Deb Stoiber's Posts

Deborah Stoiber is the Nitrate Vault Manager at The Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center. She graduated from The L. Jeffrey Selznick School in 1998. After graduation, she spent time at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, NY working on their 16mm collection.

Nitrate film inspection happenings with the Selznick School of Film Preservation

Posted by on Oct 10 2012 | Student Work

The new school year is in full swing, and this year we have nine new students in the Motion Picture Department, learning the finer details in archiving and preservation. One of the greatest prides of The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation is the ‘hands-on’ experience given to each student during their time at George Eastman House.  Even if the student has never handled film before, or comes to us with years of experience, it is important to always start with the basics.  Recently three of our new students, Almudena Escobar Lopez, Amber Bertin and Shannon Fitzpatrick were able to sit down on a work bench and begin their student careers with nitrate motion picture film. Each of the students were given various elements from the collection to inspect, catalog, label, and of course, each found unique conservation issues to address during the inspection process.

Almudena Escobar Lopez is attending the Master’s Program in conjunction with the University of Rochester.  Originally from Ourense (Galicia) Spain, Almudena started her first week of archival studies cleaning film with a slight mold problem.  Using the approved cleaner and taking proper care the area she was working, Almundena cleaned the edges of her film and the inside of the film cans to reduce the mold spores stored with the film.

While it may look like a lot of films needing inspection, Amber Bertin was able to meet the tasks assigned with inspection of a duplicate negative and part of a fine grain master.  Her detailed work help clear up one record incorrectly marked from the wrong country!  A native of Houston, Texas, Amber is also enrolled in the Master’s Program here at George Eastman House.

Shannon Fitzpatrick, our Master’s student from San Antonio, Texas found quite a problem in two of her reels-mechanical damage.  This film has been torn previously by a machine or from poor handling, and in this case, it was never correctly repaired.  Shannon began by peeling off the old tape, cleaning the damaged area, and applying new tape correctly to prevent further damage.  Although the frames will never be perfect, they are greatly improved.

The Nitrate Vaults currently houses more than 23,000 reels of nitrate film, making it necessary to have clear and concise records for each and every element.  Learning and understanding the location and retrieval system is important to prevent misplaced reels or lost paperwork.  At the end of the first week, these three students were able to pull and retrieve materials, continuing the conservation process for the rest of the Selznick School class as they too will be spending time over the next few weeks here in the Nitrate Vaults.





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The Rise and Fall of John Gilbert

Posted by on Apr 09 2010 | Motion Pictures

In the summer of 1931, MGM star John Gilbert began working on a new picture, WEST OF BROADWAY.  After completion, BROADWAY was presented to preview audiences before its nationwide release.  According to the review in Motion Picture Herald, previewers in Glendale, CA laughed at the dramatic film. The reviewer commented, “If it was the purpose of MGM to lead John Gilbert up to the guillotine and end the waning popularity of one of the most popular stars the silver screen ever known, then West of Broadway is a great success…the picture may be described as the most monotonous piece of cinematic stupidity ever recorded.” Ouch.

Gilbert’s star was fading.

Happier times: Gilbert with Renée Adorée (above-top) and Claire McDowell (above)  in THE BIG PARADE (1925).

Born John Cecil Pringle in Logan, Utah to actor parents, Gilbert arrived in Hollywood as a teenager. He first found work as an extra with the Thomas Ince Studios, and quickly rose through the ranks in various studios, building his reputation as an actor.

In 1924 he moved to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and starred in such high-profile silent films as HIS HOUR, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (both 1924), and THE MERRY WIDOW (1925). Then Gilbert landed the role of Jim in the war epic THE BIG PARADE (1925) [preserved at Eastman House], which became one of the highest grossing silent films in cinema history. Gilbert was now a full-fledged star.

In the trenches: Following THE BIG PARADE (above) Gilbert’s career takes a turn for the worse.

With the coming of sound, John Gilbert, like others, found his career in jeopardy. It’s generally assumed that his voice was inadequate. Actually, he had a fine voice; it was a personality clash with Louis B Mayer and poorly written scripts that did him in. Films like HIS GLORIOUS NIGHT (1929), REDEMPTION and WAY FOR A SAILOR (both 1930) helped end Gilbert’s career.

John Gilbert died in 1935, never recovering to his matinee idol status.

I have seen a few of Gilbert’s silent and sound films, and I am curious to see WEST OF BROADWAY.  A comedy on relationships, Gilbert plays Jerry, a wounded WWI veteran who discovers his fiancée has left him for another man.  Jerry pretends to have also met someone else, and hires a “fake fiancée” to show off around town.  Misunderstanding and chaos ensue as the couples figure what their true feelings are for each other.  It was a commercial failure when it premiered— but would romantic comedy audiences today agree with the original reviews?  I wish I knew.  As the original camera negatives slip through my fingers during inspection, I can’t help but wish I had been there that opening night.

