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Home / Film / Interviews / “Technology Always Changes but Film is Forever”: Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin talks restoration, personal favourites to restore and more

“Technology Always Changes but Film is Forever”: Vinegar Syndrome’s Joe Rubin talks restoration, personal favourites to restore and more

Establishing themselves as one of the premiere restoration and distribution companies of the last decade, Vinegar Syndrome has taken films lost to the fans, collectors and filmmakers from a bygone era and unleashed them into a digital world for a new generation. Vinegar Syndrome has been acclaimed for their work by such outlets as The New York Times, Village Voice and the Alamo Drafthouse. Founded by restoration artists Ryan Emerson and Joe Rubin, Vinegar Syndrome’s impact and influence are felt around the world with an ever-growing catalogue of films that goes back as far as the 1950’s to the 1990’s. A personal journey for Rubin, Emerson and those at VS, The Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies – NYC will open its classroom doors to the history, madness and magic of restored cinema on Tuesday, May 8th.

“Preserving Genre Film with Vinegar Syndrome” will be part of the continuing lecture series and discussion forum hosted by Miskatonic University NYC with Rubin as the speaker. Happening at the Film Noir Cinema in Brooklyn, NY, the evening will be filled with stories, insight and discussion on one of the most interesting topics in modern film. Diabolique sat down for a few minutes with Rubin to talk the market of restoration, personal titles to restore and the focus of film in a new era.

Diabolique: The market continues to grow and evolve for film restoration. Joe, what got you into this art form (with your partner Ryan Emerson) back at the beginning of this decade? Why does the title of Vinegar Syndrome remind you of your goal of excellence in all of the films and fans you have reached?

Joe Rubin: That’s a long story, but basically, I was involved in film restoration and had amassed a very large film collection, plus connections to many filmmakers. As I was working with Ryan on the restoration side, he suggested that we start doing something with some of the titles I had and had access to. So, we did. Neither of us expected the response that we got, and we’ve definitely evolved as a company in our now over five years doing this.

As for why we call it, ‘Vinegar Syndrome,’ this was a name that Ryan had already registered as a domain (long before we were working together in any capacity, so he suggested using it for this venture. But practically, it’s basically a way of reminding people that the films we restore (and countless others) are always decaying and if they’re not preserved, eventually they’ll be lost.

Diabolique: According to my research, VS has worked with at least 20 different catalogues and overall you have restored over 500 films. Your label primarily falls between the 1960’s-1980’s with really no particular genre as a focal point. Why more of the focus on that timeline? What makes that block of twenty years so crucial to be restored for a new generation? Is there a particular year (or years) that challenges the process of restoration the most?

Joe Rubin: The era we span in our releases isn’t as limited as you may think. We’ve released films made as early as the 1950s and as recent as the mid-90s. My personal favorite period for films (of all sorts) is the 1960s through 1980s. It was truly the most independent era in the history of cinema and saw a greater diversity of filmmakers and types of films being made than any other period before or after. It was also the heyday for genre films and as that’s our focus, it’s kind of inevitable that most of the titles we handle were produced then.

Diabolique: I know there are certain films or creators that I have wanted to build a conversation with for radio or writing, that drove me to be better. What was the first title you truly wanted to restore for personal reasons? What has been that challenging title to fully restore to life?

Joe Rubin: One of my proudest achievements was restoring The Telephone Book (1971). It was a film I’ve loved since my video store days. Although I try to make sure that I like most of the films we release, The Telephone Book was something of an inspiring discovery for me when I first saw it at age 16. Being able to restore and release it was really satisfying.

In terms of difficult, each film presents unique challenges. Another particular point of pride was in reconstructing the director’s cut of Pigs (1973). This proved challenging as the negative had not only been cut but cut with new inserts placed in the film and certain scenes re-edited out of order. As such, we had to both source a few minutes from print as well as match cut the rest of the film.

The Telephone Book (1971)

Diabolique: What you do is an art. You bring to life films thought lost or destroyed. On the flip side, many filmmakers who have talent only focus on their film process, they struggle with the business side after the project is done. What kind of a process has the business side of video restoration been for Vinegar Syndrome? How has social media and word of mouth/convention influence the business side of restored films?

Joe Rubin: Money has never been my goal. It still barely is. But in order to break even, we’ve ventured into more ‘mainstream’ territory every now and then but have tried to remain true to our mission statement. Initially, I was very hesitant to release anything from the 90s because I thought it would be selling out. But demand for 1990’s exploitation films continues to grow so we’ve dabbled and have done well with them. At the same time, I’ve still tried to maintain a sense of integrity in terms of the titles we select. Even the ‘mainstream’ ones. Sure, there are always going to be films that I’m not into and are put out because there’s an existing fan base, but we all try to keep that to a minimum. This year, in particular, I’m quite pleased with. We have some major titles coming up like Sweet Sweetback (1971), but I’m very happy with nearly everything in our Blu-ray schedule.

Diabolique: Has the process of film restoration evolved in this decade? How much of an on-going education is this process?

Joe Rubin: Technology always changes but film is forever. And that’s true. We preserve films digitally with the tools that are currently available but who knows what will be considered best practices in the future? I think the biggest and most important technological changes that have occurred in the past decade is that film scanners and restoration software are developed with more of a goal of maintaining the filmic qualities of the image rather than what was somewhat preferred in the early 2000’s making film more soft and less filmic to appease the eyes of people who didn’t understand what film was supposed to look like. I think across the board, film digital restoration has finally been focused where it should have always been: more on film, less on digital.

Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971)

Diabolique: How does your journey translate to a class with the Miskatonic NYC? What will this class and discussion entail? How do you even begin to create a program in a 2 and half hour window?

Joe Rubin: Basically, this class was pitched to me one day while I was at the Severin Office. I always enjoy guest lecturing and like fielding questions about the restoration process. I think that’s the most important thing to focus on because while the movies themselves can be fascinating, it’s really crucial that people understand that there truly is a right and wrong way for a film to look (I.e. VHS fetishizing). In so far as preparing the class, I was initially concerned about adhering to some formula that would require a horror focus, but since we’ve never focused on any specific type of film (and still don’t), I’m hoping to be able to engage a discussion about film restoration and why it’s important to preserve genre films. I’m really hoping that the audience will bombard me with questions and disagreements, so we can get into some good arguments and debates.

Grab your tickets at https://www.miskatonic-nyc.com/events/preserving-genre-cinema-at-vinegar-syndrome and find out more about Vinegar Syndrome at https://vinegarsyndrome.com

About Jay Kay

Jay Kay has always been a fan of horror in all of its dark corners since watching “Face of Death” and “Friday the 13th” back as a wee lad. Jumping onto the scene with the world wide Rondo nominated weekly horror talk radio show, “The Horror Happens Radio Show”. Jay’s impact, understanding of the intangibles and unique conversational style enthralls, entertains and educations fans who listen each week as the show has reached over 800 first time guests in under five years. When Jay is not in the bunker in Blairstown with his partner “The Ghost”, he is writing to old school Verve jazz or working on the show, he is traveling to horror conventions, film fests and events across the country gathering more conversations and giving opportunities to everyone in the world of horror and the dysfunctional family. A huge fan of Asian horror, Jay is a constant student and targets to be the best in the world at what he does. Support horror and join him if you dare… Find out more at https://horrorhappens.com/ Twitter @horrorhappensRS & @horrorhappensFF

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