As part of our studies through the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, I chose to work with the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection for my personal project. The collection has been mentioned a few times on our blog, most notably in the past month in honor of 90 years since the release of The Thief of Bagdad. The collection comprises nearly 10,000 nitrate still negatives that came from Douglas Fairbanks’ personal collection and were donated to George Eastman House by his son, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The still negatives range from his early works such as A Modern Musketeer (1917) and Mr. Fix-It (1918) to most of his well-known works like Robin Hood (1922) and The Black Pirate (1926). The collection features scene stills, character portraits, set designs and many other behind-the-scenes photos.
One of the most interesting titles I have worked with so far is The Gaucho (1927). The title has nearly 1,600 negatives, one of the largest out of the entire collection. The negatives have been wonderfully fascinating to study and work with, as they demonstrate the extensive range of the collection. While the negatives had not been kept in ideal conditions before being donated to Eastman House, the quality of the photos is still quite impressive.
In addition to beautiful shots of scenes from the film, there are a number of stills showing paintings, pages from books, and prints used as reference for the film (much like a modern day photocopier.) The stills show exactly what inspired and guided the costume and set designers for the film. Within these stills are also photographs of the paintings of art director Carl Oscar Borg. Borg was a Swedish painter who also worked as art director on Fairbanks’ previous film, The Black Pirate (1926). The paintings are regrettably only documented in black-and-white, but it is interesting to compare them to scene stills to truly marvel at how well the set designers and decorators were able to capture Borg’s vision.
As noted in The Thief of Bagdad blog post, tests for make-up effects were a must during production. For The Gaucho, they had at least five different versions of make-up for the ‘Victim of the Black Doom,’ yet in the final version of the film his face is never shown!
Processing and scanning of this collection has been ongoing for several years. The scope of my project is to continue inventorying the negatives, re-house them into new archival boxes for storage, create master digital scans of each negative, and perform file maintenance on existing digital files.
These various steps proved to be more challenging than I had originally anticipated. Improvements to the workflow over the course of the project has meant revisiting some of the previous work done with the collection, in order to keep things consistent. What may seem to be simple tasks on the surface are often in actuality very detailed and time-consuming, and one small change can set in motion a whole series of related tasks that need to be applied to the entire collection. While the process has had its challenges, it has been a great experience becoming familiar with rare nitrate stills, Douglas Fairbanks, and the amazing work that went into the making of his spectacular features.