Newsfilm, Tenite, Home Movies, and More: An Interview with Margie Compton

Margie Compton
Margie Compton, Media Archives Archivist, Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection

Margie Compton is the Media Archives Archivist at the University of Georgia’s Walter J. Brown Media Archives and Peabody Awards Collection.  The archive holds a wealth of important material including several newsfilm and home movie collections and the Peabody Awards Collection, which includes the majority of entries from the beginning of the awards program to the present.  I spoke with her about film preservation problems and the challenges facing the field of moving image preservation in the 21st century.

According to Compton, newsfilm is important both because it serves as a historical record and because it is fairly rare, as many television networks destroyed newsfilm with the advent of videotape in the 1970s and 1980s.  The Walter J. Brown Media Archives is in the process of making its newsfilm collections accessible by digitizing them, breaking digital files down into clips and assigning each clip its own database record, she says.  This digitization project is also necessary due to the plethora of preservation problems facing newsfilm collections.  Compton describes a few of these: minimal information about content on a film’s container, damaging residue from masking tape, and curling of the film and loss of magnetic soundtrack due to storage on tight “pencil wind” spools.

Tenite reels
Reels exhibiting the deterioration of Tenite

Another preservation problem she mentions, and one that she believes is not often discussed, is the deterioration of “Tenite” film reels.  These reels, Compton says, are most often made of grey plastic, are found primarily in home movie collections, and usually hold 8mm, Super8, or 16mm film.  As this type of plastic ages, it exudes a white substance that can discolor or otherwise damage film.  While some people can handle it without issue, Compton explains that others (herself included) experience problems with their eyes, nose, throat, and lungs despite taking appropriate handling precautions.  This type of material also causes financial problems.  Compton cites a dilemma: should the archivist risk a physical reaction in order to determine the film’s content, or should s/he make the film a transfer priority and spend money to preserve it without knowing what it contains?

Moving image archivists face many challenges in the 21st century, and the majority of these issues revolve around digital technology and preservation.  For example, increased use of digital recording devices impacts not only the way in which moving images are captured, but also how they are archived.  Compton emphasizes the importance of a “planned digital infrastructure” to ensure that an archive will have the necessary funding and resources to preserve digital materials and to make them available for use.  She also believes that in addition to trained staff members, a modern archive needs “proper equipment, a budget to do preservation work, IT support to manage the terabytes of digital files created, and to tie that all in to institutional priorities.”

Digital technology has also contributed to the decision of many filmmakers to end their production of film stock.  Since archives transfer content to new film stock as a form of preservation, this decision has broad implications for moving image archivists.  Compton explains this situation with a practical example.  If, she says, an archivist needs to preserve an 8mm film, but 16mm film stock is no longer produced as preservation stock, should the archivist blow the film up to 35mm?  While it is an excellent long-term preservation and access format, the difference between the 8mm and 35mm gauges means the film is no longer being preserved in the way it was originally shot and viewed.  So, she adds, the alternative is to preserve the film digitally, which comes with a new set of challenges.

According to Compton, another change awaiting moving image archivists is an increase in home movie research, an area she believes has only recently been recognized as important in film scholarship.  She says that, “I don’t believe we have yet seen anywhere near the amount of research home movies will eventually engender.  Scholars are looking at large collections of home movies to tease out truths about our modern lives and the fact that so many people captured the same tropes says something about how alike we are, crossing supposed borders of place, space, and time.  The ordinary can become extraordinary when examined, and that examination is being done now.”  In fact, an article in the Athens Banner-Herald (July 13, 2012) describes a home movie from 1917 in the Walter J. Brown Media Archives collection believed to be the oldest surviving footage of Georgia.

Film archivists like Margie Compton are at the forefront of moving image preservation and have the knowledge and skills to preserve history.  While digital technology has caused substantial change in the field, the 1917 home movie clip provides a perfect example of how that change can be for the better.

~Cathy Cooney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Access is the First Step to Preservation: An Interview with Skip Elsheimer of A/V Geeks

banner2Skip Elsheimer’s interest in film and video dates back to his childhood. As a young man he owned a 16mm projector but could never get it to work. He shot film for school projects but was dissatisfied with the time it took to view his results. “No immediate gratification squashed my motivation” he said in a  February 19, 2013 interview. He had always been a collector of such ubiquitous materials as comic books, coins, stamps, and records. However, in college at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, NC in the 1990s, his interest in collecting reached a more massive scale, both space- and numbers-wise. It happened when he bought six palettes of audio and video equipment at a University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG) auction that included U-Matic video decks, an open-reel tape machine, and a working 16mm projector. He was not a stranger to oversized collections at this stage in his life as he had already gotten into collecting large office machinery (copy machines and other discarded tools), but prior to this purchase, film had not been a huge part of his life.

