Cinema and Media Studies Film Preservation and Restoration
Matthew Stoddard
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0301


Although their definitions continue to be debated, “film preservation” generally refers to the practices used to prevent the physical ruin of images on celluloid, whereas “restoration” refers to the practices aimed at reversing such degradation. Preservation began in earnest in film archives in the 1930s with the aim of safeguarding the history of an art many considered disposable. This cultural mission dovetailed with a more material concern: film is fragile and inherently unstable. Improper handling or excessive use can damage motion picture film, and the celluloid base that supports the images inevitably decomposes over time. Color fading is another physical threat. Preservation thus typically involves the transfer of images to newer film stock, followed by the storage of this film in a carefully controlled environment. It was only in the 1980s and 1990s that the vulnerability of celluloid began to be recognized beyond the world of archives. This shift was due to a host of factors, including the rise of restoration. Films had been restored sporadically for decades, but it was during the late 20th century that restoration became both widespread and widely understood as distinct from preservation. However, the popularity of restoration also made the term itself rather vague and prone to misuse for marketing purposes. Restoration involves more than the transfer of images to new film; it also promises (sometimes dubiously) to erase the signs of wear on the image and to recover a state of completeness by incorporating material long thought lost. The 1980s and 1990s were also pivotal for the rise of digital technologies, which prompted a dramatic reorientation in the preservation and restoration of films that continues to roil the field at every level. In addition, these decades marked a growing professionalization of preservation and restoration, including a veritable explosion in the literature available on the subject. This swell of published writing has provided a forum for the dissemination of techniques and specialized knowledge, the recording of the profession’s history, and examinations of ethics, aesthetics, and basic terminology. Although much of this public dialogue has been internal to those actively working in preservation and restoration, it has started to incorporate voices from other fields. One growing area of interest is films that fall outside the popular canon, such as amateur, institutional, and experimental works, as well as films made by and about marginalized groups. For more on this topic, see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Cinema and Media Studies “Orphan Films.”

General Overviews

The relatively recent increase in the literature on film preservation and restoration (noted in the Introduction) has produced a host of useful introductions to these practices. Perhaps most accessible are McGreevey and Yeck 1997, an overview of preservation and restoration in the United States in the 1990s, and Smith 1981, a pithy mixture of history, chemistry, and archival dynamics, and an evocative explanation of the cultural imperative for preservation. Houston 1994, a now-canonical work, is at once a broad history of preservation and a compendium of practical issues facing film archives. Jones 2012 follows a somewhat similar format, providing both a cultural history of preservation in the United States and an explanation of current practices of preservation and restoration. Costa 2004 focuses on the important period of the 1980s and 1990s. Cherchi Usai 2000 serves as a primer to the knotty ethical dilemmas of preservation and restoration (see also Theory and Method). Enticknap 2013 is the only monograph on restoration written for nonspecialists. Smither and Surowiec 2002, Comencini and Pavesi 2001, and Habib and Marie 2013 are anthologies that bring together many of the various types of scholarship on preservation and restoration. Comencini and Pavesi 2001 and Habib and Marie 2013 also provide points of entry to the sizable literature in Italian and French, respectively.

  • Cherchi Usai, Paolo. Silent Cinema: An Introduction. Rev. and expanded ed. London: British Film Institute, 2000.

    This book is a practical guide for scholars of silent cinema. In chapter 3, “The Ethics of Film Preservation,” the author describes how a film can be damaged and explains the ethical issues of trying to correct such damage. The chapter includes definitions of key terms and a bibliography. Other chapters, although not on preservation and restoration, contain many relevant insights on silent films as material artifacts.

  • Comencini, Luisa, and Matteo Pavesi, eds. Restauro, conservazione e distruzione dei film. Milan: Il Castoro, 2001.

    The focus of this collection of essays is the philosophy of preservation and restoration and the history of various European-based institutions. The collection also features a detailed case study of a 1999 restoration, an essay on the use of digital technologies, and the script of a short documentary about the destruction of film. Includes a bibliography. All material in the collection is in both Italian and English.

  • Costa, José Manuel. “Film Archives in Motion.” Journal of Film Preservation 68 (2004): 4–13.

    A somewhat polemical overview of the changing landscape of preservation and restoration in the 1980s and 1990s. Identifies changes internal to the policies and practices of public archives, as well as external changes in technology and film culture more broadly. Argues that public film archives must evolve while still maintaining the uniqueness of their mission.

  • Enticknap, Leo. Film Restoration: The Culture and Science of Audiovisual Heritage. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137328724

    A clear, accessible account of the processes involved in restoration. Photochemical and digital techniques are covered, as well as various exhibition formats. The author also provides in-depth discussions of nontechnical issues that have an impact on restoration, from the institutional to the ethical. Includes an extensive technical glossary. This book is the only one of its kind and is essential reading for nonspecialists.

  • Habib, André, and Michel Marie, eds. L’avenir de la mémoire: Patrimoine, restauration, réemploi cinématographiques. Villeneuve d’Ascq, France: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2013.

    Essays by archivists, academics, and artists, utilizing a wide range of approaches. The majority of essays focus on the activities of film archives, particularly the Cinémathèque québécoise, or on the way in which filmmakers use the archive for creative purposes. Digital technology is a recurring topic, as is neglected (or “orphan”) films. Most essays are in French, whereas others are in English. Open access to the book is available online.

  • Houston, Penelope. Keepers of the Frame: The Film Archives. London: British Film Institute, 1994.

    A history of preservation from the 1930s to the 1990s, particularly in the United States and Europe. Details the activities of Ernest Lindgren, Iris Barry, and Henri Langlois, and their respective institutions. Later chapters focus on a variety of practical issues, including restoration, nonfiction materials, and the emergence of video.

  • Jones, Janna. The Past Is a Moving Picture: Preserving the Twentieth Century on Film. Gainesville: University of Florida, 2012.

    DOI: 10.5744/florida/9780813041926.001.0001

    Organized in two parts. “Part I: Archives in Formation” is a history of preservation in the United States. This history traces the shifting cultural assumptions that have guided the cause of preservation. “Part II: Archival Techne” explains current practices of preservation and restoration. Throughout the book, the author presents preservation and restoration as a mode of historiography.

  • McGreevey, Tom, and Joanne L. Yeck. Our Movie Heritage. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1997.

    Identifies some of the major public and private institutions and some key individuals involved in preservation and restoration in the United States in the 1990s. The authors also provide a basic explanation of the technical processes of preservation and restoration, citing some specific cases, and a discussion of which films should be preserved and restored. Includes a glossary. Written for a broad public.

  • Smith, Anthony. “Mixing Chemistry with Culture: Preserving Film and Television.” Journal of the Royal Society of Arts 129.5299 (1981): 423–434.

    Provides a brief history of the National Film Library in London and an explanation of the social importance of film preservation. Also discusses the institutional dynamics of archives, as well as more technical matters related to the chemistry of nitrate, color fading, and technological development.

  • Smither, Roger, and Catherine A. Surowiec, eds. This Film Is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film. Brussels: Federation Internationale des Archives du Film (FIAF), 2002.

    This huge, eclectic collection touches on virtually every facet of nitrate film and ranges widely in tone, from the academic to the anecdotal and the poetic. Many contributions discuss preservation and restoration from a multitude of perspectives. The list of authors is global in scope and includes archivists, historians, and filmmakers, among others. Includes an extensive bibliography.

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