Posted by on Jun 25 2009 | Student Work

Spring, the season of lilacs, sunshine, and general renewal, means something else for students of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation: marathon road trips to points south for a crash course in archival practices at some of the country’s finest institutions. This annual extended field trip offers two complementary rewards: an opportunity to work with equipment that the Eastman House Motion Picture Department does not have; and insight into procedures, work flows, and best practices in the real world. (One Selznick alum has likened Eastman House to NASA in its cleanliness and precision.)

Our first stop was the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in College Park, Maryland. The film department, managed by Selznick alumna Criss Kovac, is charged with preserving and making accessible the motion pictures created by the Executive Branch of the US Government. This encompasses far more than the duck-and-cover curios of the 1950s—everything from the IRS instructional films and US Information Agency propaganda shorts to documentary classics of the New Deal and all manner of military footage. Miles of it. The US Military is, by far, the most prolific “studio” of the Executive Branch. (In fact, NARA’s film archive is the only one I know of where one sometimes needs high-level security clearances for the rather prosaic task of sprocket repair.)

Criss led a tour of the motion picture section and related departments. (One commonality with Eastman House: stick all the film people in the basement.) A recent Congressional appropriation has allowed all the audio-visual offices at NARA to pursue major equipment upgrades, everything from state-of-the-art telecines (about which more later) to robotic microfilm scanners that look like something out of a mad scientist’s dental lair. All the collections are in the midst of a digitization project which will make it easier and quicker for researchers to view materials on site—or at home. (A partnership with has already made practically the whole of NARA’s Universal Newsreels collection available on-demand via DVD-R.) Of course, all the film material is still being conserved in climate-controlled vaults. The most storied and valuable film in NARA’s collection, the Zapruder footage, is kept in a special safe that is intimidating to say the least. Needless to say, we didn’t get a chance to handle that one, although Criss did arrange a screening of Curious Alice, a recent preservation effort that brings a dubious, absolutely insane anti-drug (or anti-anti-drug?), Carroll-inspired classroom film to glorious, retina-burning life.

We also broke into smaller groups to explore some of NARA’s film printing and processing equipment. Although NARA recently acquired a modern and quite fancy BHP printer, the department maintains a variety of older models; coincidentally enough, old, shrunken film is more capably handled by decades-old machines with appreciable wear-and-tear than it is by newer, high-speed printers geared toward churning out hundreds of release prints on short notice. NARA’s Bell and Howell Model J contact printer, for example, is about 60 years old and has been run by Marvin Glover for about 35 of those years. The Model J, a wholly mechanical workhorse from an age when standards were quite different, has great tolerance for damaged and shrunken material, and is consequently the only option for some of NARA’s more neglected film elements. (NARA also has a run-down Biograph printer from 1916 that they’ve long wanted to repair, with seemingly unfathomable rough-and-tumble rewards.)

Lest I give the impression that NARA’s interests are solely antiquarian, let me also discuss some other modern equipment. Criss demonstrated the quite impressive Sondor, which creates an optical soundtrack negative from a vintage magnetic track in one pass. (A production standard for decades, now-obsolete magnetic tracks are all that exist, sound-wise, for many government productions. These days very few theaters can play these in magnetic sound. The Dryden can, of course.) Even cooler was the Spirit telecine, a sophisticated film-to-video transfer unit that can scan at up to 4K resolution. (That’s twice the resolution of HDTV. Experts disagree about how much native resolution a frame of 35mm film holds, but 4K is generally deemed adequate for most purposes.) This extraordinarily gentle machine, which barely relies on perforations to guide the film through the scanning path, is capable of handling material (such as the short-lived cellophane-base newsreels intended for amateur projection in the 1930s) that would be ripped apart by even the Model J printer. Hardly an enemy of photochemical restoration methods or restorations, digital technology like the Spirit allows for high-quality scans of difficult material (including extremely faded color prints) that can manipulated, restored, and then be recorded back onto film. The final result combines the flexibility accorded by digital techniques and the physical  presence and permanence of film.

Our visit to the Museum of Modern Art’s Celeste Bartos Conservation Center in Hamlin, Pennsylvania was not quite as intensive. How could it be when our Poconos hotel was so remote that it didn’t even have a street address? (The Comfort Inn staff recommended that we use GPS to find the place and further recommended that we try dinner at the adjacent Twin Rocks Restaurant, a trucker joint with on-site showers, a bevy of stuffed animals in the gift shop, and the infamous Fruits of the Forest pie. The Twin Peaks fans in our class were quite taken with this diner, I should add.)

MoMA’s vaults are laid-back, compared to NASA (or NARA), at least. Bears and moose are known to walk by the windows now and again. Every room (and I mean every room, including janitorial closets and kitchenettes and elevator cars and every last film vault) is named after a Biograph short, a constant reminder of the institution’s archival patrimony. (The Museum has conserved the Biograph materials since a massive donation in 1940, the young department’s first substantial acquisition.) Conservation Center Manager Artie Wehrhahn gave us a tour and a detailed history of the 14-year-old building that was, to say the least, edifying as a lesson in the real-world compromises and trade-offs inevitable in such an undertaking. Artie was instrumental in the design of the MoMA nitrate vaults, which were subsequently copied by GEH, the Library of Congress, and UCLA.

Visiting MoMA is a complex experience for aspiring film archivists. As the first serious film archive (and cinémathèque and curated rental service) in America, their legacy preceeds them. Every can of film in the vault is cataloged and they have coped admirably with a constant influx of acquisitions and, what’s more, an ever-changing vanguard of video and multimedia art acquisitions. Film Collections Manager Katie Trainor, another Selznick School alumna, was also on hand and explained the intricacies of MoMA’s preservation workflow, funding sources, access plans, and the like. The recent appointment of Rajendra “Raj” Roy as Chief Curator of Film promises to take MoMA in a new direction. But don’t worry—they’re currently working on new restorations of two of D. W. Griffith’s most important post-Biograph features, Orphans of the Storm and The Birth of a Nation.

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    Kyle Westphal is a recent graduate of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY.

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