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

 

 

 

 

Presenting… Presenting Indiana University

As has already been mentioned on this blog, the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) recently posted close to 200 films from its collection for streaming. This effort is an important part of the Archive’s, as well as the IU Libraries’, central mission of providing access to students, faculty, researchers, and the larger public to our collection of over 80,000 films. This monthly series of blog postings, which we’re calling “Presenting…”, will examine one of these streaming films in greater detail, look at its production and exhibition history, and connect them to the wider field of film scholarship, moving image archiving, and media pedagogy.

This first batch of films we’ve put online were made by the University’s Audio-Visual Center, or AVC for short.

Indiana University Audio-Visual Center Logo

The AVC was founded in 1912 (Happy 100th Birthday!) and it functioned until the beginning of our current millennium. During its existence the AVC worked to create and distribute educational materials in the new media formats of the day, be they magic lantern slides and photographs, motion picture film, videotape, or computer programs. Most relevant to our work as a film archive the AVC distributed over 35,000 titles from a variety of educational film producers, as well as making its own line of award-winning films that benefited greatly from the expertise of IU’s professors. In later postings we will look more closely at some of these classroom films that explored the functioning of biological lifeforms, the structural inequalities that held back lower income Americans, the ways to teach with electronic and photographic media, and other topics in the hard and soft sciences.

The AVC also made a number of films about Indiana University. It seems appropriate to start this blog series presenting the film work of Indiana University with a 1961 film, Presenting Indiana University, that presented the college to potential students.

 

Presenting IU title card.

As we are still in the process of researching the production and exhibition methods of the AVC, which we are doing with the help of PhD candidate Natasha Ritsma and the University Archives, we have not yet come across any specific documents that detail how this film was used. But other research has uncovered the work of the University’s Junior Division whose representatives traveled across Indiana with a spiel for high school students about what IU had to offer them. Promotional films such as Presenting Indiana University were an important part of their persuasive appeal. According to the 1967 edition of the IU yearbook, Arbutus, “Junior Division counselors go to the high schools for ‘College Day’ or ‘College Night’ programs to acquaint students with University policies and opportunities. Through films and discussions with Junior Division counselors, freshmen can learn what I.U. is like long before they arrive.”

Assuming Presenting Indiana University was used for this purpose, what would prospective students have learned about IU from watching the film? These individuals would have been exposed to the wide range of educational opportunities that the University had to offer them. A high school student who was deciding which college to attend would have seen a University that paid equal attention to the hard sciences – the film shows an experiment testing the human body’s reaction to painful sound frequencies, which you can see at the 1:40 mark in the video – and the creative arts and humanities, which is represented by footage of a composer working at the piano. By having two examples, each focused on sound and our physical and emotional response to it, the film explicitly notes how both the sciences and the humanities are working towards the same goal, which is to “know our selves better.”

The film shows an experiment testing the human body’s reaction to painful sound frequencies
They would have seen a student body integrated by gender and race, though the faculty was still, as seen in this film at least, entirely white men.

Potential IU attendees would have also gained a sense of the social atmosphere of the campus by watching the film. They would have seen a student body integrated by gender and race, though the faculty was still, as seen in this film at least, entirely white men.  High school students would have gained a sense of the respectful classroom environment at IU, where professors mixed lectures with probing questions to their class that seem designed to elicit engaging discussions. Though these in-class sections might seem a little staged now, the scenes show students grappling with heady intellectual material, such as the sequence in Dr. Henry Beech’s philosophy seminar where he and a young woman debate the freedom of choice available to a narcotized society, which can be viewed at the ten-minute mark.

Just as importantly, viewers would have learned that a University is much more than only the classroom. They would have seen the breadth of departments and facilities that supported their educational career at IU including the libraries (the film shows the new reading rooms and the priceless artifacts of the Lilly Library), the advising system offered by the Junior Division, the state-of-the-art computer center, and, of special interest to our archival work, the IU film library and audio-visual support center.

IU film library and audio-visual support center.

Further, by watching the film high schoolers would have seen all of the ways they could have gained practical experience while at IU including a number of student theater groups, teacher training programs, and the student newspaper. They would have received a sense of the world-class entertainment offered at IU including lectures by Nobel prizewinners, operas by the Music School, football games, art openings, and proms.

However, since this film no longer fulfills its intended purpose, what is the value of watching it today? Well, there are the always entertaining differences between then and now that one finds in old films, such as buildings that are no longer standing and changes in clothing worn by students – college men used to wear ties like nobody’s business! More importantly however, this film provides revealing insights into how a university justified its existence fifty years ago. It’s no secret that higher education is currently facing a myriad of challenges from declining state funding, rising tuitions, and the disruptive yet beneficial shockwaves of the digital transformation. Presenting Indiana University doesn’t directly address these concerns or provide us with any easy answers in 2012. But it does provide us with a clear sense of the central purpose of a university, which is to, as the film’s narrator states, “help each student probe the limitless frontiers of his own mind” in the goal of transforming them into “a contributing citizen in our modern society.” As the gendered use of the word “he” implies, we have to continuously update these goals for our current times, exegencies, and community. But as the film makes explicit throughout, the unfettered but directed pursuit of knowledge, however ridiculous it might appear – check out the sequence where they are bombarding a woman with painful sounds again – has a clear benefit to students as individuals and the society they enter when they graduate.

