Frame by frame

28th October 2014

News, Student news, Alumni news

The long and painstaking process of restoring old and damaged film in order to preserve the greatest movies from across the world was described by the Criterion Collection’s Peter Becker at the Wadham Movie Masterclass. 

  • Peter Becker, President of the Criterion Collection

  • Linda Zuck introduces the Movie Masterclass

Our criteria for making a film part of the Criterion Collection is that it has to be an exemplary film of its kind.

Peter Becker

Peter Becker’s father William was a Rhodes Scholar at Wadham College and founder member of the Criterion Collection, a distributor of both classic and contemporary cinema. He passed on his enthusiasm for film to his son. Peter told the Wadham audience how Criterion has pioneered the correct aspect ratio presentation of some of the world's greatest classic films and released them on DVD and Blu-ray adding storyboards, filmmaker commentaries,  and behind-the-scenes context. Criterion has even released classic films and director’s cuts which have never been seen before.

Describing film, Peter commented: “There is not a medium that has made a bigger impact over such a short period of time.” He spoke of the mourning in recent years over the death of celluloid and the transition to digital filmmaking, but digital has also brought new freedoms. Despite so much original celluloid film being damaged beyond repair, state of the art digital techniques now mean many classic films can be beautifully restored, maintaining the grain, quality and ‘life’ of the original film.

“There are no short cuts to good digital restoration.” Peter explained. Working closely with a film lab in Bologna and having built its own digital restoration suite in Criterion's New York offices, a major recent project has been their restoration of the Apu Trilogy by Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Most of the original master negative had been destroyed in a warehouse fire and much of what remained was so badly damaged that Criterion was not confident it could be rescued. The restoration process has involved rehydrating the celluloid, rebuilding the sprockets and working frame by frame. “To restore one frame can involve probably 80 or 90 fixes, and there are 24 frames per second” said Peter. Not surprisingly the Apu Trilogy has been a work in progress for the past 7 years, but this labour of love is now nearing completion. Watch out for its release sometime in 2015.

Today there are more filmmakers than ever before – we can all make films on our smart phones. Every week there is a film festival somewhere in the world. Peter described the changes in film culture over recent years and the different ways we can encounter film, whether on YouTube, Netflix and other streaming services or at art house cinemas. “Our criteria for making a film part of the Criterion Collection is that it has to be an exemplary film of its kind,” said Peter.

Criterion’s ambition is, according to Peter: “To be wherever people are talking about film.” With its active social media presence and its film essays, blog posts and more on its website, Criterion has become a community for cinephiles worldwide.

Wadham is proud to house the complete collection of Criterion Blu-ray films in the Becker Reading Room of the McCall Mac Bain Graduate Centre. The collection, available for viewing by Wadham’s graduate students, was generously donated by Bill Becker (Wadham, 1948) and his family.

Wadham's Movie Masterclass is an occasional series of talks and discussions with representatives of the film industry.