Archive for the 'Motion Pictures' Category

Nitrate Did Wait

Posted by on May 01 2015 | Motion Pictures


In the year 2000, the International Federation of Film Archives held a special program at the British Film Institute. It was called “The Last Nitrate Picture Show.” David Francis, former head of BFI’s National Film and Television Archive, was its godfather. His successor, Clyde Jeavons, was the chief curator of the series. A book was published for the occasion, titled This Film Is Dangerous, edited by Roger Smither. Fifteen years later, nitrate film hasn’t gone away. Its valedictory appearance at the National Film Theatre in London turned out to be a “see you later” rather than a farewell. Francis, Jeavons, and Smither are also doing fine. They are the guardian angels of the festival you are about to attend.

More than being dangerous, nitrate film was an endangered species from the beginning of its tormented, beautiful life. Because it is chemically unstable, archives and museums have tried to transfer its images onto other carriers; hence the catchphrase “nitrate won’t wait,” adopted in the 1970s as the mantra of preservation activists. In some countries, nitrate film must be destroyed after duplication. Projecting it is forbidden everywhere except at a handful of specialized venues. The Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House is one of them.

In quantitative terms, nitrate prints are a legion—well over a million reels worldwide. Because of their fragile condition, most of them can be used only for the purposes of preservation. Some prints, however, still possess most of their original radiance and can be projected on a big screen. You are about to witness their resurrection in a unique event where cinema will speak on its own terms.

Nitrate film projection is a curatorial discipline in itself; as such, its performance is a synthesis of art and science. The Nitrate Picture Show is also a celebration of all of the individuals and organizations in charge of this mission. Its motto is a variation of our predecessors’ call to action: nitrate can wait. It did. Here it is.

Full 2015 program schedule:

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An Interview with Artist Aura Satz

Posted by on Mar 17 2015 | Exhibitions, Motion Pictures

On display at George Eastman House through April 26, 2015, the installation Eyelids Leaking Light features two recent works by the London-based artist Aura Satz. Featuring close-ups of eyes from early experiments in color printing, Chromatic Aberration (2014) uses film elements from George Eastman House to explore the aesthetics of “color fringing.” Doorway for Natalie Kalmus (2013) is an audiovisual work that transforms a Bell & Howell lamphouse used for color grading into a grotto of prismatic lights and clanking doorways. The work pays homage to Technicolor’s color consultant Natalie Kalmus, whose name appears in the credits of hundreds of color films including The Wizard of Oz (1939), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The Red Shoes (1948). Satz has created works that engage with a wide range of technologies throughout the twentieth century, but the two works currently on display at Eastman House highlight her investment in questions surrounding early color film technology.

Satz’s work cuts across film, sound, performance, and sculpture. Her art focuses on the complex intersections between the history, technology, and aesthetics of media, while exploring the ways in which they inform human perception and agency. Satz is also interested in bringing to the fore key female figures that are largely excluded from mainstream historical discourse in an ongoing engagement with the question of women’s contributions to labor, technology and scientific knowledge. Often involving extensive research, consultation and collaboration, her work is informed by the histories of media and the ways in which these technologies overlap. Satz has performed, exhibited and screened her work nationally and internationally at the Tate Modern, Tate Britain, Barbican Centre, ICA, BFI Southbank, Whitechapel Gallery, Oberhausen Short Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Paradise Row gallery, and the New York Film Festival.

Ryan Conrath, one of the curators of Eyelids Leaking Light, recently spoke with Dr. Satz about her work.

Install shot of Doorway for Natalie Kalmus at George Eastman House

Install shot of Doorway for Natalie Kalmus at George Eastman House

Ryan Conrath: How did you become interested in color?

