Film Preservation 101: Is Restoration the Same as Preservation?

When you watch NARA’s video for The March on YouTube the first thing you see onscreen is a note that the film was “Preserved and Restored by the National Archives.” You may wonder why we make the distinction between preservation and restoration. Aren’t they the same thing?

The differences between preservation and restoration are subtle, but in the archives world they are profound. If we say that we have preserved a film, we are saying that we have taken steps to protect the integrity and accessibility of the images contained on the film. Preservation actions include storing a film properly in an inert can in cold storage, but they can also include copying the image from a deteriorated film base to a stable one. Successful preservation means that the image we have now is the same as the image we had yesterday, last month, or even decades ago.

If we say we have restored a film, we are saying that we have enhanced the film for exhibition. When you watch a film that is scratched or covered with blotches from water damage, these imperfections may distract you from what is happening onscreen. In the digital realm, using specially designed software, we are able to alter the image at the pixel level so that many imperfections disappear. The image looks better, but it is no longer the same as in the original film.

In the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, we use specially designed software to digitally restore films like The March (1963) and John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946).

You may wonder why it matters that the image has changed if it looks better in the restored version. In the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab, we try to live by the “Rule of Reversibility”*, which states, “To the degree possible, a conservator should not undertake any procedure or treatment that he or she cannot later, if necessary, undo without harm to the [record].” Restoring a digital image in a way that permanently alters its pixels breaks this rule because these changes cannot be undone. There is no way to return the image to its original state.

When we restore a film in the Lab, we always make sure that it has been preserved first. The preserved copy of the film can then act as the best possible starting point for future restoration efforts. Because motion picture restoration software is rapidly improving, the restoration we are able to perform in 2024 will be better than the restoration we do in 2014. However, if we save only the restored version of a film today, the results we are able to achieve in ten years from that starting point will only add further distortions to the visual and audio information contained in the film. Digital restoration tools designed to work on film images may be confused by the digital manipulations of the first restoration. After subsequent “restorations”, the digital version becomes more and more difficult to connect to the image as it actually existed.

In the case of director James Blue’s The March, the Lab photochemically preserved the film before it was ever scanned for the restoration. The preserved record consists of reels of film protected in cold storage. The restored digital version is saved in addition to the preserved film, and is classified as a restoration that is a derivative of the preserved record. The restoration is made available on our YouTube page** and for theatrical projection. You can read more about the preservation and restoration of The March in our blog post “Protecting Your Past—It’s What We Do Here”.

*For more on the Rule of Reversibility and conservation philosophy, check out pages 336-340 in Preserving Archives and Manuscripts, Second Edition by NARA’s own Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler.

**Due to copyright restrictions, NARA was required to mute Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in our YouTube video, though the restored scenes are available for viewing.

4 thoughts on “Film Preservation 101: Is Restoration the Same as Preservation?

  1. Congratulatins excelent program.
    I have a cuestion?
    Doyou have restored films of the uboat war in the Caribbean betwen 1942-1944.
    Thank you
    L Farage D

    1. Thank you for the kind words! We have not restored films of the U-boats during WWII, but it looks as though we have preserved some footage of submarines in the Caribbean during WWII. In our online catalog there is some captured German newsreels, and a Paramount newsreel story about tankers destroyed by German submarines. Neither of the reels are available online, but can they can be accessed in the research room at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

  2. The footnote about muting the speech is interesting. My understanding is that Federal records are in the public domain and thus not copyrighted, but I assume this rule doesn’t apply to donated materials, etc. In this particular case, is the “I have a dream speech” copyrighted by the King family?

    1. The film itself is a government record (made for the USIA), but you are correct that the “I Have a Dream” speech is not in the public domain. Although it comprises the last third of the film, we think that James Blue’s “The March” is about much more than that (very important) speech, which is why we have made it public despite having to mute King’s speech to avoid rights violations.

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