Old Film Favorites May Never Die But, Just as Tragic, Warns An Expert, They Are Fading Away
Win the old-movie buffs of the future be seeing Clockwork Pink, The Purple Panther and the Not-So-Blue Lagoon? Francis Yu, a Penn State electrical engineering professor, is among the non-showbiz experts who have joined Hollywood technicians in warning that many color movies are literally fading into history.
Unstable dyes in the less expensive Kodak film stock that replaced Technicolor in 1954 have already caused the garden roses in most prints of Tom Jones to turn reddish-brown, for example, and given the Garland-Mason A Star Is Born a pinkish-purple tint, a sign of advanced deterioration.
Challenged by the problem, Yu has developed an inexpensive process to save such films. He passes white light through color filters, a refracting screen and a frame of the movie. The image is then projected onto unexposed black-and-white film in order to code red, blue and green. This film, with further processing, is used to create a new color print.
So far Yu has tested his method only on single frames. "Give me another $50,000 and I'll have something ready for commercial use," he claims. Yu estimates that his system could be assembled for as little as $300 and that a two-hour film could be restored for less than $5,000—the approximate cost of a competitor's system using laser light, which Yu says is too sensitive to dust particles. Yu also derides another proposed technique, requiring three synchronized projectors, as too complicated and expensive; it would cost up to $50,000 per feature film.
Paul Spehr, of the Library of Congress motion picture division, and director Martin Scorsese, a prime mover of the save-the-movie movement, believe it's too early to evaluate Yu's system. Kodak argues that with proper storage techniques—controlling heat and especially humidity—film shouldn't fade. But a 1980 corporate report noted that researchers are seeking to produce more durable film stock. Yu concedes, "We can never restore film to its original color. A dead person can't be revived." He suggests, however, that some hues can be reclaimed using his process and that, by encoding future color movies, full restoration is possible should the films blanch out. To cajole financial backers, Yu posits other possible applications for his research, including color-coded medical X-rays to provide visual aids in explaining diagnoses and a missile-tracking system that would be less sensitive to atmospheric interference.
Born in Amoy City, China, Yu, 48, grew up in the Philippines, where he graduated from Mapua Institute of Technology. After completing his engineering doctorate at the University of Michigan (where he met his Chinese-American wife, Lucy), Yu taught at Stanford. Subsequently he was a corporate consultant for GM and Bendix before moving to Penn State last year.
Yu has attended few movies since his student days, and he admits even if his system failed his favorite films would be safe. Gone with the Wind and Shane used Technicolor, while High Noon was in black and white.
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