Carolyn Faber of the John M. Flaxman Library at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago

Carolyn Faber, Film and Media Technician at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)
Carolyn Faber, Media Collections Manager at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC)

Carolyn Faber is the Media Collections Manager at the John M. Flaxman Library for the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). Located in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks away from the Art Institute, Carolyn maintains a circulating collection of 16mm film prints, with access restricted to faculty and students. Carolyn had been a part of the field for several years after having studied filmmaking in college and working a variety of production jobs around the Chicago area before landing in a film archive. She has worked with film and moving image collections for 16 years due to her knowledge of 16mm film, including how to safely handle and repair it (meaning inspection, cleaning, and splicing), her familiarity with assessment and minor repair work of videotape, and her knowledge of digitization technologies and workflows. A few years ago, Carolyn decided to return to school for a master’s in Library Science. About this decision, she says, “It was mostly to expand on my existing skills and learn more about library environments – where I think some audio/visual collections can get kind of stuck in Special Collections ‘purgatory.’ But it was also practical – I wanted to get into higher-level jobs and saw that I was being passed over for lack of an advanced degree – I needed to be more competitive.”

At SAIC, Carolyn’s role is to keep fragile and damaged film prints in projectable condition, a tough job as commercial support for 16mm film continues to erode, she says. Replacing films with better quality projections can only be done once or twice a year, if at all, due to the challenge of cost and availability. When it comes to projecting the film, Carolyn has students and faculty trained and authorized by the Technical Managers in the Film, Video, New Media, and Animation (FVNMA) department’s certification program. The school also has numerous projectors available in several classrooms, but the main building where much of the requests come from has a media center available for students and faculty to check out projectors for viewings in empty classrooms – equipment never leaves the building; only the film cans travel. In the library, the film collection is kept on a separate floor from the book collection, on top of storage shelves in the staff work area. Lining the perimeter are several library staff offices, including Carolyn’s. Inside her office, Carolyn has a desk, film projector, screen, film inspection bench, various video decks, and a monitor. Every film is inspected before going out in circulation. Up until this past August, Carolyn’s job was primarily a part-time student-worker position. With her role expanding, the position has been bumped to a full-time management job with one student assistant working eight to ten hours a week. Thanks to her assistant, Carolyn has been able to catalog the backlog of DVDs in the library’s collection, assess the 16mm film collection, work more closely with the media held in special collections, and foster relationships with frequent users of the collections, like the FVNMA department. Her assistant, meanwhile, handles the film print inspections and projection request schedule. Assessing the collection has been important for determining short- and long-term goals. About developing the collection, Carolyn says, “Space is at a premium so we have to consider acquisitions very carefully. I do handle purchasing of new prints but as to the curatorial aspect of developing the collection – that is done in collaboration with senior staff.”

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Films in the John M. Flaxman Library stacks.

Even though Carolyn and her assistant do all of the conservation work, she says there is not much more they can do to prevent damage from happening each time a film is checked out. Carolyn believes creating access to the collection for use in teaching includes keeping some damaged prints for use in preservation, media genealogies, and material studies classes. About the collection, Carolyn says, “Many prints in the collection have been so battered from their years in circulation that all we can do is make sure they project without breaking.” While she has all of the typical tools of a film archivist – a shrinkage gauge, splicer, film cleaner and cloths, Moviscope viewer, perfix tape, and white gloves – work is not extensive on the films due to time and the possibility of better prints being available elsewhere. When a print is red, she will tell the instructor and “nine out of ten times they won’t show it.” These are cases when Carolyn has to borrow from other collections, like Canyon Cinema, to maintain access. With the intent to make the most of the film collection at SAIC, Carolyn plans to conduct an overall evaluation of the collection to determine which prints the library could consider replacing, if they are in fact replaceable, and which newer 16mm film works they can consider purchasing and entering into the circulation collection, all in the name of access.

~Erin McCall

Lauren Sorensen: Analog Video Hero

I recently spoke with Lauren Sorensen, Preservation Project Manager at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco. Lauren graduated from the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation program at New York University and has since worked for the National Digitization Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), Canyon Cinema, San Francisco Cinematheque and now BAVC. Below she discusses preservation of analog videotape, working with artists and non-profits, and the future of moving image preservation.

Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition
Lauren Sorensen of the Bay Area Video Coalition

What are your main job responsibilities as Preservation Project Manager?

