Cinergie – Il cinema e le altre arti. N.20 (2021), 27–43
ISSN 2280-9481

The Digital Witness: Film Reconstruction and the Forensic Imagination in New Media Environments

Serena BellottiUniversity of Udine (Italy)

Serena Bellotti is attending a PhD in History of art, cinema, audiovisual media and music at the University of Udine on film preservation and restoration. She is working at the LUCE-Uniud restoration project of Spedizione Franchetti in Dancalia (1929) and at the reconstruction and restoration of La battaglia dall’Astico al Piave (1918), carried out by University of Udine in collaboration with La Cineteca del Friuli, LUCE, Cineteca Italiana, Kinoatelje, Lobster Films and supported by MIBACT.

Andrea MarianiUniversity of Udine (Italy)

Andrea Mariani is a Assistant Professor at University of Udine, where he teaches media theory. He is currently working at the SSHRC project “International Amateur Cinema Between the Wars (1919–39),” coordinated by University of Calgary (Canada), and the Prin project “For a private history of Italian film criticism” coordinated by University of Parma; he is supervising the project “Standard 16. Cultures, institutions, and politics of a film format (circa 1934)” and the film restoration project about Spedizione Franchetti in Dancalia (1928) at University of Udine. He published L’audacissimo viaggio (2017), Gli anni degli Cineguf (2017), Effemeridi del film (2020). His articles have been published in Italian and International peer-review journals such as Film HistoryNecsusBianco e Nero among others.

Submitted: 2021-07-12 – Published: 2021-12-20


Early on 2020, University of Udine signed a collaboration with Instituto LUCE, aimed to a digital restoration of a supposedly lost expedition film: Spedizione Franchetti nella Dancalia (Mario Craveri, 1929, b/w, silent). LUCE and University of Udine brought to light a large amount of film materials that included 35mm original negatives, DupPos Lavanders, Positives, and a 9.5mm reduction print but no trace of an edited version of the 35mm film. The pandemic forced the project to shift remote and forbid working on the original film materials. Therefore, an inspection of edge-to-edge digital scanned copies of every element was planned: a “digital fac-simile” (Gschwind 2002) through continuous scanning. Planning the philo-genetics of each digital element, on one hand we assume that digital environments support and sustain an “ideal allographic environment” (Goodman 1976), as to say “a premeditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality” (Kirschenbaum 2008) – a premise that legitimate a philological authentication of digital copy of analog films. On the other hand, digital technology tends to and “must produce perfect outputs from imperfect inputs, nipping small errors in the bud (Kirschenbaum 2008). Given this premise and the pivotal role that errors and innovations play in the stage of recensio and collatio, this proposal intends to reframe the “digital witness” by stressing the materiality of film (in digital film preservation) as an ongoing interpretation, where digital philology is always digital hermeneutics.

Keywords: Film Restoration; Digital Witness; Philology of Film; Film reconstruction; Film Inspection.

The arguments and the general structure of this article have been deepened and discussed collegially by the two authors. By producing this text, in particular, Serena Bellotti wrote paragraph “Excavating the (pro)filmic”, instead Andrea Mariani wrote paragraphs: “Framing the digital witness”, “Authenticating the digital witness”, “The prodigital and the scanning procedure” and “Conclusions”. The authors thank Patrizia Cacciani and Fabrizio Micarelli from Instituto Luce for their help and generous availability and the personnel of the library and historical archive of the Società Geografica Italiana

1 Framing the Digital Witness

In early 2020, the University of Udine signed with the Instituto Luce (Luce) a collaboration agreement aimed at digitally restoring a supposedly lost expedition film: La Spedizione Franchetti in Dancalia (l.t.: Franchetti expedition in the Danakil, 1929).1 Luce and the University of Udine brought to light a large number of film fragments that included 35mm original negatives, DupPos Lavenders, Positives, and a 9.5mm reduction print, but there was no trace left of an edited version of the 35mm film.2

