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A Slate of Marble: Matthew White on Protecting the Raw Material for Docs

By Ron Deutsch

Matthew White. Courtesy of Matthew White.

Matthew White was a founder, first president, and is currently executive director of the Association of Commercial Stock Image Libraries (ACSIL), a nonprofit trade association that represents the interests of the stock footage community. He ran his own stock footage library, the White Production Archives (WPA), from 1987 to 2000. His latest venture, Sutton Hoo Studios was, as White describes it, "built to create films from distressed archives." But in between those two endeavors, he served as executive director of the American Archive at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and before that was executive vice president for digital markets with National Geographic. As well, he has been and continues to act as a consultant for many archival projects around the world, and was a founder of Archives at Risk, a global initiative to safeguard endangered audiovisual archives by raising awareness, encouraging cooperative projects, and drawing on the expertise of archivists and archive organizations. In 2016, he co-produced the Beatles documentary Eight Days a Week—The Touring Years, based on footage he collected for Apple Corps for over a decade.

In a career that spans several decades, dating to the analog days, White has witnessed a veritable sea change in his field. What drew it to him in the first place? "I'd been involved in the publishing world in the early 1980s and I had a magazine called Video News, for people who could watch programs or movies at home," White reflects in a phone conversation with Documentary. "This was the days of VHS and Betamax. I got to know a lot of people in this home video world and there were all these entrepreneurs who were all looking for creative talent. This was when the studios didn't really support home video, so there was a lot of original programming being made. Not with big budgets, of course, but enough to make some properties, do some transfers and get some historical work done. There was a group in Chicago—I was based in the area—who asked me if I would get involved in a program they were doing on Great Crimes of the 20th Century.

"So part of that took me into the National Archives in Maryland, where I went to order films that they had Steenbecks you could play them on," White continues. "Every day, I would come in, give these requests to them, and the next morning the films would show up and I could spend the day going through them. It all just got me very excited about that process of research, of being able to see these archival elements, and see them as history. I also just wanted to be able to go behind the scenes and look at the shelves myself—they didn't let you in back then—so that became kind of a goal, to try to get myself in a position where I was going to be able to just go through these archival materials that interested me. So that was the first time I remember this being something very exciting and home video provided a way to do these programs based on archival materials."

Then in 1986, White was working on a film about cigarette smoking, using old television ads, which led him to purchase his own archive, Color Stock, which he then renamed White Production Archives (WPA). In 1999, White and his team won the IDA/ABCNews VideoSource Award for The Murder of JFK: A Revisionist History. "It was a true footage smörgåsbord," White recalls. He managed to find unseen footage from all over the world. "We also had first access to the Zapruder film with the sprocket holes, so we did a 2K version of that."

This led him to being recruited in 2000 by National Geographic to run their archives, where he was in charge of a team that produced daily content and short-form production for the nascent online world, including AOL and MSN, as well as the National Geographic Channel. "It was at that time that I also started to work with groups like the United Nations," White says. "We had a 'visual memory' project, trying to help distressed archives, like going out to Tunis when they were looking for almost competitive ideas which they could choose amongst to figure out where they would put their resources to deal with the digital divide. We were there working with other archives from India, Senegal and Jamaica, basically going through a process of what is needed to make sure this legacy survives. In the end, we were one of the groups that got support from the UN, which led to Archives at Risk."

Through working with all these groups, White has become an evangelist for media preservation through digital migration. "I've always seen footage and these historical materials as just the greatest possible source of programming," he explains, "and audiences are really into this stuff. It takes the production world some time to get their arms around this concept, and at times, that's because there are some rights issues and some production issues that may steer them away from it. But look what happened with the [Ken Burns'] Vietnam series. What's being talked about more than that? And that's an archive piece, and a very difficult one. There is a momentum that's building around these archive films. But I know I was always fighting with producers who just didn't see value in doing something that was built out of older materials. And it always shocked me.