Aura Satz: My interest in color followed on from a body of works I made about sound and sound technologies. I have always been fascinated by the inherent vibratory and unsettling qualities of sound that make it unwieldy to write or encode. There is a sense of approximation or loss of authenticity, an inevitable interference of noise and distortion. Looking closely at color made me realize how inherently unstable it is. Colors will inexorably fade, dissolve, and degrade, which makes it impossible to fully systematize or standardize. Color is highly unreliable and subjective on the level of perception; it is difficult to translate effectively into language or describe with any precision. Color has often been accused of being distracting, disruptive, garish, child-like or feminine. In working with forms of notation, transcription and reproduction, I am drawn to those points at which sound or color reveal an intrinsic resistance to codification.

I am also very much committed to revisiting the undervalued (and mostly underpaid) contribution of women to the history of labor and technology. It was through this research that I came across the women who hand-colored and hand-stenciled early color films at the turn of the century. This in turn led me to explore the history of Natalie Kalmus. She was the color consultant for Technicolor (and wife of Technicolor inventor Herbert Kalmus), and worked on most of the classic films we associate with hyper-saturated Technicolor. She also wrote about composing color scores for narrative films, much like a piece of music. Sadly, none of her scores survive, but this concept of a “color score” really appealed to me. Intriguingly, the Bell & Howell color-correction machine used punched paper tape to encode the color sequence, much like the perforated paper familiar from pianolas or the punched cards of early computers. I have made works featuring both of these and found the idea of color data stored in punched tape highly resonant with a musical score, and tangentially connected to earlier inventions such as Rimington or Wilfred’s Color Organs.


RC: You are deeply invested in so many of these complex questions around the history and technology of film, in an almost scientific way at times. At the same time, ambiguity and indeterminacy lie at the heart of your work. How do you make room for both of these impulses as you proceed with a given project?

AS: I am really interested in exploring modes of sustained attention, of close looking and listening. This is clearly echoed in the scientific methods for examining and studying the world. Several of my films employ the microscope or magnifying lens in order to facilitate a more intense, at times almost disorienting tactile experience. This allows viewers to see something from a different and unexpected angle. Some of my projects make reference to historical subjects who worked in this way, such as the women hand-painting each individual film frame, or in Her Luminous Distance, a project I made about women astronomers studying small differences of star patterns on near identical photographic plates. At the same time, I want to facilitate such a mode of perception in the viewer by offering an  almost trance-like experience through the act of close attentive looking. By looking in this way, one begins to discern visual and aural patterns, like an underlying code. My works encourage a reading that is still uncertain of its intended purpose, a visual or auditory meandering. As I mentioned earlier, I am attracted to those subjects which allow me to reveal a certain resistance to codification. I like to de-familiarize the sense of scale, of agency, or of structural stability. In Doorway for Natalie Kalmus the valves or doorways which control the amount of color become hinges which do not commit to a topographic inside or an outside. The camera is continually shifting position, hovering, not quite at an exit or an entry point. Likewise in Chromatic Aberration the close-ups of eyes in early color film experiments are both from behind the camera lens and in front of the screen, inside the perceptual body and outside of it. I was inspired by a scene in Powell and Pressburger’s 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death (US: Stairway to Heaven), where the transition from the reality of color to the black and white of the afterworld is conveyed from the viewpoint of David Niven’s eyelid, from inside the body, behind the eyes. Technology is clearly a tool for extending and projecting outwards, but it also collapses or folds back into the body, blurring boundaries in the object/subject relationship. So to answer your question, I am interested in a scientific approach to uncertainty and indeterminacy, without necessarily aiming for resolution.

Install shot of Doorway for Natalie Kalmus at George Eastman House

Install shot of Doorway for Natalie Kalmus at George Eastman House

RC: Along similar lines, can you talk a bit about your approach toward archival materials?  I am particularly interested in this because so much of the archive is about notation, accounting, and categorizing.

