Working in ACMI’s Collection team, one of my main tasks is the digitisation of analogue film. The Collection contains approximately a quarter of a million items, the bulk of which is 16mm film. In the last two decades, ACMI has collected a large number of home movies, often donated by children or grandchildren of avid amateur filmmakers who no longer have means to watch the films.
These unique and very personal films represent tangible memory, and record life through a lens unencumbered by commercial and political imperatives, some dating back to the early 1920s. Naturally, the films suffer varying degrees of deterioration, sometimes impeding the visual quality and content. Subject to perspective, the damage can be considered as an undesirable distraction from the filmmaker’s intent or conversely, a charming characteristic of the fundamental nature of an old, well-watched film. In extreme cases, deterioration can render a film completely unwatchable — as evident by the example below.
Preservation and Restoration
Suffice it to say, many home movie collections are long stored deep inside a cupboard, under a bed or in a garage, perhaps forgotten about, with little to no knowledge of the damage that may be accruing. Film degradation manifests in various ways, often in stages and sometimes the image within the frame remains intact even after advanced deterioration. In almost all cases, film degradation is irreversible.
Preservation and restoration — two discreetly different concepts for museums, the former taking precedence over the latter. Acts of preservation aim to prevent or reduce the risk of undesirable damage to an object; whereas restoration requires intervention that alters the appearance or structure of an object with the intent to improve stability and/or visual aesthetic. At ACMI, we strive to preserve the films in our collection, both digitally and physically. The preservation begins immediately when they arrive with the introduction into a climate controlled environment.
Digitisation is an act of preservation performed daily at ACMI, while the secondary task of digital restoration does not regularly fall into our current remit. Digitising film is a long process in itself, involving:
- Physical inspection of the film to establish condition
- Cleaning and repairing film where necessary
- Calibrating the scanner to the film
- Monitoring the film as it is captured
- Exporting digital outputs
- Quality assessment to ensure outputs are faithful to the original source
- Returning the film to archival storage
Beyond that, if a film has suffered degradation, specialist software can be used to restore the image (and sound), erasing blemishes, mending tears and correcting colour. A digital restoration can significantly improve the viewer experience but, depending on the issues to be addressed, the process can consume an inordinate amount of time.
Digital restoration can be carried out long after digitisation, using the secured master file. Our challenge is understanding and justifying the time required to undertake a restoration. To date we have mostly performed low-level restoration work, such as colour correction (above), and generally only where strategic value is apparent.
One of the exemplars donated to ACMI in recent years is the Kenneth Rankine (1890–1968) Collection. More than just a man with a camera, Ken had a knack for filmmaking, mastering the art of cross-dissolves, slow-motion and reverse action shots; even crafting hand-painted title cards for many home movies and his own “production company” (above). Ken’s films are a unique and beautiful example of life in Victoria, many of which are in exceptionally good condition considering their age, however, two films were received in exceedingly poor condition.
After digitising the rest of the collection, (over 10 hours of material) we were left with two cans of film which initially appeared unsalvageable due to the advanced deterioration. The decision was made to see what could be digitised, with the understanding that capturing anything is better than doing nothing. To our great delight, with a lot of patience and many hurdles along the way, we managed to capture the films in near entirety.
There are many instances of poor focus where the films were warped; there are instances where the image rolls vertically as a result of the films’ condition causing instability during scanning. Despite these issues, we now have digital copies of films which were otherwise never to be seen again. The physical films are now stored in an archival freezer, where their condition can be preserved; while the digital copies exist on our secure digital storage system. Restoration of the digital films was carried out sporadically over 11 months.
In many ways, the level of restoration we achieved (above) could be considered low, especially compared to the heavily financed restoration efforts dedicated to Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy or Lawrence Olivier’s Richard III. The outcome we sought was a watchable version of the film, and that is what we have now. Additional months could be spent erasing creases and markings, subduing edge flares and smoothing instances of image warp. Someone could, and perhaps will, do that work one day.
For now though, Ken’s films can be seen and enjoyed by the entire world:
Preserved and restored: Kenneth Rankine Home Movie c. 1938 featuring Wirth’s Circus, Melbourne’s Luna Park, Adelaide’s Torrens Lake and Gorge, Melbourne’s ANZAC Day March and Sassafras in the Dandenongs:
Preserved and restored: KenRa Films Presents Patsy Comes To Stay. A Victorian Amateur Cine Society Production.
You can watch all the films of Kenneth Rankine and many other home movies on the ACMI Collection YouTube Channel. ACMI is set to re-open mid 2020 after a major redevelopment, upon which time visitors will have the opportunity to witness Collection activities in a brand new Media Preservation Lab at the centre of the museum.
I gratefully acknowledge the guidance of my colleagues Nick Richardson and Candice Cranmer, whose encouragement helped me to complete the restorations and this article. Many thanks to Kenneth Rankine and his granddaughter Karen Wootton who generously donated Ken’s films to ACMI. Thank you!