Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute

Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)
Jean-Louis Bigourdan of the Image Permanence Institute (IPI)

Like a newly donated film, there is much more to Jean-Louis Bigourdan than initially meets the eye.  On the surface, Jean-Louis lives a pastoral life –he lives on a farm complete with sheep and horses.  However, after interviewing him and hearing about his work at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) in New York, it became clear that Jean-Louis also has a mind for science and art.  Jean Louis’ official title is research scientist, but his job requires a bit more clarification.  He explained,

My primary job is to conduct applied research focusing on providing new preservation strategies for cultural materials, mostly information-recording media such as films, microfilms, photographs, magnetic tapes… This includes identifying a problem, designing a research project to address the problem, developing a proposal and applying for funding, conducting the research, and disseminating findings by providing preservation strategies to museums, archives, and libraries.

Since I started at IPI I was fortunate enough to be able to go from one project to the next, and often dealt with several at the same time. What I do is a mix between conducting experiments, field surveys, data analysis, and providing education. For a number of years, I have also provided guidance to interns who come to IPI through the AMIA and Selznick School of Film Preservation; these internships are designed to provide insights into preservation research; I personally learn a lot from the interns and hope they learn a lot during their stay. All of them have contributed in various ways to the work we do at IPI.

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Jean-Louis has a background in chemistry and photography and has also studied the conservation of photographic materials.  His interest in film preservation began when he took a weeklong workshop on film preservation from Anne Cartier-Bresson.  He feels this broad and varied background has been quite beneficial in his current work, noting that,

I didn’t realize it at first, but in fact, the different parts fit well together to support my current activity. Chemistry, team work in the corporate world, studies in photography, museums and archives experience, studies in conservation and preservation of photographic materials, and the last twenty years or so working at IPI help a great deal to do what I do.

Because of Jean Louis’ extensive work with film, I was particularly interested in his thoughts on the end of film production.  Jean Louis feels that the end of film production makes film preservation all that more vital.  He explained,

[The end of film production] doesn’t mean that film preservation is dead, on the contrary. Film-based collections are numerous, and most importantly are irreplaceable. Today, preserving original film materials is even more critical for a couple of reasons. First, there is so much knowledge recorded on photographic film that reformatting most of it is daunting at least, and most likely an impossible task. Second, in many situations, viewing the original materials will still be the only way to appreciate the material. So, in both situations it is, and will be, an important task to make sure that these original objects survive as long as possible. To contrast that idea, I would say that most have no problem with the strategy, which consists in reformatting magnetic media as a preservation strategy. The old idea of preserving/restoring film using film media will have to be entirely abandoned at some point. People watch movies today in so many formats and venues. But many film collections will still be around if kept properly.

Jean Louis also emphasized the importance of film preservation in the specific context of his work and the work of the IPI.  When asked if he felt that his job might change with the end of film production, Jean Louis responded,

Not really, because as I said above, it is even more important today to do the best we can to preserve film materials, and movies in particular, in their original formats. Regarding film preservation today, my role, and IPI’s role is to make sure that what we have learned during twenty years of research is used, i.e., applied in the field in one form or another. In other words, I don’t think that we have to spend more money on research per se, but rather make a special effort to communicate and develop new tools. That is the idea behind the project I am working on right now. IPI receives funding from NEH to develop a web-based tool for film preservation: www.filmcare.org will be an educational but also a film preservation management tool.

After hearing about Jean Louis’ fascinating work at the Image Permanence Institute and his confidence in the necessity of the continuation of innovative work in film preservation, it would be difficult not to want to get involved.  It is fitting, then, to end with Jean Louis’ excellent advice for aspiring film archivists:

As I say often, preserving film is not only about film. Film archivists are responsible for many other materials, i.e., posters, publications, letters, scripts, stills, DVD, tapes… so the more you learn about other media and how to care for them, the better film archivists you will be.

~Colleen Martin

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