October 8, 2012 — KUKAN Moves from the ER to the Operating Table

Many of you know by now that my doc­u­men­tary FINDING KUKAN revolves around my dis­cov­ery of the “lost” 1941 Oscar-win­ning col­or film of war-torn Chi­na called KUKAN. Many of you might also be won­der­ing, where in the H… is KUKAN? If it was found, then why can’t we see it? Well when I tracked down the only full copy of the film it had been sit­ting in a Fort Laud­erdale stu­dio for a few decades and then a Geor­gia base­ment for a cou­ple more. Heat and humid­i­ty had done its work.

AMPAS documentary curator Ed Carter opens up the can containing KUKAN for the first time.

AMPAS doc­u­men­tary cura­tor Ed Carter opens up the can con­tain­ing KUKAN for the first time.

 

When AMPAS’s Ed Carter and Joe Lind­ner opened the rusty met­al can that con­tained KUKAN they winced. “Vine­gar,” they both said, wrin­kling their noses. I learned lat­er that that is a sure sign of dete­ri­o­ra­tion. As Joe exam­ined the 2 reels of film that rep­re­sent­ed 90-min­utes of invalu­able col­or footage of Chi­na in 1939 and 1940, he detect­ed both shrink­age and brit­tle­ness (more bad signs of dete­ri­o­ra­tion). Joe said he’d seen films worse off…but not many. Things looked pret­ty grim. If we were in the Emer­gency Room, this would be time for triage.

For­tu­nate­ly a dete­ri­o­rat­ing film takes longer to die than a bleed­ing human. Two years lat­er, KUKAN has been sta­bi­lized but is still in pret­ty bad shape as you can see by the pho­tos I took of it last week at Col­or­lab in Mary­land where AMPAS sent it to have major restora­tion work done.

One of the film cannisters that holds the only known full copy of KUKAN

One of the film can­nis­ters that holds the only known full copy of KUKAN

 

Close up of the shrunken 16mm film that contains some of the first color footage of China.

Close up of the shrunk­en 16mm film that con­tains some of the first col­or footage of Chi­na.

Parts of it are so curled that they will nev­er be able to be re-plas­ti­cized (a sort of Botox process for film that hydrates it enough to allow it to lay flat in the scan­ner with­out break­ing).

 

The part of KUKAN that can't be salvaged

The worst part of the 2 KUKAN reels was so curled it looked like the plas­tic straws you drink out of.

A par­tial copy of KUKAN that I locat­ed in the Nation­al Archives (NARA) will be used to fill in those parts that are unsal­vage­able. The NARA copy was kept in a tem­per­a­ture con­trolled envi­ron­ment all these years and is in fair­ly good shape. But even that has to go through a frame by frame scan­ning process to pull both image and sound­track from the 16mm strip.

DP Frank Ayala shoots the scanning of a partial copy of KUKAN

DP Frank Ayala shoots the scan­ning of a par­tial copy of KUKAN on the mon­ster machine at Col­or­lab

 

DP Frank Ayala, 2nd Cam­era Mia Fer­nan­dez and I arrived at Col­or­lab to film the ini­tial frame by frame scan­ning of the NARA print and learned a lot about the care and effort need­ed to bring a film back to life.

 

A.J. Rohner, project head on the KUKAN restoration, threads the NARA print through the scanner.

A.J. Rohn­er, project head on the KUKAN restora­tion, threads the NARA print through the scan­ner.

 

A.J. Rohn­er, head “sur­geon” on the KUKAN restora­tion process, assured me that “my patient” could be saved despite its hor­rif­ic appear­ance. He gave us a tour of the mon­ster machine that does the scan­ning – an inven­tion of Col­or­lab engi­neer Tom­my Aschen­bach.

Threading the NARA partial copy of KUKAN through the scanner

The scan­ner doing all the work is a fas­ci­nat­ing con­trap­tion that blinks and whirs and beeps — just like some­thing out of Startrek.

I was entranced by its gor­geous parts, blink­ing lights and robot­ic move­ments — so much more tan­gi­bly sat­is­fy­ing to see at work than watch­ing the lit­tle gray line creep across your com­put­er screen as your dig­i­tal footage down­loads.

 

Frame by frame scan begins on the opening scenes of KUKAN

Frame by frame scan begins on the open­ing scenes of KUKAN

 

Rey Scott in one of the opening scenes of KUKAN

Rey Scott in one of the open­ing scenes of KUKAN

 

I also learned how the sound from the film will be lift­ed from the scan, VISUALLY cor­rect­ed before turn­ing into sound waves and then cleaned and scrubbed to get all the ticks, and hiss­es out. I was sur­prised to learn that those lit­tle hor­i­zon­tal lines on the edge of the film are what make the sound come alive through the pro­jec­tor – a mag­i­cal phe­nom­e­non when you think about it.

Tommy Aschenbach demonstrates the magic involved in restoring sound on a film

Tom­my Aschen­bach demon­strates the mag­ic involved in restor­ing sound on a film

 

Examining color loss on 2 different versions of KUKAN

If you look care­ful­ly you can see the sound stripes on one edge of the film. The top strip is the bad­ly dete­ri­o­rat­ed copy of KUKAN I found. Notice the col­or loss.

From the pho­to below A.J. iden­ti­fied the cam­era Rey Scott was using in Chi­na as a 16mm Bolex.

Publicity photo of Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott

Pub­lic­i­ty pho­to of Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott tak­en in 1941

Col­or­lab tech­ni­cian Lau­ra Major just hap­pened to have one in the office that she still shoots with.

Laura Major demonstrates the workings of her 16mm vintage Bolex

Lau­ra Major demon­strates the work­ings of her 16mm vin­tage Bolex

Hold­ing that cam­era in my hands, look­ing through the tiny viewfind­er, and learn­ing that the cam­era could only shoot 100 ft of film at a time (rough­ly 2 min­utes) gave me a much greater appre­ci­a­tion for Rey Scott’s hero­ic accom­plish­ment in film­ing the epic scenes con­tained in KUKAN, espe­cial­ly the 15-minute sequence at the end of the movie that depicts the mas­sive bomb­ing of Chungk­ing and the fiery destruc­tion of the city.

Chinese boy looks into Rey Scott's Bolex on location for KUKAN

Chi­nese boy looks into Rey Scott’s Bolex on loca­tion for KUKAN

 

FINDING KUKAN Producer/Director Robin Lung looks through the viewfinder of a 16mm Bolex camera

You can’t believe how tiny every­thing looks through this viewfind­er — no won­der Rey had a hard time focus­ing in places.

I am more deter­mined than ever to reach our $16,000 Kick­starter goal so that we can keep fol­low­ing the mag­i­cal resus­ci­ta­tion of KUKAN and track the amaz­ing sto­ry behind its cre­ation. Please join me on this jour­ney, it’s going to be an incred­i­ble ride!

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3 Responses to October 8, 2012 — KUKAN Moves from the ER to the Operating Table

  1. Pingback: “Finding Kukan” leads documentary filmmaker to The Ebell | The Ebell Special Events Blog

  2. Simon Wyss says:

    The cam­era the boy is hav­ing a close look at is not a Bolex. It’s a Vic­tor.

    • WriterRobin says:

      I just read a gos­sip col­umn about Rey Scott pawn­ing his cam­era in 1940 to get from SF to NYC. So the Bolex in the post­card is prob­a­bly not be the cam­era he used to shoot with in Chi­na. Simon, can you tell me if the Vic­tor has any fea­tures that are marked­ly dif­fer­ent than the Bolex? Thanks, Robin

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