Nitrate Nostalgia
December 7, 2010 12:15 PM   Subscribe

More than 80% of old film has been lost forever. But that which remains - including a heavily restored long tracking shot of Dunkirk from a tramway in 1913, London in 1955, and Prague in 1947 - are incredibly evocative of history. Much more at Europa Film Treasures and the Huntley Film Archives.

Via the Twitter feeds of Roger Ebert and William Gibson. Europa Film treasures previously
posted by Bora Horza Gobuchul (16 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
That is one of the most depressing statistics ever.
posted by blucevalo at 12:18 PM on December 7, 2010

A friend of mine who runs the YouTube channel Retrontario told me that last night's CityTV tribute to Mark Dailey included clips downloaded from his channel, which most likely means that the station wiped or discarded the original material and home-taped clips are all that remains. So you don't have to go very far back before film starts disappearing forever.
posted by The Card Cheat at 12:20 PM on December 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I recently saw the newly restored Metropolis with the lost bits restored. These were lost for nearly 80 years so it goes to show that hope is never lost forever.
posted by JJ86 at 12:51 PM on December 7, 2010

splendid, thanks.
posted by Substrata at 1:05 PM on December 7, 2010

These were lost for nearly 80 years so it goes to show that hope is never lost forever.

I'm setting up Google Alerts in case they discover a print of the 1917 Cleopatra with Theda Bara.
posted by shakespeherian at 1:38 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Dunkirk film is even more evocative when you think of what was to come the next year.
posted by Dreadnought at 1:54 PM on December 7, 2010

I took an early film class and the professor would frequently point out that statistic. The vast majority of early film is completely lost to history. I can't help but think the same thing will happen to most internet pop culture.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 2:01 PM on December 7, 2010

Prague is one of my favorite cities, and to see its bustling streets in the last few months before the Communist coup is haunting. (Don't bail out when they start with the cement and iron industries, because after that comes the beer!) I also got a chuckle out of their calling Malá Strana "Minor Town." Great post!
posted by languagehat at 2:07 PM on December 7, 2010

That really IS a sad statistic, though I have to wonder how that compares to the early works of any artform?
posted by Thorzdad at 2:10 PM on December 7, 2010

Is there a way to actually see the tramway film from that link? For me, when I click on "See the film" it just says "redirecting you to the film specification sheet", which is where I'd just come from.
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 2:38 PM on December 7, 2010

Thorzdad: I don't think many other artforms were produced on explosively flammable chemical mediums, and then regularly waved in front of hot incandescent bulbs.
posted by neckro23 at 6:31 PM on December 7, 2010

My girlfriend is studying to become a film archivist. There are only two courses in the whole of Europe, one of which started in the last year, and something like 5 or 6 in the entire world. It's a very niche subject.
posted by Magnakai at 6:39 PM on December 7, 2010

As @Magnakai said, I am studying for an MA in moving image archiving from the University of East Anglia, which owns the East Anglian Film Archive. In fact, I wish I could post more but I'm about to visit the National Film and Television Archive!

I cannot begin to scratch the surface of film archiving and its significance, let alone the challenges faced by the archives. I should clarify that the 80% is usually attributed to films of the silent era, before the early 30s when the first archives began to appear. Worldwide, film archives deal with the collection, preservation, storage, restoration and digitization of all film and TV formats. This includes 70mm, 35mm, 16mm, 9.5mm, 8mm and Super 8mm films (but encompass many other, more obscure, guages) as well as video (of which there are over 200 known formats) and born-digital media. Any feature film produced before the 1950s is likely to have been filmed on nitrate stock, which needs to be stabilized and copied because of its flammable nature (when decomposed, it can spontaneously combust at 30 degrees C).

Thank you, Bora Hora Gobuchul, for posting this - I've been waiting for the cause so dear to me to pop up on the blue!

If you are interested in this subject, I'd recommend you become familiar with the work of Kevin Brownlow, who recently recieved an Oscar. During his speech, he berated the film industry for allowing so much early cinema to disappear (in many cases, destroyed).

Hell, if you're very interested, apply to study! The other schools of film archiving and preservation can be found in UCLA, The Tisch at NYU, L. Jeffrey Selznick School in Rochester and Amsterdam.
posted by dumdidumdum at 11:11 PM on December 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Great link. The London film is fascinating. Sometimes it's easy to forget what an absolute dump southwark was until recently.
posted by ciderwoman at 4:32 AM on December 8, 2010

I worked (on a contract basis) for the Library of Congress in a division devoted to motion picture and audio recordings. My team was building the metadata entry system for METS to record details about these items, but the larger goal involved digitizing them. My was tangential to the digitization and preservation (let it be known, these are not the same thing) effort but I saw enough to know that we are in a race against time.

In 2003 when I worked there the statistic was often shared that at current capacity it would take 70 years to digitize everything in the holdings. The films were acidifying quicker than they could be digitized and someone had the unfortunate responsibility to decide what gets saved. I'm not an archivist, but I've since gained a lot of appreciation for what they do.
posted by dgran at 7:19 AM on December 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Conclusion from the Dunkirk film and other old ones of the ilk: cars and television have made our city streets dismally boring and regimented.
posted by RedEmma at 8:27 AM on December 8, 2010

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