"The reason that I got involved? Because I was the only one truly insane enough to take on the project."
So begins Tom Burton's account of the incredible restoration of one of the most significant films in the history of cinema, namely Georges Méliès' 1902 film A Trip to the Moon. The extraordinary film was one of the first to mix animation, live action and special effects.
Burton, the "insane" head of the Preservation Department at Technicolor here in Los Angeles, oversaw the nine-month process that restored what he dubs a "hockey puck" of a film print, which had, over time, morphed from malleable celluloid into a crystallized mass prone to shattering when touched.
The rock-hard print had been discovered several years earlier by Serge Bromberg, a Paris-based collector of vintage films. He and his partner, Eric Lange, had founded a company called Lobster Films in 1985 with the goal of collecting and preserving a full range of rare and unusual films. On one of his collecting trips, Bromberg was offered a very old print, and when he realized he was holding a hand-tinted version of the Méliès film, his skin tingled. He made the deal to acquire it, even though it was in shockingly bad shape.
Burton explains that Bromberg worked with the French Film Archive first, where a special chemical formula was created to help soften the crystal nitrate of the print, so that it could be pried apart and documented frame-by-frame without shattering.
"Literally, over several years, they subjected the film to the chemical, knowing all the while that it was ultimately destroying the element," explains Burton. "As they got it softened enough, they could shoot digital stills. Eric sat every day, with 3x5 cards, trying to get some space between the elements." Lange managed to photograph the individual pieces, and created more than 13,000 images. That's when Bromberg and Lange turned to Burton, with the support of the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage.
"I've done several restorations in the past, including films by Jacques Tati and Max Ophuls," Burton explains. "They know that I have a Frankenstein lab and that I can do this. I said 'sure,' and they sent several hard drives containing 13,375 images from the film." Burton says that the images were not in any particular order, nor were they in a consistent format.
"We took the files one-by-one and placed them in a timeline that corresponded to a black-and-white print of the film," continues Burton. In many cases, the images were only sections of a frame, but Burton and his team, who work in the Technicolor headquarters at Sunset and Gower, were able to put them in rough order.
"Once we had that crude, flickering, jumping, shattered yet sequentially accurate timeline, then the work began," Burton says. "We had to go into every frame - each was massively compromised in some way. We literally rotated, sutured, fit, and pieced frames together. We built the frames one-by-one to pull them back into a semi-stable version of what the film used to be. Then, like hammering sheet metal, we slowly kept doing passes, making it more stable, more color-balanced, and a little more filled in."
The process took eight months, and resulted in a new, 15-minute version of the historic film. Clues in the hand-coloring indicate that the film had been tinted - most likely by a team of women painting every frame of the film with aniline dye - for a wealthy Spanish patron.
The celebrated film, which now includes a soundtrack by the French band Air, opened this year's Cannes Film Festival in May. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will present the film on Tuesday, September 6, 2011 at 7:30 p.m. Both Burton and Bromberg will be present, and the evening will include screenings of other rare and newly restored early shorts, including a presentation of 3D versions of early Méliès films.
Burton, whose background is in painting, animation, filmmaking and visual effects, clearly loves his job, which has included restoration work on films such as Blade Runner, To Kill a Mockingbird and Samson and Delilah. His current project is Wings from 1927, the first film to earn the best picture Academy Award, but he admits that the Trip to the Moon project was special. "From the standpoint of a challenge, there's been nothing else that rivals what we've done. It's a benchmark."