Andy Warhol made more than 500 films between 1963 and 1972. Some ran for eight and a half hours, while others lasted four minutes.
Soon after he was shot in June 1968, Warhol withdrew most of his early art films from circulation. After his death in 1987, a handful of those films went back in circulation through the Museum of Modern Art's film library.
Now, the Andy Warhol Museum in his hometown of Pittsburgh and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City will partner with a Technicolor company called MPC to make the films available in digital format.
'We truly do view the films as being as important as
Work begins this month in New York City on nearly 1,000 rolls of original 16-mm film, which will be digitally scanned, frame by frame. Each frame will be converted into a high-resolution image that is 2K, or two times the resolution quality of typical high-definition television.
The project, which covers more than a million feet of film, will last several years, because the process takes time and requires careful handling of the original films. Not all of the films, which have been housed at MoMA since the 1990s, are ready to be scanned because they must first undergo conservation, said Rick Armstrong, a spokesman for the Andy Warhol Museum. The films are among the most frequently requested works in MoMA's circulating library.
The digitization project is a joint effort by MPC, an Oscar-winning creative studio that crafts spectacular visual experiences, and Adstream, an Australian company that provides digital-asset management. MPC has produced visual effects for such films as Godzilla, Maleficent, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Life of Pi, World War Z and The Lone Ranger.
Patrick Moore, deputy director of the Andy Warhol Museum and adjunct curator for this project, said MPC employees are so excited about the work some of them are moving from the company's London office to New York City.
"We truly do view the films as being as important as a painting. Imagine if you found out that there were 100 unknown Warhol masterpieces sitting in a warehouse. That's how we view this unseen material. Many of the times when we show the films, we don't have 16-mm projection capability. We have to work from less than ideal digital transfers," Moore said.
Once the films are digital, they can be shown in their finest form, he added.
Warhol loved Hollywood cinema, but his work was influenced by Jack Smith and other filmmakers working in downtown New York during the 1960s, Moore said.
Warhol's films, Moore said, have a "do-it-yourself disregard for technical quality and a very naughty and precocious sense of humor in just making it up as you go along. Warhol had this interesting idea that it was OK if the film was boring or aggravated the audience."
Jack Smith, whose 43-minute erotic movie, Flaming Creatures, was censored in New York, appeared in some Warhol films. A New York judge deemed Flaming Creatures obscene. Police seized the film when it was screened in April 1963 at the Bleecker Street Cinema in New York City.
"Andy filmed the screening, and that film was seized by the New York Police Department and never recovered," Moore said.
Warhol had a successful commercial, dual-projected film called Chelsea Girls that was distributed in 1966.
"It has been shown here and at MoMA. It's long, and it's difficult, and it has no narrative," Moore said, adding it includes "many screen tests, solo monologues and people who are obviously enjoying some controlled substances."
The project will last two years, Moore said.
"We have to really make sure that we have all of the data on the films correct. We are working with the Whitney Museum of American Art to ensure that we are all using the same titles," he said.
Research on Warhol's films is being done by curators at the Whitney, and part of that effort involves determining exactly how many films the artist made. In 2017, Yale University Press will publish the definitive catalogue of Warhol's films. The same academic press published the first volume of Callie Angell's work on Warhol's films. A well-known film scholar, Angell died in 2010 at age 62.
Moore could not quantify the cost of the project, because MPC is doing it for free.
"MPC is doing this as a gift. We never went out and costed it in that way. We assumed it would be much more than we could possibly afford. They are a part of Technicolor. They have the capacity to do this in a way that a normal lab would not. They scan it at such a high level that it becomes the new master for the film," Moore said.
Some of the fruits of this project will be shown Oct. 17 when 15 Warhol films that have never been seen by the public will première at Carnegie Music Hall in Pittsburgh.