Preservation and Restoration of Confucius

Confucius (1940) had long been considered lost after its last screening in 1948. It was a tremendous blessing for the Hong Kong Film Archive to have acquired its picture negative and soundtrack in 2001. At the time of acquiring this 35mm cellulose nitrate based film, part of the track negative was found missing. The entire film was in very poor condition: nitrate decomposition had caused deterioration and serious shrinkage of the base materials, and part of the track negative was stuck together. In addition, the splicing of the film was executed in a rarely seen manner, with several layers of film overlapping each other during almost every scene change. To preserve this invaluable gem, the need for conservation work was pressing.

A seriously deteriorated track negative
A seriously deteriorated track negative

A portion of the track negative that was stuck together
A portion of the track negative that was stuck together

Our conservation work basically consists of two aspects. In essence, the provision of a dry and cool environment to slow down the decomposition of the film is our first goal. The Archive houses within its complex a freezer with temperature maintained at 4℃, an optimal environment for the long-term preservation of nitrate films. On the other hand, as nitrate film material is highly flammable and can burn spontaneously, it has been phased out since the 1950s. To transfer the film's content from the dangerous nitrate material to polyester, a safer and more stable material, is therefore necessary for proper preservation in the long run.

Phase One in 2008

The preservation and restoration of Confucius was a complicated process. Initially we conducted a thorough conditions inspection on the film materials. Details including their physical conditions and locations of scene change were meticulously documented. The information is valuable for the subsequent conservation work and research in future. During the course of work, all damages on the film materials were repaired and splices were reinforced to avoid further damage to the film materials during image duplication processes. The film materials had also been thoroughly cleaned to ensure a smooth printing process and elevate image quality.

A teared nitrate picture negative film clip
A torn nitrate picture negative film clip

Loading a film to a film cleaning machine
Loading a film to a film cleaning machine

A special technique known as full immersion wet-gate printing was employed to reduce possible scratches on the original materials in the printing process. The serious shrinkage of the original materials rendered it necessary to use an optical step printer with specially designed sprockets. A new interpositive and a new picture negative were produced.

Regarding sound restoration, a digital approach had been adopted. Since the soundtrack material had seriously deteriorated, part of the soundtrack negative was stuck together and could not be recovered. The remaining soundtrack underwent digital restoration by computer. As a result, noises were reduced, the signal-to-noise ratio raised, the pitch adjusted and the running speed modified. A new soundtrack negative was also struck from the restored soundtrack.

The last step of this phase of work was the production of new copies. A new archival copy and a new projection copy were struck from the new picture negative and restored soundtrack.

The film printing and digital sound restoration equipment required for this project and the facilities that handled nitrate films were not available in Hong Kong. We therefore joined hands with the renowned L'Immagine Ritrovata Film Restoration Laboratory in Bologna, Italy, on the restoration work.

Phase Two in 2009

In 2009, based on scientific evidence and research on available literature, we proceeded to the second stage, reconstruction, the insertion of most of the break-off scenes back into the film.

The edge code of the year 1947 found on the composite print of the loose fragments attests to the fact that it was the master of the 1948 re-release copy. Because these fragments were themselves struck from duplicate negatives, the image had to be digitally enhanced before they could be re-integrated with the rest of the film. The nine minutes of footage could very well be the scenes edited out from the re-release version and the phase one restored version of the Archive was very likely the re-edited 1948.

We were cautious enough not to draw conclusions based on a single piece of information from newspaper. Fortunately, the film brochure published to tie in with Confucius' premiere in 1940 offers us further hints. The beautiful booklet contains a ‘Synopsis of Confucius' (the Synopsis), a scene-by-scene breakdown so detailed that it's effectively the script of the film. Except for a few missing scenes, the Archive's restored version and the Synopsis were almost a match. Taking the task of subtitling the film, Mr. Koo Siu-sun, a veteran writer on film, offered his thoughts on where the loose footage was to be inserted based on his reading of the Synopsis. Having carefully considered the suggestions made by Mr. Koo, as well as weighing new options proposed by our research and programming colleagues and seeking the expert opinions of Mr. Shu Kei of the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, we took the bold step of inserting the fragments (both their negatives and composite print) to where we believed to be their rightful places:

Reel 1: two segments on ‘Tsi attacks Lu' and ‘Confucius and his disciples'

Reel 2: two segments on ‘Revenge' and ‘Yen Huei's benevolence'

Reel 7: two segments on ‘Disaster in Chen and Tsai'

Reel 9: two segments on ‘I will do my utmost to help' and ‘Prevail throughout the ages'

Poring over the picture negative, not only did we find the points where 'Confucius and his disciples' and ‘I will do my utmost to help' were cut off, the edge number on ‘I will do my utmost to help' was found to match the torn-half of the number on the picture negative. Traces and marks left on the picture negative, although less noticeable, also pointed out the original locales of four other fragments: ‘Revenge', ‘Yen Huei's benevolence', the first segment on ‘Disaster in Chen and Tsai' and ‘Prevail throughout the ages'. Despite the lack of scientific evidence, the Synopsis reinforced our belief that the two segments on ‘Tsi attacks Lu' and ‘Disaster in Chen and Tsai' are too important to be left out, especially when the latter features Confucius in the pivotal scene of singing his lament on the qin.

孔子撫琴悲歌(數碼修復前)- Image before digital restoration
Confucius singing his lament on the qin. Image before digital cleaning

The same image after digital cleaning
The same image after digital cleaning

We also had the odd scene, 'The Empire at "peace"(?)', now missing from the surviving film but found in the Synopsis. It was a scene that Mr. Qin Pengzhang, who scored the music for the film, distinctly remembered had been shot.

Regarding the technical aspects of this phase of work, digital image restoration had been used to reduce the defects on moving images due to film materials deterioration. Copies of this restored and reconstructed version had been produced on archival grade film for access and preservation.

This is a never ending story. We have used our best endeavour to try to restore the film as close to its original state as possible. Whether this reconstructed version will be the final one remains to be seen. After all, the story of reunion is always full of twists and turns.