Five films by Adam Beckett (1973-75) / FIFTEEN YEARS? part 4: 2006

Flesh Flows (1974)

I had seen at least a few of visionary animator Adam Beckett’s films when I worked at Canyon Cinema. The iotaCenter put out an extensive DVD of his work a few years ago, and I should say very clearly up front that I was able to work on Adam’s incredible films thanks to iota, as they had negotiated with Adam’s family to move the films to the Academy and also applied for funding from NFPF so the films could be restored, so thanks much to them for that. Additionally, iota founder Larry Cuba, who had known Adam at CalArts in the ‘70s, is a big fan and even owned a couple of prints of Adam’s films, both of which ended up being quite helpful in the restoration of his films (more on that below).

So much could be said about Adam Beckett as an artist, as a person, as a near-mythological figure, but though I’ve learned a lot about him from his films (and working on them), and from numerous friends of his, I’m not really the one to say it (Pam Turner is), and plus that’s not really what this website is about! But let it just be said that he genuinely pioneered some visionary techniques in animation and image manipulation that are still being used today by special effects artists and independent animators. Although his drawing style and animation thinking was utterly virtuosic, his particularly visionary innovation was to use the optical printer in combination with his animation to extrapolate his images and forms into incredibly elaborate, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic phantasmagorias. His memory and legacy are still very strong with effects whizzes like Richard Edlund, Richard Taylor, and Robbie Blalack; esteemed friends and mentors like Pat O’Neill, Roberta Friedman, Beth Block, Sky David, David and Diana Wilson, and Chris Casady; and younger animators who’ve been inspired by Adam’s utterly unique and boundary pushing work, like Jim Trainor, Henry Selick, Jodie Mack, and Helder Sun. (These are just a paltry few of the names in each category – Adam Beckett’s memory and legacy are pretty large in the world of experimental animation.)

Dear Janice (1972)

I’m only going to be talking about the initial five films of Adam’s I worked on in this post, which are really his five canonical, widely circulated films: Evolution of the Red Star (1973), Heavy-Light (1973), Flesh Flows (1974), Sausage City (1974), and Kitsch in Synch (1975). The other films I worked on in the few subsequent years after this initial batch include Dear Janice (1972), a reel of early animations, Dream of the Sphinx/The Letter (1971, in collaboration with James Gore), and Life in the Atom (1970s).

I highly recommend you check these films out, especially if you’re a fan of animation (experimental or otherwise), psychedelic art and cinema, or just really unique visionary art. Keep in mind that everything in the films was done with analog means, and none of the images were created or modified with electronic equipment, i.e. everything is based on hand-drawn animation which has then been variously manipulated using the optical printer.

This post will focus a bit more simply on the process of preservation/restoration for each film in a mix of the technical and the procedural. There are certainly anecdotal moments to share (I’ll never forget the moment when Adam’s brother Evan met me at the REDCAT screening of the restorations and literally lifted me off the ground in a huge bear hug), but as Adam died in 1979 and I never knew or worked with him, I thought I’d frame this post as a series of case studies in restoration more than anything. As for my personal take, I love the films, and though at this point in 2005-06 I’d been working steadily on films by Stan Brakhage, Robert Nelson, and a few other artists, it was fun to have the chance to work on a self-contained batch of films that represented practically the entirety of one artist’s canonical work.

As mentioned above, these five films were restored by me at the Academy under the auspices of The iotaCenter, with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation. The picture lab was Cinema Lab in Colorado. Sound transfers, optical track negatives, and preservation mag tracks were done by DJ Audio. Sound restoration/mastering was done by Audio Mechanics.

Heavy-Light (1973)

Adam worked fairly prolifically from 1970-75 or so, producing his influential short films, but also thousands of drawings, tests, light show loops, poster art, and other material. In 1975, he was hired to be the head of the rotoscope animation department on Star Wars, and contributed extensively (with a top notch team of animator friends working with him, including Diana Wilson and Chris Casady) to the personality and technological look and feel of the film, in terms of its rotoscoped effects (light sabers, lasers, energy beams, all of that stuff). Most prominently perhaps, Adam animated the famous scene in which the Jawas zap R2-D2 – those sparks flying around R2’s body are all hand-drawn by Adam.

