NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

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NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Jul 23, 2015 5:00 pm

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Part 1

After the recent and fascinating Wired article on the Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation, discussed here, I thought it would be worth trying to see if I could get a special tour of the facility for NitrateVille members to get a better understanding of what this important film preservation center does. As LOC's Larry Smith, our tour guide, took pains to point out, they don't give tours to the public, but he asked for permission for this audience and so my wife, kids and I (we were on a family trip) were granted this very special privilege, which I now share with you.

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The first surprise driving up to the campus outside Culpeper, Virginia, an hour and a half from Washington, is that the building already looks like an abandoned ruin, even before you get to the crumbling old movies inside. David Packard, heir of one side of Hewlett-Packard, who pushed for and financially backed this facility, wanted it to suggest classical ruins, not least as a discouragement from thinking there's anything too valuable inside. (The cultural value is immeasurable, but the retail value of what's inside tends to be $10 to $20 at Amazon or Costco.)

The visible building is the new part, but continuing under the hill it sits on is a facility a few decades older, a former Federal Reserve facility once filled with billions in cash for use after a nuclear attack, which has been repurposed as vault space for film and recording storage. (As Larry points out, the facility was decommissioned suspiciously soon after it was referenced in a movie— the Robert Redford caper Sneakers. See if they save Downhill Racer or Lions for Lambs, smartypants.)

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Our first stop was the one public part of the facility— a 200-seat screening room, designed in an Art Deco theater style by David Packard, where they show films every week, in your choice of 35mm, 70mm, 16mm or DCP (digital projection).

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From there we went inside the series of office floors, beginning with the film archive. On each floor, he said, the office part gets smaller and the lab and vault storage accounts for more and more of the facility. The offices mostly look like this:

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That, by the way, is Rachel Parker, who helps run Mostly Lost.

Although as I said, they don’t give tours, they do occasionally have visiting dignitaries during things like Mostly Lost, and there was a small assortment of rarities laid out on a table to show off the kind of thing they have. Here’s one of the original paper prints that are the reason Biograph films have a good survival rate:

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The tape of the first color TV program, starring President Eisenhower himself:

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and a stereo card viewer:

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But rarer things would be to come! By the way, you’re asking what kind of dignitary (besides NitrateVille) would be shown such things? Oh, if you’re an important donor, you probably would be, like the guy who just sent these pallets of material from his collection...

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this guy:




You'll notice it's still wrapped, so don't even start hyperventilating about The Day the Clown Cried.

Here’s the inspection laboratory, where films which are lent for screenings (increasingly common as they become one of the few still offering 35mm for screenings) are inspected, repaired and, it is worth noting, carefully measured after return to ensure nobody snipped a favorite scene to keep. (Those of us from the old film society days remember how we often got Films Inc. or Swank 16mm prints where that had happened.) A poster gives a good summary of the holdings in this area:

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Then it was through some very thick doors and into some very cold rooms for the Heart of the World itself, the place where the holy grail is kept next to the ark of the covenant and Charles Foster Kane’s sled...

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Down these halls, neatly arranged alphabetically by studio, are the camera negatives for a major chunk of classic Hollywood’s heritage. 90 miles of shelving are spread out over these rooms extending deep into the mountain, separated by concrete fire barriers, protected by fire sprinklers and kept at meat locker temperatures. On the way, Larry flatters me with a story that illustrates how things get saved. He tells me that at Cinevent or Cinesation a few years back, I had talked up a Warren William film that seemed especially timely at that moment with its resemblance to the financial scandals of Bernie Madoff and others. He watched it on TCM, then checked with Warners to see what they had on it. And here was the camera negative of The Match King (1932), sitting on a cart ready for restoration— and likely to turn up on Warner Archive in the future because I casually mentioned it to him. (Hey, he said it, not me!)

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We select one room out of many:

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Larry pulls out a can on which someone has jotted “It’s Alive!” The 70s Larry Cohen horror movie about the raptor-clawed baby? No, a reference to this line:



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Yes, it’s the camera negative from 1931 from the original Frankenstein. (Well, the original Universal one—the 1910 Charles Ogle version is around here somewhere too.) It thrills me and it chills me to know that James Whale— or at least Arthur Edeson— had had his hands on it, and here it is.