My main responsibilities presently are preservationist for analog videotape for non-profits, archives, museums and libraries; preservationist and project manager for Dance Heritage Coalition partner project Dance Preservation & Digitization Project (formerly Secure Media Network), a digital repository of dance-related moving images; advising clients on collection care and handling; managing our collection assessment services; and metadata specialist.

What formats do you work with the most?

At this point in my work at BAVC, I’m not doing as much on the ground digitizing work, but I am definitely seeing the urgency now for preserving 1/2″ open-reel videotape, the first “portable” format financially (and physically) accessible to artists and non-profits such as dance companies and artists. We also work with Hi-8, Umatic and VHS quite a bit. I work advising our clients and building workflow for digital preservation, and I feel that is where my role at BAVC is headed moving forward. I often work with 10-bit uncompressed in a Quicktime *.mov wrapper, which is the preservation codec and wrapper we recommend to our clients currently for digitization from an analog source.

What is the most rewarding thing about your work?

For the Dance Heritage Coalition partner project, it is mainly discovering all the amazing possibilities associated with digital preservation and open source and the movement to open access; it can be very intimidating at first, but the software tools out there are really powerful and accessible if a little time is taken to learn. I feel like learning about these tools, because the standard now for analog videotape preservation is digital file, helps our smaller clients and I’m able to advise artists and those preserving their personal collections and I feel really good about being able to assist in that process.

Another rewarding thing about working at BAVC is that artists come in wanting to work on their personal legacy and life’s work. Sometimes we are able to put them in touch with an archive but there’s a complexity around that- even though their legacy videotape might be better cared for at an archive with temperature and humidity control or access to server storage, an artist may not want to let go of their work. While this is completely understandable, many times analog videotape is so unstable that it will not last over the course of one lifetime. So we often end up discussing more around the complexities of caring for video outside of a traditional setting, a very involved but ultimately very rewarding conversation, when we can do something to come to the service of this part of our constituency.

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How does content influence your work?

One aspect of the digitization process where content matters is in monitoring the signal and identifying between what was captured in the original recording and what are artifacts in transfer. We’re a partner on the A/V Artifact Atlas project and have just recently taken over maintenance of the wiki, which we will work on updating over the next two years, thanks to support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Additionally, there are instances especially with artist-made videotapes when it is unclear if something like sync loss or artifacts are original to the intention of the work; in this case, we work closely with the archivist and sometimes the artist, to determine the intention and how that fits into the preservation process.

In the Videotape Preservation Handbook, Jim Wheeler writes:

“It is assumed that there is intrinsic value in the recorded information or content and little, or no, intrinsic value in the original physical item itself.”

Would you agree that in the field of moving image preservation, there is no intrinsic value in the physical item?

We definitely come across artists who will use tape cases as art objects, and many times there are “traces” of what was produced before, such as metadata intrinsic to the value and provenance of the piece, so I would not agree with Wheeler’s statement especially regarding the community that we serve. Recording and maintaining this kind of legacy metadata is very important for digital preservation.

I’m constantly blown away by the amount of time and money involved in moving image preservation. Are there ever times where you wonder “is this worth it”?

I definitely have moments when I question the selection of content by curators or archivists we work with, but the work we receive in our role as fee-for-service digitization provider is coming from a particular context, where I don’t necessarily have the depth of understanding that the curator might have about what the history or value of that tape might be. Additionally, one of the really exciting aspects of analog video preservation is that many times the content for selection is based on tape labeling and how consistent or well-recorded metadata was in the original production. For example, BAVC received a Hi-8 video documentation of water freezing from the science museum in San Francisco for transfer. There was some challenges in terms of patience as a technician to have one-to-one supervision in transferring, but I can definitely see the value of what they are doing in preserving a tape like that — it was the opening of a major exhibition and Hi-8 is a volatile format. I think it will get easier and less expensive as tools are developed and people actively work on making the digitization activities we pursue streamlined. It helps that as a field we’re moving into the digital world, where we can make code and scripts work for us to make tasks less expensive and time-consuming.

Any predictions about the future of your field?

For analog video digitization, the recommended preservation format is digital; and with the fate of Kodak, I think the future is that a lot of moving image archivists are going to have to add digital preservation skills and tools to their bag of tricks. Digital preservation and archives is an exciting field to move into, I think, it’s just important to not be intimidated, dive in and try out sample files. I think the digital world gives our community a great opportunity in thinking about new ways of approaching what’s being preserved.