Before Star Wars, he had been working on two ambitious projects. One of them, Life in the Atom, was a very elaborate psychedelic/erotic hand-drawn animation that reached an incomplete running time of around ten minutes by 1975. He was also working on a large series of very elaborate optical printing tests that involved exponential mutliplications and arrangements of abstract figures, labeled and referred to as Knotte Grosse, though that may have just been a working title. He additionally refers in one post-Star Wars interview to be working on Dear Janice, possibly in an attempt to rework or remake the film. All three of these projects would be left in their unfinished states, as Adam never completed another personal project after Star Wars, and died very tragically in a fire in his home in 1979 at the age of 29.

Life in the Atom (1970s)

As can happen when an independent filmmaker’s life is cut short like this, friends and family will sometimes rally to save the artist’s work, and this happened extensively with Adam. His friends and family knew his work was incredibly significant, and they did an amazing job salvaging as much of his art and film material as possible. The vast majority of it survives because of this effort. However, one complication with filmmakers is that much of the time, they will have (understandably) left the printing elements (originals, intermediates, etc.) for their films at the commercial lab(s) they were using. Countless filmmakers have lost track of their elements at various labs over the years, even when they’re conscious of caring for their own work, so it’s an incredibly common practice, and the reason why film labs over the years (very much to this day) have vaults full of forgotten material. In fact, over the last decade at least, the Academy has taken on dozens and dozens (maybe over 100?) pallets of unclaimed lab materials which would have otherwise been thrown away.

So although Adam’s loved ones did an incredible job saving the films in his possession at the time of his death (which was a considerable amount), they didn’t pull his films out of his labs. Although this could have been an oversight, it could also have been a practical decision – at the labs, his films could continue to be printed if needed, and while film was still the dominant photographic medium, there was no widespread awareness of the potential danger for film elements to be thrown out – this was something that became much more common as labs started to downsize or shut down more frequently while film began its slow transition to something more specialized in the ascendancy of digital.

When I began working on these five Adam Beckett films in 2005, the originals for only ONE of them were present (Heavy-Light). The reversal A/B rolls were in iotaCenter’s possession, possibly having been part of the material at Adam’s house.

I knew from my initial inspections that Adam had used CFI (Consolidated Film Industries) lab in Hollywood for several of his shorts. CFI had since been bought by Technicolor, and to this day Technicolor still maintains supposedly massive vaults of legacy/unclaimed material. I hope one of these days they’ll let me in there to see what missing films I can find!

In addition to other labs Adam used (HFE and Deluxe), I sent inquiries via a series of channels at Technicolor, and truly amazingly, they did indeed still have some of Adam’s materials in the CFI vaults. This included the original A/B rolls, magnetic sound mix, internegative, and track negative for both Flesh Flows and Sausage City, as well as an internegative and track for Evolution of the Red Star. (Later, the original A/B rolls for Dear Janice turned up at CalArts, the Dear Janice mag sound at Chris Casady’s house, and the Life in the Atom workprint in Beth Block’s cabinet!)

The originals for this film, which would’ve been on 7252 Ektachrome Commercial (ECO) stock, remain lost. Even if I had them, they would almost certainly be moderately faded, due to the archival instability of this stock, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

The CFI vaults had at least yielded the original internegative and track negative. In the collection of material from Adam’s house, a 7387 Kodachrome print existed, though it was missing four frames in the film’s opening “Mao” sequence. Canyon Cinema’s print was in good condition, though it was probably a 7390 Ektachrome print (in 2006 I was still learning know how to identify the specific reversal print stocks, and my notes don’t indicate exactly, so that’s an educated guess). And finally, I was thrilled to find the original unmixed 1-2-3-4 mag tracks of the Carl Stone soundtrack. Carl Stone is a fantastic and pioneering composer/performer, and he did soundtracks for a few films while he was a student at CalArts including this one by Adam, as well as Accident (1973) by Jules Engel and Amusement Park Composition & Decay (1973) by Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren. Carl’s importance as a composer combined with the fact that the Evolution of the Red Star soundtrack is really great made me incredibly relieved that we could potentially restore the sound from a high quality magnetic source, and not just the 1973 optical track, which would be of notably more limited quality.

