Anthology Film Archives, the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Nederlands Filmmuseum in Amsterdam recently collaborated on the restoration of the 1920 silent short Manhatta, one of America’s earliest avant-garde films, at Lowry Digital in Burbank.
To make the roughly 12-minute film, noted still photographers Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler spent almost a year capturing angular shots of New York skyscrapers, clouds of urban steam and smoke, and glistening harbor waters with a Debrie L’Interview Type E motion-picture camera. The editing juxtaposed similar and dissimilar images to create a symphonic effect that Strand described as “expressive of the spirit of New York, of its power and beauty and movement.”
Following its completion, Manhatta was screened several times under a variety of titles, among them New York the Magnificent and Fumeé de New York (The Smoke of New York), but in 1927, the original negative was lost. The BFI discovered a print of the film in its collection in 1949, and Manhatta was soon back in circulation, albeit in poorly duped 16mm reduction prints. Eventually, the BFI source print was destroyed because of nitrate deterioration, and only a single 35mm black-and-white dupe negative survived. This element served as the source for Lowry’s digital restoration, which was overseen by archivist, curator and conservator Bruce Posner.
Although the 35mm dupe negative was an improvement over the 16mm prints in circulation, it still displayed many defects, notes Posner. “The problems included buildup of dirt, scratches, tears, holes, bad splices, varying grain and contrast and blocked highlights,” he says. “There were also weave and jitter movements in multiple directions, cross-frame luminance shifts, processing and printing-light flares, poor tonal grading and improper stabilization and breathing caused by mis-registration between individual frames along the strip of film.”
Compounding matters were image flaws in the original cinematography; for example, most of the rhythmic vibrations appear to have been introduced by hand-cranking the camera while it was loosely mounted on a tripod and uneven processing and printing via a primitive rack-and-tank system. Ultimately, all those flaws were photographed into the film at various stages of duplication.
Posner conducted tests at several Los Angeles-area companies using a 2K scan of Manhatta that was created on a Spirit DataCine at Post Logic. (The images were radically off-centered, precluding the use of a pin-registered scanner.) After viewing the results and considering bids, he chose Lowry. “Their work proved the best, and they seemed to have a realistic understanding of the considerable challenges involved,” he remarks.
Lowry Chief Operating Officer Mike Inchalik describes the task of restoring Manhatta as “painstaking.” He explains, “Because we usually repair damage by borrowing from an undamaged area within that frame or from another frame, restoration gets exponentially harder when the film is so flawed. Manhatta was damaged to an extent where it became difficult for artists to repair it without leaving a trace. A human being can create the necessary pixels to make a seamless repair over the course of five frames, but what about 100 frames? When you add warping, flicker and inconsistent luminance, there are serious hurdles to overcome.
“To do the heavy lifting, you have to use automation because the computer will repair things in precisely the same way, frame after frame, without a trace,” he continues. “That allows the artist to go in and find usable image areas from which to borrow to make repairs. Our company was founded on the invention of temporal image processing, and we’re continually expanding what’s possible through the use of that technology.”
The Lowry team spent more than 900 hours on Manhatta between October 2007 and September 2008, and that included both automated work and the “hands-on” efforts of Lowry’s staff. Each of the film’s 11,223 frames was re-registered, stabilized and cleaned; scratches, splices, rips and tears were repaired; and flicker and flare were reduced.
Posner notes that many of the steps in the restoration process introduced new problems that had to be solved in turn. For example, the stabilization process resulted in further exaggeration of pre-existing vertical scratches that ran across multiple frames. Before processing, the scratches flowed straight through the frame, but after processing, they jumped back and forth from frame to frame.
Another mysterious problem was a slight 1-to-6-frame-long fogging of the film stock at the beginning and end of each shot. Posner speculates the flares could have been caused by the start-stop positions of the shutter in the camera during shooting, or in the printer during duplication. It is also possible that short ends of fogged raw stock were used. Much of the damage shows as white flashes where the negative was nearly solid black. The same frames also displayed the detritus of cement splicing, a white or black horizontal line across the frame, and defects such as nitrate punches and rips. The restoration’s budget precluded the repair of all these defects, so the restoration team decided to remove 102 irreversibly damaged frames.
The restored picture was digitally graded by Lowry colorist Rick Taylor, who worked in a Baselight suite, and a key reference for this work was 14 single frames Sheeler had saved from the original camera negative to make photographic prints. The pristine, vintage photos helped the team determine the ideal contrast, tone scale and color and also provided exact dimensions for the film frames, which had been printed in varying sizes on the 35mm dupe negative. The restored picture was formatted to fit an aspect ratio of 1.30:1.
Taylor modulated the overall tonal scale, keeping whites and blacks within acceptable technical standards for digital, film and video color spaces. According to Posner, the filmout files registered perfect film-grain reproduction, while the video files were modified to appear slightly sepia-colored to match the film output. Decisions about such things as grain were made by Posner in consultation with archivists from the various sponsoring entities. “We worked with some of the world’s most knowledgeable experts on silent film and still photography to realize a digital duplicate of … the 35mm original,” says Posner.
“Early negative stocks were quite good, but the print stocks weren’t,” he continues. “Since Manhatta was shot off and on over the course of nearly a year, the lab work varied greatly from batch to batch. Seeking a global ‘look’ for the film grain became a serious consideration. As a conservator, you’re trying to make something as close to the original experience as possible. After cleanup and repair, you often need to re-introduce some grain, but you don’t want to introduce anything that looks fake. We resolved those questions as best we could in concert with our restoration partners. Lowry’s files worked extremely well with the 35mm fine-grain stocks.”
It is not known whether Strand and Sheeler intended to have a musical accompaniment for Manhatta, though the record shows this was done at some of its earliest screenings. For the DVD of the restored film, silent-film accompanist Donald Sosin was commissioned to compose a new orchestral score that was performed by the 39-piece Slovak Sinfonietta. The music was conducted by Peter Breiner and edited and mixed in Dolby Digital 5.1 at Chace Audio Productions in Burbank.
The 35mm archival negatives and prints were processed and printed at YCM Laboratories and are being preserved by the Museum of Modern Art and the Nederlands Filmmuseum. Lowry also generated 2K digital files and HDCam-SR 4:2:2 tapes formatted for different exhibition and broadcast purposes; this material is being preserved at the Library of Congress, where Manhatta is listed in the National Film Registry.