~Leanne Mobley

Profile of a Film Archivist: David Francis

I recently had the pleasure of conducting an email interview with British film archivist, David Francis. Over the course of his prolific career, Mr. Francis has served as the Curator of the UK’s National Television and Film Archive (a division of the British Film Institute) as well as the Chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress, in addition to other positions. I asked David to comment on his background and these experiences in order to paint a picture of the field over time.

Background

Francis was introduced to the world of film early in life. As his parents were members of a 35mm Film Society, the family attended film viewings regularly. This interest was later renewed through programming work for the Film Society at the London School of Economics, where he eventually received a BSc in Economics with a specialization in International Relations. In 1959, he began working as the Television Acquisitions Officer at the National Television and Film Archive, where he developed a television collection; a type of collection that had not existed in film archives until that point. He eventually worked his way up to the Curator position in 1974 where he remained until 1989, working on projects such as the J. Paul Getty, Jnr. Conservation Centre and the Museum of the Moving Image in London. In 1990, he left the UK to accept a contract at the Library of Congress. This turned into a more permanent position as became Chief not long after this contract ended. Francis stayed with the LoC until 2001.

Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.
Shot of the (former) Museum of the Moving Image in London.

Advocating for Moving Image Preservation

I asked David to comment on some his experiences advocating for moving image preservation. While at the British National Film Archive, he established the 24 Year Nitrate Preservation Scheme which allowed the Archive to duplicate approximately five million feet of nitrate film every year through government funding. He also organized a FIAF Symposium entitled “Cinema 1900-1906.”

“Up till that time (1978), film archives had been mainly interested in collecting the classic European silent and sound films. They were not interested in their national cinema…or in cinema before the coming of the first feature films. I had, however, always been interested in the relationship between the screen experience before 1895 and its influence on the first 20 years of the cinema’s creative development. We had acquired many titles from the first decade of cinema but could not make many of them available because we did not have the resources. I asked my archival colleagues around the world to send me all the films they had from the period at the Archive’s expense. I would then make two duplicate negative and two positive copies in our laboratory and send the original, one safety negative and a positive back to the archives and keep the others in our collection. In the end we assembled over 600 titles and screened them to a small group of international scholars. They then chose the titles they thought most interesting and these were screened at the Symposium. I think it would not be unreasonable to say that this Symposium paved the way for the study of early cinema.”

At the Library of Congress, Francis successfully implemented new legislation for the National Film Registry, which required the Librarian of Congress to conduct a “Study on the Current State of Film Preservation.” However, his attempts to do the same for television did not come to fruition.

“Congress indicated very clearly that as far as they were concerned film and television were not separate entities and they would not be prepared to fund a National Television Registry. Actually the film and television industries, although intertwined, are jealous of each other and would never have agreed to collaborate on a joint film and television programme.”

Comparing and Contrasting the BFI and MBRS

Having worked in both British and U.S. archives, Francis holds a unique perspective in the field. When I asked him to compare and contrast these experiences, he explained that while the two archives were similar in size, they remained different in other ways, particularly regarding funding.

“The British Film Institute was a QUANGO—a quasi autonomous non-governmental organization. It received funds from the government through the Ministry of the Arts but was not directly accountable for the way in which the funds were used. The Library of Congress is funded directly by Congress and considered by Congress as its library. However unlike most other archives in the United States the Library received some governmental funding although it had to also raise private funds if it was to meet its responsibilities. The National Film Archive section of the British Film Institute relied on private donations to build its film collections. The National Film Archive section of the BFI relied on private donations to build its film collections. There is no Statutory deposit for films in the UK. The Library builds its current collections through copyright deposits but relies on donations to fill gaps. The National Film Archive was a relatively un-bureaucratic organization and as Curator I was given a lot of freedom to achieve the Archive’s goals. I appointed all my own staff and managed all our budgets. The Library of Congress was very bureaucratic with checks and balances at every level. One had to compete for funding and staff with other Divisions.”

Changes Over Time

Beginning his career in 1959, Francis has experienced many of the great changes in the field. One he notes specifically is the improving relationship with film producers and distributors.