A print was struck from the original internegative and track, and though it was not bad, it definitely lacked a certain presence and “punch”, in terms of color and image quality. The color in this film (as with all of Adam’s films) is really expressive and important. It at this point occurred to me that the 7387 Kodachrome print could be used as a master, as it was in just about pristine condition, and had fantastic color. In the 1970s, the combination of printing 7252 ECO original onto 7387 print stock could potentially yield a superb looking print. The ECO stock is very flat and low contrast, and designed for duplicating onto a higher contrast print stock – either 7387 or 7390. And 7387, with the same formulation as Kodachrome, has fantastic sharpness, saturation, and color stability. So this 7387 print of Evolution of the Red Star looked excellent overall. Using this print would mean a preservation internegative could be made directly off of a 1st generation print of high quality, whereas using the old internegative as the source would mean making an interpositive AND internegative (the goal was to have new printing negatives for all the films) of an already not amazing-looking source, losing a couple of generations in the process.

The problem was the four frames missing in the ‘Mao’ sequence which introduces the film. Luckily, this sequence fades up from black, holds for several seconds, then fades back out. The way in which it was sort of detached from the rest of the film meant we could swap in the ‘Mao’ sequence from another source, a print with no frames missing, which is exactly what we did. The only good condition and complete print that could be used for this purpose was the one at Canyon Cinema, probably placed there by Adam around 1973-74. In the early 1990s, the print had been Photogarded by 3M as part of a grant Canyon Cinema had received to scratch-protect a percentage of the library. Photogard was a scratch protection process which coated the film in a “polymerized silane, 100% solids formulation that is cured by ultraviolet radiation in a few seconds”, (from “Photogard Technology” by A. K. Mehta, D. R. Hotchkiss, and J. F. Kistner, 1982) making it less susceptible to scratches. This is unfortunate, as my own empirical observations have led me to be certain that Photogarding (and other similar processes) definitely shorten the lifespan of acetate film. But on the other hand, it meant, luckily, that this print was fairly devoid of scratches, and could be used as a fairly clean source for the ‘Mao’ sequence. [Note: Despite the findings of the Image Permanence Institute (as reported in the 11-15-98 Big Reel by Mehta, cited above, who it should be noted was Business Manager for ScotchGuard at the time) that Photogard does not show evidence of “sealing” the film so it can’t breathe, thereby accelerating acetate deterioration, I have been witness to too many examples of identical batches of prints treated vs. not treated with Photogard, with the Photogarded prints showing uniformly accelarated deterioration. So it might not be that the Photogard literally seals the film and/or prevents it from breathing, but in my considered opinion it’s doing SOMEthing which accelerates deterioration.]

Back to the ‘Mao’ sequence – once the Canyon print was determined to be usable, Cinema Lab printed the new preservation internegative using an A/B roll approach, with the Canyon print providing the ‘Mao’ sequence and the 7387 Beckett print providing the rest of the film.

In the meantime, the four unmixed 16mm magnetic sound rolls were transferred by DJ Audio, along with the optical track off the print we made from the original internegative. With John Polito at Audio Mechanics, we discovered that the mix of the four rolls was utterly straightforward, a series of fades between rolls which were entirely intuitive and could easily be recreated using the optical track as a guide, yielding an identical mix to the original, but in much higher magnetic sound quality. I was very pleased, but more importantly, Carl Stone was pleased! Once a new optical track negative was made from this restored audio, prints were made from the new internegative.

