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Evolution of digital technology is a threat to film preservation: Archivist Tessa Idlewine

Speaking at a workshop on the restoration process of Satyajit Ray's lost films at IFFI Goa on Wednesday, archivist Idlewine let us in on the complicated and ignored world of film preservation.

Shivendra Singh Dungarpur in conversation with Tessa Idlewine at IFFI Goa (Photo: Shutterbugs Images)

Shriram Iyengar

The International Film Festival of India 2016 in Goa has been a revelation for film lovers and filmmakers. But it has also opened doors to those interested in the technical aspect of film preservation. The workshop on restoration of Satyajit Ray's films by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences by Tessa Idlewine was one such enlightening event.

A part of the 26-year project by the Academy to restore, preserve, and improve Ray's films from the Apu trilogy to others like Devi, Mahanagar, Jalsaghar, Teen Kanya and The Chess Players, Idlewine spoke about the difficulties an archivist faces.

Speaking of the beginning of Ray's project, she said, "While working on the 64th Annual Oscars telecast, producers quickly realised that it was difficult to find prints for the Oscar package for Ray. This realisation sparked a project on all of Ray's films. In December 1992, film preservationist David Sheppard with a grant from the Academy travelled to Calcutta to inspect the original film elements for Pather Panchali. The poor condition of these picture and sound negatives led to additional investigation on the state of Ray's other films."

Ray remains the first, and only, Indian filmmaker to be awarded an honorary Oscar. Sadly, the filmmaker passed away a few weeks after being bestowed with that honour. However, the preservation process of his films began soon after. Idlewine also mentioned how difficult the process was. At one point, negatives of films like Apur Sansar, Jalsaghar, Devi, Pather Panchali, and Teen Kanya were almost destroyed at a fire accident at the preservation lab in London. 

The Academy continued to store these film negatives for 20 years, before their collaboration with The Criterion Collection to restore them. It was in 2015 that the restored version of Pather Panchali was restored fully. Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, founder director of The Film Heritage Foundation, pointed out that Ray would have been proud and happy to see the quality of the film. 

Dungarpur, an archivist and filmmaker himself, spoke how Subrata Mitra, Ray's cameraman for the celebrated Apu trilogy once remarked that the bad quality of prints on the internet and videos might lessen people's regards for his own and Ray's work. Idlewine mentioned that this restoration process, difficult as it was, feels satisfying. 

Speaking later to Cinestaan.com, Idlewine emphasised on the difficulty of the digital evolution for an archivist. She said, "Think about your iPhone, it's constantly being updated and changed. Things with technology move so quickly, and the problem for preservation is these files, maybe they were created in one format, that will then change." She added that while celluloid films continue to be used a century after, the constant shifting of digital formats makes it expensive and difficult for archival projects. She said, "Many films started getting shot on different video formats, now you can't play those at all. I am kind of worried that digital is going the same way, where it is constantly changing and if you're not migrating to new formats, you won't be keeping up with it. It could become lost." 

When asked if the problems for the preservation of films were more economic, or technological, Idlewine replied, "Honestly, it's definitely a mix of both. But from most archives' standpoint, financially speaking, it is very expensive to preserve a film. It is very expensive now to shoot on film, as well. Which is why it is becoming a lost form." 

The recent demise of PK Nair, one of India's legendary archivists, marked the plight of a forgotten and thankless class of film lovers. Perhaps, the presence of such collaborations at a festival like IFFI can help create better awareness about film preservation.