Reduction Prints of Standard Gauge Films

Sources for an Italian Casuistry

Author: Simone Fabio Ghidoni
University of Bologna 
Reviewer: Michele Canosa
The word "cinema" does not refer to 35mm theatrical exhibition alone. Since the beginning of cinematography, the ambition to exploit the new medium in the widest range of contexts and environments grew into devices meant to deliver moving pictures at home, in schools, in workplaces, on means of transportation. The first successful attempt, before the arrival of television broadcast and video, was the production of small-gauge films and projectors. Nonetheless, historical, archival and academic interest in the subject developed only recently, mainly focusing on amateur works and home movies. Reduction prints of professional (commercial, educational, sponsored) titles have not been thoroughly studied yet. Moreover, these editions have rarely been preserved, due to bias towards some of their distinctive characteristics.
The optical printing process, indeed, represented just one of the possible "reductions" implied in the generation of small-gauge copies. Often, feature-length movies were heavily re-edited and shortened (even to 7-8 minutes). Colors could be printed in black and white; the sound substituted with silent-era-like intertitles or overlaid subtitles; widescreen frames masked to 1:1,33 aspect ratio. Therefore, the allegedly unsatisfactory optical quality of the reduced images did not strike as the only ascribable flaw. In the eyes of many historians and archivists, reduction prints looked guilty of treason towards the archetype, idealistically intended as the original. In other words, they appeared – to a variable degree – unworthy of attention and conservation.
It seems to me that these copies exemplify instead a notable quality of film: its tendency to escape a fixed form, adapting and changing in time, according to the sensitivity of audiences and markets, as well as to technological developments, censorship, historical events, natural decay. When freed from the weight of comparison, reduction prints show value in themselves. The attributes once considered to be flaws, appear after all as the very characteristics that allowed lower purchase and rental prices, encouraging the diffusion of cinema outside movie theaters. These little reels, with their carters, boxes, descriptions, home-made and official catalogues, carry the traces of considerable, alternative film consumption and cult practices. Given the few sources on the subject, their safeguard is then pivotal for a better comprehension of film history in its full complexity.
Nowadays, private collectors detain the bigger corpus of surviving small-gauge editions. Who will store their archives? Some open-minded institutions like the Austrian Film Museum (Vienna), the Home Movies archive (Bologna) and the Cineteca del Friuli (Gemona) already count a valuable amount of prints – enough to offer a fist glimpse on these little acknowledged materials – but a proper, shared conservation policy does not exist yet. Describing and discussing the characteristics of reduction prints, considering the different historical sources for their study, giving them visibility are the first steps towards their correct understanding and preservation.