Long-Lost Silent Films Travel Home in Steel Drums

A series of long-lost silent films are making their way home back to America with the help of the steel drum industry. A major discovery of some of films earliest productions brings good news, as these movies return home to their right place, via steel barrel drums. Some 75 of these movies, chosen for their historical and cultural importance, are in the process of being returned to the United States under the auspices of the National Film Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit, charitable affiliate of the Library of Congress’s National Film Preservation Board.

The story begins with a film preservationist from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences who decided to take a vacation to New Zealand. While there, he visited with a colleague with the New Zealand Film Archive, and talks got around to which films are being held in their collection. As to be expected, New Zealand had a series of non-native films including several from the U.S.

After an inventory was taken, it was discovered that several films held great significance to the history of film and filmmakers.  With that knowledge, copies of such films were made to modern safety film stock in a New Zealand laboratory before being shipped back. Academy Award-winning director John Ford’s picture “Upstream” is one of several to be copied and preserved.  Many foreign films have remained in New Zealand after a long period of time, as studios around the world did not see the value or cost-effectiveness in returning them, as is the case with the U.S. made films.

Getting the films, which were printed on the unstable, highly inflammable nitrate stock used until the early 1950s, to the United States hasn’t been easy. “There’s no Federal Express for nitrate out of New Zealand,” said Annette Melville, the director of the foundation. “We’re having to ship in U.N.-approved steel barrels, a little bit at a time. So far, we’ve got about one-third of the films, and preservation work has already begun on four titles.”

Several studios such as 20th Century Fox and film preservation societies are covering the costs of preserving the films which will eventually be made public through archival screenings and as streaming videos on the preservation foundation’s Web site, filmpreservation.org.

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