“In the 1960s one had to bribe producers and distributors to donate films. We organized a slap up party at Christmas and only invited staff from companies that participated. We invited the vault managers as well as the managing director because sometimes although we were refused donations officially, we received material unofficially from the vault manager. Another more dubious method of acquiring film was to bribe the driver of the Celluloid Products van who came to collect junk nitrate film for its silver value, to let us go through the films he already had on his van and substitute films of an equal or greater silver value. Even today, producers and distributors are still wary of film archives because they are concerned that they might screen copyrighted films without written permission. However they see the advantage of helping an organization that will store little used materials in ideal conditions free of charge.”

He also mentions the changing role and intentions of the film archive itself.

“When I started at the National Film Archive, the role of an archive was to collect films made by the classic European directors not to concentrate, as today, on the films made in one’s own country. Also scant attention was given to the films made in the first two decades of cinema history, short films, documentary subjects, newsreels or amateur film. These categories are now recognized as just as important as the feature film and, in fact, more important because they will not survive without the help of archives.”

Future Implications for Moving Image Archives

To overcome the challenges of digitization,

“Archives must be more like museums. Archives still control important information although even this position is threatened as more and more 20th century productions are digitized. The screening of a unique restored print in the archive cinema must be an experience to treasure and look forward to. I personally still feel that archives should use digital media to make films available widely, as long as it is still possible to see celluloid copies of the same titles projected in archive cinemas or other approved venues. The digital experience often appears to be technically superior but it is a different experience from watching a film in a darkened auditorium together.”

Furthermore, he voices his concern about the future of celluloid.

“Archives don’t have access to changing technology. When they preserve a film on celluloid they know they can store it in a controlled environment and it will retain its quality and accessibility. It will always be possible to build film projectors because they are mechanical not electronic. A digital master might need to be refreshed every five or so years and archives may not have access to the funds or equipment to do this on a regular basis. If they miss one refreshment stage, the digital master may become inaccessible. A lot of people will argue against this view and we will not know who was correct until we reach the 100 year mark but I believe archives must be conservative and never put the future of the moving image heritage at risk.”

My final question to David asked his opinion of the skills today’s archivists should possess.

“Archivists today have to be politicians, fund raisers and film historians who have the stage presence to make their knowledge exciting to the general public. Even although they must ensure that an archive is supported financially, policy must be based on what they believe should be done not on what others want them to do. Archives should only be big enough to achieve what can reasonably be done. An Archive can be too large as well as too small. If it is too large the head of the archive may not be able to devote enough time to determining policy, explaining it to staff and encouraging them to be part of the archive team.”

francis

 ~Susan Bogner

“The Fieldworker Is The First Archivist”: An Interview With Guha Shankar Of The American Folklife Center At The Library Of Congress

Guha Shankar is a Folklife Specialist at the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress (LC). Dr. Shankar sums up his career in this field as combining his “creative and political inclinations — documentary productions accomplished in a collaborative fashion with scholars and community members from under-represented and marginal communities so as to represent their cultural practices to a wider audience, and also and crucially, help preserve a permanent archival record of cultural forms under stress from dominant forces.” Dr. Shankar received his B.A. in Radio, Television, and Film and Political Science in 1982 from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and went on to complete a Ph.D. in Anthropology at the University of Texas-Austin in 2003, specializing in Folklore and Public Culture.  Past professional experience includes almost a decade as a Media Production Specialist and Film Editor at the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife Programs in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. Currently, Dr. Shankar holds a wide range of responsibilities at the Library of Congress, explaining that, “our (AFC’s) work as public folklorists is intertwined with the LC’s mission to provide our patrons with access to the records of the nation’s artistic, intellectual and cultural legacy in perpetuity. Following on from that, the mission of the Center is to promote and preserve the nation and the world’s documentation of folk traditions.”

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Dr. Shankar outlined several key endeavors of the AFC with regards to this mission:

  • The preservation of audio-visual and other documentary materials of traditional cultural forms (song, dance, speech, etc.)
  • Providing access to these materials to both the broader public, and specifically to communities of origin
  • Providing technical training in documentary and oral history production and archival principles via workshops and field schools
  • Conducting in-house and collaborative documentary projects on a wide range of topics regarding cultural heritage, politics, and history

