The Moving Image 6.1 (2006) 1-32
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The Finesse of the Film Lab
A Report from a Week at Haghefilm
Gabriel M. Paletz
[End Page 1]
For the technicians
Film laboratories are the nurseries of the movies; they represent both the origins of cinema and its ends. In 1893, the earliest Kinetoscope pictures emerged from Thomas Edison's laboratory in New Jersey.1 A lab is still the last place in postproduction before the distribution of a new release. It is also the first stop in the revival of an archival print, where, through restoration techniques, a movie may be reborn.2
Filmmakers commonly mention a lab only to complain of a badly treated negative that ruined their movie shoot. Recent writings by archivists also gloss over labs' significance. Paolo Cherchi Usai states that the solutions to the aesthetic and ethical issues facing film restorers "is dependent upon individual judgment, a choice between a wide array of options" (2000, 64). The options weighed by archivists are tested, refined, and implemented in a film lab. Ray Edmondson urges his archival colleagues "to present material in such a way that, as far as is now possible in practice, the audience is able to perceive and appreciate it in its original form" (42). "In practice" means what a film lab can achieve in present projection and theatrical conditions.
Among film scholars, lab work has traditionally been seen as the province of technical groups such as the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.3 Even in academic studies that address the uses of technologies, labs are typically viewed as lacking the creative potential of crafts such as editing and cinematography, particularly since the beginning of the sound studio era.
In The Classical Hollywood Cinema, Kristin Thompson has portrayed how the rise of mechanized developing with sound film "effectively eliminated the possibility of collaboration between laboratory and cinematographer" (Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, 279). For Thompson and other scholars, the automated developing machines of a modern lab evoke a film factory. But lab work may also be seen as the fulfillment of filmmaking's collaborative labors. Vsevolod Pudovkin wrote that it is only with laboratory work that "the ideas originated by the scenarist and pursued by the director and cameraman" appear in their "pure form" (135). In film restorations, the lab recreates the efforts of the screenwriter, cinematographer, sound recorder, director, and editor in one location.4
This essay provides a fresh foundation for appreciating the work of restoration laboratories through a representative company, Haghefilm, by showing the three ways in which restoration labs occupy a unique position in cinema history. First, laboratories make an "archeology of technology" in their recovery of past films (de Oliveira interview). [End Page 2] Second, labs generate innovative techniques through their unique mix of industry, science, and art. Third, as they fuse archeology and innovation, labs encapsulate cinema's "hybrid future" between film and digital technologies (Meyer interview).
Through lab practice, the study of film history not only rediscovers lost options but adds to the forms of future cinema.
Located in Amsterdam, Holland, Haghefilm has one of the highest lab profiles in the archival and scholarly community, having regularly presented its restorations at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and at other film festivals.5 The lab sponsors festivals such as Le Giornate in Italy and grants funding for archival projects. The company awards a new graduate from the Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House (GEH) the opportunity to restore a single film from the GEH archive in Amsterdam every year. Giovanna Fossati, a curator at the Nederlands Filmmuseum, says of Haghefilm that it is "the only European film lab that can handle almost all kinds of restorations on a large quantity with a relatively high quality" (interview). The lab financed my trip to Haghefilm's offices in The Netherlands for a week in June of 2004. This report on the past and current functions of film labs is based on firsthand observation of the company and other labs, research in...