AS: In my research processes I delve into history, but I like to think of my work as dialogic, whether I am in conversation with the past, encountering a material relic or artifact, or in dialogue with contemporary collaborators, musicians, historians, archivists, etc. To me these past moments in history, the technological or archival objects I investigate, or the people I approach as collaborators or consultants, are all elements which speak back to me.  So I suppose I see my work as attending to modes of storing, archiving, inscribing, and bringing these elements into speech, both in terms of my subject matter, but also in my conceptual framework. My films about sound reproduction devices are very much about these language containers which preserve the voice and then play it back, as well as the slippages, distortions, glitches and interferences that are integral to this process. For example, my project about Daphne Oram and her invention of a graphic sound machine centers on a notation system that translates writing directly into sound or music. The film is simultaneously about her notation system, her musical output, her writing, her invention, and her voice, as much as it is about the conversation I am having with her in the past, through her work, and how I am to certain degree spoken through by her.

My interest in working with the early color film experiments at George Eastman House came from a fascination with technologies at patent stage, that are not quite successful yet, which still reveal a hesitant experimental quality. I consulted the archivist James Layton in trying to identify which early technologies might allow for more color fringing effects, and came up with the Two-Color Kodachrome process, in particular the test shots done in 1922, which were not at the service of a cinematic narrative. The purpose of these was most likely just to try out how effective the color film might be in conveying skin tone, which also brings to mind later calibration reel leaders known in film labs as China Girl (a few frames of an anonymous woman accompanied by color bars), but also Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests.

I wanted to try and rewind to the moment when people had not yet seen themselves in color film, and to evoke the de-familiarizing experience of seeing oneself reflected in color, perhaps distorted, abstracted, and therefore open to a more surreal and dream-like inner vision. I was keen to use the archival reels in a way that highlighted the materiality of the film strip, so that through magnification you would start to see what happens on the surface of the print, such as the fringing effects of misaligned colors. In doing so, one can become lost in haptic qualities of the film grain. I was equally keen to make the film lab technologies that I was using to handle this reel speak back through the footage, so the contact printer blinks back at the footage of the eyes. The process of handling the archival footage feeds into the rhythm of the film, providing an acoustic rhythmic pulse and an editorial pacing which is not quite animation but somehow disrupts the framerate, from a slow stroboscopic flash to a flickering eye blinking, much like the flutter of an insect trapped in a peep hole.

Still From Chromatic Aberration

Still From Chromatic Aberration

RC: What role do you think experimental cinema has played in suggesting alternative directions for color in film? What other artists/filmmakers have you drawn inspiration from in this sense?

AS: As I said earlier, what draws me to use color is the impossibility of truly fixing it, and the potential of creating a perceptual experience that somehow exposes this. The doorways or peep-holes onto color in the two films at George Eastman House highlight the impossibility of preventing one color from bleeding into the next, either in the actual print, through a doorway crack, in the editorial pacing which on occasions rises to a flicker, or in the afterimages that are created through accelerated chromatic juxtaposition. These color fields become an unstable environment that draws the viewer in and washes them over. Rather than systematically structuring or fixing color it revels in color’s ability for dissolution.

There are so many fascinating and completely unexpected crossovers between more experimental practices and the more mainstream film industry. For Doorway for Natalie Kalmus I was inspired by the history of Technicolor, but also by the horror films of Dario Argento, and most crucially, the experimental filmmaker Paul Sharits. I am really drawn to his work with flicker and color after-images (such as Shutter Interface), but his color scores are especially astounding. They are scores and notations for films, as well as artworks using the actual filmstrips themselves, which he termed Frozen Film Frames. These are closely aligned with color organs and some of the scores made by Alexander Wallace Rimington, or the ones I imagine Natalie Kalmus might have made for films such as The Wizard of Oz or Gone with the Wind. For Chromatic Aberration I had several points of inspiration: Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death mentioned before, but also Peeping Tom and the importance of image seen through the camera lens, including the grid. I was also inspired by Marie Ellen Bute’s films, and Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight. To me these unusual crossovers between mainstream and avant-garde or experimental practices are of interest precisely because, again, it is about disrupting boundaries, examining what is usually overlooked, and finding improbable anachronistic connections in order to dismantle hierarchies.


Chromatic Aberration – Artist Interview from Northern Stars on Vimeo.


George Eastman House is excited to welcome Dr. Satz to Rochester on April 16, 2015. At 6 p.m. that day, she will deliver a talk at the Dryden Theatre. To supplement the show at Eastman House, Satz will also present a screening of several of her other works at the University of Rochester, in the Gowen Room (Wilson Commons). For details on the on-campus event, please contact Ryan Conrath (


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The Dawn of Technicolor: The Filmography

Posted by on Mar 02 2015 | Motion Pictures, Other

The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935, a new book by James Layton and David Pierce, is now available for purchase from George Eastman House and other online retailers. In addition to a historical account of Technicolor’s formative years, the publication features a comprehensive filmography of all two-color Technicolor films from 1917 to 1937. The filmography was compiled by myself and James Layton, with the help of a team of dedicated researchers including Daisuke Kawahara, Almudena Escobar Lopez, and Catherine A. Surowiec. I was constantly surprised by the collections we uncovered while researching this underdocumented subject. In this blog post I will share some of our findings, which are presented in the book as a resource for students, scholars, and anyone interested in early Technicolor films.

Just glancing  at the illustrations in the filmography will give you a sense of the subjects frequently photographed in the two-color palette. Frame enlargement from The Doll Shop (M-G-M, 1929). Image: George Eastman House.

Just glancing at the illustrations in the filmography will give you a sense of the subjects frequently photographed in the two-color palette. Frame enlargement from The Doll Shop (M-G-M, 1929). Image: George Eastman House.

What You’ll Find in the Filmography
The filmography is a detailed catalog of feature-length films, films with color sequences, advertisements, cartoons, travelogues, live-action shorts, tests, and abandoned productions shot in two-color Technicolor during the silent and sound eras. The films are listed in chronological order by premier date, but an index at the back allows you to search by title, personnel, color process, film studio, and production type (all-color features, all-color shorts, and feature inserts).

Sample entry from The Dawn of Technicolor filmography.

Sample entry from The Dawn of Technicolor filmography.

Each entry in the filmography includes a synopsis, cast and crew list, release dates, select bibliography, notes on the use of color, and archival holdings information for surviving Technicolor film elements. Inventories from the Technicolor Corporate Archive provided internal documentation on the lengths of color footage and number of prints ordered by producers. These resources gave us insight into Technicolor’s output, its clients, and the growing acceptance of color in the film industry.

Release shipments indicate that 1,029 feet of Technicolor was printed for Ben-Hur (M-G-M,1925). During the film’s extended release 1,531 prints were shipped to theatres nationally and abroad. In total, 1.5 million feet was printed in Technicolor. Document: Technicolor Corporate Archive at George Eastman House.

Release shipments indicate that 1,029 feet of Technicolor was printed for Ben-Hur (M-G-M,1925). During the film’s extended release 1,531 prints were shipped to theatres nationally and abroad. In total, 1.5 million feet was printed in Technicolor. Document: Technicolor Corporate Archive at George Eastman House.

New Discoveries
During our research we identified a significant number of films that were overlooked in other filmographies. Two years ago we started with a list of 141 two-color Technicolor films compiled from various published sources. In its complete form the filmography now accounts for the existence of 371 features and shorts, in addition to fourteen abandoned productions and tests for which color footage was shot but never shown to the public.

Supplementing our research from the Technicolor angle were archival collections at other institutions, which provided valuable context on the production and reception of the films. We looked at studio contracts and legal files to study Technicolor’s business and finances. We reviewed production reports and schedules to understand the demands of filming in color. Among the most revealing documents were personal interviews with Technicolor cameramen who described working on set with enormous lights and film equipment. These individuals were remarkable for constantly pushing the limits of two-color Technicolor artistically and technically.

Left: Paul Whiteman and his band pose for the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence from King of Jazz (Universal, 1930). Right: Although the two-color Technicolor process could not reproduce blues or yellows, the resulting color scheme conveyed the essence of the musical number. Image: George Eastman House.

Left: Paul Whiteman and his band pose for the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence from King of Jazz (Universal, 1930). Right: Although the two-color Technicolor process could not reproduce blues or yellows, the resulting color scheme conveyed the essence of the musical number. Image: George Eastman House.

Preserving Film Heritage
When possible, entries in the filmography are illustrated with frames scanned directly from nitrate and safety prints. For some films only fragments and clippings remain, whereas others survive in varying states of completeness due to physical deterioration and the dispersal of prints over time. We were fortunate to work with many colleagues in the field who opened up their collections and shared their knowledge with us. The illustrations are a fascinating window onto the world’s film archives and private collections.

Clara Bow made her first and only appearance in color in Red Hair (Paramount, 1928). Image: Library of Congress.

Clara Bow made her first and only appearance in color in Red Hair (Paramount, 1928). Image: Library of Congress.

The production of films in two-color Technicolor spanned a twenty-year period between the first film, The Gulf Between (1917), and the last, Kliou the Killer (1937). No color prints exist for either film—a few nitrate frame clippings remain of The Gulf Between and Kliou survives only as a black and white 16mm print. Fifty percent of the 371 titles documented in the filmography no longer survive in color in any form. It is our hope that the filmography will create a better understanding of what elements survive across the world’s film archives, and will better inform others and enable further preservation work.

Interesting Stories from the Filmography
We encountered so many surprising finds throughout the course of our research. Below is a sampling of some anecdotes included in the filmography:

On With the Show (1929). This film was the first all-Technicolor all-talking picture but unfortunately it only survives complete in black and white prints. Bit-by-bit, however, more and more color footage keeps turning up. Approximately fifteen to twenty minutes of the film now exists in color.

Sports of Many Lands (1929). The benefits of filming outdoors are evident in this travelogue shot in Argentina, England, Hawaii, and Martinique. This short was produced by Colorart Pictures, a company founded in 1926 to make films exclusively in Technicolor. Although its output was previously poorly documented, we discovered that Colorart made more than 50 films in Technicolor over four years.

White Pants Willie (1927). During this period, Technicolor had contracts with studios to produce color sequences in black and white films. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find any information about the color sequence in this Johnny Hines comedy.

Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924). This western was the first all-color feature produced by a Hollywood studio. According to reports, the director Irvin Willat used color very creatively. This film is lost except for a few nitrate frame clippings which are illustrated in the book. After Willat’s death, a print was found in his home, but it had already decomposed.

Explore Technicolor’s history at!

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The Dawn of Technicolor: a new book from George Eastman House (Part One)

Posted by on Jan 13 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Exploring the Archive, Motion Pictures

The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 is a new book written by myself and David Pierce, and published by George Eastman House. It is the cornerstone of the museum’s 100th anniversary celebrations of Technicolor—the pioneering company that successfully brought color to the movies.

This lavishly-illustrated book recounts the first two decades of one of the most widely recognized names in the American film industry. As authors, David and I have painstakingly reconstructed Technicolor’s early years from a wealth of previously untapped internal documentation, studio production files, firsthand accounts, and unpublished interviews. The book features more than 400 images, and includes a comprehensive annotated filmography of all two-color Technicolor titles.

This is part one of two blog posts delving into the book, giving you a glimpse into its scope and contents. Part two, which will follow in a few weeks, will introduce the work that went into creating the filmography and sourcing the accompanying frame enlargements.

Left to right: Frame enlargements from Melodie (Martin Justice, Colorart Pictures, Inc., US 1929), It’s a Great Life (Sam Wood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929), Redskin (Victor Schertzinger, Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., US 1929), and Manhattan Serenade (Sammy Lee, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929).

Left to right: Frame enlargements from Melodie (Martin Justice, Colorart Pictures, Inc., US 1929), It’s a Great Life (Sam Wood, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929), Redskin (Victor Schertzinger, Paramount Famous Lasky Corp., US 1929), and Manhattan Serenade (Sammy Lee, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp., US 1929).

The Dawn of Technicolor investigates the people and technology behind this pioneering motion picture corporation. And these are supplemented with production histories and further context on the state of the motion picture industry, competing color technologies, and exhibitor and audience response to color films on the screen.

The book is broken down into ten chapters, covering the years 1915 to 1935 in depth. Although Technicolor was formally incorporated in 1915, the story really begins in 1912 with the company’s predecessor, Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott, Inc., an industrial research firm from Boston, Massachusetts. Over the following twenty years, Technicolor developed a series of two-color processes as necessary steps toward full-color photography and printing. But despite success in the laboratory and in small-scale production, the company was plagued by repeated disappointments. The feature films The Gulf Between (1917), The Toll of the Sea (1922), Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926) each showed tremendous promise in photography and color design, but implementation flaws resulted in technical problems and commercial failure. With the support of patient investors and the visionary leadership of Herbert T. Kalmus, Technicolor eventually prevailed against daunting odds to create the only commercially viable color process for motion pictures.

Technicolor’s president and co-founder Herbert T. Kalmus, 1930.

Technicolor’s president and co-founder Herbert T. Kalmus, 1930.

The Dawn of Technicolor investigates these vital make-or-break years, as the firm grew from a small team of exceptional engineers into a multimillion-dollar corporation. Color provided new creative tools for filmmakers, but also introduced new challenges on set, in the laboratory, and during projection. We chart the making of pivotal films in the process, from the troubled productions of Ben-Hur (1925) and The Mysterious Island (1926-29), to the early short films in Technicolor’s groundbreaking three-color process: Walt Disney’s animated Flowers and Trees (1932) and the live-action La Cucaracha (1934). The book spotlights the talented engineers and filmmakers associated with Technicolor, and the remarkable technical innovations that finally made color films practical, changing the film industry forever.

Researching this under documented period of Technicolor’s history was both challenging and rewarding. The backbone of the book is drawn from documentation in the Technicolor Corporate Archive and other collections at George Eastman House, including research notebooks by the engineers behind the company’s early processes. These were supplemented and contextualized with important but untapped collections from other institutions and private individuals, including previously unaccessed court files, Herbert Kalmus’s unedited autobiography notes and memoranda books, and a series of unpublished interviews with former Technicolor personnel conducted in the 1970s. These provided an unprecedented glimpse into the activities of Technicolor’s operations during the 1920s and 30s from the men and women directly responsible.

The Technicolor collections at George Eastman House include internal memos, research notebooks and work diaries from the 1920s and 30s.

The Technicolor collections at George Eastman House include internal memos, research notebooks and work diaries from the 1920s and 30s.

One of the strengths of The Dawn of Technicolor is the emphasis it places on wider context. Technicolor never operated in isolation; the firm was an active part of the film industry, influenced by business and audience trends, and a string of technological advancements, such as the introduction of sound. Studio files from some of Technicolor’s most important clients during this time, such as M-G-M, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney, reveal the struggles the company faced in scaling up its operations and providing consistent quality.

The wealth of documentation consulted during the research for this book is matched by the quality and diversity of its illustrations. Crystal Kui was the book’s research and illustration coordinator and was responsible for locating and selecting the best images from a potential pool of thousands. She worked with a host of museums, libraries, and archives around the world to secure high quality reproductions of photographs and original film elements. Our goal was to faithfully reproduce the look of two-color Technicolor prints from as many surviving examples as possible. We are proud that of the 428 illustrations in the book, 217 are made directly from nitrate prints and negatives.

he book is available to purchase from the Eastman House store.

The book is available to purchase from the Eastman House store.

The Dawn of Technicolor can be purchased now from the Eastman House store, and will be available from Amazon, and other good online retailers in February.


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The Films That Never Were

Posted by on Jan 07 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Motion Pictures

Conceptual artwork for The 13 Clocks

Conceptual artwork for The 13 Clocks

One of the joys of processing paper collections in the Moving Image Department is seeing some of the truly astounding work that was done before a film made it to screen (for example, the conceptual artwork above). But occasionally the story of a movie ends with this pre-production work.

Those with an interest in film are well aware of the concept of “lost films,” which are films that have no known existing copies in either archives or private collections. In most cases these films are from the earliest decades of film production and all we have go on are the promotional materials and production correspondence.

But what about those proposed film projects that were never completed, for which there was never any filmed evidence? In these cases the paper materials are all we have to document this phase of a filmmaker’s career and interests. Correspondence with collaborators, draft scripts, preliminary budgets—these paper items give us all we know about what might have been.

I am currently employed as a Project Archivist in the Moving Image Department, processing the manuscript collections of four independent filmmakers: Leo Hurwitz, Douglass Crockwell, James Reese, and Lothar Wolff. This project has been funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) as part of their Hidden Collections program. “Hidden collections” are collections housed in repositories that have no basic inventory, no online presence, and no way for potential researchers to discover them. CLIR’s program funds projects that help make such collections more easily discoverable in an online environment.

Wolff at The March of Time

Wolff at The March of Time

Wolff, the first filmmaker I worked on, started his career as a publicity agent in Germany in the 1920s. He emigrated to America prior to World War II and was the chief editor and assistant producer for the newsreel series The March of Time, before working as an independent producer from the 1960s to the 1980s. Towards the end of his diverse career he focused on a scientific interest that had lasted throughout his work (he referred to himself a “scientific moron”), producing projects for the National Geographic Society and others, many of which were made for public television.

As is often the case in dealing with filmmakers, the films that Wolff actually produced are dwarfed by those that never made it out of the planning stages. In these collections, one gets a sense of the whole of a filmmaker’s career—topics that interested them, hurdles they had to cross, and just simply how amazing it is that anything ever gets produced in the first place.

Wolff’s collection is full of material like this, allowing us to see the process from start to finish as well as what problems could potentially kill a project (usually financial). For example, in Wolff’s collection there are three proposed series of particular note. One is Then and Now, a suggested retrospective of The March of Time comparing and contrasting then-current events with archival footage. Such a production would have recontextualized the newsreel for a more modern time.

Then and Now proposal

Then and Now proposal

Then there is The TV Bible, a proposed German television dramatization of The Old Testament for which Wolff was hired as a script editor. After completing his work, Wolff was no longer involved in the project, and a note in the collection materials indicates that he was unsure of its status or if it ever was completed. This project – which consists of 94 folders – shows the vast amount of paperwork that can be behind an uncompleted project.

The TV Bible materials

The TV Bible materials

These materials for unproduced works not only encompass scripts and screenplays, but other material as well, such as artwork for a proposed adaption of James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks (photo at top). The story had been adapted for The Motorola Television Hour in 1953, but in the 1960s there was a proposal to do a feature length version. The project went through preliminary stages, and at one point Alec Guinness was approached for a role (when he turned it down he cited, in part, potential commitment to David Lean’s similarly unproduced Gandhi).

Alec Guinness letter regarding The 13 Clocks

Alec Guinness letter regarding The 13 Clocks

Completed films do not represent the full scope of a filmmaker’s career. It is through the paper materials that we discover not only lost films, but ideas that never quite made it. Some of them may have evolved into other, later projects, and some may have been briefly considered and then tossed aside for one reason or another. The information these manuscripts contain is essential to a proper understanding of a filmmaker’s life and work, and with this project we hope to bring these paper collections—covering both produced and unproduced material—back into the light.

Stacey Doyle & Ken Fox on Manuscript Collections in Moving Image Archives
Saturday January 10, 2015 from 12:15 to 1 p.m., Curtis Theatre

Stacey Doyle and Ken Fox, project archivists in the Moving Image Department, will discuss the essential role of manuscript collections in a moving image archive and how these items are handled by archivists. This discussion will be framed by their work on the project “Documenting Their Films: Hidden Collections of Four Independent Filmmakers.” Free to members; incl. w/ museum admission, or $6/$3 students, talk only.


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