Like all universities, IU has continued to make these sort of promotional films. If you’re interested, you can check some recent examples of this genre of film/video making out at the IU YouTube page. These current videos cover many of the same topics as Presenting Indiana University, but, not surprising considering the shorter duration of YouTube videos, are broken up into more discrete chunks. Comparing these newer videos such as IU Extraordinary, Welcome Home, and This is Your Epic Adventure (all below) to Presenting Indiana University shows the continuity and changes in how a university promotes itself. While many of the same issues are covered, the student’s individual experience, on an academic and emotional level, takes center stage in a way not found in the 1961 film. Part of this difference can be explained by changes in the technology and styles of filmmaking; video records live sound in a way that was more complicated to achieve in 1961 and we expect people to speak for themselves instead of only hearing from a voice-of-god narrator. However, the change suggests a greater emphasis on the student’s mental and physical wellbeing than just the intellectual aspects focused on in Presenting Indiana University. To conclude, looking at these old promotional films, especially in relation to current publicity campaigns, affords an understanding of what a university thinks is most important at that particular time. This can reveal whom they were trying to appeal to and which social, political, and economic forces they were responding to.

IU Extraordinary

Welcome Home

This is Your Epic Adventure

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfHFU0Vx_9A&feature=related

~Andy Uhrich

National Educational Television and the IU Libraries Film Archive

The Indiana University Libraries Film Archive (IULFA) contains more than 46,000 historic educational films, making it one of the most extensive collection of such items in existence. IU was one of the major university-based distributors of educational films from the 1930s to the 1990s, but unlike many of its contemporaries it maintained the majority of its collection, now preserved in the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF).

The collection spans much of the Twentieth Century, including a large of number of pre-World War II, career training, and U.S. Department of War films. A large chunk of the collection — more than 5,600 films — were produced by the National Educational Television (NET) network, the precursor to the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS).

The National Educational Television logo from 1969-1970.

NET got its start in 1952 and functioned as an “exchange center” that collected the grassroots productions of local TV stations from across the country as sort of an aggregator for public programming. The programs were educational in nature, featuring children’s shows (Fignewton’s Newspaper and Sing Hi – Sing Lo) parenting advice (Children Growing), and artist spotlights (the Creative Person series) to name just a few.

 

 

Below are two episodes from the Creative Person series — one about animator Richard Williams and the other about Fred Rogers. Both of these titles are held in the IULFA collection.

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=4521253840921599093

Production values, intended audience, and popularity varied greatly from program to program, which led the Ford Foundation, who had invested over $130 million between 1952 and 1966, to begin to withdraw funding, sending NET looking for funding from the federal government. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created in 1967, which served to manage the content created by stations and, eventually, the creation of PBS.

NET was the original home of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and Sesame Street, which became staples for PBS. Stations like KQED in San Francisco and, WQED in Pittsburgh, and KETC in St. Louis were among the stations which provided the content for NET between 1952 and the early 1970s, when the NET distinction gave way to PBS.

The IU Libraries Film Archive not only holds prints of the completed programs but also a number of film elements that went into the production of them. By preserving the fully edited productions as well as the components which became the final product, these historic films — the ancestors of today’s public broadcasting system — stand a much better chance at surviving for several generations of researchers and the public interested in a glimpse at the roots of America’s television programming system.

~Jason Evans Groth

Educational Films and Film Societies

When we speak of educational films, what exactly do we mean? For many people, memories of high school science classes come to mind. Or people recall the amusingly awkward acting, dated music and fashion, and cheap production value of instructional films.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fssAHO0_mvE

Above: BBC parody on science films called “Look Around You” tackles sulphur.

However, the recently acquired Oregon Collection challenges and broadens our understanding of what constitutes an educational film and how their meanings change when placed in various contexts and settings.

Most people today tend to separate educational films from other kinds of film production, notably fiction features and documentaries. Yet, there is a semi-hidden history of film societies placing educational films as a major part of their programming. The most famous example was the New York-based film society, Cinema 16 (which operated from 1947-1963). Amos and Marcia Vogel founded Cinema 16 with the hopes of exploring and screening alternative types of cinema, ranging from documentaries to educational films to experimental films. Amos Vogel’s programming sensibility, by juxtaposing many different types of films, showed how thin the line was between documentary and educational films (ethnographic films) or the avant-garde and educational films (the work of Jean Painleve comes to mind). Also, the Vogels hoped that bringing these seemingly disparate groups of films into a single program would transform the way their audience saw the art of cinema. One could, they believed, approach educational films from an aesthetic perspective, as well as approach narrative fiction cinema from an educational perspective.

