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The New Dimension in Sight and Sound - CinemaScope 55 and the Challenges of Preserving Obsolete Media

  • Author(s): Block, Brian
  • Advisor(s): VanCour, Shawn
  • et al.
Abstract

The two motion pictures made with 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope 55 [CS55] technology, Carousel (1956) and King and I (1956), are faced with unique practical and theoretical preservation challenges. Innovated in the mid-1950s, the CS55 system utilized a non-standard 55 mm film gauge and customized playback equipment, but due to logistical complications, the technology reached its obsolescence before either of the films were released. Practically, the mechanical resources to preserve both movies from the non-standard 55 mm negatives no longer survive, even though the original film elements have remained intact. Theoretically, determining the form that the preserved works can take is also complicated - both films were initially intended to be experienced in 55mm prints and even though they were successfully reformatted into the more standard 35mm gauge, many of the technical features of the original 35mm prints can no longer be replicated. This thesis studies these complications by detailing the development of the CS55 technology in the 1950s and then exploring the creative decisions made during Fox’s preservation work on Carousel and King and I in the early 2000s. Films like Carousel and King and I risk becoming inaccessible without the customized machinery required for playback, and in an effort to maintain the cultural memory of the films, Fox recreated components of the CS55 apparatus from scratch. Although there are many health concerns that threaten a film's long-term sustainability and accessibility, like wear from use and deterioration from improper storage, I focus here on the impact of obsolescence. As I demonstrate, obsolescence can limit or completely eliminate resources for cinema technologies, and these shifts complicate the efforts of the film preservationist. While the dominant preservation trend has long been to authentically replicate a motion picture as it was originally experienced, I explore how the content is necessarily translated from obsolete carriers into active carriers when essential technology no longer exists. As evidenced by Fox’s restorations of their CinemaScope 55 films, preservation is interpretive work, and within the paradigm of obsolescence, new works are created in the process.

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