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Another kind of film ‘clip’

Posted by on Mar 23 2010 | Motion Pictures

When we send film material to the lab to create new copies, it is important to create a faithful representation of the original. Each scene in a movie is different, and there can be many lighting changes. In order to produce an acceptable print, different scenes must be adjusted for different light exposures. How do we know when these changes need to happen? They are cued right on the film.  There are many ways to cue a film for printing. One of the oldest methods is Lawley clips.

In Restoration of Motion Picture Film by Paul Read and Mark-Paul Meyer, Lawley clips are described as “small metallic clips inserted between two perforations of the negative.  The disadvantages of this method were that there was a risk of perforation damage in the original and also there was a lot of intensive preparation work.  This method has not been used for many years.  Many archives and film collections have negatives with these clips and to ensure the safety of the film and also of another printer they have to be removed before the film can be printed.  Removing Lawley clips can be a tedious and risky exercise as the film can be damaged around the perforations during the removal.”

How true this is.  Part of our nitrate inspection is to identify and remove these little pieces of silver-nickel metal wrapped around the perforations of these films.  These clips— once helpful in making new prints— are now obsolete in modern printing and should be removed before causing damage to the film.

Using a pen knife, we can gently separate the metal clips from the film.  Each reel of film can have dozens of these metal clips attached, and it takes several hours to remove.

Removed Lawley clips

Once the work is completed, we have a film that fits better in the can, and free from any physical damage caused by these clips.  Each step we take helps prolong the life of our amazing collection!

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Yes, it’s Nitrate…or is it?

Posted by on Mar 12 2010 | Motion Pictures

Working in a facility that stores over 24,000 reels of nitrate film can sound daunting, but actually…I love it.  Everyday is a new adventure, as I wind through reels of film discovering new information.  One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: How do I know that I am looking at nitrate?

Well, first off, nitrate motion picture film was manufactured circa 1893 until 1951.  If a film was made after 1951 it is most likely not nitrate. In 1951 companies such as Kodak began the manufacturing of film stock to a newer compound called acetate (commonly referred to as ‘safety’.) Original nitrate stock was highly flammable… unlike acetate, which does not burn. One of the most common and simple ways to see which stock you have is to look at the edges of the film!

For example, Kodak printed clearly in black letters on the edge of the film indicating the stock.

As you can tell it is pretty simple and straightforward.

Now, if you see this information printed with WHITE LETTERS ON A BLACK BACKGROUND you are looking at print-through, or information coming from a previous generation of the source.  Always look for the clear black writing! In this photo, you can see the words ‘Agfa’ printed clearly in black and the words ‘nitrate film’ are in white.

This white lettering does not mean your film was manufactured on this stock.   It is print through!

The physical material is a story of its own, regardless of the images and sound printed on the film.  This is what we look for to help us identify when the film was made: if it is an original, a censored, foreign, or altered film.  This is what helps us preserve the images for tomorrow.

Oh, and if you are unsure of what materials you have in your home, here’s a reassuring hint: 8mm, super-8mm, and 16mm film stock were never manufactured on nitrate, regardless of the maker.  So if you have these around the house, don’t worry… they are safe!

Tune into future blog entries for more tips on how to identify your home movies…

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To Infinity and Beyond!!

Posted by on Mar 05 2010 | Motion Pictures

The United States Post Office is one service that everyone uses, almost daily.  We use it to send all sorts of things – letters, photographs, gifts.  But how do you ship dangerous goods? 

Nitrate film is considered a class 4 flammable solid, cannot be shipped using regular methods, and must meet strict handling and documentation requirements. In other words, you cannot send it through your mailbox!

Using the standards of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) the United States follows set standards for shipping goods by air transport at both domestic and international levels.  Every aspect is tested, monitored, and regulated ranging from strength of shipping containers to size of labels, to specifically formatted declaration forms.  Every dangerous good is given a four digit number to identify the material in any country-regardless of the native language.  The person packing the hazardous material must be a trained and certified shipper, with his or her certificate lasting only two years before re-training is required.

Since 9/11, air transport in the USA has been under strict scrutiny, and changes were made not only to declaring goods, but to the regulation of maintaining safe passage.  So while many Americans saw an increase in security at the airport, they were unaware of the many changes made in shipping consumer goods across the country.   

Over the years, the motion picture department at GEH has been involved in extensive shipping of nitrate film both in the USA and around the world.  By sending nitrate film to places such as Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Sweden, Australia and Japan, we have truly made ourselves an international archive.  And here goes another shipment out the door…


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