Defogging Wanda

In early 2007 the UCLA Film & Television Archive received a call from Hollywood Film and Video announcing that the lab was, sadly, closing—and clearing its vaults in two days’ time. Anything left was doomed to the dumpster. The next morning a group of us arrived to see what we could salvage.

Walking through the musty basement, dank stairwells, and narrow aisles was like walking through a shuffled deck of cards: artifacts from the 1950s to the present lay atop each other, in seemingly unknowable order. The only light came from a few incandescent bulbs hanging irregularly amid the dark corridors of shelves, casting a yellow glow that dropped quickly into shadow. Aging equipment was everywhere, some still functional, some showing years of rust, dust, and corrosion. Puddles of oily water lurked underfoot reflecting sickly rainbows, and the smell of old chemicals and mold hung in the air.

The films lay about in differing arrays, long forgotten by their makers: B, C, and D movies, industrial films, commercials, printing tests, and the stray experimental short. We began making piles to save in our collection.

In one aisle, buried in a large stack on the floor, I found some 16 mm reels labeled “WANDA. Harry Shuster.” Who on earth was he? Surely this couldn’t be the classic independent film by Barbara Loden? Her name was nowhere to be found on either the boxes or the leaders. Taking no chances, I kept the oddity apart from my other discoveries; in fact, I took it back to our lab in my own car.

Immediately unspooling the reels on my workbench upon arriving, I realized we’d uncovered a piece of history. It was that Wanda—and no less than its original camera rolls. Harry Shuster, as I’d guessed, was the film’s producer. One more day and it would have gone to landfill.

But how to fund a restoration? Enter The Film Foundation, which has saved so many classic works over the years. In coincidental great timing, they’d recently begun a partnership with Gucci, whose express aim was preserving works by women visionaries. And so our work commenced.

At that time digital restoration was advancing rapidly but had not yet overtaken photochemical printing in archival practice. Thus our work would be on good old-fashioned film, at least initially. We began as Loden had herself, with a blow-up to 35 mm. But our route quickly began to vary. The exact stocks she used no longer existed, and their “official” replacements were problematic, increasing contrast and distorting color.

A crucial component of Wanda’s production, as I found in the camera rolls, was its Kodak Ektachrome ECB (7242) film stock, which has a unique color palette completely unlike Eastmancolor negative, Eastman Commercial film (ECO), or Kodachrome. In a stroke of luck, the bulk of the film was on this, and unfaded.

After extensive testing at Cinetech Laboratory we decided to avoid Kodak’s designated internegative, a holdover from a previous era that was not optimized for printing from projection-contrast film. We instead printed the reversal camera rolls to a low-speed negative camera stock and used pull-processing to reduce contrast—as I’d successfully done on a number of past titles. It’s interesting to note that in the intervening years, Kodak abandoned the interneg I nixed in favor of the camera stock. But this was years before that took place, and the result was stunning color.

Ironically, this led to what might strike some as an archival quandary. While the new color closely matched the original rolls, it was in fact much better than the old distribution prints, which apparently looked awful. To quote an early review in the British journal Films and Filming by Gordon Gow:

For the first couple of minutes, I thought it was all a ghastly mistake, this terrible muzz-colour . . . But soon it became obvious that Barbara Loden meant it to look messy, as if real life had been recorded perchance by an amateur photographer with cheap film and poor laboratory facilities.

It’s a nice interpretation. But was it valid? In Film Journal’s Summer 1971 interview with Loden, I found this:

Ruby Melton: The color in the film often has a washed-out, grainy effect and the lighting is sometimes very dim. Were these effects intentional?

Barbara Loden: Unless you have your own laboratory, it's difficult to control the quality of the color. In our original print the color looked extremely good, but later prints made by different labs were not such good quality.

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