Film distributor targets new emerging market

Munich-based movie camera, lighting and digital systems manufacturer and distributor Arri is targeting the emerging market of historic film restoration as archives increasingly focus on protecting aging and unique early footage.

The company, which is working with Russia’s state film archive on a project to restore footage of the novelist Leo Tolstoy for a documentary tribute timed for the 100th anni of the author’s death, said the value of early film as a film and television resource is growing rapidly.

Advances in digital restoration techniques — some driven by the demands of Arri’s customers — means that even brittle and shrunken early nitrate negatives can now be scanned at resolutions of up to 6K, improving images on stock that is often scratched and pitted from years of copying or screening.

Thilo Gottschling, Arri’s head of restoration and archiving, who has been working with the St. Petersburg-based producers of “Leo Tolstoy: Genius Alive” on a show reel of restored footage, told Variety that initial work with a copy of the Tolstoy film stock had impressed Russian archivists.

Careful handling of the copy and the use of Arri’s Wet Gate System — a liquid technology for removing and concealing dust and scratch marks during digital scanning without harming the original film stock — persuaded the Russian archivists that the company has the skills to do the job. The company is now in talks for the original Tolstoy footage to be brought to Munich — which would be the first time it had been allowed out of Russia, Gottschling said.

“There is a great chance now to get into emerging markets of film archiving as we approach all sorts of 100th anniversaries where early film footage will be in demand,” Gottschling added.

The company, which has been working with archives that include those in Austria, Serbia (Belgrade’s Yugoslav Film Archive) and Bologna, has developed special technology to meet the demands of its customers.

Anxieties over the damage that handling early Lumiere brothers footage could cause drove the development of a “sprocketless” system for that footage.

“We now have a wide range of archive options for scanning damaged or very old material that is often very brittle and delicate,” Gottschling said.

Digital scanning of early footage has other advantages.

Andrey Deryabin, a producer on the Tolstoy project, said that higher-quality scanned footage of the author in conversation with his wife Sofya running at 24 frames per second rather than the original fast 16 fps will allow their conversation to be discerned by professional lip readers.

That could reveal hidden secrets from the distant past: Although the couple posed, apparently happily for the cameras, the film was shot at a time when Tolstoy was in despair and seeking to distance himself from the woman who had once been the love of his life.

“This is a fantastic project; it is like an archaeological excavation,” Deryabin said.

“Leo Tolstoy: Genius Alive” should be ready for a fest premiere by September, with simultaneous worldwide digital release scheduled for the week of the 100th anni of Tolstoy’s death in November.

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