Figure 1 - Report of the first survey made by in Istituto Luce archive

No international version was found nor documented, and no reliable, detailed reference about any complete edition survived.3

The Pandemic has forced the project to shift remote and forbid working on the original film materials. Therefore, we have dedicated a preliminary inspection to edge-to-edge digital scanned copies of every element from an assemblage of all the fragments into four reels. The Pandemic has produced a real-time simulation of a condition in which accessibility to the analogue witnesses of the film artefact is prevented. It has inspired philologists working on this film reconstruction to further consider the functions of the digital witness and the tradition of the film object and text.

In particular, this article will not present the final outcomes of the film restoration process. It rather discusses the preliminary questions solicited by the attempt to reconstruct a critical edition of this film: an experiment in phylogenetic and philology in a digital environment. Inside this “simulation” and for our philological purposes (an in-depth inspection and critical analysis of all the elements), we have requested a specific kind of digital transfer. Not yet a DPX scanning for digital intermediate (DI), nor a mere proxy access copy with the sequence of the frames, rather an integral, full-width edge-to-edge scan of every element. This article proposes that, under certain circumstances, a digital copy can serve as the authentic material and textual witness of a film, and that it can be used to excavate for philological and critical reconstruction. In doing so, we will also stress the current limits of such an approach and question how and when the recurse to analogue film originals is still inescapable.

2 Authenticating the Digital Witness

The digital intermediate usually introduces in the film restoration process a consistent amount of digital copies: raw digital tests, failed digital files, ProRes access copies, other than DPX files for post-production. In the critical scrutiny of what Lachmann’s ecdotic calls the tradition of a textual artefact, any physical inscription that transmits and conveys a given text is considered a witness. It can be included in the collection (recensio) and comparison (collatio) of its copies, whose innovations (i.e. artificial errors as well as material damages) determine correlations and genealogical relationships. Nevertheless, to what extent we can consider a digital copy a faithful witness of a historical film?4

Rudolf Gschwind, in a pioneering account, defined the kind of digital copy we have requested as “digital fac-simile”, or “a digital representation of the complete film strip as opposed to the sequence of frames provided by conventional film scanners (which ignore the rest of the film strip area)” (Gschwind 2002: 174). This article will explore the theoretical and operational implications of the digital fac-simile meant as a proper “digital witness” in the process of a film reconstruction. Indeed, the literature consistently emphasizes the DI process in film restoration – or the “film-to digital-to film” workflow (Fossati 2019: 63) – in questioning the muted approach to the authenticity of digital copies of films (Fossati 2019: 67). Conversely, minimum attention has been paid to particular kinds of digital copies such as the “digital fac-simile” or “a digital representation of the complete film strip” as an authentic critical witness of the film and an eligible artefact for film critical and philological inspection.

Although the issue of authenticity related to the digital copy of film has been widely debated in the film archiving sector, we will address this specific question from an ecdotic and philological perspective. We then stress a move from the film restorer to the film philologist, questioning the inner nature of a film witness.

According to Frank Kessler, each copy entering an archive is a document of its history (Kessler 1995: 30). Nevertheless, from the film philologist’s perspective, the authenticity and indexicality of the digital witness require specific evidence.

How specific this approach can be demands a technical reconsideration of such a term as “witness”. Bearing on a definition introduced by Cesare Segre in the domain of linguistics and philological semiotics, the witness is a “diasystem” where the linguistic and ideological system of one text's author intersects one of the copyist, or who (or what) produced a copy of that text (Chiesa 2007: 44). Therefore, one who inspects such an artefact must isolate and distinguish each original/copy manufacturing system, questioning the history, mentality, and culture that produced such an object. Leaving apart the strictly linguistic origins of the witness notion, this classical multilayered comprehension of the nature of a copy helps us reframing the debate about authenticity and indexicality in the philology of digital film copies.

