Waking Nosferatu

Mark Rance on the restoration of a vampire classic

by Jennie Kermode

Max Schreck in FW Murnau classic Nosferatu
Max Schreck in FW Murnau classic Nosferatu

This weekend at the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies, Mark Rance of Watchmaker Films is due to discuss a grand restoration product - breathing new life into FW Murnau classic Nosferatu. Putting a film of this age back together is no easy task, so we were delighted when he agreed to tell us something about the process.

"I enjoy and support any effort to discuss and analyse films, to give them social and political context, and to deepen our understanding of films both how they were made and what kinds of impact they might have on an audience," he says of his decision to speak at the institute, one of whose organisers, Josh Saco, we interviewed last week.

"I have to confess that I restore mainly independent features, films I feel would never see the light of day if they were not protected and safeguarded against loss over time due to lack of money or simply being unknown. I came to Nosferatu a through home video company that wanted to be able to sell a restored version. We did our best to give them something that would look better than anything out there currently."

How do film restoration experts decide which films to prioritise trying to save? I ask. How much do the quality of the art and the quality of the surviving materials factor into that?

"There are so many companies and entities, like national archives and Hollywood studios, that engage in restoration for a number of reasons, each group differently motivated from the other. I do think there is a tendency to prioritise the 'Top 100' films popularised in lists from organisations like the AFI and BFI, but then there are times when films that would otherwise be forgotten are saved. I worked at Criterion for many years and I would say every effort they made to improve the quality of the master of the film they were distributing was an archival gesture, an effort to save that film. We worked from the negative of many films regardless of their notoriety, from Lord Of The Flies to Robinson Crusoe On Mars, and we worked from best available elements whenever the negative was gone.

"I also worked for the major Hollywood studios and to the credit of many they made efforts to save their films as and when they could. Obviously everyone could do better. My credo would be: Scan Everything! Save it All. No judgements. In the end I think the collective effort of all the archives, studios and home video companies around the world might be doing just that."

Does restoring classic films pay for itself or is there a risk that studios will lose money when the process turns out to be challenging?

"When I was working for the studios, saving a film meant making a well considered and well researched pitch to justify the costs. If the market is funding the effort, it is always a crap shoot as to what gets done. I think that’s why Scorcese created the Film Foundation - to catch a lot of films that would never get green lit for restoration if it was only down to commercial profit.

"There are two ways to look at that commercial profit - long term and short term. The short term calculation is based on a single title doing well. The long term calculation is that by investing in all your old films you are investing in new generations loving them and buying them again and again. This is the Disney model. They release a classic film, then put it away for a while, maybe a decade. Then they release it again to a new generation. And each time the film gets a bit of an upgrade. But not all films will make money no matter how good the restoration. Some have to be restored for the sake of filmmaking as an art form. And that can be expensive."

How creative a process is restoration? Are there ever big disputes over which sources to use?

"Film restoration like filmmaking itself is a craft. It is not rocket science, it can be learned and practised and improved. Creativity may come in to play when it is necessary to reverse engineer what a film would have looked like when it was first released. The original stocks and chemistry are gone. The machines used to print and develop the elements have been dismantled and are no more. So now it is down to recreating those processes in the digital realm. That takes a knowledge of chemistry and math that is more like rocket science, but it can be done. Crafting the restoration until it 'looks good to me' is valid but may not be accurate or final. The goal is to try to restore the film to the way it looked when it was first screened.

"To get there does demand getting a hold of the best possible elements. I don’t think there is any dispute over what elements rule: the camera negative, if you can get it, is the gold standard; but after that everything will have someone’s decisions baked in whether that’s a one-lite contact print on a fine-grain print stock (which might be the next best thing to the negative), or any of a number of intermediate element types. And finally at the bottom of the list is a print. Below that, down at the desperate end of the scale are reduction prints and video copies.

"And don’t get me started about audio sources. Audio restoration has been a poor cousin to picture restoration, but it can be just as important. The problem is that when most edit rooms close up, they save the picture elements and toss the audio except for the mix stems.

"We restored Eagle Pennell’s The Whole Shootin’ Match, the film that inspired the foundation of the Sundance Institute, from a 16mm composite print found in a television station archive. The audio was dreadful. But we were able to find the original production tapes and so were able to contract a proper 24-track mix master and re-master all the audio for the film. I think that audio restored lifted the picture source up and has made that film as vibrant today as it might have been at its first screening. Maybe more so."

Is any of the process now able to be handled automatically?

"No matter what any company says, the answer is no," says Mark. "Semi-Automatic yes. But this work demands eyes-on, revision and refinement. There’s nothing automatic about any of that."

What are the major issues that come up when choosing a score for a silent era film?

"This is a tricky one. My opinion is based on my personal experience. Once upon a time I ran a film festival and we screened a Cecil B DeMille silent film, The Cheat, that we got from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bill Sloane, from the film archive department at MOMA came with the film. I hired a local jazz quartet to do the score. They came in the day before and just played improv to the film to get a feel. This was a good marriage because the film was a flapper tale staring the ever suave Sessue Hayakawa. The night of the screening, I hid them behind the screen. The film and music were presented as one. Bill Sloane was amazed and called it one of the best presentations of a silent film he had seen. I will take that as a thumbs up. I see no reason why this shouldn’t be an open door policy. From Carmine Coppola scoring Napoleon, to the Alloy orchestra and Man With A Movie Camera, or all the great Carl Davis scores – it’s a way for each generation to have a conversation with the old films and make them new again."

Mark Rance will present A Restoration Of Nosferatu for the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies at the Horse Hospital in London on 15 April.

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