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Who We Are: Michael Hinton, Motion Picture Preservation Specialist

This is a guest post by Patty Templeton, who was a 2020 Library of Congress Junior Fellow Summer Intern.

Michael Hinton has been a Motion Picture Preservation Specialist at the Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation since 2009. Before joining the Library, Hinton worked in cinema for 35 years, having founded INTERFORMAT, a San Francisco-based company that focused on optical effects, blow ups, and graphics for film. INTERFORMAT’s credits include “Natural Born Killers,” “Selena,” “JFK,” “The English Patient,” “Naked Lunch,” “Breakfast of Champions,” and “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Hinton was an optical camera operator for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?,” a consultant to director Sam Raimi during the filming of “Evil Dead,” and worked on preserving the Zapruder film, which documented the John F. Kennedy assassination.

I spoke with Hinton about his career in film, heroes, and favorite projects. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.

How did you get involved in the motion picture film industry?

I was initially inspired by watching Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” in 1967 while living in Columbus, GA, as a young Army Lieutenant. I bought a 35mm Petri SLR and my love for photography and cameras, which had captured me as a child, began to unfold.

Then I went off to war and did not take very many pictures there. But I did manage to pick up a Nikon system overseas for a very low price—the military has some privileges—and brought it home with me in early 1969. While in Southeast Asia, I noticed a small ad in “Popular Photography” magazine touting the San Francisco Art Institute’s terse pitch “BFA, MFA in painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography and filmmaking.” I made the decision right then that I was going to San Francisco when I got out of the Army.

My first two years at the Art Institute I learned the art and science of black-and-white photography. I had some good teachers who were part of the avant-garde scene of the era and I figured I was on my way to finding a hip niche for myself in that wave.

But during the last semester of my second year, I took a basic filmmaking class and that set the stage for my career change, although I didn’t realize it yet. My interest began changing from still to moving images. The following semester I enrolled in all the filmmaking classes that I could, one of which was Optical Printing 101 and although I didn’t know it yet, my future path was sealed.

My professor, Gary Richardson, who was to become a best friend, imparted all his sage optical printing wisdom to me. I repeated his class and became kind of an apprentice to him in the same way he had mentored under effects luminary Linwood Dunn. Gary already had a somewhat successful optical printing operation in Oakland called Effects for Film, having essentially invented a front projection optical printing system.

Michael Hinton and Alex Duckworth-Ford, San Francisco, 1974. Photo courtesy of Michael Hinton.

I graduated with my BFA in 1973, took a job at JK Camera, learning and working the machine shop trade. I built my own printer and in 1974 started a company called INTERFORMAT in my Mission District flat, specializing in 8mm and Super 8 blowups, and 16mm titles and effects.

Why optical printing? What did you enjoy about it?

Optical Printing is pictures, machinery, cameras, precision controls, and the highest quality lenses. It has an intolerant procedural regimen in order to achieve the necessary quality, yet its aspects require fine adjustments, repeatable corrections, and sometimes spontaneous modifications. Optical printing is what made Industrial Light and Magic the greatest special effects company on the planet. It is why “King Kong” lit up a nation and why “Star Wars” rekindled it.

 

What’s the most complicated or interesting project you worked on at INTERFORMAT?

The most memorable was preserving the original 8mm Zapruder film to 35mm in early 2002. It was complex in that we had to capture the entire width of the 8mm film from edge to edge, since the film contained picture information and film IDs in an area that normally are never seen. This meant designing a special 8mm film gate for the project.

The National Archives, the archival home for the Zapruder film, wanted two 35mm blow up internegatives directly from the 8mm original. From those, we made two interpositives as well as B/W color separation positives, a recombined duplicate negative from the separations, and prints from all the negatives.

It was truly a privilege to handle that unique and precious piece of 8mm Kodachrome those few days in San Francisco. It was special because John F. Kennedy was my President. I was a senior in high school on November 22, 1963. I remember clearly when a teacher walked into our Civics class and notified us, and then later in the day when we learned Kennedy had died. I had heard about Abraham Zapruder and his film right from the start.

What about the most complicated or interesting project you’ve done at the Packard Campus?

“A Trip to Mars,” a 22mm Edison Home Kinetoscope.

Preserving Edison Home Kinetoscope 22mm film. This was an early 20th century home theater format that essentially contained as much screen time on a single 100 foot roll as 1,000 feet of 35mm. It was 22mm in width, containing three small adjacent images with perforations between each image. The projector would run the right-hand column of images forward to the end of the film, then the projectionist would adjust the aperture, run the middle column backward to the top, re-adjust the aperture and show the final segment in forward mode back to the end.

What’s your opinion on the most eye-pleasing special effects for long-term viewer satisfaction?

Hard to be unbiased here. I love the look of film, and film is not real life. I prefer regenerated film effects—stop-frame animation, generation loss, enhanced film grain, optical dissolves popping as they cut in and out, and added contrast and sharpness loss, all side effects of optical printing. So, modern optical artists spent time trying to reduce the analog artifacts using a number of aids, and Kodak was there to provide “ultra-sharp” and low contrast intermediate stocks, beginning in the 1970s.