In one of the first and most compelling arguments on historicity in the digital era of film, Philip Rosen stressed how the core question in debating the indexicality and authenticity of the digital copy relies upon a similar dual system of intertwined authorities. Here a profilmic event and a prodigital event require equal critical consideration. In other terms, Rosen stressed the fact that the “authority of the referent” can be excavated into the digital both ways: tracking down the “profilmic ‘here and now’ (or ‘there and then’)”5 (Rosen 2001: 306), and the prodigital event attesting to the encoding of “light intensities as numbers on a magnetized substrate” (Rosen 2001: 308). More particularly, Rosen suggested moving from indexicality stricto sensu to the “capacity of digital to imitate such preexisting compositional forms of imagery” in terms of digital mimicry.6

Digital mimicry is precisely the quality of digital copying and the argument Rosen raised against the ideological opposition between indexicality and the digital, a kind of idealization of the digital that would definitively prevent any assumption of credibility of a digital copy as a witness.

Conceptualizing a digital witness means then – as Rosen put it – “de-idealizing the digital” and stressing the hybrid temporalities and materialities overlapping into the digital copy: mimicry convey impure temporal and material histories, attesting the intrinsic hybridity status of the digital, its capacity to indicate and refresh the authority of its referent(s) – the material determinations of the profilmic and the prodigital – and, more importantly, it repristinates a specific criterion of credibility that proves how digital imagining “is not separable from prior histories of mediated representations” (Rosen 2001: 314). Digital mimicry would attest to the credibility of the digital fac-simile as a witness in film philology. Matthew Kirschenbaum went even further in sustaining this aspect when, relying on Nelson Goodman semiotic category, stated that “digital computers support and sustain an ideal allographic environment” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 135), namely, a state in which a given object fulfils its ontology in reproduction through what he called an illusion of immateriality. This has allowed us to trust in the “sameness” of the composition and representation of the Spedizione Franchetti film as text. What is at stake here, to paraphrase Kirschenbaum, is the formal materiality of the digital witness, meaning the formal symbolic manifestations elicited by a certain software. The illusion of immateriality Kirschenbaum is stressing, in fact, is given by the fact that “technology must produce perfect outputs from imperfect inputs, nipping small errors in the bud” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 133). While continually restoring the signals to their optimal state, the digital technology perpetuates a conservative environment where transmission of the film as text is guarantee and credible: a completing argument to Rosen’s digital mimicry.7

For what is at stake here, it has to be said that Rosen insisted on three levels of preexistent authority that the digital witness carries: the actual pro-filmic event itself, the manifestations of film as text and material object – what Barbara Flueckiger described as “recording process in combination with subsequent development, editing, optical works, colour grading, and printing” (Flueckiger 2012) – and the digital transfer (and subsequent operation in post-production). The individualization of the physics of the media apparatus and its operationality is thus crucial in defining the diasystem (S1=analogue indexing + S2=digital mimicry). According to that, excavations into the digital copy elicit forms of reverse engineering aimed at reconstructing specific technological operations that occurred in what Flueckiger defines as the first two histories of the film object8 (Flueckiger 2012): during the filming process (i.e., camera magazine’s film loading procedures, camera exposing operations etc.), in the printing phase (i.e., Light printing protocols), and an initial stage of editing (cuts and editing style). Conversely, the same attention must be paid to the technical procedures in the digital environment during the film transfer to digital.

That stated, no proper technical standard has been defined yet by the literature to produce a digital copy eligible as a philological witness belonging to the film tradition. Differently said, on the one hand, the authenticity argument about the digital mimicry could serve any digital copy of the film. Nevertheless, at what conditions a digital copy deserves to be formally included in the film copies scrutiny as a new witness (and a proper material object taking part in the film tradition)?

