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The Rescue and Recovery Mission of Film Preservation

By Bob Fisher

Theodore Roosevelt campaigning as Progressive Party candidate, in downtown Los Angeles, September 16, 1912. 35mm frame blowup, from Harrison Engle's <em>The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt</em>. Photo courtesy of Signal Hill Entertainment.

Robert Rosen said it all: “Moving images are vital to our culture. They are a pre-eminent popular art form characteristic and distinctive to this century. They represent our history and our cultural development, and even more, they represent our collective memory, the legacy of who we were and what we thought.”

Rosen shared those sage observations several years ago when he accepted the International Documentary Association Preservation and Scholarship Award on behalf of The Film Foundation in his capacity as chair of the Archivists Advisory Committee.

Rosen arrived on the UCLA campus in 1974 to teach students how to “read” film. There was a small archive mainly used as a reference library. Rosen, who is now dean of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, led the expansion of the library, initially as an educational resource, but it soon became a “rescue mission.” Today, the UCLA Film and Television Archive contains some 220,000 titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.

A Brief History of Film as a Historical Document

From the beginning, there has been an assumption that films are made for posterity. However, the US Patent Office didn’t deem moving images worthy of copyright protection until 1913. Klaw and Erlanger, Vitagraph and other producers found a loophole by converting their films to paper prints and copyrighting those images.

In 1952, archivists at the Library of Congress contacted the Motion Picture Association of America asking for help. The only records of some 5,000 films produced between 1896 and 1912 were the deteriorating paper prints in their archives. MPAA wasn’t interested, but Kemp Niver, who handled security, volunteered to investigate. He installed a jury-rigged optical printer in his garage and subsequently converted some 3,000 titles from paper to film. He also researched and authored nine privately published books filled with details about the histories of the films he restored.

Niver discovered that Vitagraph had used a camera that recorded two negatives simultaneously. One copy was sent to Milano Film Production, in Italy, which distributed the US-made movies and newsreels in Europe. That opened a new avenue for exploration that led Niver to the discovery of other lost films.

It was never a profitable venture. When asked what motivated him, Niver replied, “… these motion pictures were the start of a new form of communication, a transition from the spoken word to visual literacy…if a piece of film dies, a human thought dies with it. I thought if I could do something to preserve that thought, isn’t it worth doing?”

Unfortunately, Niver was a voice in the wilderness during most of the history of the industry. Film historians estimate that some 80 percent of the silent movies and half of all narrative films produced prior to 1951 are lost. There is no formal prognosis for the condition of early newsreels and other nonfiction films, but you should assume it is grim, though there are some notable exceptions.

A Few Success Stories

When former IDA President Harrison Engle embarked on research for The Life and Times of Teddy Roosevelt during the early 1980s, he discovered that the Library of Congress had a collection of newsreel footage donated by members of the Roosevelt family. Engle arranged to borrow sections of the original 35mm film.

“At one point, I was holding a piece of film of Teddy Roosevelt in Cuba in my hands,” says Engle. “A Vitagraph newsreel cameraman took it in 1898. I could tell it was authentic from the edge markings. The images were so sharp and clear they seemed three-dimensional. At that moment, I felt I knew Teddy Roosevelt and we were going to be able to bring him back to life.”

Steven Lighthill was the author of the images for Berkeley in the ‘60s, which earned an Oscar® nomination in 1990. The film chronicles the anti-Vietnam War movement on and around the Berkeley campus during the late 1960s, when Lighthill was working as a freelance news cameraman. He was also part of a cooperative that produced Son and Daughters, a 1968 anti-war documentary. Lighthill became the keeper of the cut film and outtakes because he had a house; he stowed the film in a basement closet.

In 1980, Lighthill was cutting another film when Mark Kitchell contacted him with his idea for Berkley in the ‘60s. Kitchell inspected and catalogued the film in Lighthill’s basement and also acquired some of the 16mm color positive newsfilm Lighthill had shot from CBS News. Berkeley in the ‘60s also included new interviews with many of the people who were involved in the protests.

“In 1993, I contributed all of the footage from the cooperative to the Pacific Film Archive,” Lighthill says. “We have film of Huey Newton and the rise of the Black Panthers. It will be there for people to see hundreds of years from now. Unfortunately, there’s probably never going to be anything comparable after the rise of videotape for news coverage. It’s a different mentality. They didn’t save it. It’s disposable.”

There have been various formal efforts to preserve irreplaceable nonfiction films for posterity. The IDA and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences joined forces in 1994 in establishing an archival center for acquiring, cataloguing and making distinguished documentaries accessible to researchers. Their most ambitious co-venture was the restoration and archiving of Primary (1960) and Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963). The black-and-white documentaries were produced and directed by Robert Drew with much of the camerawork handled by Albert Maysles, Ricky Leacock and DA Pennebaker. Drew, Maysles, Pennebaker and Leacock have all earned IDA Career Achievement and/or Mentor Awards for their distinguished bodies of work.

But the reality is, that effort just scratches the surface. Buddy Squires, who has lensed the lion’s share of Ken Burns’ documentary footage, says that outtakes from his personal documentaries are stowed in a dark, cool area in his basement. He notes that Burns is re-mastering The Civil War for DVD release, taking advantage of advances in telecine technology to render even more compelling images.

