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Seven Chances: A Meeting of Art and Engineering

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson, who writes about the restoration of tonight's film in the Toby, "Seven Chances."

When Buster Keaton’s classic comedy Seven Chances was released in 1925, it contained a brief three-minute sequence in early Technicolor.  In those days, Technicolor was still experimental and used only two of the three primary colors, red and green.  For technical reasons, it was impossible to complete the spectrum and add blue until 1934.

in 1925, Technicolor film prints were made by a clumsy process that involved gluing two pieces of film together.  The red part of the image was actually glued to the green part, and this extra-thick film went through a projector.  It did not work very well, because the glue was acidic and tended to fade the dyes that held the color for the green image.

By the 1970s, there were no original negatives of the film that survived, but a few nitrate prints did.  Copies were made on then-modern Eastman color film, which is also unstable.  By the 1990s, when the first DVD of Seven Chances was issued, the color sequence had faded to a “tomato soup” color that looked like this:

Seven Chances is a classic film, and one that people wanted to be reissued in HD format.  When the Blu-Ray was prepared, Kino went back to the best surviving nitrate print at the Library of Congress. Unfortunately, by this time, the print had faded so much that there was no recoverable color in it.

The 1970s print, while not as sharp and with a great deal of fading, still had some color left in it.  Could something be recovered from this legendary “lost” color sequence?

At the last minute, Kino turned to me and asked if I might be able to help restore the color.  Colorization was out of the question: we wanted to recover the color so it looked as close as possible to the 1925 release.

Since I have a background in Electrical Engineering (with emphasis in digital imaging), I remembered that there are several ways to represent color in an image.  One of them is the traditional way taught in art school, with the mixture of three primary colors.  Another is the way color television works, with a color signal (called chroma) overlaid on a black and white signal.  If I could overlay a sharp image from the new transfer with the better color of the old transfer, then I might be able to get the best of both worlds.  It would involve a great deal of work, and Kino only gave me three days for the project from start to finish. This required not only engineering know-how, but also an artistic eye to re-balance the color so that it once again had the “look” of two-color Technicolor.  That “look” is very subjective.

The final restoration looked like this:

It isn’t perfect, because perfection is no longer possible with the elements that survive.  It is good enough to give us a real feel for how it looked in 1925.

If you are curious about this process, please come to the showing of the complete feature tonight, and see the whole thing for yourself.  I will be introducing the restoration and will have a more in-depth demonstration of how the restoration was done.  Come laugh with Buster Keaton and marvel at the color of 1925!

Filed under: Film, Public Programs, The Toby

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