Ten years ago, I wrote the following article on Toho's efforts to preserve their film library of kaiju movies for G-FAN magazine (issue no. 48). I thought now would be a good time for a revisit.
by Armand Vaquer
Do you wonder if Godzilla will be around for future generations to enjoy? This thought occurred to me when I set out to check on the state of Toho’s classic Godzilla films and what efforts are being made to ensure that the “King of the Monsters” will be around for generations to come.
I recently checked on the subject of film preservation and restoration with the American Film Institute (AFI) and found that our film heritage is in pretty good shape, at least for now. The thought also occurred to me, “ What is being done in Japan by Toho Co., Ltd. in preventing film deterioration?” I will state my findings herein.
As many of you motion picture fans know, film deterioration has been a major concern during the past several years. Many studios and the American Film Institute have in place programs to restore, preserve and protect films of varying ages and film types.
Several years ago, concern was raised over the loss of films before 1951 that were on nitrate-based film stock. Nitrate film stock turned out to be unstable, flammable and deteriorates after several years. When it was realized that we were losing our old films, efforts began to transfer these films from nitrate stock to modern safety film. Thanks to these efforts, older nitrate films were saved and not lost to the ages as some had already been.
Another concern was that color films were deteriorating (even though they were on safety film) because of the single strip film emulsion also proved to be unstable. It has been learned from bitter experience that unlike the earlier three-strip Technicolor film process, today’s color film can fade irretrievably in as little as five years (note that Lucasfilm had to restore the earlier “Star Wars” films before they could be re-released just prior to the release of “The Phantom Menace”).
According to the AFI, “There is no practical solution for preserving the color in single-strip emulsion safety film.”
Then there’s also “The Vinegar Syndrome.” Modern safety film bases are composed of either acetyl cellulose (triacetate) or polyester (product names “Estar” or “Cronar”). When exposed to flame, modern safety film will only curl and extinguish itself. When modern safety film is properly stored, it should not decompose over time and is estimated to have a shelf life about as long as that of good quality paper, approximately 200 to 300 years. Shrinkage and brittleness will also be minimized in films that are properly stored.
However, during the past several years, archivists and technical experts have learned that triacetate film is not always as stable as was originally thought. Acetate degradation has been identified as a new and potentially serious problem for preservationists. Commonly referred to as “the vinegar syndrome” (because of a vinegar-like odor is given off by deteriorating acetate), acetate degradation proceeds in a way not dissimilar to nitrate deterioration, but without the flammability factor. This problem has proven to be especially serious in films improperly stored in high temperature and humidity environments. It is also believed to be contagious, that degrading acetate can infect other films stored in the same area.
Toho’s film library.
Fortunately for us kaijulogists, although there had been kaiju eiga films ("Godzilla", 1954 and "Godzilla Raids Again", 1955) made with nitrate-based film stock, Toho had transferred all original nitrate films to non-flammable safety film. Therefore, no Toho Co., Ltd. kaiju films have been lost due to nitrate deterioration. Like the United States film industry, the Japanese film industry ceased using nitrate-based film stock and started using safety film in the late 1950s.
What of the Godzilla color films? Toho reports that they have the original negatives/master materials of their kaiju eiga films in their best possible conditions. Toho has been aware of the “vinegar syndrome” and has been paying due attention to temperature/humidity control of their film vaults. This has been perfected by Toho’s introduction of their new storage facility for original negatives with a more advanced temperature and humidity control system, called PPM Centre, three years ago.
According to Stuart Galbraith’s book, “Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!,” Toho primarily used Eastman Color for their color kaiju eiga films. So it appears that the three-strip Technicolor process was never used for their films. U.S. releases of some films ("King Kong vs. Godzilla" (1963) for example) were printed in Technicolor.
On the video and DVD road.
The advent of home video (originally in Beta and VHS formats) in the 1980s allowed Godzilla fans to collect their favorite kaiju films. Often these mass-produced videos had picture qualities that varied as much as the designs of Toho’s monsters. Everyone is pretty much in agreement that the video quality depended upon the original source material.
For example, some companies (Simitar, for one) released video tapes of the classic (or Showa) Godzilla films and often the film prints used left much to be desired. It was through either indifference or economy that this is the case. Many of the video tapes that I have purchased had faded images, choppy editing or horrible sound. Then there are other video distributors who had an excellent print to work with and therefore produced a fine video. Some companies issued videos in EP (extended play) speed that would accentuate an already bad print.
With the introduction of digital DVD in the 1990s, kaiju collectors are able to enjoy superior video and sound on their players. Most, if not all, Heisei series Godzilla films are starting to be released in DVD. This allows for a superior product to be produced before film deterioration to sets in. [Note: Godzilla movies are now starting to be released on Blu-ray. - A.]
At present, there are no programs at Toho to restore their older kaiju films a la Lucasfilm and others. This may be due to the costs involved (in the U.S., AFI reports that the cost to preserve color images can easily be $40,000 per feature-length film), the quality of negatives and storage facilities involved. I have a copy of “Godzilla vs. Ebirah” that has excellent color images, and that film is around 35 years old. I have also seen different prints of “King Kong vs. Godzilla” (1962) and each one had color images that looked as though the film was made this year or pretty close to it.
At present, according to AFI, the only cost-effective means of dealing with color fading is to slow it down by storing color films in vaults designed to maintain below-freezing temperatures and low humidity. This is a stopgap measure. While cold storage may prolong the life of color films, it cannot ensure their survival until the time when it may be possible to transfer the images to an archivally stable medium. It was hoped that digital archiving would accomplish this, but it appears that digital images may not be as perpetually stable as was originally thought or hoped for. The jury is still out on this aspect and it depends upon whom you talk to.
But for the short term at least, we can still enjoy vibrant images of Godzilla in his nearly five decade long adventures.
Sources: American Film Institute, Toho Co., Ltd. (L.A.) and “Monsters Are Attacking Tokyo!” by Stuart Galbraith IV.
©2000 Armand Vaquer