One of the film rooms at the A/V Geeks archive, complete with a former boarder's rose mural.
One of the film rooms at the A/V Geeks archive, complete with a former boarder’s rose mural.

A trip to a flea market netted him a couple of 16mm educational film prints but also, and more importantly, a tip from the seller about an auction that featured quite a few more films. Despite not being able to attend the auction — he had to go to work —  he asked his roommates to go in his place. “I’ll pay you back” he said, and, upon returning home, was greeted by a pile of 500 educational films with subjects ranging from drinking and drugs to driver’s ed and Duck and Cover from the UNCG  Department of Human Resources. It cost him $50.

“Something clicked that these were awesome,” says Elsheimer, and his quest to build the massive 24,000+ educational film collection of A/V Geeks began. “Schools were beginning to make room for the computer lab and dumping films for space” he said, and recounts buying up huge lots of film from educational and other institutional entities all over North Carolina. Soon enough he had acquired most of North Carolina’s otherwise-potentially-doomed-for-the-dumpster collections. As college roommates started getting married, going to grad school, and otherwise moving out of their shared house, Elsheimer realized that if he was going to keep the thousands of films he had amassed, it was time to find them a home. He did, in a former boarding house in Raleigh, NC, where the archive lives to this day.

IMG_2991“I got [the films] for performance in the first place, to show behind bands,” says Elsheimer, noting that his collection was born with the idea that these films – however dated, faded, or forgotten – were still of interest, despite being orphaned by their previous owners. But their interest, he noted, extended beyond a moving psychedelic backdrop for music. Elsheimer started inviting friends over on Sundays for beer and film viewing, a tradition that remains to this day. “I enjoy [watching] them and see enjoyment in others when the watch them,” he said. Prior to his quest to collect and rescue film he had created zines and worked with a record label, two enterprises whose reason for being are to get content to the widest variety of people. Thus, A/V Geeks was born, a film archive based on the idea that, as Elsheimer says, “access is the first step to preservation.”

A view of the A/V Geeks' Flashscan film scanner at work.
A view of the A/V Geeks’ Flashscan film scanner at work.

In order to fulfill the goal of making his 24,000 educational films as accessible as possible, Elsheimer has spent almost two decades becoming a recognized force for reformatting in the world of media preservation. Much of the reason these films are not accessible is because many never made it to consumer friendly formats like VHS, and even if they did, their material may be considered too irrelevant for modern formats. Reformatting equipment is expensive and experience is, too. “I learned the hard way,” said Elsheimer, referring to the fact that his knowledge of the field has put him in demand as a consultant for other archives who are seeking help with their digitization projects. But one of the goals of the work of A/V Geeks is to get as much public domain material as possible on popular media delivery websites like YouTube, The Internet Archive, and Vimeo, to ensure the most amount of views by the widest audience. In 2012 Elsheimer initiated an IndieGoGo campaign to digitize 100 miles of public domain film. He enticed donators with a list of films that he not only thought they would be interested in, but that he was also interested in. “Instead of me raising money to pay the bills I can raise money to digitize what I want to digitize,” he said. As of February 24, 2013, the campaign has raised over $20,000.

IMG_2998A/V Geeks is not only a giant, privately owned educational film archive but also a vendor of digitization services. They offer 8mm, Super8, 16mm, and 35mm reformatting services, as well as a variety of professional and consumer level video formats, including VHS, SVHS, Betamax, Umatic, and 1″ open reel. A/V Geeks also offers digital file reformatting, DVD duplication, and video transcoding to digital media. Elsheimer’s biggest client is the Internet Archive, particularly Geoff Alexander of the Academic Film Archive of North America and Rick Prelinger of the Prelinger Archives. Universities  – his alma matter North Carolina State University and neighboring Durham’s Duke University, among others – have hired A/V Geeks for larger scale reformatting services. While higher-profile vendor activity nets more money than consumer services like home movie digitization, Elsheimer feels its just as important as such activity “imparts ideas about archiving to individuals.” Outside of digitization services Elsheimer puts this belief to practice as the president of the Center for Home Movies.

