Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina

Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina
Greg Wilsbacher of the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina

Greg Wilsbacher is the curator of the newsfilm collections at the Moving Image Research Collections at the University of South Carolina. He earned his a PhD in British Literature from Indiana University, Bloomington. His major area of focus was late fourteenth century vernacular poetry with a special emphasis on William Langland’s Piers Plowman. Wilsbacher’s dissertation explored the ethical nature of reading medieval poetry within the contemporary setting of the university at the turn of the millennium.  After receiving his PhD, Wilsbacher was a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of South Carolina’s Department of English.  He taught, “the types of English courses that most faculty teach.” He also served as the Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies.  Wilsbacher began working at the University of South Carolina’s libraries in 2002. He began at the libraries with the intention of working as a Rare Books Librarian. However, library administrators asked him to take over the Newsfilm Library and begin the task of making the unit into a special collections library.  So, from 2004 to 2009 he served as Director of the Newsfilm Library.  In 2009, Wilsbacher became Curator of Newsfilm Collections at the Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) when the university reorganized the film archives to reflect the growth of collections beyond newsreels and television news.

After becoming a curator and archivist, he earned a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science from the University of South Carolina. Wilsbacher’s duties as curator include, conducting foundational research on the newsreels, representing the collection in a number of external venues, selecting materials from collections for targeted preservation when funds are made available, and conducting “development activities to either assist administration in the raising of monies to support the unit or to acquire new donations for the unit.” He also maintains, MIRC’s “main online reference catalog and conduct[s] original cataloging for new elements,” in his collection area, provides instructional support to classes as needed, and oversees, “the operations of the 2K/4K scanner at MIRC,” trains others in its use, and “(yes) provide maintenance support for the scanner.”  Wilsbacher also has the responsibility to write grants and when those grant applications are successful has the responsibility of bring either the PI or Co-PI. He also oversees the “object collections” (antique cameras, projectors, etc.). Lastly, Wilsbacher stated, “there is a film handling station in my office that I use regularly – in other words, I’m still prepping, splicing, and repairing film.”

An image from the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection
An image from the Fox Movietone Newsreel Collection

The University of South Carolina’s Newsfilm Library was founded in 1980 with the donation of the Fox Movietone News Collection. USC, “like Indiana University, has a long history as an important regional educational film library,” and in this way, “has been in the film business since the 1940s.” Since 1980, USC’s archival holdings have increased to approximately six-thousand hours of material, including local television news and commercials, home movies, micro-cinematographic nature films, and fiction and documentary films from the People’s Republic of China. MIRC , like most archives relies heavily on federal grants to fund their preservation projects. MIRC also has, “its own foundation account into which monetary donations are channeled.” The annual interest of its foundation account is used for, “active preservation projects (typically nitrate film preservation).” MIRC’s newsreel library holds, “some 11 million feet of 35mm films.”

Wilsbacher stated the principle challenge faced when preserving newsreels to be conveying to funders and others what is being preserved. Only about 10% of the some eleven million feet of the 35mm films is in the edited form once shown to audiences in theaters. “In some sense, preserving ‘the newsreel’ isn’t a very complicated task.”  The university owns nitrate fine grain master positives of two- hundred and six edited newsreels from the World War II era.  In the late-1970s and early-1980s, the nitrate fine grain negatives were used by Twentieth Century Fox to print acetate duplicate negatives, which the university now owns as well.  These negatives are, “to some extent already preserved.  We know that the acetate won’t last forever unless we find colder storage for it, but…you know, that work is essentially done.” In addition, all two- hundred and six newsreels are available online, “so, access, ‘done’.” The other 90% of the some eleven million feet of the 35mm films is, “where the excitement lies but also where others can get confused.”

According to Wilsbacher,

“Raw camera newsfilm isn’t always easy to watch.  It can be disorienting depending on how the cameraman went about filming the shots.  Really good cameramen could edit in camera and produce on the negative a story needing little editing. But they were the exception, not the norm.  Preserving this type of content requires clear communication with the funding source about the nature of the materials being printed.  At USC we preserve outtake and unused films “as is” without attempting to create something new.  If the film shows five different takes of a businessman talking about the stock market, we’ll preserve all five takes.   If, as we did last year, we decided to make projection prints of a films being preserved we will consider editing the content to create a print that would be enjoyable to a film enthusiast audience.  In one case we opted to make a projection print of one take of a story rather than insisting on two.”

Since Wilsbacher has been working in film preservation, the single biggest change has been, “the meaning of the word ‘preservation’.” In 2004, “the unquestioned gold standard for film preservation was traditional photochemical reprinting onto polyester-based stock.” Even though Wilsbacher was given the job of bringing the Newsfilm Library into the “digital age,” he is still

“saddened by the collapse of the photochemical option. Traditional optical printing practices in the hands of a skilled technician could work wonders with 80-year old nitrate negatives.  Those days are over.  Even when you want a photochemical print as the end product, most shops are scanning to DI and then making a final film out.”

Wilsbacher stated a concern regarding the scanning of negatives to DI:

“We’re still trying to figure out how such new processes are impacting the preservation work.  The DI world has brought with it a new wave of patents and proprietary knowledge, so it is not as easy to get labs to describe in detail the process and equipment used to make preservation elements.  I think, however, we have a right to know what we’re paying for.”

Greg Wilsbacher at work.
Greg Wilsbacher at work.

Wilsbacher curates, “over 8 million feet of nitrocellulose films stock and another 8+ million feet of acetate film,” so from his prespective, there is no “end of film”, and film “isn’t going anywhere.” He does have concerns about equipment but also hopes 3-D printers will make repairing some types of film handling equipment easier in the future. Wilsbacher also believes, “as long as someone makes quality film stocks, we will make polyester preservation prints of high priority films.”  When asked how the end of film will affect his work, Wilsbacher replied that his

“biggest concern lies in the loss of an essentially open work environment where patents didn’t lock down the most basic elements of our jobs.  To be sure, the film world fought these patent fights long ago but we’re facing them again. I think that we have to fight for open-source tools so that we can control the work we do.”

~Megan Brant