The loss of history and, in turn, the future – is one of the worst kinds of news to report. Sure, it can’t be compared to tragedies like last year’s earthquake in Japan or the most recent school shooting, but every time we lose a piece of history we lose what it is that makes us human. And, in this case, it was a half-baked and lazy effort to preserve that history that went awry. The irony would almost be laughable if the result wasn’t such an utter bummer.
Last night, a sizable portion of Universal Studios‘ catalogue of film prints was destroyed in an accidental fire. As you may know, many of the studios are converting their film archives to high quality digital scans of the film. The thinking is that digital files are less cost-intensive to maintain, so if you can make a good 4, 6 or 8K scan – why would you need the print? Of course there are several kinks in this logic, not the least of which is that digital files have actually been found to degrade every bit as much as, if not more quickly than, film. Also? They don’t look as good.
Anyway, like most other studios Universal is remastering their catalogue in increments. In this case it was a batch of films getting 8K scans so they would have new hi-def masters to work from for year-end Blu-ray releases to celebrate their 100 year anniversary. In essence, landmark films. In fact, I think we got lucky that Jaws was already remastered earlier this year because this list is quote staggering. And it includes most of the classic Universal monster films. Among the prints affected that might be of interest to BD Readers? Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, Bride Of Frankenstein and Land Of The Lost. They’re all gone. And now there are no prints. Ever. And the hi-def scans were never conducted. Like your standard-def compressed DVD of Dracula? I hope you do, because that’s as good as the film is ever going to look again.
How did this happen? The prints had been transferred from the Universal vaults to a storage facility within the mastering studio that was to conduct the conversions. Apparently the storage facility was nowhere near up to snuff and the hot overhead lights ignited a few of the prints. Since some of these films pre-dated 1933 that means they were nitrate film prints – highly flammable. If you saw Inglourious Basterds their flammability was actually a plot point in the film. Per Variety, “the flash ignited at such a temperature that it could be observed by satellite”
The investigation is still pending, but we do know an intern named Ryan Barton has been dismissed for failure to turn off the lights. Universal Catalogue exec Jeff Weintraub calls this, “an unmitigated loss. Not just to our culture as a studio, but to the culture at large.” He added, “At least we still have ‘Fast Five’.” Head to Variety for more as it develops.