Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers (1967)
By Peter Conheim
Reading time 5 Minutes
The restoration and preservation of Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers provides a fairly unusual example of how neglect and disinterest occasionally pays off in dividends.
This ultra-cheap, Florida Everglades-filmed cornpone slapstick musical just happened to be shot on decent quality 35mm color negative stock, then just happened to have a very limited theatrical release (and so, the original camera negative wasn’t subjected to much use). Then it most likely sat on a shelf – evidently in decent storage conditions – for a couple decades (aside from one so-so transfer, with bad sound, for video release) before The Restorationists got our hands on it. We were delighted by its vivid, swampy greens and blues, and thrilled that it had not sustained significant physical damage over the years.
For such a pennywise production, it had the strength of high quality studio recordings of its musical numbers, which “pop” fairly well for coming off an old optical negative track (no magnetic masters were available). Remastering the music also proved to be similarly straightforward.
Where things got tricky in Cottonpickin’ territory was in color timing of the day-for-night sequences, however. The astute viewer may observe that several key scenes, notably the “chickenpicking” sequence of the title, are clearly photographed in daylight, but intended to look like the middle of the night. This common trick would be finalized not in the camera, but later, in the lab at the final stages of making 35mm prints, with the operator deciding how dark the scene should be. If no adjustments are made, the prints come out looking “as shot”… which, of course, is wrong. The same workflow applies for transferring to digital.
Unfortunately, nearly everyone associated with the original production of the film is dead or missing, so we had no one to consult on a proper “look”. The only reference print that exists is an entirely faded-to-red release version, and was of no use whatsoever.*
The Restorationists color consultant Ross Lipman carefully graded these sequences in multiple passes, comparing them against each other, and against the scenes bookending them, to make them appear as “natural” as possible – while still maintaining the inevitable day-for-night appearance, just as it would’ve been done upon original release. Is it exactly as it appeared in 1967? We will never know.
As with all such projects, film restoration is a fluid and somewhat subjective process – the original’s integrity and intent are the paramount goal, and there are many roads one can take to get there, each of which may make a minor detour. It’s safe to say, however, that Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers -- given its provenance, even in original release – has never looked better than it does in 2018. Is that a good thing? Jump in the Amphicar and find out for yourself.
*Cottonpickin’ Chickenpickers’ digital restoration is, to this writer, a perfect rebuttal to the “an original print is always best” stance which some film buffs insist upon. All existing 35mm prints – and that means all – have faded entirely to an unwatchable crimson red. There is little primary color remaining, because they were all printed on the poor Eastman Kodak stock of the time, which faded very quickly, without exception. There is simply no way to see the film in color on projected film in 2018 unless a new negative is made, at great expense, from this digital restoration.
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.