Examining buckled film reels under a microscope, technicians pore over each precious original frame of Alfred Hitchcock’s early movies as Britain bids to salvage the master’s magic.
The delicate nitrate reel — brown, brittle and shrunken — is handled with extreme care as they scrutinise the opening credits of the 1927 film “The Lodger” for every minuscule scratch, blotch and speck.
The British Film Institute is undertaking a mammoth project to restore Hitchcock’s silent movies to their former glory.
In a painstaking process, they are cleaning up and restoring his first films, creating a perfect-as-possible digital version to thrill audiences again. The BFI reckons viewers will be stunned by their clarity.
Hitchcock is renowned as one of the greatest ever movie directors, thanks to masterpieces like “Vertigo” (1958), “Psycho” (1960) and “The Birds” (1963).
Long before his Hollywood career though, the Londoner made his name in British silent cinema, with cleverly-crafted black-and-white tales of suspense and mystery, honing the trademarks cherished in later classics.
However, those fragile 1920s analogue film reels will only deteriorate further and the BFI wants to revive them in digital form before it is too late.
“We are bringing in all the best and most original copies from around the world, cleaning them up, eliminating every possible glitch to produce a version as close to the original as possible,” BFI archive spokesman Brian Robinson told AFP.
“This is the Rolls-Royce of film restoration. It will look like it was filmed yesterday.
“We want to make copies that will last for future generations. These will be the definitive versions that will be seen in cinemas across the world and on new DVD releases. We’re bringing Hitchcock into the digital age.”
The institute is restoring the nine films at its archive base in Berkhamsted, northwest of London.
The former farm contains immense vaults, where some 200,000 film reels stacked to the ceiling are stored at five degrees Celsius (40 degrees Fahrenheit) in a cavernous 12-metre (40-foot) high building.
In the lab, technical project officer Kieron Webb, wearing a white coat and gloves, is comparing various prints of “The Lodger” — considered the first true ‘Hitchcock’ film — to an original reel from the vault, one frame at a time.
“Until you gather all the copies in one place, you can’t tell. There might be extra frames, different versions,” he told AFP.
“What people have seen is not as close as we can get to the original.”
He said the state of the 1920s reels was “a crying shame”, but to work with them was hugely satisfying.
“To think you’re taking all the films that survive of somebody’s work, and it’s Hitchcock, it’s incredible,” he said.
Downstairs in a cramped room, with the smell of developing fluid in the air, technicians are working on the title cards, or intertitles — a huge task in itself, especially as many could be missing. Or they could be cut down to one frame, in a foreign language or the wrong length for the film’s running speed.
In another room, on a giant machine, the original highly combustible nitrate film is bathed in liquid, filling in the scratches, then light is projected through it onto regular 35-millimetre film one frame at a time to make a new negative to work from.
“It’s a real labour of love for us and it’s hugely time-consuming,” Robinson said.
“However, it’s a hugely important part of British cultural history. These are high points of silent cinema in Britain and they reveal so much of the master who was to come.”
The project will cost one million pounds (1.6 million dollars, 1.2 million euros), paid for by donations.
Besides Britain, money has come in from China, Saudi Arabia, France and the United States.
Hitchcock fans waiting for the new versions will be kept in suspense — the films will come out once they are finished to perfection.
While nine silent Hitchcocks are being worked on, one is missing. An appeal has gone out for “The Mountain Eagle” (1927), the BFI’s most-wanted film.
No known copies exist of the final jigsaw piece in understanding how Hitchcock developed his extraordinary visual technique.
The Hitchcock restorations are “probably the most significant project the BFI has undertaken”, Robinson said.
“The picture quality with digital technology is now giving us an astonishing leap from damaged materials. We can now create something that is really beautiful — not scratched and pockmarked, mildew-ridden or jumping and missing frames.
“With the proper music, the right intertitles, cleaned up, it’s an astonishing and incredibly powerful and intense aesthetic experience that any cinema-goer will enjoy.”