Film Museum is. Craftwork

Création de la serpentine

France, 1908, Director: Segundo de Chomón

When you think that there are no great discoveries left to make, a surprise phone call can give you a start. May 2014: a caller inquires whether he can send in an "old film." A few days later, a tin can arrived, with the word "Serpentine" written in old-fashioned Fraktur script. The can contained two small rolls of heavily deteriorated 35mm nitrate cellulose film. Like all organic materials, nitrate film decomposes over time. Large parts of the rolls were stuck together and the acid released in the chemical breakdown of the celluloid had literally eaten away at the silver atoms in the emulsion. Furthermore, the gelatine contained in the film strip had softened. This made the emulsion stretch in places, distorting the geometry of the image content. The result: an eerie "eraser" effect where objects and actors in the film appear as if they had been dissolved leaving only a vague imprint on the strip.
After unblocking the roll frame by frame, the content was finally revealed. We held in our hands a stencil-colored positive print of Création de la serpentine (1908), a short féerie film by Spanish-French director and special effects pioneer Segundo de Chomón (1871–1929). Although the copy is incomplete, it is nevertheless a uniquely interesting print as all other known extant versions have been handed down either black and white, or with the picture cropped during duplication. The "Vienna version" maintains both the original full frame composition and the gorgeous color scheme its creator envisioned.
Création de la serpentine is a wonderful example of de Chomón's craft as a director and animator. It also speaks to the technical brilliance and sensual opulence of early cinema and the genre of "féeries" (fantasy films) in particular. Every single frame of every single release print was colored by hand using complex mechanical stenciling equipment. It is genuinely touching to look at such an original knowing that the same film strip had passed through the hands of an anonymous colorist (very likely a woman) in Paris 110 years ago, and was then screened in front of audiences abroad before it disappeared into oblivion.
Polish cinematographer Bolesław Matuszewski, who in 1998 envisioned the idea of film archives, famously stated that films "hibernate" and are only brought back to life during the act of projection. However, Création de la serpentine was too damaged to be copied or digitized by conventional methods. This called for more specialized craftswork, and in 2016 Swiss film expert and lab technician Reto Kromer took the material under his wing.
Film restoration and conservation, like archeology or art restoration, is manual labour. Parts of the rolls that were stuck together had to be unblocked; camphor was used to return elasticity to the strip and allow for its passage through a scanner gate. Reto chose not to use more aggressive chemicals: while that treatment would have allowed for additional frames to be unblocked, it would have inevitably led to further deterioration and eventually the destruction of the original. To retain the full frame as well as the sprocket hole picture information, the film was scanned frame by frame in 4K. This will allow for digital stabilization of the image during the final restoration stage, eventually resulting in a new 35mm preservation negative, print and digital cinema copy.

With thanks to Reto Kromer