As mentioned above, Heavy-Light was initially the only film for which the originals survived, but they are unfortunately on 7252 ECO stock, and fairly faded. This was a particular problem for this film, because its imagery is almost exclusively made up of luminous, vaporous forms oozing around a deep black background (all done with optically manipulated hand-drawn animation, by the way, no video synthesizers were used!). Though today, given adequate funding, the work could be done digitally, in 2005-06 this wasn’t a financial option, nor was it technically practical at the time. Instead, I checked all the extant prints to find one that could be used as a surrogate master. Heavy-Light seems to be the only one of these five films that Adam didn’t make an internegative for. It’s possible he tried, but I’ve never encountered a positive print of the film struck from an internegative – only 7387 Kodachrome prints. My guess is that he may have thought that the beautiful color and dense blacks of the film wouldn’t be adequately reproducible via the 7271 internegative stock of the time.

Of the extant prints, the best quality copy turned out to be Jules Engel’s personal print. Jules had been the founder of the Experimental Animation school at CalArts (where I teach the History of Experimental Animation) and a prolific and influential artist and animator himself. He mentored countless young animation students at CalArts over a few decades, Adam included. To his last days, Jules maintained that Adam was definitely a “special” student, a visionary animator with genuinely new and groundbreaking ideas. Jules often acquired prints of his students’ work, and his own film collection features numerous examples. He would screen some of these prints from time to time, but usually they’re in quite good condition, not having been projected too much. His print of Heavy-Light had moderate base scratching, but I was confident this would disappear in wet-gate printing, which was indeed the case.

The Heavy-Light soundtrack was made by another electronic music master, Barry Schrader. Although unfortunately no magnetic source or master survived for Barry’s track, the original optical track negative for the film yielded quite good results. A print was struck from it, and it was transferred and underwent minor restoration (for some surface noise/dirt on the optical track) by Audio Mechanics. New prints were made from the new internegative and track negative.

In the cases of both Flesh Flows and Sausage City, we were absurdly lucky that the original and intermediate elements for the films were still sitting in the CFI vaults decades later, as we otherwise had very poor elements to work from.

With Flesh Flows, although the original A/B rolls were available, they were faded, as was expected. The film is in three sequences. Two of the sequences in the originals are actually printed on 7381 color print stock, while the remaining one is on the more expected 7252 ECO stock. The color is moderately faded – albeit differently – in each stock. Adam essentially made his films on the two most archivally unstable Eastman color film stocks of the time, but of course these stocks were chosen for their applicability to his process. In other words, it wouldn’t have made sense for him to do his optical printing onto a higher contrast Ektachrome or Kodachrome. For the process of this and other films, 7381 and 7252 really were the ideal stocks – it’s just unfortunate that they ended up being so prone to color fading.

The majority of extant prints of the film were struck from the original internegative, and being themselves on pre-1982 7381 color print, they were all quite faded. Unusually, the Canyon Cinema print was reversal (I think 7387 Kodachrome, but again, in 2005-06 I wasn’t yet precisely documenting these things), but though it provided a reasonable color reference for the film’s quite unique and specific color effects, it was particularly contrasty with a lot of details muddied as a result, especially in the film’s fantastic third section.

The original internegative therefore seemed like the best source for preservation. It had one tape splice near the end of the third section, but I determined this to be a likely lab pickup/replacement fix, as no frames were missing. Luckily, iotaCenter founder Larry Cuba owned a personal print of Flesh Flows, acquired in the mid-’80s through Adam’s family, and being made off the internegative in 1984, it’s an LPP (7384) color print, which was the initial low-fade stock Kodak made to replace 7381 and 7383, their previous color print stocks, both of which were so prone to rapid fading. LPP stock has much more robust color stability, and even in 2018 I routinely encounter LPP prints from 1983-85 that still look excellent. Larry’s LPP print of Flesh Flows, still retaining its color, and also representing the approved timing of the internegative, was used as the color timing reference for the preservation project.