The digital witness we are considering for this article is a ProRes “digital fac-simile” of original negatives. This is assembled according to a general linear sequence, inferred by the archivist from the location of the reels into numerated cans. A general sequential numeric series localized on the side of perforations preliminarily guided the assemblage. However, not (yet) a real critical motivation led to the alignment of the fragments at this stage of the digital transfer. No edited versions survived to suggest a preliminary alignment historically justified, so this digital copy merely bears trace evidence of the appearance of the complete film strips as they were in the Luce archive’s storage. Furthermore, although an essential technical intervention of film repairing was made before digitalization to guarantee a safe passage through the scanner (a DObserver Cine7-D1 inspection table adapted for scanning), no digital post-production was applied then. Hence, this particular digital witness belongs to the mere S2=digital mimicry system,9 with the specific characteristics of an edge-to-edge digital fac-simile and the quality of an access copy. Yet, no DPX digital transfer was required at that stage. In fact, for critical inspection and excavations into the witness, an access copy quality would have to guarantee enough information and more suitable manageability for analysis and the comparison of fragments, for instance when working in the DaVinci Resolve software developed by Blackmagic Design.

3 The Prodigital and the Scanning Procedure

As we defined and processed it, the digital witness results from transforming a historical film as a tangible object into digital data. The full-width edge-to-edge copy is an inescapable characteristic that allowed to excavate a mimicked-trace-evidence of the pro-and-filmic event, thus providing a valuable fac-simile for the original film negatives, and a crucial support for a preliminary philological investigation aimed at film reconstruction. Nevertheless, the digital witness resulted from the film scanning is also introducing into the film’s tradition a new physical trace of the film with its proper qualities and innovations.

Flueckiger defined scanning as “a simple process of photographing; it is analogue in the first step, meaning that there is a proportional connection between incident light and the electric charge generated in the sensor. Only afterwards are these values mapped on a discrete scale by quantization and then assigned binary values by encoding the voltage into mathematical data” (Flueckiger 2012). This process is not neutral. It produces innovations into the film as a text and the film as a (new digital) material object incepting the film’s tradition. As Kirschenbaum highlighted, digital technology essentially “restores signals to near perfection at every stage” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 133) while continually producing innovations into the film witness as a digital material object. “The mathematics generates a bit sequence that serves as a redundant expression of the original data; if the two fail to match up during a read or write task, then an error is indicated, and the task is repeated. Users never see such errors, which are detected and corrected in the space of milliseconds. This contributes to the way in which the drive is perceived as an abstraction identified only by an arbitrary volume letter (‘C’) or an icon on the desktop” (Kirschenbaum 2008: 133).

Figure 2 - Example of an error occurred in reel 2 of the Spedizione Franchetti’s digital witness: an icon on the desktop overlaps the digital witness for a while at the beginning of the reel

If, on the one hand, the illusion of immateriality through signal and errors correction has allowed Kirschenbaum to talk of an ideal allographic environment for the film to be conveyed, on the other hand, these corrections are innovations in the forensic materiality of the digital witness. This can be excavated deep down into the range of small, localized glitches in the code and the surface perceived “at the junctions” between the analogue and digital states of film. The scanning procedure is primarily impacting such innovations. As Flueckiger put it, “the scanning is dependent on the properties of the light source(s), the camera properties, and the transport system applied to the film” (Flueckiger 2012). Any innovations produced in the scanned file are a significant intervention into the film's history and endangers its authenticity as a record (Flückiger 2012). If digital technology is producing innovations restoring signals, the scanner settings may also be responsible for producing its errors and damages. A first example concerns the creation of artefacts in the texture of even real digital glitches due to acquisition errors or to the scanning process speed. In the digital witness of Spedizione Franchetti, one frame has been wrongly digitized, and a portion presents inverted colours.

Figure 3 - Example of a glitch occurred in reel 1 during the digitization of our digital witness: a portion of a frame presents inverted colours

A second example concerns the identification of duplicated frames: crucial information here is the edge code reference in the peripheral area of the film, which allows clearing identification of duplicated passages.