Original program guide for a Cinema 16 screening (click picture for a short essay on non-fiction film by Vogel)

Many of the films in the Oregon collection would have been perfect for a program at Cinema 16. A majority of the films in the Oregon collection were produced after Cinema 16’s demise, but the collection as a whole suggests a rich hidden history of the life of educational films outside of the traditional classroom setting.

A documentary on Amos Vogel’s life and work:

Film as a Subversive Art from Paul Cronin on Vimeo.

~Sean Smalley

Oregon Collection Update

 In October of 2011, the IU Libraries Film Archive acquired 12,000 educational films from the Lane Education Service District in Eugene, Oregon. The collection consists primarily of educational films made for elementary through university level students that were produced between the 1920s and 1980s. Genres of the films include science, the arts, physical education, biographies, world history, and instructional films along with some feature films including, The Red Balloon (video below), City Lights, and Paper Moon. Some of the educational films include Guernica (video below), Food Chains in the Ocean, Rise of English Socialism and Bicycle Safety. There are multiple copies of many titles and some that have upwards of ten copies.

 In April the process of adding these films to the collection at the Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF) began.  The process involves bar-coding each title, testing the films for vinegar syndrome with A-D strips, and then sending them to their final destination in the ALF vault where they are kept at a steady temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a humidity level of 30%. Over 95% of the films that have been tested are in great condition and with the climate controlled storage facilities their conditions will be stabilized for decades. The few films which have tested poorly are bagged in plastic and kept in a film freezer which maintains a constant temperature of -2 degrees Fahrenheit.  Presently over a third of the new collection has been tested and cataloged and will available through IUCAT after processing has been completed. IU Libraries Film Archive already houses a large variety of educational films and the new films will only add to the diversity of this immense collection.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQhvgo62l74&t=15s

The Red Balloon joins the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive

Guernica is now part of the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive collection

~Asia Harman

The “Mother Church of Media”: The IU Audio-Visual Center and Martha Harsanyi

The author and interviewer for this post is Natasha Ritsma. Natasha is a Ph.D candidate in the Department of Communication and Culture at Indiana University. She is working on her dissertation on the art of educational films which includes research in the history of the Audio-Visual Center at IU.

After 42 years of working for Indiana University, Martha Harsanyi, the Media Collections Manager for Media and Reserve Services at the Wells library retired in May, 2012.  My discussions with Martha have not only been vital for my academic research but have also inspired a series of future blog entries that will include topics such as: the most frequently censored educational film ever produced, a look into the history of Teaching Film Custodians, and Indiana University’s unique 16mm film productions. Martha began her career at IU working at the Kinsey Institute in 1970.  In 1975 she transferred to the IU Audio-Visual Center (one of the first and largest university run film/video rental centers) which eventually became Instructional Support Services.  Throughout the span of her career, she witnessed dramatic shifts in audio-visual technology beginning with 16mm films in the 1970s, to video in the 1980s, and digital media starting in the 1990s. Martha’s wealth of experience and knowledge about the IU media collections is astounding and has served as an invaluable resource for students, instructors and researchers for decades.

NR: What would you say is the most significant contribution the IU audio-visual center made to the American media landscape in the 50s, 60s, 70s?

MH: The IU Audio-Visual was a leader in the field of 16mm production and distribution.  IU faculty member Nona Hengen called the Audio-Visual center the “Mother Church of Media.”  The IU Audio-Visual center functioned as a model that was to become a national standard.  IU developed an excellent structure for how to set up an audio-visual center.  I think every other university audio-visual center modeled itself more or less after our audio-visual center, from building the storage racks (so they could store the film canisters on edge) to their catalogs.  IU was a leader in the production, distribution, cataloguing, selection, and promotion of 16 mm films.

NR: What were the cultural values and ideologies that influenced the mission of the IU Audio-Visual Center?

MH: There was a strong desire to use new technology to enhance public school education.  The Audio-Visual center started in tandem with the baby boom and there was a real need to educate a growing population.  Classrooms were stuffed to their gills with little kids.  16mm films were first used for training purposes during WWII and they saw that they really worked.  It was an easy transition to go from military training to teaching the public in general.  There was a desire to bring the world to the hinterlands and provide educational opportunities to kids in little rural schools that they would never otherwise get.

NR: Who rented films from the IU Audio-Visual Center?

MH: Schools, museums, clubs, community centers, and churches.  The school systems wanted to use the latest technology and film was the latest technology.  The whole idea of a rental library based at a university was to remedy the fact that 16 mm films were very expensive and there was no way smaller schools could afford them.  The university rental collection functioned as a pooled resource.    It was a service of the university to the state of Indiana. It was intentionally not a money making operation, and indeed they did not make money.  What money the Audio-Visual Center made was plowed back into buying more films.

NR: What is your favorite 16mm film?

MH: Powers of Ten by Ray and Charles Eames.  It is my favorite film because it used the visual medium to demonstrate something you couldn’t demonstrate in any other way.  I’ve watched it many times.

The 1977 short film, Powers of Ten explores the relative size of things from the microscopic to the cosmic. The aerial view of a man enjoying a picnic in a Chicago park pans away to the outer limits of the universe.

~Natasha Ritsma

 

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.