Preserving the history of Hollywood

Last updated 05:00 10/04/2014

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Without him and his ilk many Hollywood classics would have been lost to us. 

During a long career at Sony Pictures, Grover Crisp has been responsible for overseeing the preservation and restoration of many films including Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Strangelove, From Here to Eternity, On the Waterfront and Bridge on the River Kwai.

"We all know that the studios were lax about preserving their libraries in any precise and dedicated way in the early decades of the last century," Crisp says.  

"However, since at least the early 1990s the studios have all taken a proactive approach to preserving their film libraries.   This is due in part to private and public pressure during that period (when everyone was discovering the value once again of the libraries) with important developments like Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation.  Additionally, the studios either had or hired people who were genuinely interested in preservation.  

"So, quite frankly, my colleagues and I have been instrumental in getting preservation accepted as a natural part of the flow of work in creating, distributing and archiving the films that we produce."

He says every restoration project has a different timeline, depending on the issues involved - how badly damaged or faded it is and what, if any, original material is available to work with.

"It can take anywhere from a few months to two years. Lawrence of Arabia for example took three years, Dr Strangelove took about a year and On the Waterfront about six months."

So other than its vast, near four-hour running time, why did restoring 1962's Arabia take so long?

"It took six months just to repair and scan the film and it wasn't a replication of the great restoration and reconstruction done in 1988.  We built upon that work to attempt to repair and restore all the physical things that were wrong with the film, things that could not be done in 1988, things that only the evolution of digital technologies would allow us to do.  

"Lawrence has some very serious and unique damage to the emulsion of the negative that required much research and development just to get through it.  I credit our partners on this, as well, like MTI Film and Prasad, where much of the digital image restoration was accomplished.   But there was a lot of back and forth and testing to try to get things right, to try to avoid digital artifacts and so forth."

In comparison, On the Waterfront was "a bit more straightforward", says Crisp.

"It exhibited the usual amount of torn sections you would expect from one of our films from the 1950s, but not the inordinate amount of incredible damage as with Lawrence. Also it's in black and white, which makes colour grading go much smoother. You don't have to deal with a colour-faded negative, for example."

He says while digital technologies have made restoration easier in the past, having so many choices available actually demands a greater attention to detail.

"You can actually impact the detail now quite easily with digital tools that can be very precise and unwieldy at the same time."

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So what restorations is he most proud of?

"That's difficult to answer. Many of our restoration from the past 25 years have been important milestones.

"I suppose one really important early digital restoration was the Frank Capra silent film The Matinee Idol, a restoration in collaboration with the AMPAS Film Archive and the Cinematheque Francaise in the mid-1990s.   It was the first all-digital restoration of a live-action film.   It was groundbreaking for its time, though the quality of the work would not likely hold up today.  

"Of course, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, The Last Picture Show, Funny Girl, Olivier's Richard III, among many others, are titles that come to mind for projects that were challenging that I think were successful restorations.  Right now, we are working on Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings, plus the major Capra titles It Happened One Night, Lost Horizon, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take it With You.   Capra was a major factor in the early success of Columbia Pictures and these are terrific films that deserve to be restored fully and seen again.  

"We are always working to preserve and restore many films from the library."


On the Waterfront, Lawrence of Arabia and Dr Strangelove are screening as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival's Autumn Series which begins in Auckland, Wellington, Napier and Dunedin this weekend. For more information, see 

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