Interview with Restorer Tereza Frodlová

“New possibilities of knowledge are constantly opening up”

I met up with Tereza Frodlová one February morning at a still sleepy café at Ponrepo Cinema. I was curious how the film materials of Laterna magika are taken care of, what will happen to them next and what the phenomenon of Laterna magika means to Tereza.

Could you describe the processing of the film materials of Laterna magika?
It all started in 2010 when the National Film Archive took over the film materials from the National Theatre. They were stored in unsuitable conditions and their state would often correspond to that. When moving the materials to a depository at Hradištko, we made a first listing based on the labels on the boxes with films. It gave us at least a rough idea of what is in those more than four thousand and five hundred boxes with films when we were preparing the project. Until the beginning of the project in 2016, the materials waited in the depository to be sorted out according to the revue acts or performances. Our physically more fit colleagues, equipped with overalls and respirators, took every single box in their hands and if possible, they identified the materials according to the labels on the boxes and provisionally placed them on shelves reserved for Laterna magika. What followed next was a stage of basic description of the materials which is actually still under way and we will be dealing with it in the next years of the project as well.

We always have a part of the materials brought from the depository to the editing rooms at Prague’s Žižkov district where they are examined and labelled again. However, even before that, the ordered materials must be examined in the depository so we do not bring materials struck by mould or the vinegar syndrome to the editing rooms. They could be harmful to the health and the problem could spread to other materials as well. Each box must be opened and checked for the presence of mould visually while also paying attention to smell which is one of the symptoms of the vinegar syndrome; a process of decomposition of film material with a characteristic smell of vinegar. We also measure the pH by means of special paper strips; which is another way of revealing the decomposition of the material at an early stage. Unfortunately, the vinegar syndrome cannot be stopped; it can only be significantly slowed down by suitable storing and by isolating the affected materials from the sound ones. We can save the films by copying them on new material. The films affected by mould are sent to laboratories in Zlín for the mould to be removed so it can no longer grow on the film surface.

What follows after the inspection of the materials?
After checking which materials are fit to be worked with on the rewind table, they are transported to the editing rooms at Žižkov. Before the operators start examining them and making a technical description, they transcribe all data from the original boxes and film materials, which usually also contain inscriptions at the beginning and at the end, but also throughout the film. They are crucial for us since they can contain information that can otherwise not be found; if only for the fact that the film materials of Laterna magika do not have subtitles as classic films do. At the same time, however, we have to be careful about these data, as the labels on the boxes do not have to correspond to what we find inside. Although Laterna magika stored and labelled the materials so as to find them in case of need, it was not their primary aim to precisely label them for long-term archiving. At this point, we transcribe everything there is, for once we put the films in more suitable boxes and get rid of the old, often rusty packages, we need to know what was written there.

Then follows a technical description of the material, which is a standard process for any new arrival to the film collections. The operator determines whether the film is fit for projection, makes a basic description of the technical parameters from image format to sound format, length of the film strip, type of perforation and so on. It is also essential to determine the type of material; whether it is a copy designed for projection or whether it is one of the duplicating materials which were designed for the production of copies and which we do not project even today in order to preserve them.

Once the technical description is finished, we project the films on the editing table (if their state allows it), make a description of the content and primarily try to identify which part of the performance it is; where and at what moment the material could have been projected. Whether it is the right, the left or the central screen and whether the materials were screened simultaneously or whether the projections followed each other on the individual screens. This is slightly different every single time and it is often hard to imagine how the projection of different materials worked as a whole. Unlike in a standard screening at a cinema, where the projectionist alternately inserts parts of the film into two projectors, projection in Laterna magika was much more complicated.

What exactly will happen with the film materials?
Our aim is primarily to secure and catalogue the existing film materials. From a long-term perspective, their suitable storing makes sense since the film material is a medium that can guarantee a lifetime of a film for several centuries, whereas in case of digitized content, the estimates are still rather vague. Nevertheless, the digital form is important for making the film accessible to viewers, since there are fewer and fewer places where film material can still be screened. Especially in a a space as complicated as Laterna magika, where you have to synchronize several projectors at once, gradually change the anamorphic lenses which widen or flatten the image and also arrange the screens used for projection right. I actually do not know about any other space where you could do something similar.

To be able to further process and arrange the materials and present them both to researchers and to the public, we will digitize them. It will not be the classic restoration process, when the negative is scanned in high definition and subsequently marks of aging and wear are removed from the image and sound in a digital environment. The project budget enables us to make an HD transcription of the best preserved copy or duplication positive, if available. Thanks to digitization, the materials will not be worn off by repeated projections. It will also make it easier for us to reconstruct the film performances. In digital form, it will be easier to synchronize their individual parts (using information from non-film sources), arrange them in the right order and thus simulate the original form of the whole projection that was part of the performances.

Within the project, you are, I suppose, rather dependant on the discoveries of the researchers and so are they on your work…
Definitely. I think that our two teams depend on each other to a large extent. They need audiovisual materials for their research and we, on the contrary, need to know the information from non-film sources to be able to arrange the audiovisual materials to a certain form that is as close to the original form at the time of their presentation as possible.

The film materials are often prepared for projection in such a way that it will be possible to at least roughly estimate how to arrange them. Some scenes often start at one moment on all screens, which makes it easier for us to arrange the scenes. But naturally, any information from non-film sources, such as writings and interviews, can be potentially very valuable for us.

In our interview with Michal Večeřa, we have touched upon the work of the projectionist which required immense dexterity…
During our excursion to Laterna magika, the stage manager of the New Stage Petr Voříšek described how the projectionists moved the projectors during the performance. They obviously had to be very active and added another dimension to the already quite complicated projection which we may not be able to reconstruct faithfully. They even had scripts to know what to do. They all had to be completely precise. I was always fascinated by the fact that the ensembles that toured the world carried all their technical equipment with them. Even synchronizing two projectors, unless they are coupled in some way, must be really complicated, if the frames are to fit precisely. Carrying the entire equipment, which, I believe, is very prone to damage, and setting it up in every venue so everything works like it is supposed to, must have required a giant effort of everybody involved.

What makes Laterna magika interesting for you?
At its time, Laterna magika was a phenomenon that combined a number of innovative elements, processes and technologies. Today, it is a great challenge for us, as a film archive, to learn to work with something that is non-standard and yet very complex in many respects. It is not just about non-standard ways of projection and atypical film formats but also about working with a magnetic recording of sound which film archives usually have little experience with. That makes it even more important to establish a close cooperation with contemporaries, who can explain many a thing to us, as well as with experts from other fields and discuss how to describe, digitize and present sound materials.

When talking about interdisciplinary cooperation, it is also worth mentioning that even those materials that are not suitable for long-term storage; whether it is because their decomposition is so advanced that their preservation may harm the other materials in the depository or whether it is due to the fact that some of the materials that are available in several copies are rather worn and their colours have degraded. These materials that would otherwise get discarded now serve as samples for experts from the University of Chemistry and Technology who deal with the research of their further preservation and possibilities of their restoration. So thanks to the project, new possibilities keep opening up. That is what makes it entertaining and interesting.

The interview was made by Veronika Zýková.