A still from “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (2016) shows what time and degradation can do to an image shot on nitrate film.
By Gregory Crofton
You can tell “Dawson City: Frozen Time” is a fully realized work of art almost right away.
Director Bill Morrison, an expert in working with archival film, reveres his subject: restored black-and-white film images once thought lost forever.
Clips from some of Hollywood’s first feature films, buried as trash for decades under an ice rink/swimming pool, are paired with music composed by Alex Somers to hypnotic effect.
Morrison made 4k scans of these films at the Library and Archives Canada after he met Paul Gordon, one of its conservators, in 2013.
The film reels had been buried in that spot by theater managers who had run out of storage above the tundra, and no longer felt comfortable throwing reels of film in the Yukon River.
Dawson City, located in the Yukon in northwestern Canada not far from Alaska, exploded to life during the Klondike Gold Rush of 1896. And it being the end of the line for movie theaters in North America, Hollywood didn’t want to cover the cost of shipping them back home.
The distortion and degradation left by time can be beautiful to watch. The two-hour nearly silent film — a few words are spoken to mark the beginning of “talkies” — does require patience, even some occasional breaks, but the investment pays off.
By building the film chronologically, Morrison was able to use old news reels to help develop storylines. And there are many, all likely backed by great deal of research. The birth of Dawson City, a Gold Rush town, is fascinating thing to watch. Did you know that Frederick Trump, President Donald J. Trump’s grandfather, made a fortune running a hotel/brothel in the region?
There’s also the story of the birth of cinema, and how nitrate film, which is quite flammable, was manufactured. And there’s something special included for baseball fans. Out of the more than 500 reels of film found under ground and then cataloged by archivists, one contained footage from the 1919 World Series, the White Sox versus the Cincinnati Reds. It’s notable among fans because of the Black Sox Scandal, in which eight White Sox players threw the series for cash.
Morrison’s technique involves piecing histories together with archival film footage and new reels, and setting it to original music. He attended The Cooper Union, a college in New York City, where he earned his Master of Fine Arts degree.
More about the work of Bill Morrison