The original 35mm mag track was transferred by DJ Audio and mastered/EQ’d by Audio Mechanics, then an optical track negative made by DJ. Cinema Lab printed the restored track with the original internegative, and though their first answer print looked great, there was something not quite perfect about it. I had seen this film a number of times, and really liked it a lot, with the third sequence in particular always flooring me. This third sequence in the film has such a distinctive, iridescent blue, and I was aware of the slight discrepancy in color timing on the answer print genuinely because it somehow didn’t give me the same feeling that the film normally did. I’m no color timing expert – I’m solid at it to the extent that I need to know how to evaluate it for my work, but I couldn’t be a professional color timer or colorist without a lot more training, and enjoy working very collaboratively with the brilliant color timers at the labs I use, like Chris Hughes at Colorlab or Doug Ledin at Fotokem, to name just two. But this was a rare case where my awareness that the color was slightly off didn’t come from a strict observation of the color itself, but an awareness that it just didn’t “feel right”, because a response I had come to expect from the film wasn’t happening. The color in the film is pretty simple and limited, so nothing else was obviously out of place. I tried to articulate the correction I thought it needed, and Cinema Lab delivered a second answer print that I felt was perfect. This was followed by a new interpositive, preservation internegative, and multiple prints.

The process of preserving Sausage City was nearly identical to that of Flesh Flows. The originals for Sausage City were also faded, this time composed entirely of 7252 ECO. All extant prints were faded 7381 prints from the old internegative, including the Canyon Cinema print. Luckily, a reversal workprint for the film turned up in Adam’s collection, made up mostly of 7390 Ektachrome print stock, with some 7389 as well. 7389 and 7390 print stocks co-existed in the 1970s, alongside 7387 Kodachrome print. 7389 and 7390 were both based on Ektachrome, and typically were used each for a specific workflow. In its intended usage, 7389 was a lower contrast reversal print stock meant to make prints from higher contrast originals (like Kodachrome or Ektachrome EF) whereas 7390 was a higher contrast reversal print stock (though not as high as 7387), meant for making prints from lower contrast originals (like ECO). In my observations over the years, I’ve found that 7390 tends to hold up better in terms of color compared to 7389, but both do tend to fade, in a magenta/purple direction. The 7390 sections of the Sausage City workprint were used as a general reference for color in the film’s preservation.

As with Flesh Flows, after a few tries, an answer print was eventually approved from the original internegative, followed by an interpositive, a preservation internegative, and prints, plus new sound masters.

In terms of which elements survived for each of these five films from the start, Kitsch in Synch at first seemed like it was the film that was the most troubled. It had been made as a 1975 CalArts class project directed and optically printed by Adam, with image and animation contributions from the entire class (which included people like Pete Kuran, David Wilson, Mark Kirkland, and other future animation and visual effects artists). The film was made in reversal (again, very likely on ECO), but all extant prints seemed to have been printed from an internegative from the time period. No trace of any master elements survive – no original, no internegative, no optical track, etc. The best extant print was again a personal print of Larry Cuba’s, which, though in great condition, complete, and not QUITE as faded as all of the other prints, was still pretty faded.

Digging around in the hundreds of rolls and cans of film from Adam’s collection yielded two incredibly fortunate finds, though: a silent color reversal workprint of the film and a 16mm magnetic sound mix!

The reversal workprint was in great condition, and was assembled with a few tape splices. As mentioned before, I was still learning how to identify specific film stocks, so my notes don’t indicate what kind of stock this workprint was on, but I’m pretty positive it was 7390. Although 7390 can definitely fade somewhat, it can often still be OK to work from as a preservation source, and because the colors in Kitsch in Synch are so incredibly saturated, there was no real evidence of fading in the workprint. I had never seen the film with such unfaded, vivid color – it nearly looked 3-D as I wound through it on the bench. Synchronizing it with Larry Cuba’s print, I was immensely relieved to find that this workprint matched the final film exactly. I had been worried it would turn out to have some major aberration or just be missing a bunch of frames here and there, but winding through it incredibly slowly and really looking at every damn frame in comparison to Larry’s print proved it was identical – with one exception.