Figure 4 - Example of a glitch occurred during the digitization of our digital witness: the edge codes repeated on the right in the second and the third frames allowes the identification of duplicated frames

These kinds of innovations are impacting simultaneously on both the formal and the forensic materiality of the film witness. Thus, these specific innovations are not easily distinguishable as textual errors (modifying the textual and formal materiality of the film) or physical damages (impacting on the material root of the code). Once again, the hybridity of the digital witness is attesting its specific nature.

These preliminary notes are stressing that the production of a digital witness for philological investigation is demanding a standard formatting procedure that is still missing in the ethics of film preservation.

The following paragraph will excavate the profilmic and filmic events the digital fac-simile enabled to reconstruct, emphasizing the temporal complexity and the historical overlaps in it. Hence, we will question what historical information we could excavate from such a digital copy and how this approach can help copies scrutiny and the forensic film reconstruction of archival films. In particular, these excavations into the digital witness are about the nature of film as a text (i.e. the exact sequence of frames, or the origin of errors in the content of the image), as well as a material object (i.e. the historicity of damages, or defects in lightning).

The conclusive paragraph of this article will then address the specific and verified parameters that should determine the digital witness for philological proposes (differently meant from digital restoration purposes), and the issue of the unicity of the digital witness. It will finally discuss how institutions and film archives can contribute to each digital witness's “status of authenticity” (Elsaesser 1997: 207).

4 Excavating the (pro)filmic

During the recensio and collatio of the Spedizione Franchetti’s fragments from the Luce’s archive, we planned an inspection of edge-to-edge digital copies on QuickTime and DaVinci Resolve. Every occurrence has been systematized and transcribed onto an Excel sheet. However, the excavations of the digital witness through multimedia readers and post-production software have limitations. Every new digital witness brings a series of innovations and error corrections that risk collapsing into one undistinguished plain scanning process and the digital mastering of the original data. For example, to make a distinction of physical damages or lacunae we find in the original, from the digital innovations resulted from the attempt to “compensate” them (through the settings and formatting of the digital output) is challenging. Accordingly, the philological inquiry always demands peculiar hermeneutical attention. That stated, we questioned the digital fac-simile to excavate a genealogy of the film analogue copies and the history of the film production and circulation: in particular shooting, printing and editing, exhibition and hints of different film versions. Furthermore, to flesh out this philological/hermeneutical scrutiny, we provided evidences based on historical film-related materials, such as the travel diaries and expedition reports.

Shooting. The frame stabilization procedure on the digital witness first proved crucial traces of the shooting habits. In the historical journals’ accounts of the expedition film, director Mario Craveri explained that during the shooting, he used “one 120 meters movie camera with a single tripod; plus, two other portable cameras of 25 meters of film each.” [Translated by the author] (Craveri 1936). This appeared evident in the digital witness, when we noticed two different dynamics of frame instability while scrolling the digital fac-simile: these were corresponding to two different kind of matte shapes. Indeed, we realized that a vertical instability occurred in correspondence of sequences shot by the bigger and more stable camera with a blunt corner matte.

Figure 5 - Reference for the circular mattes in reel 1 of Spedizione Franchetti’s digital witness

Instead, the two smaller cameras had pointed corners mattes, which we could recognize, isolate in few shots and relate to tilting instability caused by the crank manual use.

Figure 6 - References for the squared mattes in reel 1 of Spedizione Franchetti’s digital witness. Differences are evident in the top left corner: more rounded in the left frame and flatter in the right one

Still focusing on the pro-filmic event, the sequential order of the assembled fragments has been questioned through an integral transcription of the edge markings and numbers series, then systematized onto an Excell sheet. This strategy crucially revealed further aspects of the shooting habit. We noticed that the edge numbers scrolling order changed. Sometimes the edge codes proceeded in ascending order, and otherwise in decreasing one. This lets us infer about operational habits during the loading of the film in the camera magazines. Since the smaller cameras could load only a shorter film strip roller, the film needed to be prepared – blindly – putting the hands in a black sack (during the travels in the desert!) to safeguard the film from the light. This pragmatical habit suggests an “in reverse” film loading process. On the contrary, bigger camera’s magazine was usually loaded correctly, so that the ascending order is the one we can usually correlate to the shooting with the bigger camera – with few exceptions. In fact, the circular mattes rarely correspond not only to the ascending order but to decreasing one too, as the two extracts make clear.

