It seems like an age ago now, but there was time when films were entirely unappreciated as an art form.

Back in the days when they were deemed no more important than funfair rides, for example, there was a wonderful filmmaker known as George Meliés. Previously a magician, Meliés made more than 300 “fantasy moving pictures” at the turn of the 20th century. Yet, by 1915 they had all disappeared.

What happened to them?

Well, as the First World War raged on, people lost interest in Meliés’ flights of fancy, and, beset by bankruptcy, he was forced to sell his film reels. They were so undervalued that these monuments of film history were melted into heels for women’s shoes.

Years later, the same thing would happen with television shows, thousands of which are now consigned to the annals of forgotten history after being melted down for shrapnel.

Nowadays, to sighs of relief from media buffs everywhere, our culture seems to protect our film output as though it was the Holy Grail being covered with the Turin’s Shroud.  

Stopping the nitrate combusting

In the lumbering bowels of film studios everywhere, there are fireproof vault keeping the old classics safe, many of which have been restored to their former glory.

Admittedly, the process of saving films has been made difficult by the type of stock used back in the day; old nitrate stock would degrade over time and, on occasion, simply combust when placed in a projector.

But, just as time forgets bad films, so too does it come up with new and exciting technologies, and film restorers have come up with the next step in restoration – convert all film material from analogue to digital.

It’s not a process that’s as simple as ripping a reel onto a DVD. No, in every film that’s restored, a painstaking amount of tweaking, colour correction, sound reparation and “cleaning” of the image is done. And, that’s only the tip of a long and arduous amount of work.

A prime example is Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic Metropolis. Upon its release, the film, against the wishes of Lang, was cut by 40 minutes by studios under the impression that American audiences wouldn’t have the patience for it.  

For years people were forced to watch what was, in the eyes of Lang, a butchered version. The deleted scenes were, much like the work of Meliés, sold for shrapnel to increase the profit of the film.

Fast forward three-quarters of a century and you can now purchase a fully restored version of the film, with that extra 40 minutes put back where it belongs. It turns out that what’s known as a “negative reel” was tracked down in Buenos Aires in the early 2000s, and the extra inter-titles used in-between scenes were pieced together using censorship cards from the period.

Just imagine the work put into unearthing these seemingly lost artefacts and polishing up the negative reels so that they were watchable again.

Even a large body of Meliés’ work has been found in the process of uncovering and restoring films. And, in a digital format, we can guarantee that these artefacts won’t be lost to the world ever again. So, the next time you switch an old film on your DVD player, take some time out to appreciate the work of those who have kept the magic of old movies alive.