Rosen observes that many films that were once considered “disposable” by aficionados have become important in retrospect. For example, Universal Studios and DreamWorks celebrated the 20th anniversary of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial by restoring and re-releasing the film in both cinema and DVD formats. The latter includes a behind-the-scenes film about the making of E.T., lensed by John Toll, ASC, who subsequently earned Oscars® for his camerawork on Braveheart and Legends of the Fall. The DVD has images of Steven Spielberg and John Williams collaborating on the score with a Moviola sitting next to a piano. Who could have imagined the historical significance of Toll’s footage 20 years ago?

Maybe the ultimate success story belongs to Wolfgang Bayer, who sold his first nature film to Bill Burrud’s Animal World TV show for $250 in 1964. Burrud urged him to keep and properly archive his outtakes. Several years ago, Bayer sold his library consisting of some one million feet of 16mm film to the Discovery Channel. He is using part of the proceeds to produce a feature-length documentary.

There are other successes. For example, when the Pope visited Fidel Castro in Cuba in 1994, the venerable filmmaker Haskell Wexler, ASC, believed it was important to record the story of that encounter for posterity. He knew there would be countless TV news crews, but Wexler felt that that it was unlikely that their video would endure. He organized, financed and arranged to bring a 35mm film crew to Cuba, and has archived the film and audio.

In 2000, Dean Cundey, ASC, who is best known for his narrative cinematography, lensed The Face: Jesus in Art, a PBS documentary chronicling the history of art in the Catholic religion. The project took him deep into the catacombs and other religous sites where filmmakers had rarely or never gone before. Cundey successfully lobbied to record The Face in 35mm film format, make a digital master accessible to researchers and archive the original film for posterity.

Advice From Rick Utley

That’s the good news. The reality is that most documentarians don’t have that luxury. Chances are they are using Super-16 film at best, or more likely, one of the various digital video formats. We asked preservationist Rick Utley about options for documentary filmmakers. Utley has spent nearly 40 years on the technical side of the business, including long stints at MGM and Technicolor labs. In 1993, he was hired by Kodak to build and oversee the operation of the PRO-TEK Media and Preservation Vault located in Burbank, California.


Let’s presume a documentary is produced in 16mm or Super -6 and edited in video format so there is no cut negative or film intermediate.

Rick Utley: The original negative and digital information should be stored at separate sites to protect against a natural or man-made disaster. This is important because disasters happen. Ideally, you should make liquid gate polyester interpositives from the negative and store them separately, but chances are that isn’t financially feasible. Either way, the original film should be stored in an environment that satisfies archival standards—at the very least, 50° F and 50% RH. The EDL (edit decision list) should also be considered archival, since the video master will not last nearly as long as the film. A new master will be needed in the future. The original media containing the sound should also be stored in an archival environment. It can be kept with the video master with the understanding that it will eventually be re-recorded.


Are there other recommended practices for archiving?

Have the negative inspected for physical damage, such as scratches and tears. You also want to make sure you have the right film in the canister and that it is properly labeled.


What does it typically cost to store film in a vault like PRO-TEK?

It typically costs less than $35 a year to store 10 1,000-foot cans of 16mm or Super 16 film in an optimum environment. For the independent producer. that might not be practical if you have 50,000 feet of outtakes. One alternative is investing in a refrigerator and learning the proper way to package your film in a micro-environment using molecular sieves with a polyethylene bag for archiving. There is information available from the PRO-TEK Media Preservation Center on this procedure.


What about film, which has been stored for years?

Take the time to inspect it. You can see if the color is fading by eye in extreme cases, or if the base is degrading. The most common cause of degradation is something called vinegar syndrome, which affects acetate-base film and is detectable by the odor. There are photochemical and digital techniques for repairing color fading and for fixing physical damage by making a new copy of the film. Vinegar syndrome can be slowed by putting molecular sieves in the film can, forming a micro-environment, and storing it in a cold environment. The sieves absorb the acid. The alternative is restoring the old film and making a new copy before it is too late.


How about new documentaries produced in digital format?

If you can afford it, record your final edit out to intermediate film and store it separately from the original video. If you can’t afford to record out to film, clone your digital documentary and archive the two copies at separate facilities. We recommend inspecting both video copies annually because they will degrade. That means you need to maintain equipment, and from time to time, you should migrate to a newer format. There have been more than 70 video formats since 1958, and the manufacturers haven’t done a particularly good job of maintaining equipment and parts.


What do you do if you have tape that is 10 or 20 years old?

There are facilities that specialize in conversion services on older video formats to newer formats. Don’t wait, because there is a fairly rapid obsolescence of equipment for older formats.


What are the anticipated shelf lives for film and video content?

Properly archived film will last for 600 years, according to the Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Anytime during that period, it can be copied onto a new record, so the real answer is infinity. Ask 10 different “experts” about the shelf life of video and digital video, and you’ll get 10 different answers. My personal experience is that 20 to 25 years is possible, though I’ve seen images and heard sounds on 35-year-old quad tape that was properly stored and successfully re-recorded. It is a double-edged sword because the media life is relatively volatile compared to film, and the hardware and software are subject to fairly rapid obsolesce.


Do you have any other observations?

In the entertainment industry, all of the studios now have asset protection departments responsible for overseeing film libraries, which are now regarded as their single largest asset. There are new ways to distribute older films every year. Unfortunately, independent filmmakers and documentarians don’t have access to this information, and new filmmakers don’t learn about it in school. I think this is an important mission for IDA. How many readers have heard about the Image Permanence Institute at RIT, or the Association of Moving Image Archivists? Their sole mission is the development of standards for image storage and preservation. On my part, I’ll answer any questions IDA sends my way.

Rick Utley can be reached at


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.