It’s 2014, Where’s Your Film’s Negative? Steve James On Hoop Dreams and Why You Should Find Out
"On the strict orders of our producers reps, we lied and said it originated on 16MM film. But I’m sure we weren’t convincing because for anyone who knows film, Hoop Dreams would have been the lowest resolution film ever shot."
“These works are like our children,” says Steve James, surely echoing the sentiment of any filmmaker who’s toiled over their art. “We put so much of ourselves into them, it’s unfathomable to contemplate that they might disappear and be forgotten.” Yet somehow, the prospect still remains that independent films with invaluable cultural or social significance become lost or damaged.
For that reason, Sundance Institute and the UCLA Film & Television Archive joined forces in 1997 to create the Sundance Institute Collection at UCLA, a groundbreaking archive that exists to protect, preserve, and restore independent work. Now closing in on two decades of existence, the Collection includes more than 1,900 films and homes the likes of Reservoir Dogs, Love & Basketball, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and plenty more. But the Sundance Collection’s most recent conquest came in the form of restoring Steve James’ legendary basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, which screened in all its digitally remastered glory as the Collection screening at the 2014 Festival.
We caught up with James recently to reflect on that gratifying experience, and to ask one simple but often neglected question: Why should filmmakers care about preservation? To boot, Steve James' stunning portrait of Roger Ebert, Life Itself, also happens to open in theaters July 4.
The last time we spoke, you were telling the story about having to blow up Hoop Dreams at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival because it was shot on video rather than film. Twenty years later, you found yourself showing the digitally remastered version of the film at the 2014 Festival. What was that experience like?
It was poetically apt that the first screening of Hoop Dreams we attended back in 1994 was at the Egyptian Theater. I will never forget that because it was the first time we saw it with an audience, and it began at 10 p.m. at night. We were, to say the least, nervous about how our three-hour documentary would go over with the Festival audience at that hour. It went fine, and afterwards during the Q&A several people in the audience asked what we shot the film on. The dirty secret back then was to admit that it was shot on video and transferred to film. So on the strict orders of our producers reps, we lied and said it originated on 16MM film. But I’m sure we weren’t convincing because for anyone who knows film, Hoop Dreams would have been the lowest resolution film ever shot.
Watching the restored master 20 years later in the same Egyptian Theater was a remarkable experience in its own right. That the film has had the staying power to have been restored and shown again was one thing. But the other was just how marvelous the restoration looked. Peter Gilbert, who shot the film, and I just stared at each other slack-jawed. Saying it exceeded my expectations is an understatement. What I was struck by as I watched is that with this restoration, I felt like I could truly appreciate what a terrific job Peter did as DP. It’s not like I didn’t know that before, but the film looked so beautiful now. I told Peter afterwards, “You really shot the hell out of that film.”
Sometimes filmmakers (and audiences, for that matter) assume that these seminal films will stay safe on their own. In reality, it takes a concerted effort to preserve negatives and prints. Were you ever remiss about preservation; what precautions did you take with Hoop Dreams?
Well, I wouldn’t say we were remiss necessarily. Not consciously so. We had one pristine print of the film which we kept in Kartemquin Films’ storage facility. And Criterion had overseen a new transfer from the video master when they created a DVD. But what we couldn’t do until the restoration is migrate the video master to the changing technology. And the film print (which is a better archival medium) was, of necessity, an inferior looking version of the film that had been blown up from the original 4X3 format to accommodate the 1:85 aspect ratio for theaters. So we did what we knew to do, but it fell well short of ideal.
On that same note, have you experienced or heard any stories of filmmakers who have no knowledge of where their prints or negatives are?
I’m one of those filmmakers. I have a clone of the original video master of my 2005 film Reel Paradise, but have no idea where a film print of that film might be because the distributor who released it went out of business. And given the fact that video is not a good archival medium, I worry that there may not be a film print out there still that would be invaluable for that film’s preservation.
For those skeptics, why should preservation be important to every filmmaker?
Preservation should be important to every filmmaker on a personal level because these works are like our children. We put so much of ourselves into them, it’s unfathomable to contemplate that they might disappear and be forgotten. So much of the history of cinema has been lost even when the medium existed exclusively on film. It will only be worse with digital and video if we don’t all make it a priority. One might say, “Well, all the important films will be preserved.” First, that’s not true. Many great films have been rescued from oblivion. How many more haven’t been?
And then one needs to ask, important to whom? How does one decide that this film is worth preserving and that one isn’t? The history of cinema is full of examples of great films which were not appreciated in their time, and declared classics by subsequent generations. And beyond all that, every filmmaker’s films are a record of their time on this earth and their engagement with art and the human condition. For me, that’s reason enough regardless of how “important” those films become.
We’re here to help. If your film screened at the Sundance Film Festival or was supported by any of our artist development programs, please help us establish the whereabouts and condition of your original materials and consider depositing them in a proper archive like UCLA along with a print, tape master and access copy. Click here to get started preserving your film!