To further their mission of access, Elsheimer takes treasures from the A/V Geeks archive on the proverbial road. He regularly shows films at Kings Barcade in Raleigh, typically a rock venue, in addition to more (or less) traditional cinema environments. He also packages some of the public domain films into fun, thematic DVD sets, monetizing the content and also giving him something to sell at merchandise tables while touring and on his website. “I think the most important component of preservation is access” he says. “If you aren’t actually doing something to give access to people to make it important or introduce it to the world then you’re not doing preservation in the grand sense. It’s great keeping the original around … but there are ways now to share that information without impacting the original object by putting them online and making them available to someone even in another part of the world. That stuff is really important.” He continues “I could pay to have something preserved and it could sit on a shelf and no one would know, so what’s the point? Spend the time, energy, and money, and cheerlead it.”

AV-GEEKS-postcard-image1-300x248

~ Jason Evans Groth

 

IULFA and FIAF

On November 20th, 2011, the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) was admitted into the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF). To date, only 17 film archives in the United States are FIAF members. This blog post will discuss what FIAF is, a brief history of FIAF, and IULFA’s member status is a big deal.

FIAF was founded in Paris in 1938. Initially there were only 4 members. Though we might think of film preservation and archives as a more recent phenomenon, there was already a concern among cineastes, curators/programmers, filmmakers, and critics over the life of film. These sentiments had already existed in the 1920s. The Library of Congress and the Museum of Modern Art (NY) took an interest in film, adding them to their collection while

The exterior of the Cinémathèque Française

cinema was still a young medium. The original four members that banded together in 1938 included the Museum of Modern Art, the Cinémathèque Française, the British Film
 Institute, and the Reichsfilmarchiv in Berlin (however, this archive was ransacked by Soviet troops in 1945). Since its conception in 1938, the organization has expanded its membership to archives in over 75 countries.

FIAF stated aims are:

  • to uphold a code of ethics for film preservation and practical standards for all areas of film archive work
  • to promote the creation of moving image archives in countries which lack them
  • to seek the improvement of the legal context within which film archives carry out their work
  • to promote film culture and facilitate historical research on both a national and international level
  • to foster training and expertise in preservation and other archive techniques
  • to ensure the permanent availability of material from the collections for study and research by the wider community
  • to encourage the collection and preservation of documents and materials relating to the cinema
  • to develop cooperation between members and “to ensure the international availability of films and documents”.

Simply having a collection is not enough for inclusion into FIAF. In addition to collections, archives should have some kind of long-term and developed plan for preservation. This would include proper storage facilities. IULFA’s collections reside in the Auxiliary Library Facility. Because we have our collections in an environment that will prolong film’s life for 250 years we have one of the best archival storage facilities among FIAF members.

FIAF also encourages greater interaction and cooperation within the archival world. They are engaged in issues of film preservation and restoration, digitization, and access. Every year FIAF organizes the Annual Congress where members come to formally discuss business and participate in workshops. IULFA archivist Rachael Stoeltje represented IU at the Annual Congress in Beijing this past spring.  FIAF also publishes the Journal of Film Preservation.

IULFA is honored to be part of such an historically important organization. We are excited to be participants in the global conversation on the role  of film archives and preservation. FIAF membership will also lead other archival institutions to our doorstep. Being a member means we can develop relationships with other film archives and expose people to our collections and state-of-the-art facility.

~Sean Smalley

A Day In the Life: DoDA 2012

In anticipation of the second annual Day of Digital Archives (DoDA) coming up on Friday October 12, 2012, we present a glimpse into the world of the digital film archive at Indiana University.

Day of Digital Archives

DoDA was first established by Gretchen Gueguen as a way to connect archivists, digital humanists, programmers, and anybody else using or managing a digital archive. It is an online platform to raise awareness and spread knowledge about digital archives. To be more specific, who are the users of digital archives? Who manages them? What other projects are happening in the vast domain of digital collections? What can we learn about our own work by catching a glimpse of what other professionals in the field are doing? This being the second year of DoDA, the coming years will hopefully provide many connections and insights to other projects happening around the world. Past contributors have shared posts about data management, digital forensics, university archives, natural disasters and the video collections at the Hormel Gay and Lesbian Center of San Francisco Public Library, just to mention a few.

Digitized Films and Loans

Chuckylou gets dolled up with the kids

Many of the contributors for DoDA 2011 deal primarily with born-digital objects, but for many institutions, and we at the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive are no exception, that is not requisite. Our online archive of digitized films were filmed between 1949-1978. These films were digitized over the course of the last 10 years by Scene Savers in Covington, KY. The Bradley Collection was the first collection to be digitized, however some of the items that are digitized cannot be streamed online due to copyright issues. The educational films that are online were all digitized in the past four years. Due to the fact that IU made these films and owns the copyright for them, we are able to stream them to the public. Issues of copyright are ever apparent with digital libraries given many materials people want access to are not yet in the public domain. Currently in the U.S., any work published before January 1, 1923 is considered to be in the public domain.

