature-regulated vaults and make high-quality duplicates as insurance, can't completely protect against deterioration.

But independent films are especially at risk. Groundbreaking films like "Pulp Fiction," "A Walk on the Moon" and "Boogie Nights" are made outside the studio system. Independent filmmakers, with limited resources, are forced to cut corners to get these films made at all. Storage and handling of camera originals and prints often can be substandard.

Concerns over preserving high-quality prints are no mere speculation. Says Timothy Kittleson, director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, "A perfect example are the earliest films of director Oliver Stone. The independent company that produced Stone's films went bankrupt, leaving a trail of missing or poor prints, and leaving him with virtually no record of his work."

That's why the UCLA archive collects, preserves and restores independent films. Among its efforts is a partnership with the Sundance Institute. Sundance was founded by actor-director Robert Redford to support the development of independent film artists and is also well known for its annual film festivals. The Sundance Collection at UCLA includes documentaries, narratives, shorts, festival films and commercially-released independent films. Important filmmakers such as John Sayles, Ethan and Joel Cohen, Jim Jarmusch and Atom Egoyan have contributed to the collection, as have independent film distributors.

The Film and Television Archive also makes use of its state-of-the-art preservation and restoration techniques to ensure that independent films remain intact and in good condition. The task is a critical one: Even among mainstream cinema, already a full 50 percent of all films produced in the U.S. before 1950 have disappeared. Some were lost, and sometimes originals and prints literally disintegrated, because of the instability of the old nitrate stock used in the first decades of cinema. An estimated 90 percent of classic film prints are currently in very poor condition. The archive has thus far successfully restored hundreds of films, both mainstream and independent, and has preserved many more.

Restoration of independent films by the archive began with Robert J. Flaherty's bayou documentary "Louisiana Story" (1948) and cult director Samuel Fuller's pulpy social critiques "The Naked Kiss" (1964) and "Shock Corridor" (1963). Also restored have been the first modern independent film by a Chicano filmmaker, Efrain Gutierrez's "Chicano Love is Forever" (1977), and the controversial Academy Award-winning "Times of Harvey Milk" (1984), documenting the life of the assassinated gay politician.