Friday, May 15, 2015

Rising from the Ashes

Thursday evening at the Presidio Officers' Club, I attended an informative & engaging presentation by film restorer Rob Byrne about the recent restoration of When the Earth Trembled, a 1913 melodrama featuring a climactic sequence taking place during San Francisco's 1906 earthquake. Mr. Byrne began with the film's ambitious producer, Siegmund Lubin, a Polish immigrant who came to America as an optician & then became an early film industry pioneer. He made his 1st movie in 1897 & proceeded to build a major film company based in Philadelphia. He produced, distributed & exhibited his own films, as well as making movie cameras & projectors. Then in 1914 a fatal film explosion started a fire that destroyed everything. Disappointingly, he closed the business & returned to being an optician. Of the over 5,000 films he produced, fragments of just 200 survive.

The current restoration combines 3 different prints, & Mr. Byrne showed us the intricate spreadsheet used to track every shot in the film across all the versions. He demonstrated the differences between the sources with a neat visualization that shows all 3 versions running side by side, revealing the gaps & variations in quality. At the end of the presentation we got to see the restored earthquake sequence. The production used collapsible sets that could only be shot once, so the destruction is quite real. The audience winced audibly when it saw Ethel Clayton, Lubin's leading lady, get hit in the face by a falling chandelier, in what appears to be an unintentional mishap.

Mr. Byrne shared many fascinating details about the reconstruction, such as intertitles that had to be translated from Dutch back into English & hidden frames specifying tint colors. When the real 1906 earthquake occurred, Lubin sent cameraman John Frawley to San Francisco, & some of Frawley's footage of the actual fire are in the film.

Everyone at the presentation received a half-second strip of film from the earthquake scene. I was amazed to learn that even though the reconstruction is all done digitally, a film negative is still made as the final archival artifact. Afterward, Mr. Byrne explained to me that film is simply cheaper & more permanent than digital storage. The restored When the Earth Trembled will play at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival on May 29th.

§ Rising From The Ashes: Resurrecting the 1913 Silent Film When the Earth Trembled
May 14 at 7:00 pm - 8:00 pm
Presidio Officers’ Club

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