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  A Conservation Story  
 
Preservation and Restoration of Confucius
Confucius (1940) had long been considered lost after its last screening in 1948. It was a tremendous blessing for the Hong Kong Film Archive to have acquired its picture negative and soundtrack in 2001. At the time of acquiring this 35mm cellulose nitrate based film, part of the track negative was found missing. The entire film was in very poor condition: nitrate decomposition had caused deterioration and serious shrinkage of the base materials, and part of the track negative was stuck together. In addition, the splicing of the film was executed in a rarely seen manner, with several layers of film overlapping each other during almost every scene change. To preserve this invaluable gem, the need for conservation work was pressing.

A seriously deteriorated track negative
A seriously deteriorated track negative

A portion of the track negative that was stuck together
A portion of the track negative that was stuck together

 
Our conservation work basically consists of two aspects. In essence, the provision of a dry and cool environment to slow down the decomposition of the film is our first goal. The Archive houses within its complex a freezer with temperature maintained at –18℃, an optimal environment for the long-term preservation of nitrate films. On the other hand, as nitrate film material is highly flammable and can burn spontaneously, it has been phased out since the 1950s. To transfer the film’s content from the dangerous nitrate material to polyester, a safer and more stable material, is therefore necessary for proper preservation in the long run.
 
The preservation and restoration of Confucius was a complicated process. The version currently on show at the Archive is the result of our initial restoration work, which involved the following steps:
1. We first conducted a thorough conditions inspection on the film. Details including its physical conditions and locations of scene change were meticulously documented.
2. All pre-existing damages on the film were repaired to avoid further damage to the film during the course of printing.

A teared nitrate picture negative film clip
A teared nitrate picture negative film clip

3. Owing to the special splicing method adopted for the original film, all splices were thoroughly inspected before printing. Re-splicing was necessary in most cases to prevent the film from falling off during the printing process.
4. The original nitrate film was thoroughly cleaned in order to ensure a smooth printing process and elevate image quality.

Loading a film to a film cleaning machine
Loading a film to a film cleaning machine

5. A special technique known as full immersion wet-gate printing was employed to reduce possible scratches on the original materials in the printing process. The serious shrinkage of the original materials rendered it necessary to use an optical step printer with specially designed sprockets. A new interpositive and a new picture negative were produced.
6. The next step was digital sound restoration. Since the soundtrack material had seriously deteriorated, part of the track negative was stuck together and could not be recovered. The remaining soundtrack underwent digital restoration by computer. As a result, noises were reduced, the signal-to-noise ratio raised, the pitch adjusted and the running speed modified. A new sound negative was also struck from the restored soundtrack.
7. The last step was the production of new copies. A new archival copy and a new projection copy were struck from the new picture negative and restored soundtrack.
 
The film printing and digital sound restoration equipment required for this project and the facilities that handle nitrate films are not available in Hong Kong. We therefore joined hands with the renowned L’Immagine Ritrovata Film Restoration Laboratory in Bologna, Italy, on the restoration work for Confucius.
 
 

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