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The Drive to Archive: Academy Pushes to Preserve Docs

By Bob Fisher

"Motion pictures are the Rosetta Stone of our times. They are how future generations will know who we were, what we did and how we felt about our world."

            --Guillermo Navarro, ASC, AMC

That salient observation says it all, and officials at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are listening and acting. They are deeply engaged in an ambitious two-year endeavor to find, restore, if necessary, and archive narrative, documentary and experimental movies on motion picture film while it is still available.

"We are reaching out to documentary filmmakers, organizations and libraries and offering to do restoration work if necessary," says Ed Carter, documentary curator for the Academy Film Archive at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies in Hollywood. "If the negative is lost, we will make a duplicate from a print. If a documentary was born digital, and was never distributed on film, we'll keep it digital." Carter describes this ambitious initiative as "a gift to future generations."

The Science and Technology Council at the Academy published two in-depth reports over the past several years that deal with the archival status of  narrative films and documentaries and the outlook for the future. The Digital Dilemma, published in 2008, focuses on narrative motion pictures produced by the  Hollywood studios. The Digital Dilemma 2, published earlier this year, provides in-depth information about the archival status of independent narrative films and documentaries.

The basic conclusion of both reports is that film archived in a proper temperature- and humidity-controlled environment will last for 95 years or longer before it has to be migrated to a new copy. Digital media has a much shorter lifespan.

Archiving is hardly a new concept. Carter points out that there are films that were produced during the dawn of the motion picture industry in the 1890s in the Academy Film Archive. The academy was founded in 1927 and began collecting motion picture films in 1929. The Fairbanks Center was opened with state-of-the art film vaults in 1991. The capacity for archiving was significantly increased when the Pickford Center was opened in Hollywood in 2002. There are approximately 76,000 films in the archive today.    

The Academy has been archiving reference copies of award-winning documentaries in the annual International Documentary Association competition for more than a decade. During recent years, the academy has offered to archive submissions in almost all categories.

Carter says that he and archive director Michael Pogorzelski have been discussing this issue with their colleagues at the National Archives, the Museum of Modern Art, UCLA and other venues. "There are films in their archives that we have made arrangements to copy," Carter notes. "It's our way of ensuring that this important part of our culture and history is there for tomorrow's generations."

Carter stresses that a top priority is making people aware of this issue and motivating them to contact him and Pogorzelski with questions and requests for assistance in restoring and archiving documentaries and other films as a legacy for the future.

Steven Poster, ASC, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, lauds the initiative by the academy, and is urging members of the guild and all other independent and documentary filmmakers to take advantage of this opportunity to preserve the stories of  past and contemporary times for future generations,

Carter occasionally assumes the role of detective. In 1941 Kukan and a British film called Target for Tonight were the first feature-length documentaries to receive Special Academy Awards from the Academy of  Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Kukan was produced by Rey Scott, an American journalist and a foreign correspondent for several newspapers. Scott used a handheld 16mm camera and recorded images on color film while he was traveling in China during the late 1930s and 1940. He documented how the populace was coping with attacks by the Japanese air force and soldiers and he also recorded narrations of his observations.  


Poster from the 1941 documentary Kukan (Prod.: Rey Scott), which is being restored by the Academy Film Archive. Courtesy of AMPAS


The final 20 minutes of Kukan captures the August 1940 Japanese air force bombing of  Chungking (now Congqing), Chiang Kai-shek's provincial capital. Scott filmed the bombing from the roof of the US Embassy.

Kukan documented history in the making. It was released to theaters in the US in 1941. There was a special screening at the White House for President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor. Newspapers and magazines published stories about the film. There were also editorials saying that the United States should come to China's aid.  

"I searched for a print of Kukan for our archives and couldn't find one anywhere," Carter says. "Around two-and-a-half years ago, Robin Lung, a filmmaker in Hawaii, contacted me and said that she was trying to find the film. I encouraged her and agreed to help. She was persistent and finally tracked down the sons of the filmmaker. They had a very beat-up 16mm print.

"We also found an incomplete 16 mm print of Kukan at the National Archives," Carter continues. "We are in the process of restoring elements that were found. The academy will archive Kukan, including the restored elements, so copies can be made available to the current and future generations. It's an important chapter in world history."

Carter says that one of the challenges about the film preservation archiving initiative is getting the word out to documentary and other filmmakers. "There is going to be a three-day weekend screening series in late September to showcase some of the films that we have restored and are archiving in all the different areas, including experimental and short films, animated movies, features and documentaries," he says. "Our goal is to make more people aware of this important issue.

"Even with the publication of the two Digital Dilemma reports and the widespread publicity they got, there are still a lot of busy filmmakers who are not aware of the limitations of  archiving digital content," Carter maintains. "We are committed to educating people about the importance of keeping original negatives properly archived and preserved on film."

Carter points out that deciding how to properly archive a historically significant documentary isn't always a simple issue. For instance, there are often outtakes that don't make the final cut of a film. He notes that it is generally impractical for the academy to archive outtakes because there are often large amounts of film that don't make the final cut. "If it's a historically important person or subject, exceptions may be made," he says.

Carter observes that documentary filmmakers are sometimes confronted with obstacles while tracking down elements of films needed for restoration projects. Sometimes the company that produced the film or a laboratory where it was stored has gone out of business. Maybe a film library was sold and content was lost. The positive side of this story is that Carter has found original negatives and prints of several significant documentaries advertised on eBay.

Carter stresses that the need to educate people about archiving documentaries and other films is a universal issue. "A lot of documentaries nominated for Oscars were made by filmmakers from other countries," he observes. "Tracking those films down and dealing with copyright holders in countries that have different laws can be challenging. Our relationships with the British Film Institute and the Irish Film Archive help in those nations, but sometimes copyright holders in  other countries haven't allowed us to make copies to archive."

Carter says that the next major hurdle will be finding a solution to the current limitations of  long-term digital archiving when motion picture film is no longer widely available. He says that the academy is in the early stages of developing a digital asset management system.  

Stay tuned: This is the first chapter in a historically important, long and complex story.


The Academy Film Archive will present its inaugural Film-to-Film Festival from September 27-29; the festival will showcase a selection of works that have been preserved on film, including a selection of documentaries such as Showman (1963) from Albert and David Maysles. For more information, click here.


From the 1963 documentary Showman, by Albert and David Maysles, which will be screened September 29 at the Linwood Dunn Theater of the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Studies. Courtesy of Maysles Films, Inc.




Bob Fisher has written more than 2,500 articles about narrative and documentary filmmakers over the past 50 years. He has also written extensively about the importance of archiving yesterday and today's films for future generations.