Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Sea's Master Beast of the Ages Raging up from the Bottom of Time

Way back in the day...
Maybe fifteen years ago...
When Poster Mountain was but a wee child...
A mistake was made.

It wasn't necessarily our fault. The poster, for the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, was infested with mold. It was a special, colorless type of mold that only makes itself known when, in preparation for mounting, the poster is sprayed down with water and proceeds to disintegrate before one's very eyes.

John wasn't there. The freaked out employee who had unintentionally vaporized the poster went ahead and linen-backed it. Apologies and explanations were made to the client, and the poster was returned. In a very sad state.

Aside from fire, mold infestation is the most destructive thing that can happen to paper. Mold digests and excretes the "sizing," or the agent that keeps the paper's fibers fused together. Often the mold's excretions are visible in fun colors like pink or black. In this case our mold was shy, and its excretions were invisible.

Once mold has had it's way with paper, what you're left with is loose paper fibers, a horrible flaky powdery mush. It can be overwhelming to a conservator. The paper is often held together only by its printing ink. There are few known methods to remedy the mold problem in paper. Poster Mountain circa 1998 certainly had no tools to deal with a disaster of this magnitude.

Recently the client got in touch with us again. He and John discussed the poster, and John told him we would likely be able to do something to save it now that we have new mold fighting methods.

He offered to do the work for free.

Did you say free?

Yes I did.

John first did a gelatin facing on the front of the poster to stabilize the loose fibers.

Different poster, same process. The poster is gelatin-mounted face-down to a board with a protective hollytex barrier , left to dry, and then the old backing is peeled off. John then applied gelatin to the back of the poster, left it to dry, and linen backed it. This technique was innovated by John over a span of several years.

 The Beast was then handed over to Gabe. Gabe specializes in masking, or prepping the poster for airbrushing. Masking involves covering every area of the poster that won't be painted, since the airbrush produces a fine mist that tends to get everywhere. It can be a thankless, tedious job, with long hours of cutting tiny letters and shapes out of acetate with an exacto knife. It takes a steady hand and the patience of a saint.

Here Gabe is using a type of liquid latex called misket to cover some of the tinier areas. Once the paint has dried, the misket can be rolled right off with no damage to the paper.

The Beast after airbrushing the paper color. The text at the top is covered by masking, but most of the text at the bottom has been airbrushed out.

Much of the small text in the bottom margin had been skewed by the previous mount, with lines of text floating in wavy patterns here and there. So we cut our losses and airbrushed over most of it. This situation would be an excellent candidate for replacing the text with silkscreening.

An example of hand-lettered text replacement. This took about four hours.

The fact that we use silkscreening in certain situations may be totally unique among poster restorers. Whereas we would have spent days replacing this poster's text by hand, the silkcreening took seconds.

Gabe is the silkscreening specialist, and though he has plenty of practice The Beast would be a challenge. The large area and the amount of exact, intricate detail in the small text would provide plenty of opportunities for screw ups.

The scale would have to be exactly right, otherwise we'd risk overlapping with other areas of the printing. The registration, or placement of the silkscreen would have to be perfect, or we'd risk the whole thing looking slanted. The physical process of printing it would have to be calculated to the letter, or we'd risk the ink bleeding out and smudging or running dry before the end of the pass.

With a conventional silkscreen, the printer has many tries to get a perfect print and he can pick and choose which prints he wants to use. We'd only have one try.

A screen coated in photosensitive emulsion.
Our image, printed on mylar.

The mylar is laid down on the light table, the screen is placed over it, and the emulsion hardens wherever the light hits. Here we have a couple boxes sitting atop our arrangement in order to weigh it down flat. The screen is then rinsed using a high-powered hose, and if all goes well our image will wash out where it was protected by the printing on the mylar.

 Here comes the moment of truth. Pay close attention to their faces.

Mouths clamped shut. John has applied the ink and begun pulling the squeegee across the screen.

Mouths slightly open as they watch the ink running out toward the end. Will they make it??


Next comes restoration. Which means it's my turn with the Beast.

These are the three worst areas I have to contend with. It will involve replacing large pieces of the image, so I will have to work closely from reference photo print-outs. This is the type of work that we love in the restoration department: involved, and preferably spanning over multiple days.

Me in the zone. The reference photo is taped up right below the problem area. (We use a special, less sticky type of tape, totally safe for the poster.)
Blue Jacket Guy was formidable, but nothing compared to Brown Suit Lady in the bottom right.

Progress shots. Here I have just begun work on the Beast's tail and the crumbling building. I've done a rough undercoat of watercolor which, once dry, will give the surface a slight tooth, or texture, just enough for my colored pencils to stick.

Midway through the colored pencil stage.

The building in the foreground has been airbrushed toward the top and I will have to add the faint vertical stripes back into the facade. The building in the rear will need most of its windows replaced, and the middle building has a lot of missing spots as well. I will have to tread lightly with my pencils because of this poster's mold issue. Stabilized or no, best not disturb the Beast.

Before/afters of all three major problem areas. The poster is now finished and Gabe will spray a protective coating over the silkscreened area.

The final before and after. Are you tired? I'm tired. This was a long one, but I had to cover every step because the Beast provided a perfect, multifaceted example of all the things that make us different.



  1. Outstanding! You guys are my heroes. I love reading this stuff. Like a more conservationist-minded Mission Impossible team all coming together to use their special skill set. Fantastic.

    1. Thanks so much Linkster! I love the Mission Impossible image!

  2. Wow! Impressive. Takes lots of patience and confidence to do this type of repair. Excellent!

    1. Thanks Terry! It seems to require equal measures of confidence and humility. And constant awareness. Can't tune out for a second!

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you Mirosae! So good to hear your feedback!

  4. Great work. Quite impressive and inspiring.

  5. I cannot be more pleased with the results! A great job. Thank you so much. It looks wonderful up on the wall.