The Preservation and Restoration of John Huston’s “Let There Be Light”

Today’s post is by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

In honor of Veterans Day, we are proud to share the National Archives’ digital restoration of John Huston’s Let There Be Light (Local Identifier: 111-M-1241), the groundbreaking film about the treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) of soldiers returning from WWII. In the history of government films, perhaps no other has been quite so controversial, so censored, so sought after, or so acclaimed.

The Film

The U.S. military produced Let There Be Light in 1945. Director John Huston utilized a revolutionary style of unscripted interviews with racially mixed subjects to explore the psychological ramifications of war. The modern viewer will find the methods out of date, or even unbelievable, but these treatments were actually at the forefront of psychological care in the 1940s. It is more important to focus on Huston’s aspiration to educate the viewer about the psychological toll that war can bring, that PTSD it is not a failing of the man that brings on distress, and that those suffering from the effects of war remain vital and productive members of our society as a whole.

At the time it was made, John Huston’s truthful portrayal of “battle neurosis” was roundly rejected by the U.S. Army and as a result, remained suppressed for thirty-five years. A scheduled screening at the Museum of Modern Art in June of 1946 was halted when Military Police confiscated the print minutes before the curtain was to go up. Only a handful of critics were able to see the film before it was seized. One critic, Archer Winsten, wrote, “there is consolation in the fact that the picture will not be lost, that officials all retire or die sooner or later…. Some future audience is guaranteed not only a beautiful film experience, but also the certainty that their generation has better sense than ours.”

And, here we are. We are that generation. In November of 1980, during a retrospective of Huston’s work at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Let There Be Light premiered to the public. A few weeks later, the film was given a wider audience when the National Archives issued copies of the film on VHS and in 16mm, quickly followed by the first theatrical release in New York at the Thalia Theater in January 1981.

The Restoration

Today, Let There Be Light is freely accessible to anyone who wants to watch it. More recently, the National Archives has been working to ensure that not only is it available for generations to come, but that it also looks and sounds as good as possible. In a multiyear effort, and with a generous grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the National Archives, in conjunction with Chace Audio by Deluxe, preserved and digitally restored the images and audio of Let There Be Light.

As the best surviving source material for the audio restoration, NARA provided Chace with a 35mm black-and-white exhibition print with a variable area optical soundtrack. The print had been screened over the years and acquired numerous crackles and pops from use. In addition, it had problems carried over from the film’s original production materials: bumpy or noisy edits between shots, fluctuations in the audio level, and sibilance (hissing) in the dialogue. The original soundtrack was converted to digital audio files at 24bits and 96kHz.

Next, engineers at Chace applied Sonic Solutions Sound Blade restoration technology to remove the hiss and pops and correct other irregularities. From the process, Chace produced three sound elements for NARA: a new mono 35mm optical soundtrack negative to be used to make new prints and 35mm full-coat polyester magnetic recordings of both the original track and restored tracks for long-term preservation.

A veteran suffering from PTSD undergoes hypnosis therapy.
(Still from Let There Be Light)

For the restoration of Let There Be Light, NARA created a new picture negative from an acetate fine grain master, the best surviving source. Thankfully, the fine grain was in relatively good condition, except for scratches and abrasions on the film’s base side. To reduce the carryover of scratches to the new preservation copy, NARA’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff produced a polyester negative using a wet-gate printer. (With regular “dry printing” lab equipment, defects can be carried over and appear as striations or blemishes on the new print. The wet-gate process reduces this problem. During printing the film is temporarily immersed in a chemical bath, which fills in scratches on the thicker base side while the image is duplicated.)

In winter of 2012, the new negative was scanned to create a high-definition image file for a planned Memorial Day web release by the National Film Preservation Foundation. In the NARA lab, we took our digital restoration efforts further by re-scanning the new negative at a 2K resolution (2048 x 1556) and using digital restoration tools to correct density shifts introduced during successive re-printings. We also digitally removed as much as possible of the dirt, dust, and scratches accumulated over the years. The resulting file was synced with the restored magnetic track and then reformatted as HD, DVD, and web-quality copies. The complete restoration of Let There Be Light premiered in the National Archives’ McGowan Theater on Veterans Day, 2012.

A great deal of thanks goes to Annette Melville at the National Film Preservation Foundation for making much of this work possible, to Scott Simmon for the excellent scholarship of the film, to Bob Heiber at Chace Audio by Deluxe, and of course, to John Huston for making Let There Be Light in the first place.