In his position at the AFC, Dr. Shankar works on a number of training initiatives, such as AFC’s long-standing Field Schools for Cultural Documentation for university students and community scholars. In the last few years, the field school model has been applied to the Cultural Documentation for Indigenous Communities, in which Dr. Shankar and his colleagues work with distinct cultural groups such as the Maasai of Kenya and the Rastafari and Maroons of Jamaica. By collaborating with groups and individuals who wish to acquire knowledge of and skills in the methods and technologies necessary to document and preserve elements of their culture that are meaningful to them, Dr. Shankar hopes to level the playing field with regard to the issue of representation. The problem of representation is a long-standing issue in ethnographic work, the central tension being the extent to which the perspective of the fieldworker or academic researcher supersedes the voice(s) and views of other cultures and communities, and Dr. Shankar discusses this issue in a recent article for the International Journal of Intangible Cultural Heritage. However, the sustainability of these projects is a continuing challenge for Dr. Shankar and his colleagues. It was not so very long ago that audio cassette machines were the primary device used in fieldwork; to some extent video cassettes were also part of an individual fieldworker’s toolkit.  Now, however, the preservation and security of audiovisual cultural heritage materials has become exponentially more complicated with the advent of portable, readily available digital audio and moving image tools, which have replaced analog recorders virtually overnight. The digital revolution has resulted in a marked shift in the use of recording technologies in the AFC’s training programs  but also initiated a more fundamental re-thinking of the challenges of long-term archival storage of the materials.   Dr. Shankar said in his interview with me, with tongue in cheek, that “in the past, ‘archive’ could be a shoebox, so long as you numbered your cassette tapes.”  So, what is to be done with the born-digital sound and moving image works that is now being created by community-based fieldworkers?  They have to have IT storage and a robust asset management program in place to keep these items accessible. Even with the advantages of many people being able to record video and audio on smartphones, for instance, Dr. Shankar makes management and sustainability a focus of the training programs. “How are you going to make these stories accessible?” He says. “What is your plan for long -term storage?”  Media archivists have to alert community-led documentation projects to the many unanticipated, technological challenges they will face.  As Dr. Shankar notes, “the fieldworker is the first archivist – and also is going to have to be the IT manager in some way”. Currently Dr. Shankar’s efforts are focused on a collaboration between the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (which is slated to open to the public in 2015). The Civil Rights History Project is both a survey of existing oral histories and repositories and a venture seeking to record new interviews with Movement participants.  More information can be found here.

“Folklife is an integral part of all American lives and an essential part of the National Library. The story of America is reflected in the cultural productions of ordinary people who live everyday lives, from cooking and eating meals, to the activities of work and play, to religious observances and seasonal celebration.” –The American Folklife Center

~Josephine McRobbie

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

 

Reflections on AMIA from a First-Time Attendee

A view of Seattle from the conference hotel.
A view of Seattle from the conference hotel.

One month ago, a small gathering of film enthusiasts and archivists came together for a few days in Seattle to partake in the 22nd annual Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference. On an oddly sunny Tuesday morning in the Pacific Northwest, AMIA kicked off with the ffmpeg4archivists Workshop held by Dave Rice. And so it was, my first AMIA conference had officially begun. After soaking in some ffmpeg knowledge, it was off to The Reel Thing to catch a glimpse of some recent restoration projects along with some groundbreaking and interesting new technologies.

At the Newcomer’s Mixer, Stacy Doyle of the Black Film Center Archive and I had breakfast with an audio engineer from Sony. This was followed by a humbling and inspiring video from AudioVisual Preservation Solutions (AVPS) and New York University Moving Image Archive Program (MIAP) students, showcasing their trials during the aftermath of Sandy at Eyebeam. The next three days were packed with interesting topics including everything from colorspace, ephemeral TV content and Digital Cinema Distribution Masters (DCDM), to working in a digital world, access, and preservation through reuse.  It was very difficult to decide which session to attend or which two the hour and a half period would be divided into. It would be a disservice to attempt to recap the entire conference but this will be a stab at narrowing it down to a few highlights.

Taken during <i> 28mm: A New Look at Old Films</i>.
Taken during 28mm: A New Look at Old Films.

Make It So: Initiating Audiovisual Preservation, was a talk by a group of relatively recent Master’s graduates that gave an inspiring look at startup projects from around the country and the challenges we are all facing with media preservation. They definitely gave a glimpse of hope for soon-to-be-graduates entering the job market.

A Decade of Home Movie Day contained personal stories from around the country and tips for starting one in your own hometown. Ruta Abolins, of the University of Georgia, was asked during one screening while touring the state, “Will you be here again next week?” For an annual event, this was definitely a compliment.

Access and digitization were hot topics in many panels. Members from WGBH and Northeast Historic Film discussed these areas in depth during Collaboration and Participation in Action – New Ways to Create Online Collections.