The opening titles of the film have been hyperactively optically printed so as to be almost unreadable. It’s a great title sequence, but from what I understand anecdotally from various people, there was some irritation on the part of the students who felt that they had contributed extensively to the film, but only Adam’s name was particularly readable in these opening titles. Larry’s print had a repetition of the opening title crawl at its end, with no optical printing, for maximum readability. This wasn’t a later addition – the title was printed into Larry’s print from the internegative, and I subsequently found some additional excerpts and at least one other print in Adam’s collection containing this title sequence. It’s likely that this title sequence existed in the film’s internegative, and that Adam may have chopped it out of prints he put into distribution. (Adam was a complex character and was beloved by many, but one clear thing is that he had no misunderstanding about his own genius, and was definitely aware of and good at prominently associating his name with the work he did, which he knew was spectacular and innovative.  There is almost certainly some truth to the claim that he perhaps wanted to emphasize his own name as primary creator of the film in its public showings and distribution copies.)

It was decided with iotaCenter that we would restore the film with this repetition of the credits at the end, in tribute/respect to the students who worked on the film, and to bring it back to its initial form. Cinema Lab made a new internegative from the color workprint, taking the end credits from Larry Cuba’s print, color-correcting it as best as possible. Because Larry’s print was B-wind and the workprint was A-wind, the workprint was printed via contact to a new internegative, and then the end credits sequence was printed optically onto the same internegative, so there would be no splice. Over the years I’ve tried to avoid optically printing for preservation if it wasn’t needed, in favor of wet-gate contact printing, due to concerns about contrast, possible slight effects/changes to the image when refilmed through the printer’s lens, and also expense (around this time, optical printing was easily three times as expensive as contact printing).

For the sound, the 16mm magnetic mix was transferred at DJ Audio along with Larry Cuba’s print, to be used as an audio reference. In a close comparison at Audio Mechanics, John Polito and I discovered that it wasn’t actually the final mix, although it was close. The mix was totally identical, with the exception of one sequence of approximately 20 seconds which deviated in terms of how and when the sound layers were mixed (voices, guitar, etc.). To fix this, John seamlessly cross-faded in the audio from Larry’s print for this section to cover the part of the mag mix that wasn’t final. With a little EQ work, the end result was nearly undetectable (although I can’t help but hear it anytime I see the film), and new prints were made using the restored track and Cinema Lab’s new internegative.

Heavy-Light (1973)

This was intended to be a more straight-forward post of shorter length than the previous two, but I have a feeling it’s even longer. As I revisited these projects in my mind, not to mention with help from my old notes, I realized that a lot of random photochemical preservation concerns, technical details, anomalies, and quirks were turning up, so it seemed a good excuse to discuss a lot of that stuff in this context.

Working on Adam Beckett’s films was exciting for me, not just because I love the work (and continue to show and teach his films to this day), but the various typical and very atypical challenges that presented themselves were really fun to problem-solve and overcome, particularly in collaboration with my lab colleagues. I learned a huge amount about my job working on Adam’s films.

We were also really lucky with Adam’s films as you might’ve guessed – in several cases, the films could only be nicely restored due to some lucky break, whether it was the elements still sitting at CFI for 30 years, or the miraculous Kitsch in Synch workprint. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case, and sometimes artists’ work in particular suffers from problems that are impossible to overcome, at least photochemically. With the radically increased quality, technology, and availability of digital restoration techniques over the past decade, I’ve been able to employ those tools as well to restore things that would’ve been unrestorable in the analog realm, and am now incredibly glad to be able to employ those digital tools when they’re needed. But the Adam Beckett films in a way represent some of the exciting possibilities of photochemical preservation/restoration, in the absence of budget or tools at the time to have done it digitally.  And I think the results still hold up really nicely.

photo of Adam Beckett courtesy of Chris Casady


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: