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Inside the Film Archive

14 Feb
Film & Media Archive stacks

Washington University Film & Media Archive stacks

The climate controlled vault at the Film & Media Archive was designed to address the challenges of storing film and other media to ensure the material lasts for the maximum amount of time and remains in the best condition.

Film preservation efforts varied over time, but unfortunately 90 percent of all American silent films made before 1929 and 50 percent of American sound films made before 1950 are lost. ( Dave Kehr (14 October 2010). “Film Riches, Cleaned Up for Posterity”New York Times.

To properly store film the temperature and humidity must be controlled and provide a stable environment for the materials. Filmmakers and historians recognized the need for this and the Museum of Modern Art in New York was one of the first institutions to collect and preserve film. Followed by the founding of the  George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in 1947, the American Film Institute founded in 1967, and The Film Foundation, created by Martin Scorsese in 1990. This is not an exhaustive list by any means, but over the years film preservationists have  continued to make advances in how film is stored and treated.

The Washington University Film & Media Archive currently contains 6,500,000 feet (based on can size),  1,300 linear feet (manuscript boxes), 19,900 video tapes, 10, 150 audio tapes, 4,650 books, 160 CDs, 800 DVDs, and 25,000 photographs.

 Photos by Alison Carrick. 


Inside the Film & Media Archive – Film Winding

21 Jun

When a Film Archive receives a collection it may have been stored in less-than-ideal conditions. The storage cans might be rusty and the film might be on projection reels. A projection reel is not ideal for long-term storage so one of the first steps in handling film is to remove it from decaying cans and wind it onto an archival film core. The newly wound film will then be placed in a polypropylene can to protect the film. When a film is wound on a core, it should be wound with an even tension and the edges of the film should be even.

Here, Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist, handles a film from the Harry Wald Collection. The film is removed from its rusty storage can, wound off the projection reel onto a film core. The last photo shows the end result with an evenly wound film ready to go into its new can. The Film Preservation Guide published by the National Film Preservation Foundation has detailed information on how to handle, wind, and inspect film.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist. Photos by Alison Carrick.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist winds a print from the Harry Wald Collection onto a new film core. Photos by Alison Carrick.

Inside the Film & Media Archive – Film Inspection

24 May

Film inspection is an integral step in the workflow of a film archive. Inspection must be done before a film is projected, sent out for preservation, or any other treatment. Other aspects of film inspection can involve cleaning the film, repairing splices or tears, and the completion of a Film Inspection Report.

Here, Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist, inspects the film, A Regular Bouquet, a documentary by actor and filmmaker Richard Beymer made during Freedom Summer in Mississippi (1964). Portions of this film appeared in episode five of Eyes on the PrizeMississippi: Is This America? (1962-1964). 

The National Film Preservation Foundation has an online guide that talks about the special handling, care, and equipment that is needed to safely inspect a film. Filling out the Film Inspection Report is a vital step in this process where the archivist can record specific data about the film. Is it a positive or negative, how many feet is the film, what is the gauge (16mm, 35mm, etc.), is it silent or sound? The archivist can also note if the film needs major repairs, has many scratches or perforation tears, if the film has shrunk, or has vinegar syndrome, a process where the film degrades and gives off a strong smell of vinegar. With this knowledge the film archivist can make decisions on future care or treatment of the film.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist, inspects a reel of film.

Irene Taylor, Film and Media Cataloging and Preservation Archivist, inspects a reel of film. Photos by Alison Carrick.

Inside the Film & Media Archive

10 May
Equipment and film reels from the Film & Media Archive - Washington University

Equipment and film reels from the Film & Media Archive – Washington University. Photos by Alison Carrick.

We are introducing a new feature to the Out of the Archive Blog where we open up our vault and stacks to give you a glimpse of the equipment, materials, and items we work with in the Film & Media Archive.

Pictured here is a Steenbeck flatbed film editing suite. Eyes on the Prize I, shot on 16mm film, was edited on this system. Now housed at the Film & Media Archive, the editing suite is in working order and can handle two optical tracks and three magnetic sound tracks.

When Henry Hampton began filming Eyes on the Prize I, film was still the dominant medium for documentary productions. Technology changed rapidly and between Eyes on the Prize I, completed in 1987, and Eyes on the Prize II which aired in 1989 Hampton changed his editing technique. Eyes II was shot on film, as were the other series Blackside produced, but when it came time to edit the Steenbeck was not used. The film was transferred to 1″ video, edited, and then transferred back to film for the theatrical release.

Even though the majority of editing is now done on non-linear digital editing systems, the Steenbeck is still extremely useful when a film print needs to be inspected or viewed as it is much more gentle than projection.


The National Film Preservation Foundation

26 Apr
The Two Orphans (1911), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The Two Orphans (1911), Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research.

The National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) is a great resource for information about film preservation and news on the latest developments in the field. The National Film Preservation Foundation was created by the U.S. Congress in 1997 as an nonprofit organization to help save films which would by unlikely to survive without public support. They have developed grant programs to enable film archives across the county to preserve films that might otherwise be lost.

The Film & Media Archive was a recepient of a grant from the NFPF last year and preserved the only known footage of noted writer and critic Ford Madox Ford. The film, George T. Keating Home Movie featuring Ford Madox Ford, is now preserved and access copies can be viewed at the archive.

The NFPF’s website is a great place to learn more about film preservation and find resources, guides, and examples of perserved films:

All in all, it’s a great place to start learning about film preservation and exploring lost, unknown, and recovered films.

Image from George T. Keating Home Movie featuring Ford Madox Ford

Image from George T. Keating Home Movie featuring Ford Madox Ford

Disaster Preparation Workshop – Oct. 1, 2012

14 Sep

A one day workshop on disaster preparation and wet salvage of archival and library materials will be held at Washington University West Campus Conference Center on Oct. 1, 2012. This is a hands-on event for archivists and librarians sponsored by the Association of St. Louis Area Archivists (ASLAA).

Libraries and archives in the Midwest are vulnerable to many types of natural disasters including floods, fires, tornadoes, and even earthquakes from the New Madrid fault. This workshop will cover basics of disaster planning and recovery of materials such as paper, photographs, textiles, film, and video. There will be lectures and a hands-on workshop giving participants a chance to observe the ways different media are damaged in a disaster and then actual experience recovering wet and damaged materials. The workshop will be suitable for beginners through experienced participants, and will address issues for handling special collections and archival collections.

The workshop is hosted by Washington University in conjunction with the National Archives at St. Louis and will be held at the West Campus Conference Center. The Association of St. Louis Area Archivists is sponsoring the event and accepting registrations. For more information contact ASLAA or the National Archives at St. Louis.

Student Assistants in the Film & Media Archive

24 Aug
Small film reels in the Film & Media Archive

Film reels in the Film & Media Archive

Original film boxes in the Film & Media Archive

Original film boxes in the Film & Media Archive

Elliot Wilson has been a student assistant in the Film & Media Archive for the past two summers. We have been very lucky to have him and other dedicated and knowledgeable students working in the Archive this summer. In a guest blog post, Elliot shares his experiences working on projects in the Film Archive including transcribing interviews from the Blackside series, The Great Depression. Thanks to Elliot and all our student workers for their valuable  contributions!

Elliot Wilson:

The end of my second summer at the Film & Media Archive snuck up on me. Yesterday, I suddenly realized that only a few days remained before I went back to school. I won’t have finished everything that I started – never the plan, luckily – but I can look back in amazement at the exciting projects that have progressed during my time here.

I’ve never felt like a student worker at the Archive. Sure, there have been days when I’ve considered changing my permanent address to the copy machine in the Cataloging Department, and I am certainly no stranger to the (squeaky) Archive shelving carts, but I have been lucky enough to spend most of my hours in the extremely engaging work of transcribing video interviews. As I tell my friends, I get paid to listen to old people talk. I couldn’t be more thrilled about it. For two summers, I’ve listened carefully to stories collected by Blackside Inc. for their 1993 documentary The Great Depression. The people interviewed include luminaries Gore Vidal (profiled here) and Maya Angelou; politicians and activists, like Congressman Hamilton Fish and United Auto Workers’ Victor Reuther; and countless others who survived hunger, unemployment, political unrest, and drought, and whose stories and names would have disappeared without Blackside. It’s both frightening and inspiring that almost all of these interviews were filmed before I was born – and that nearly everyone featured in The Great Depression has since died. A summer job in a library transformed into something much greater for me, an electrifying opportunity to immortalize the lives of those who enabled our own.

Indeed, so many of the men and women whose interviews I’ve transcribed feel alive to me: Ruth Ring Morgan’s loving memories of her uncle Pretty Boy Floyd paying for a poor family’s shoes jarringly contrast with John Lee Kelley’s, whose father, Erv Kelley, Floyd shot and killed. Joe Robinson, nephew of the Arkansas Senator by the same name, chuckles when he thinks about being a drunk passenger in a drunk airplane (“‘Lawrence, that’s the last time I’ll ever take a ride with you, old boy!’”). Dave Moore hauntingly remembers the Hunger March at the Ford River Rouge Plant in Detroit, where four marchers were fatally shot by local police and the plant’s private security.

Together, the other student workers and I have transcribed over 140 interviews, and are close to finishing the remainders. I can’t wait until they are all available online.

We’ve also made great strides cataloging the Dana Brown Collection, an assortment of film from a local legend who died when I was far too young to drink his Safari Coffee. We’ve also published the complete transcript, which I finished last July, of an interview with poet, journalist, and activist Frank Marshall Davis, whose friendship with a young Barack Obama has ignited light controversy.

I’ve been tremendously lucky to spend my summers here. I’ve learned so much about the civil rights movement and Great Depression, while contributing, at least in some small way, to work that will preserve some of the most important moments, big and small, in American history. That, and I’ve had the pleasure of knowing a great team of staff, whose dedication, knowledge, humor, and baking skills have each contributed to this incredible Archive. I know that the work the Film & Media Archive does will last much, much longer than my wonderful memories of this place.