Skip Elsheimer, of AV Geeks, talked about CatDV, XMedia Recode, and MPEG Streamclip while Dave Rice of AVPS gave us his words of wisdom about preservation: “If you are a tape, and live in a cool, dry place, you will live longer” during their talk, Man vs. Machine, with Jimi Jones, Archivist at Hampshire College.

Walter Forsberg of NYU and Cassie Blake from the Academy Film Archive, presented their project on movie snipes as sociocultural signifiers. A wonderful montage with catchy tunes, animated food, puppies, and more hot dogs with mustard than one could imagine… by the end we were all ready to go the lobby and get ourselves a treat.

Walter Forsberg discusses movie snipes.
Walter Forsberg discusses movie snipes.

So many people I spoke with had incredibly varied backgrounds along with a multitude of life and job experiences that brought them to where they are now.  Some had been in the field for well over 30 years; one woman currently works for an oil company and is considering a career change; others simply have a passion for film.  At one point near the end of the conference I had one of those rare but highly sought-after moments in life — when we get to experience the feeling that says “I have found my people.”

In the end, the true beauty of AMIA was that all of our paths were brought together for a few days by one common interest.  Recent industry developments have led some people say that film is dead.  However, something can’t be dead if there is still so much life left in it.  If even a small number of these people have anything to do with it, this pulse will continue to beat for years to come.

Asia Harman

Polygamists, Cyborgs, and Gay Marriage, Oh My! Orson Welles and Future Shock

The cover to McGraw-Hill’s teaching companion to the film, available digitized at IUFLA’s Facebook page.

“Our modern technology has achieved a degree of sophistication beyond our wildest dreams. But this technology has exacted a pretty heavy price. We live in an age of anxiety, a time of stress. And with all our sophistication we are in fact, the victims of our own technological strength. We are the victims of shock … of future shock.”

No, this isn’t a quote from a Huffington Post column on the Facebookization of modern communication. Nor is it pulled from an academic treatise on the phenomenologies of post-industrial existence. This statement was made by Orson Welles in the 1972 futurist documentary Future Shock, and, unlike some of the more dated elements of 1970s educational films, Future Shock remains shockingly current in verbalizing the concerns and anxieties that come along with rapid societal and technological change.

Could this poly-faced scene in Future Shock be a precursor to the F For Fake film poster?

1970s Visions Of A Dystopic Future

The 1972 documentary Future Shock was created as a companion piece to the 1970 book of the same name by author and social theorist Alvin Toffler. Toffler’s Future Shock posited that the accelerated rate of technological change in the modern world was leading to a largely dystopic and alienated society.  The book is hugely iconic, having sold over 6 million copies worldwide.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vVJrJk3q3MA

The educational film adaptation is useful in offering an audiovisual portrait of economic and social concerns of the 1970s, and from this, we can better understand the paradigms of consumerism and technology that we trade in today. Beyond that, it offers up intriguing archival scenes of 1970s artificial limb innovations, modular architecture, and transient free-lovin’ hippies, albeit offered as examples of precursors to a dystopic future of terrifying artificial intelligence and distance from the traditional morality of earlier decades. “The momentum is established, but the direction is up to us,” warns Welles. “Is there danger in the path we are taking?”

Orson Welles As Host And Narrator

A somewhat spooky example of genetic engineering and robotics.

Welles gamely engages with the hyperbole of the narration, sternly discussing how technological innovation has led to broken communities, morally apathetic individuals, and disposable objects. Director Alexander Grasshoff uses his host as a voice of authority and inciter of paranoia, imbuing the film with the same kind of gravity and solemnity as Welles’ early and iconic The War of the Worlds broadcasts.  But certainly, the visual element carries with it some elements of the kitsch – as current as Welles’ theoretical concerns sound, it’s hard to reconcile them with some of the now-irrelevant or dated issues (see again: 1970s artificial limb innovations, modular architecture, transient free-lovin’ hippies).

A Futuristic And Fusionist Musical Score

Future Shock’s score was created by Gil Mellé, a baritone saxophonist and film composer who spent the 1970s and 1980s experimenting on musical arrangements for film and television that fused jazz, electronic music, and avant garde classical minimalism. His work on the theme for the television program Night Gallery was notable for its use of an all-electronic score mimicking the conventions of an orchestra, and he specialized in science fiction and horror films such as The Andromeda Strain and The Sentinel.  In Future Shock, the combination of strings, horns, and electronics ebbs and flows, switching from the urban groove of funk to the industrial Moogisms of early modern electronic music to create moments of urgency and mystery.