We receive many requests on an almost daily basis for digitized copies of particular films in our collection. Oftentimes requests come from libraries, universities and researchers. After licensing and copyright issues have been cleared, we are able to send away for a digital copy, which is then loaned to the patron. In the future we will hopefully be able to digitize a large portion of our collection in-house and provide our own digital copies for specific requests.

Currently, for titles already in our collection, item information may be retrieved from IUCAT. Because the majority of our holdings have yet to be digitized, metadata must be added to the catalog in order to locate an item. For collections that we have recently acquired, for example,the Oregon Collection, we are still processing, bar coding and adding metadata to each canister simultaneously as it is inserted into IUCAT. This is a time consuming but essential step in the process of digitizing these films down the road. Additionally, the Oregon Collection is still on the burner and we are continuing to plow through the remaining palettes at  a steady clip.

Palettes containing the Oregon Collection (most of these are now emptied and cleared away).

In managing this archival collection, our goal is to preserve what we have through a process of collecting, organizing and ultimately making public our holdings. By allowing for easier access we ensure that these items are usable, not simply left to collect cyber dust in an electronic box with no key.

Digital Archive Considerations

When considering a digital library, it is important to note the difference between a website and a digital library or archive. According to How To Build a Digital Library by Ian Witten, a digital library is defined as “a focused collection of digital objects, including text, video, and audio, along with methods for access and retrieval, and for selection, organization, and maintenance of the collection.” Digital archivists must consider how they will collect, preserve and dispense or allow access to their materials. In contrast to a website, which might have little or no organizational structure, a digital library or archive must meet the needs of its users and allow them to find materials of their choosing. By including extensive metadata, users are able to browse and search tags or other components to find a specific item. Compared to the typical library where a user might simply browse the shelves until the right book jumps out at them, how do users find materials in digital collections? Are they able to browse and search? What tools must be put into place to allow for browsing and then, once an item is selected what is the protocol for accessing and viewing an item?

There are many small things that must be taken into consideration when working with a digital collection and this is just a small slice of the pie. We will continue to provide quality materials and easily accessible finding aids as our online collection grows over the coming years. Have a great DoDA wherever you are!

~Asia Harman

The Freezer Project: Film Decay and Media Collections

Over the months of July and August 2012, Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) staff began (with only a small amount of foot-dragging!) the ominously-named Freezer Project. For a number of weeks, we’ve been leaving our comfortable desks at 9am each day, in teams of two, to work on inventorying the hundreds of deteriorating 16mm and 35mm films that have been quarantined from the “healthy” films in a large walk-in freezer at the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF). These films run the gamut in content and time period, but it is significant that certain items, such as 1950s regional football games, ethnographic anthropological research in 1970s South Africa, and film and television outtakes and production elements, are unique items that may only exist at the IULFA. Thus, it is all the more important to regain greater physical and intellectual control over these items, so that they may be available for and findable by interested parties.

Indeed, a significant challenge in moving image preservation programs is the storage and care of decayed and deteriorating cellulose film. Cellulose film base, also known as triacetate film base, was introduced in the early

A can of 16mm film exhibiting warping, rust, and other signs of decay.

20th century as an alternative for the highly-flammable nitrate film base (it was thus given the alternate moniker “safety film”). The benefits of this material meant that by the 1950s, cellulose had phase out nitrate in the 35mm format, and would go on to be the most widely used film base, used in gauges ranging from 16mm (for which triacetate has been almost exclusively used since the gauge’s introduction in 1923) to 8mm and Super 8mm.

Archivists have found that this particular type of film base is especially susceptible to shrinking, warping, and brittleness, and at this deterioration process occurs, film becomes more and more difficult to play back, digitize, or even inspect. Due to the highly acidic odor that decayed cellulose film puts off, this particular variety of deterioration is widely known as “vinegar syndrome”. A report by Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that “freshly processed acetate base film can last for several centuries in cold storage.” But the author goes on to warn that “under adverse storage conditions … acetate base decay has been observed after only a few years.” And dealing with items that have lived under such conditions is certainly part of archival work.

The IUFLA, for instance, is home to one of the world’s largest academic film collections, housing over 55,000 items. Because all these films came to the IULFA from a variety of sources, some items are in better shape than others.  Oftentimes, collections were once stored in non-ideal facilities such as the attics or basements of owners, or non-climate controlled warehouses or storage facilities.

