Emerald Cities (1983)
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 4 Minutes
Director Rick Schmidt is best known for his book, Feature Filmmaking at Used Car Prices, which he first published in 1988, when some crazy people were actually starting to make feature films on consumer-grade videotape and getting away with it, while Schmidt was teaching how to actually pull it off using good ol’ 16mm film for not that much more money.
A film like his Emerald Cities, though, is a perfect example of ultra-low-budget economy that is never precious about it – it’s technically clean and basic, showing his ease and craft, and never playing its cheapness for laughs, while still never letting you forget you are seeing something way out on the margins, something barely able to exist, just able to be created.
And so it followed that Schmidt was just as careful and deliberate with his materials over the years, and never sold out to some lame distributor who would force him to make cuts (or lose his negatives). When we approached him about working on Emerald Cities, the Restorationists were most hoping that he would still have the original magnetic soundtrack mix in his possession, so that we could bring the soundtrack to life in the digital realm in a way that his original 16mm release prints never would have been able to. And sure enough, he did.
He also still had the perfectly preserved original camera A/B negatives from the film. This meant that we were able to scan them in to the 2K digital format and reassemble the film, shot by shot, exactly as his original 16mm prints had been made in 1983, but with the advantage of not losing a generation of photochemical processing and film exposure. The result is a much sharper, gleaming Emerald, almost as if you are seeing the original negative projected in reverse. Colorist Andrew Drapkin used Schmidt’s 16mm release prints as a guide for his color scheme in his timing.
In addition to the original magnetic soundtracks being able to be utilized to bring much more fidelity to the soundtrack, we were thrilled to have Schmidt discover the original ¼” and ½” analog audio tape masters of the live Mutants and Flipper performances recorded for the film in 1980. Red Channels Studio restored these tapes, and we were able to combine them with the magnetic mixes to really make the musical segments shine.
Because the original music tracks were located, there was the option of mixing music in the film into stereo sound, but this was something the Restorationists immediately discarded – doing so would have created an alternate universe that the film simply could never have logically existed in 1983. There was absolutely no stereophonic 16mm film exhibition at that time, and even major theater Dolby Stereo wasn’t fully embraced by all cinemas. We think that having the music suddenly jump into stereo would have taken the viewer out of the film, a choice which has been made in certain other reissues and so-called restorations in the past. We’re leaving it the way it was, only a lot cleaner and with far greater detail. This, too, might be considered “Restorationists’ license,” but that’s one we’re willing to take.
Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.