Early & Silent Film

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The Epic of Everest

Posted by keith1942 on January 8, 2014

An iris shot of Everest

An iris shot of Everest

This is a record of the 1924 British Expedition to Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan). The attempt failed but remained famous because of the death high on the mountain of two English climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The film records both the expedition to the mountain and the attempted ascent. The filming was undertaken by Captain J. B. L. Noel, using a specially adapted camera to film in the difficult conditions on the ground and on the mountain itself. Noel was only able to carry the camera up to the lower camps, but he recorded the climbs higher up by using a powerful telephoto lens.

Noel edited the footage and added explanatory title cards to create a documentary record of the expedition. He successfully recorded the journey of the expedition to the mountain and the grandeur of the ice fields at its foot and the steep snow and ice-bound slopes of the ascent. The title cards do more than explain. They provide a sort of commentary on the expedition and on its tragic conclusion. The commentary has a strong tone of orientalism about it. It also presents the expedition as a rather unique venture. Noel had in fact filmed an earlier expedition in 1922. But there is no mention of this in the title cards, suggesting that the expedition is a rather special, new type of venture.

Visually the film is impressive. This is scenery on a grand scale: the great mountain frequently dwarfs the British climbers and their laden Sherpas. The film certainly conjures up both the isolation and the impressive size and bleakness of Everest and the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

The bfi has restored the film and made it available around the UK. However, it seems that they have only distributed it in a digital format, a 2K DCP, running for 87 minutes. This did not seem to me to do due justice to the films visual qualities. Much of the footage has the sharper outlines found in digital formats. In fact the most impressive shots are those that were tinted, blue and orange. The tinting presumably softening the harder edges of the digital image. Moreover, the film has been step-printed to accommodate the projection speed of digital, 24-fps. Noel was using cameras fitted with electric motors but I have not found any record of the camera speed. It certainly seems to have been slower than 24 fps: in fact some of the fottage appeared to vary in projection speed: perhaps he varied the speeds or over or under cranked at times.

I had in fact seen the film before, at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then we viewed a Nederlands Filmmuseum black and white 35mm print, which [in the record] ran for 110 minutes. This had English intertitles as in the bfi restoration. My memory is that the visual quality of the Nederlands print was fairly good. And I don’t remember there being sequences that appeared speeded-up. I don’t have a record of the projection speed, but given it was a 35mm print it may well have enjoyed varied projection speeds. The difference in running times would not be explained solely by differences in projection speeds. I did think that the bfi version felt rather compressed towards the end. There is a bfi WebPages on the restoration, however it does not mention the length or the frame speed. The digital version clearly had some step printing in it, though with the sequences at variable speeds it is difficult to gauge the ratio of extra frames.

It is a shame that the bfi are not offering a 35mm print on this occasion. They will presumably have struck one from the restoration. The modern 35mm projectors with which I am familiar can change projection speeds at the push of a button. Though it would require an experienced and attentive projectionist to perform the operation. It is now possible to transfer early film to digital at the appropriate projection speed. The specifications provided by FIAF for this range from 16 fps to 24 fps. Of course, with this particular film there would still be a problem with the projection speed because I don’t think variation within a feature is possible on digital. If I am wrong, someone please fill me in on this.

As it stands I did not feel this digital version did proper justice to Noel’s cinematographic feats in the most hostile of environs. The digital effect on the image seemed to me quite noticeable at times. And one of the sections which appeared too fast was a rescue incident and this subverted the intended tension of the sequence. The digital version also had a sound accompaniment, partly composed of electronic music and partly of Nepalese ethnic instruments. It did not work for me; the parts that I thought effective were actually traditional piano. The Ritrovato presentation had a small musical ensemble with a score composed by Willem Friede from the Rotterdam Conservatorium: as I remember it worked very well. Can we hope for a 35mm print circulating at some future date? This would also provide space for live accompaniments and musicians able to respond to the quality of the film.

Postscript

 

The Epic of Everest was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014 in the ‘Recovered and restored’ section. The film was screened in a 35mm print at 20 fps. The Catalogue notes that “The prints were scanned at a resolution of 4K using a wet gate to eliminate scratches and a novel technique was developed to scan selected scenes using individual colour LED’s to compensate for deterioration of the blue toning and the severe mould damage.” There was no mention of variable camera speeds, which certainly seemed the case when I saw the digital version and which affected the step printing for the DCP.

This is another example of the BFI transporting 35mm prints thousand of miles for a Festival, whilst they seem unwilling to transport the film a couple of hundred miles for indigenous audiences. And I am pretty sure that the DCP circulated in the UK was only 2K.

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