My wife chokes up in another room, of Columbia titles, at the 1934 version of one of her favorite stories:

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We could play this game all day— opposite Imitation of Life, my son Myles spots For the Love of Rusty, which he had watched when he was about 8, and given a chance he'd go look for Citizen Kane in the RKO section— but Larry has other things to show which draw us further and further into film history. How far back do their holdings of camera negatives go? Well, here’s one that’s 112 years old:

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It’s called The Great Train Robbery. There are early sound films, too:

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That’s a mere 120 years old. And there’s, well, the first movie on film ever, made right after Kodak fulfilled Edison’s order for photographic chemicals on celluloid, 124 years ago:

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It’s not just that film history is saved here— it’s that film history begins here, in an unbroken stream to this day.

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“Rosebud, it’s got to be here somewhere...”


To be continued...
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Rollo Treadway » Thu Jul 23, 2015 5:47 pm

Thanks for the fascinating report. These are our people!

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu Jul 23, 2015 9:56 pm

Really interesting stuff. Thanks Mike!

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Penfold » Fri Jul 24, 2015 1:47 am

Excellent piece Mike.
I could use some digital restoration myself...

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by greta de groat » Fri Jul 24, 2015 7:59 am

What a wonderful idea, thanks for thinking of this and sharing with us.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Richard P. May » Fri Jul 24, 2015 9:22 am

Not to be picky, but the 1934 (and the remake) of IMITATION OF LIFE was Universal, not Columbia.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Fri Jul 24, 2015 9:56 am

Ah yes, of course it was. So that was the same vault as Frankenstein, but we must have gone in a Columbia one, too, since they released For the Love of Rusty.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Wm. Charles Morrow » Fri Jul 24, 2015 11:38 am

Great photos! Thanks for posting.

I first visited the Packard Campus last year for Mostly Lost 3, and my favorite part of the building tour was the trip through those frosty cold vaults. At one point we were encouraged to take a moment to explore, and see if we could locate any familiar titles among the stacks of film cans. (This was in the Columbia vault.) Ironically, the first thing I found was The Heat's On.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Fri Jul 24, 2015 1:41 pm

We must be close to the same height, I spotted it too. Also, Heat Lightning was on the cart with The Match King. That seems a clear breach of nitrate safety rules...

Part 2

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Nitrate in cold storage is what most of us think of for a film archive, of course, but the Packard Campus isn’t only a film archive— it’s not even primarily one. The biggest category of holdings is audio in every format imaginable. Here’s a glass 16” radio transcription disc...

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Those can admittedly be tough restoration jobs. Don’t look for this one any time soon:

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Much of this material is direct from the creators— often, but not always, entertainers:

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I was delighted to see that Chicago’s own Studs Terkel’s interviews are one of the current cataloguing projects. I told Larry my story about seeing Studs at a Swedish Julbord dinner once, and even in his 90s, you did not want to come between him and his pickled herring.

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Video is another huge area, and they have many important collections from television’s history— Johnny Carson, Lucille Ball, and so on. Where film is relatively stable—stored correctly, that Great Train Robbery negative should last another 500 years at least— video still has no permanant storage method, and tapes from 40 or 50 years ago, recorded on a then-broadcast standard like 2” video, are at the point where they’ll either be saved on nearly extinct equipment now, or be lost forever.

What can be done now is transferring them to a digital medium where they’ll be backed up and re-transferred to new standards as they evolve. Banks of automated video-playing robotic machines go through these tapes, digitizing them onto enormous servers with backups in two other locations (one secret).

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That’s assuming they were preserved by their producers. In another part of the building, another set of servers captures television as it happens, so that future generations will have a complete record of CNN or MTV.

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We continue on to the film labs. Up here, restorers do physical work on negatives and prints, cleaning them up, fixing old splices, and so on.

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On the top floor there’s a very sunny lunchroom. That’s in part because a film restorer might spend a good part of his or her day in the darkness developing film:

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Here Larry shows us a film printer. In darkness, a print and raw stock would run through this machine together. The first set of wheels and gears has sprocket holes, and exposes each new frame onto the film; the second set has no sprocket holes, and exposes the continuous soundtrack along the edge.

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After seeing this machine, I asked about wet gate printing. They have it, but since the chemicals involved are carcinogenic, they don’t show it to people taking the tours they don’t give.

Wet gate printing, in which a fluid (the same one used in dry cleaning) fills in scratches to make them seemingly disappear, is still an important part of restoration, even as digital restoration makes it possible to clean up anything. As this restorer working on a 1910s Passion Play film told us, it’s all a matter of time; the more scratches removed quickly by wet gate, the faster he can work at removing all the other bits of dust, tears, bits of dirt or goop or whatever else might be on a print.

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Larry said that a typical workpath involves setting the computer to detect flaws in an section of a film overnight, then going through them clicking Yes/No in the morning. It’s unbelievably painstaking work and a typical project can take a year and costs tens of thousands of dollars. Needless to say, only a fraction of what’s in the archive will ever be subjected to this level of attention; it’s a constant tradeoff of priorities to decide what gets the deluxe treatment and what gets saved enough for some future attention, someday.

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As you go through the labs, you see an incredible variety of equipment, some of it in use, some on display, some sitting around for either purpose. One room scarcely bigger than a closet holds a history of audio equipment that’s Smithsonian-worthy, Victrola horns and Dictaphones like Fred MacMurray used in Double Indemnity to microphones like Edward R. Murrow or Little Richard would have used and a turntable that weighs as much as a car, to ensure that recordings digitized from it cannot be disturbed by movement around it.

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Just as there is a history of audio equipment here, there is filmmaking equipment from throughout film history:



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One of the least prepossessing is a device that looks like an old mimeograph. In a sense it is a copier for documents— it’s the machine Kemp Niver built in the 1950s, to transfer paper prints of D.W. Griffith’s Biograph films back onto film:

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At the Packard Campus we saw the beginnings of film, and the beginnings of preserving and rescuing it, too.

What conclusions do I draw from this rare and unforgettable look inside the very heart of film preservation? The building itself is impressive; it’s a marvelous thing that one benefactor, David Packard, took it upon himself to give our heritage such a home, in a way that will rarely earn him the level of attention that an art gallery or a symphony hall with his name on it would have. (As impressive as featured placement at NitrateVille might be...)

But there’s building it and there’s operating it forever. Needless to say, something like film preservation is one of those parts of government that’s always asking for more money and rarely getting it over other priorities with noisier constituencies. To some extent, I suspect, the very quality of the facility removes some of the urgency here. In any case the overwhelming sense is that the number of people working here is only a fraction of how many could be, and the same for the number of projects going on at any one time. It’s a big monastery, but there’s only so many monks copying manuscripts in it.

So I hope the kind of poster who comes on here wanting to know why his tax money isn’t making everything he wants available to him, right now!, will get a better sense of reality from this tour; and all of us, I hope, will have greater appreciation for the remarkable and expensive work that most often comes down to a casual purchase of a $10 or $20 DVD, or a screening on TCM—or, if you’re ever in Culpeper, a screening from real 35mm of a classic film, straight from the vaults. Thanks, Larry, for showing it to us.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Daniel Eagan » Fri Jul 24, 2015 2:00 pm

Thanks for a very informative post.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Rick Lanham » Fri Jul 24, 2015 2:38 pm

Fabulous information Mike. Thank you.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Donald Binks » Fri Jul 24, 2015 3:19 pm

It's wonderful to think that there is this important work going on. Drawing attention to it as you have done makes more people aware and I hope this awareness continues to those who can afford to be generous and philanthropic. So a big thank you for the article! :D
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by rudyfan » Fri Jul 24, 2015 3:25 pm

Mike, thanks for a fascinating look at the Culpepper Campus (and thanks to Larry (and Jenny)) for pulling strings to get you the tour they do not give.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by bobfells » Fri Jul 24, 2015 4:01 pm

Fascinating place - reminds me of one of those secret complexes you see in the James Bond films. I enjoyed seeing photos of Larry Smith. He's my hero having found the sole surviving print of THE DEVIL (1921) starring George Arliss. Last year he put it on Youtube, thus returning it to circulation after a near-century absence. God bless Larry!
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Michael O'Regan » Fri Jul 24, 2015 4:16 pm

Fascinating stuff. Thanks for posting all of this.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Changsham » Fri Jul 24, 2015 6:19 pm

Thanks very much. With so much film there, it highlights the enormous task in preservation that is required. And that patience is a virtue for us hoping to see one of their rarities.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Fri Jul 24, 2015 6:46 pm

Mike, thanks for a fascinating look at the Culpepper Campus (and thanks to Larry (and Jenny)) for pulling strings to get you the tour they do not give.
Yes, thanks to Jenny Paxson, who didn't want to appear in this though we visited her office:

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Danny Burk » Fri Jul 24, 2015 9:08 pm

Great report - thanks to you and all of the folks at LOC.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Arndt » Sat Jul 25, 2015 3:20 am

Thank you for this fascinating and enjoyable report. You must have felt like a kid in a candy store.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Brooksie » Sat Jul 25, 2015 3:59 pm

If the LOC staged a once-a-year tour, I would be very happy to pay whatever they asked for it. And extra happy to see that money go on film restoration.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Steve Massa » Sun Jul 26, 2015 5:26 pm

LOC has been doing a once a year tour of the Packard Campus - it's the first morning of the yearly Mostly Lost Conference.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Sun Jul 26, 2015 6:19 pm

Right, though attending Mostly Lost requires at least a little bit of commitment to serious scholarship, not just attending the show for fun. Anyway, I was being a little tongue in cheek about the "never gives tours" (for a tour he never gives, Larry does it very well!) but it's definitely a rare privilege at the discretion of officials at the Packard Campus.

So again... thanks to them!
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Prince Saliano » Sun Jul 26, 2015 9:21 pm

Now where is THE CAT CREEPS (1930)?

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Rob Farr » Mon Jul 27, 2015 10:46 am

Mike Gebert wrote:Right, though attending Mostly Lost requires at least a little bit of commitment to serious scholarship, not just attending the show for fun. Anyway, I was being a little tongue in cheek about the "never gives tours" (for a tour he never gives, Larry does it very well!) but it's definitely a rare privilege at the discretion of officials at the Packard Campus.
Just wanted to note that many attendees of Mostly Lost are there just for fun. And it is just as true that many of those make the most valuable contributions once they get into the swing of things.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Tue Jul 28, 2015 7:35 am

I'm just pointing out what it says here, under "Who may attend."

I'm following the guidelines and wishes of the people at the Packard Campus who wanted it known that you can't just swing by and ask to be shown around. They may do so for special reasons including both attendees at a special event and the desire to share what they do with the readers of a website devoted to classic movies, but they are not, conventionally, open to the public like other Washington-area facilities often are. That's the point they wanted to be clear.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by silentfilm » Tue Jul 28, 2015 11:26 am

I hear that if you show up with an original nitrate print of London After Midnight, Cleopatra or Hats Off that they might make an exception and give you a tour... :D

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Aug 06, 2015 11:23 am

So I was kind of joking about The Day the Clown Cried being at LOC in that stack of stuff from Jerry Lewis, but it turns out... I was within 10 feet of the most famously unseen film of all time when I snapped that shot!

http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/ ... o-20150806" target="_blank
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by mwalls » Thu Aug 06, 2015 11:40 am

One of the photos showed someone sitting at a computer working on a restoration. The writeup said:

"Larry said that a typical workpath involves setting the computer to detect flaws in an section of a film overnight, then going through them clicking Yes/No in the morning. It’s unbelievably painstaking work and a typical project can take a year and costs tens of thousands of dollars."

I found this very interesting. There are computer programs which can on their own scan individual frames and identify problems? Amazing, but still very tedious work frame by frame.

Thanks so much for posting all of the pictures. Even the picture tour was fascinating. Can't imagine what a real physical tour around all those films would be like.

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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Mike Gebert » Thu Aug 06, 2015 12:27 pm

How it works is, think about a speck of dirt on a black and white frame. Specks of dirt are pretty similar. You can define their characteristics so a computer can recognize them with reasonable accuracy. But the question is, if it sees one, is it on the film or the shirt of a character in the scene?

So it's easy for a computer to flag certain things that tend to recur— dirt, scratches, bits of nitrate decomp, etc. But a human needs to judge if it guessed correctly.
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Re: NitrateVille visits the vaults at the LOC Packard Campus

Unread post by Brooksie » Thu Aug 06, 2015 4:13 pm

One of the more interesting extras on a recent reissue of The Wizard of Oz (1939) dealt with the film's digital restoration. When all three strips of Technicolor still exist, it can apparently assist in detecting these irregularities, because the computer program has three different versions of the picture to compare. Something that's on one but not the other two is almost certainly a blemish, and the software identifies it as such.

This seemed to work pretty well - except when it came to the ruby slippers, whose sparkling got the software completely confused.

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