Because of this variety in previous storage conditions, all incoming films are checked for vinegar syndrome during accessioning. This is done with the use of A-D strips, small paper strips placed on the film reel which detect the acidity level in the film and demonstrate that level by changing color from dark blue (healthy) to green (decaying) to yellow (significantly decayed). Its a process reminiscent of a 1970s mood ring, something we retro-fetishists at the IULFA can certainly appreciate!

Staff member Asia Harman pulls decayed films from the IULFA’s walk-in freezer.

As mentioned previously, significantly decayed films are quarantined from the “healthy” items and kept in a walk-in freezer at ALF which is kept at a temperature below freezing, until funding is available for preservation reformatting. IULFA staff maintains the stability of the other films by keeping them in the optimal storage conditions of the vault at ALF, which is kept a consistent temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a stable relative humidity of 30 percent.

Since we began the Freezer Project, we’ve tackled the task of inventorying all of the films in the ALF freezer, bagging similar sizes together in order to create more space, and noting instances of duplicate copies. The process begins with taking films from the freezer (usually in disarray and not properly bagged for an additional level of climate stability) into the vault to slowly warm up to 50 degrees.

The IULFA’s Sean Smalley (left) and Andy Uhrich (right) inventory decayed films

After several hours in the vault, films can be brought into the warmer work area, where they are inspected for title, series, catalog number, barcode, and element (such as “A-roll” or “soundtrack”).  The amount of information on the can itself varies wildly – some cans contain all this information, while others are incomplete, or in a few instances, completely blank. Films are then bagged according to best practice guidelines (or set aside for disposal), and placed back in the freezer, where they will be easily accessible when it comes time to rehabilitate them. The Freezer Project is one of the less glamorous projects at the archives, as it involves handling rusty metal cans filled with foul-smelling acidic film, and wearing rubber gloves and butchers smocks in order to protect oneself from said rusty metal cans filled with foul-smelling acidic film! But this particular project is part of a larger goal of “unhiding collections”, as media collections consulting firm AV Preserve has put it. As they have said, “in order to unhide audiovisual collections they need to be transferred to a state where they can be described and accessed.”

IUFLA staff member Jason Evans Groth emerges from the freezer with films of various sizes.

Though the work is physically demanding and the number of films to inventory and bag was initially quite overwhelming, it’s a feeling of real accomplishment to know that this work will allow the public to find and view these films.

Read the National Film Preservation Foundation’s a PDF “Film Preservation Guide” for more information about film preservation practices and processes.

~Josephine McRobbie with Andy Uhrich

 

 

 

 

Preservation Update

The 10 month effort to move Indiana University’s 70,000+ film holdings to the climate-controlled Auxiliary Library Facility has been completed. The constant temperature and humidity of 50 degrees and 30% RH will extend the life of the films an additional 283 years. All of the films were tested for vinegar syndrome, inventoried and rehoused prior to the move.

ALF
Vaults of ALF II

All of the Indiana University Libraries’ Film Archive Collections were moved to the ALF.  These collections include the 48,000 items in the Libraries’ Educational collection, all of the Lilly Libraries’ film collections and the University Archives’ film collections. In addition, the Black Film Center Archive’s collections and the Kinsey Institute’s film collections were also moved to the climate-controlled, cold storage ALF environment.

Films
Archivists prepare films for ALF

Film Preservation Grant Awarded

Steenbeck
Archivist Rieta Drinkwine uses the Steenbeck

The Indiana University Libraries Film Archive has been awarded a National Film Preservation Foundation grant to save three of director John Ford’s home movies.  The films to be preserved include Mexico with John Wayne and Henry Fonda; 1948 Car Trip From Monterey Mexico to Durango with Ford, Wayne, and Ward Bond; and 1941 Mazatlan, Mexico Trip.

The NFPF preservation grants target newsreels, silent-era films, documentaries, culturally important home movies, avant-garde films, and endangered independent productions that fall under the radar of commercial preservation programs. The awards provide support to create a film preservation master and two access copies of each work.

IU Libraries Film Archive Acquires Lane Education Service District Collection

Twelve-thousand educational 16mm films were recently donated to the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive from Lane Education Service District. The films consist of a collection of films that were acquired from a disbanded Oregon University consortium and consists of theatrical releases including some silent films and titles from the 50s and early 60s and a collection of educational films that range in date from the 1920s through the 1980s and were rented to grade schools and high schools for instructional viewings.