I love to look for these analog signs of the art and of the artist. I love trying to decide what and how they did it. I don’t think I will ever lose that. The ultra-realistic looks that CGI is striving toward don’t do much for me. I much prefer seeing the filmic artifacts.

Who are your special effects heroes?

Linwood Dunn and Ray Harryhausen, for their innovation early on. As a child watching the 1933 movie “King Kong” on TV, I never thought I would meet one of the wizards behind the huge ape and his terror. But Linwood was that and much more—they even named an optical printer after him. Harryhausen was a pioneer in stop-motion model animation and gave us “Mighty Joe Young” and “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.” Finally, an optical printing maestro I met while working at Industrial Light and Magic, Bruce Nicholson, who earned visual effects Oscars for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and for “The Empire Strikes Back.”

What about a film preservation hero?

The late James Cozart, colleague and friend here at the Library, was truly dedicated to motion picture restoration and a kind and very interesting fellow, a literal encyclopedia of the art of preservation, optical printing, and many other things.

What does a day-in-the-life at the Packard Campus look like for you?

I arrive early before 8 am, beginning a nine-hour Compflex shift. I normally leave myself a note detailing exactly where I am in a project. If it is an optical printing job, I will set up the Oxberry optical printer for the specifics of the job at hand. If nitrate is the source, I check records for condition of the film including degree of shrinkage and note if any difficult conditions such as active decomposition exists. If necessary, I may confer with the inspector or previous handlers of the film for any special problems or considerations.

I frequently work on special projects concurrent with my other duties, such as reprinting and refreshing our supplies of countdown leaders used in preparation of elements for printing and digitizing, or tracking film process controls for gamma and density consistency. Occasionally I will be called on to digitally recreate new intertitles to match damaged or lost ones in silent films or generate motion graphics for specific preservations.

What would you as a kid think of your long, fantastic career in and around movies?

I loved movies as a kid. I was very young when I saw my first films. I do not remember who I was with, most likely my parents and my brother, but it felt like just me and that silver screen. I think it was around that era that network television began broadcasting movies one or two nights a week. I may have seen my very first films there. Movies were a way of life for young kids then. In the late ’50s, I was drawn into the horror genre, watching Universal’s classic monster films and werewolf remakes, but I never really felt drawn in or considered it a life’s work until much later.

Looking back, it seems almost expedient that I wound up at the Library, but putting all the parts together with my early love of art, music, cameras and printing, I believe that my proper place actually found me. The entrepreneurial spirit was instilled into me by my two grandfathers, each of whom had long careers of founding and running their own businesses and that spirit was manifested in my youthful calling and ultimately in INTERFORMAT.

To see this future as a child, I think I would have realized how blessed I would become to wind up with my hands in so many things that I loved and having so many amazing associations and working relationships with people in the Hollywood industry and on the international film front. Looking back from my viewpoint here at the Library, in one regard, my 35+ year run with INTERFORMAT was a type of dress rehearsal for this position which continues to satisfy me in so many ways.

Michael Hinton at the Packard Campus. Photo by Frank Wylie. 

 

3 Comments

  1. Alex Ford
    April 27, 2021 at 4:02 pm

    Having met Michael Hinton in 1962, Spring, and having developed a friendship with him lasting until this very time I am in total awe of the precision and accuracy of this interview and how he hit it right on target with regard to his career. He is one of those unsung heros of film and opticals that may never get an Oscar. He is the “Everyman,” of film excellence and part of the history of the supporting cast of film. It is hoped that he will be recognized by his university one of these days, an honor he so richly deserves.

  2. Frank Wylie
    April 28, 2021 at 7:26 am

    Great article! You work with a guy for years and think you know everything about him and then…wow.

    Mike is a treasure here in the motion picture lab; a real walking library of knowledge and skill that we tap on a daily basis.

    I can’t imagine what we would do without him and all the other Inspector/Printers who have such an interesting and rich skill-pool, coupled with vast experience.

    Oh, and he’s a nice guy!

    Thanks, Mike for being a friend and a valued colleague.

  3. Isaac Artenstein
    May 23, 2021 at 6:11 pm

    It was a great pleasure to read the interview with Michael Hinton a master in his craft — who went to the same High School I went to, and subsequently worked with me on two major projects: blowing up Super 8 footage to perfect 16mm for the Academy Award-nominated “In the Name of the People,” and subsequently creating the title and credits for my period feature film “Break of Dawn.” Michael and I share a passion for the classic Caesar’s salad, invented by Caesar Cardini in my hometown of Tijuana, Mexico. A note to Michael: I’m working with the owners of the Caesar’s Hotel and Restaurant that will reveal it’s history and all the magic and mystery of the origins of the culinary classic (I still have the recipe you gave me back in the 80’s !). This message has my email address, feel free to contact me!

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