Future Shock discusses “nontraditional” relationships such as homosexuality, evidenced in this scene documenting a 1970s wedding between two men.

Indiana University And Orson Welles

This 16mm film is part of the recently acquired Oregon Collection of 12,000 educational films.  In addition, it is significant to the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive and Indiana University in general because of its relation to the greater collection of Orson Welles materials that are housed here, from the papers and lacquer discs at the Lilly Library to the film elements at the IULFA. In watching this legendary actor and personality grapple via performance with the social concerns of the day, we are given a deeper understanding of both the Welles himself, as well as historical and current imaginings of change and innovation in society.

  • Read more on Preserving Orson Welles at Indiana University here.
  • Learn more about the Oregon Collection at IULFA here.

~Josephine McRobbie

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

20th Century Treasure Hunt: An Adventure With Jacques Cousteau

Screen shot of Cousteau looking at a found object.

In the early 1970s, Jacques Cousteau and his team made a series of programs entitled The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Each episode takes a closer look at Cousteau’s favorite subject: the ocean. The Indiana University Libraries Film Archive received ten of these titles as part of the Oregon Collection including Those Incredible Diving Machines, The Water Planet, Coral Jungle, and The Water Planet. Cousteau was well known as a leading expert in oceanic life, and his many television programs all take a closer look at some form of ocean life or adventure. He began making films in 1942 and continued, almost non-stop,  until his death in the mid 90s. His first film was shot with his own 35mm Kinamo Zeiss camera that he put into a waterproof brass box with external cables to control the focus and aperture. In 1943, with the help of engineer Emile Gagnan, Cousteau developed the aqua-lung, one of the first incarnations of modern scuba diving equipment. This apparatus, which advanced technologically over the years, enabled Cousteau to breathe underwater while filming. Cousteau went on to create many other inventions, all of which were based on a passion for underwater filmmaking.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s2E34QrDzAg

A closer look at the episode Sunken Treasure with Jacques Cousteau reveals an inside look at a 20th century treasure hunt. Note the difference in time between the full episode and our classroom version, which was catered to fit a specific lesson plan: 50 minutes compared to 20.  Rod Serling narrates the treasure hunt for silver and gold worth over one million dollars believed to be aboard the The Lady of the Conception, a ship from the Spanish Armada fleet which sank after crashing into a coral reef in 1641. Cousteau and his crew, while aboard his ship, Calypso, use maps to navigate the choppy seas of the

Placing markers next to artifacts.

Caribbean to the site of the wreckage. Scuba divers are seen swimming down to the sea floor and raking through sand and coral debris. In time, pieces of the rigging are found along with other items from the ship. Using a 200 horsepower air compressor to suck up and then disperse sand, silt and debris, the crew can get to pieces of the wreckage more easily. When Serling describes the machinery as “so powerful it can suck up a man’s arm. The airlift could literally suck out a man’s blood through his skin,” he sounds like he is back in time, narrating The Twilight Zone. In total, 300 tons of coral debris were sifted through to find cannon balls, a ceramic jug completely in tact with the stopper still in it along with a syringe, a metal plate, tin and pewter plates, soup bones, cups and bowls stacked together. Additionally, cups made of Chinese porcelain, which had been transported to Spanish ships via the Philippines, were found along with the remains of a hand guard to a sword. The crew also discovered that, when the ship crashed, the cannons were loaded and ready to fire.

Treasure map screen shot.

This film gives a great insight into what life was like at sea for these men: afternoon lunches in the hot sun with plenty of wine, Cousteau with the youthful energy of a kid on Christmas morning, and the crew clad in red caps, breaking up huge pieces of coral with sledgehammers. Mostly portrayed was the sense of camaraderie these men shared in their hunt for treasure. It can easily be seen how Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou is a tip of the hat to one of his heroes, Jacques Cousteau. At the end of the episode, we discover that the ship is in fact not La Nuestra Senora de la Concepcion (which actually sank close to the Philippines) and carried no silver or gold. Although we do not get a glimpse of the Jaguar Shark, Cousteau’s films leave us with a closer look into his love of the ocean and his deep passion for wanting to share its beauty and mysteries to the world through film.

~Asia Harman