Jayson Wall takes us Into the Archives

Jayson Wall bills his podcast, Into the Archives, as “a lively discussion with leading archivists and preservationist with their stories on saving film, television, and music of the 20th century.”

Since August 2017, that is what the longtime film-restoration insider has been providing with his program, which is available from his website.

Wall promises lively discussions with archivists and preservationists, and he has been living up to his pledge by eliciting from his subjects many tales from the trenches of film preservation as well as film production and distribution.

The discussions are detailed without being exceedingly technical, so they appeal to film and television buffs as well as archive advocates and aficionados.

For example, his latest episode — his fifth, to date — features a long interview with Bob O’Neil, who retired from a 50-year career in the motion-picture industry, including 25 years as vice president of preservation and restoration at Universal Studios. There, he brought new life to many Hollywood gems, none more so than Orson Welles’ 1958 masterpiece Touch of Evil. O’Neil describes a complex process, which included restoring the Henry Mancini score, and for which he and his colleagues won awards from the New York Film Critics, Boston Film Critics, National Film Critics, and Los Angeles Film Critics.

Other key O’Neil projects included restorations of Dracula, Bride of Frankenstein, All Quiet On the Western Front, To Kill A Mockingbird, Double Indemnity, Psycho, and Rear Window.

O’Neil describes such experiences as managing the daunting aftermath of an enormous, early-morning fire at Universal Studios in June 2008. It destroyed portions of the studio backlots, and Universal’s video vault, along with more than 40,000 film elements — a horrifying event, but fortunately not one that threatened the studio’s main film vault, across the road. What’s more, O’Neal and his colleagues found workarounds that eventually recovered all the studio’s collection, but doing that, O’Neil says, made for “probably the toughest year of my life.”

Wall elicits from O’Neil his thinking about “originalism” versus “revisionism” in film restoration: about retaining or “improving” original aspects of a film during a photochemical or digital restoration.

Burnt sets after the Universal Studio Fire, June 1, 2008; Creative Commons.

“The trouble is,” says O’Neil, “that there are so many things that you can do in the digital world; there are so many ways that you can make that picture look. And this is both on color and black-and-white,” particularly the former “because of the versatility of the digital tools. In photochemical, it was very limited. My theory, through my whole life, in my analog life…was that we were trying to stay true to the director, we wanted to stick with their vision. And it was easy because their vision came from film, our vision came from film, so we were able to maintain their vision.”

But, he says, “here’s where it gets dicey: if you can go into the digital world, and take their vision, and make it look better, where now you’ve got so many color selections that you can make, you can do anything under the sun, with a scene. Did the director want that? Did he want the color? Did he want the shadow detail? Did he want the highlight detail? What did he want? … Do you hold yourself back because it was their vision with their technology, then, or do you take the tools, and make the product look as good as you can?”

He offers some examples. During his team’s digital restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1958 psychological thriller, Vertigo, they discovered a curious glitch. During a scene in which former police detective Scottie Ferguson (Jimmy Stewart) is trailing Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak), she passes a gate in a wall while walking in a graveyard, and in a wide shot, a pair of hands comes up over the gate, then drops out of sight.

Technicians on O’Neil’s team noticed the glitch, which apparently had gone unnoticed, at any time before then.

“That’s in the master take,” says O’Neil. “It hadn’t been seen, ever. [James] Katz and [Robert] Harris [who had made the earlier, 70mm, photochemical restoration, in 1996; see below] never saw it. So, here’s the moral dilemma: What do you do with that? Do you leave it, or not?”

Jayson Wall (left) says he was inspired to create his Into the Archives podcast by conversations with preservation and restoration specialists, in particular one with Bob O’Neil in 2013 at the annual convention of the Association of Moving Image Archivists, of which Wall is a board member. He has worked for 20 years in film preservation and restoration. For 11 years, he has been the managing film archivist for Walt Disney Studios in Los Angeles, working on large preservations and restorations of classic Hollywood features. Before that, his various roles included managing restorations and archives at New Line Cinema, Pro-Tek Media Preservation, and Cinetech Film Labs.

In one of the earlier episodes of the podcast, he interviewed Bob Furmanek, the founder of 3-D Film Archive, who spoke about his preservation and restoration work on classic stereoscopic titles and looked back on his early career as a film historian and personal archivist for Jerry Lewis.

In another episode, Adrian Wood, who won BAFTA and Peabody awards for film preservationist, discussed his first steps in film research in England during the 1970s and 1980s on titles like The Troubles and The Second World War in Colour. His most recent project is Monkey Business: The Adventures of Curious George’s Creators, which is online. He also spoke about the unmade film projects of Stanley Kubrick.

The first two installments of Into the Archives presented a two-part interview of Robert A. Harris, the award-winning motion-picture preservationist, discussing his early years in film distribution, his involvement in bringing Abel Gance’s 1921 epic Napoleon back to America in the late 1970’s, the saga of the restoration and reconstruction of David Lean’s masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia and Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 historical epic Spartacus, the restoration of My Fair Lady, Rear Window, The Godfather, and Vertigo, and the digital reconstruction of It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

— Peter Monaghan

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