Figure 7 - Extract from the Excel file in which we have transcribed information from digital witness. The shapes of the film mattes are highlighted in yellow if circular and in blue if squared; the sequences in decreasing order in orange and the ones in ascending order in green. In this way, it is easy to understand that there is not always a perfect correspondence between shape and order

Printing and editing. In the systematic scrutiny of the edge markers, we identified two sequences of handwritten numbers aside from both lines of the perforations. Through their organization onto the Excel sheet, we could compare and formulate an interpretation.

Figure 8 - Extract from the Excel file in which we have transcribed information from our digital witness of the Spedizione Franchetti. Different colors refer to different types of intertitles backgrounds; “/” states the absence of annotations; in [] the numbers/letters difficult to read and deduced from the previous and following numbers. In orange are highlighted the parts in which it is possible to see that light also impressed a part of the border between the perforations

Both appeared to be related to the notches: the shallow cuts along the edge of a film used to trigger the change of printing exposure in a film printing machine.10 The recurring numbers on the left side are written only at the beginning of one scene and are recursive: they usually go from 1 to 18 or at least 23 and then start again from 1, so that in each reel, we could count up to eight recursive numeric series; on this side, the handwritten number is located at the fourth frame after the splices, while the light notches are between the sixth and the seventh frame. On the right side, instead, a new numeric series is progressive along with the full extension of the four reels, from 1 to 517. Each number is usually marked both at the beginning and at the end of one scene. Here the splices precisely match with the notches and the numeration.

Figure 9 - Examples of the numbers handwritten on the film borders, in correspondence of the same film sequence. The “15” on the right is recorded at the beginning (frame on the left) and at the end of the scene (frame on the right); the frame in the middle, instead, report a “14” written 4 frames after the notch

Moving from the archive documentation of the Società Geografica Italiana in Rome, we could make some hypothesis about this numeric series. Indeed, back to Italy, Franchetti himself reported about the expedition at a conference at Teatro Augusteo in Rome11 on November 20th, 1929, when he screened some scenes from the film. According to that, we firstly inferred that the recursive numeric series was standing for an episodic editing structure of a film spitted into six to eight modules/episodes, to be separately screened as educational and illustrative moving slides in a conference. A second interpretation came from the lab technicians of the Istituto Luce. They directly put in relation the notches’ shape with the numeric series, suggesting that a double print process could justify them. The position and the shape of the notches on the left side could be markers of a first printing procedure in shorter blocks. According to one printer's limit, the operator could probably manage only 90-100 meters long strips of footage at time, and this could motivate the recursive numeric series on the left side. Each short sequence of footage was then printed separately.

Instead, the numbers and the notches on the right side correspond to the editing line of the entire film. Sequential order is suggesting a first original editorial scheme. In a second printing passage, the film has been probably processed integrally. We could find a similar double notation system procedure in another colonial film of the same period, preserved at the Luce archive: Nelle oasi. Viaggio dei sovrani nella colonia d'oltre mare (l.t. In the oases. Journey of the sovereigns to the overseas colony 1929). This print brought the same notation system on the film borders. These double series of notches also suggested that printing followed two processes: a first one in shorter separated blocks and a second one (in a time to be questioned) with the final editing sequence. In fact, we found superimposed mattes produced by the reiteration of the printing process. Indeed, the first printer left a more internal and blurrier sign, as the second printer probably had a more oversized matte that appears here more external and sharper.