"I can't think of any person or organization I'm talking with about this that isn't interested or concerned," he continues. "So it isn't just I'm a lone voice in the wilderness. But I think there needs to be some kind of urgent call out there that this stuff really is going away. I think UNESCO did a piece, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, that predicted that within 10 years this stuff would start to disappear—and they were right. That is a crisis."

One of things he blames for the perception of a lack of urgency is what might be called "The YouTube problem," which is a real stick in White's craw. "YouTube kind of screwed things up," he argues, "because suddenly it was an archive of its own, and people were able to go in there and just see anything—or at least they think so. I was answering questions five years ago from a New York Times journalist who said, 'Well, hasn't everything already been digitized?' So there's a sense that it all has been all put into digital form. It's just not.

Archives in Havana, Cuba, from Matthew White's current project on Revolutionary Archives from the 1960s and 1970s. Courtesy of Matthew White.

"The whole initiative of the American Archive [for CPB] started before YouTube was a big deal, and people understood intuitively that the material from the past that's on audio-visual form if it doesn't get into some kind of digital form, then it's just lost to the future generations," he continues. "That was funded by Congress to put significant money into this concept that we were going to care of, at least, the materials that were paid for with taxpayer dollars."

While White and his team at CPB were able to digitize a core of 40,000 hours of footage, Congress pulled the plug at that point. And while that seems like a lot of hours, there were a total of one million hours they were trying to preserve.

"Now, a lot of people would look at YouTube and figure it's all there," he explains. "So suddenly, it wasn't as urgent an issue anymore. You think about that one million, and it means that there are 960,000 hours that may not be in digital format. Okay, let's be generous and say that maybe 60,000 is, because it was shot in digital. But still, it's just another example of some of these archives that will be important to people 100 to 200 years from now. And those people will look back at this time and realize all these material generated and that most of it doesn't exist. Like all those silent films: Ninety percent of all silent films don't exist."

Meanwhile, White maintains that there have been organizations and governments providing grants around the world, some more than others. "For instance," he explains, "the Netherlands put all kinds of money into their archives. Some of the things going in Poland, the UK and certainly in France are great. There are these certain governments that have stepped in to take care of the enormous costs that it takes to ensure that this stuff gets out. The French record is basically complete and digital. It's one of the most popular arms of the French government. Its budgets generally increase every year because their people understand how valuable it is to the preservation of the French culture.

"I've been spending a lot of time in Cuba, working with their archives—which is an incredible record, mostly 35mm material," he continues. "What I was looking for starts with the revolution in 1959 until around five years ago, when they transitioned out of film to digital. There are problems with that. They don't have air-conditioning, so it's deteriorating. There's enormously powerful and valuable material in there. And nobody's funding this."

Right now, White sees hope and looks to filmmakers and film producers. He believes that the preservation of film archives rests on their shoulders by making films using archival materials. "It's by default, not by intention, but it's the reality," he says. "And now that there are documentaries that are starting to provide more significant budgets to these types of programs, then they can allow for these transfers and this migration to the digital. Again, the Vietnam documentary reinforces the whole market that is out there for this.

"Look at O.J.: Made in America. What's happened because of the O.J. project is just amazing; it's opened up a whole other way of looking at how an archive film can be, how long it can be, how nuanced it could be, and how it can get huge audiences and awards. You've seen what's happened with 13th, The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution—there are so many others are getting enormous audiences. I Am Not Your Negro is just such an archive showcase; it's an amazing and successful film. So people want to see this stuff. Then there's the Chavela documentary, which was the runner-up for the audience award at the Berlin Film Festival. That's when you realize there are all these things in these archives that are absolutely inaccessible through YouTube or other digital formats. They're just buried.

"So there is a virtuous circle in production because marketers want to be able to say 'never-before-released footage' or 'lost footage, now found,' and this is a huge way to be able to make a deal and get funding. And that stuff doesn't exist on YouTube. So where do you find it? You find it in all these analog archives, and there are plenty of them all around the world that have just stunningly incredible material which are just aching for audiences to see.

"Look at Stanley Nelson's film on the Black Panthers. If there's a champion for preserving the Black Panthers' visual history, it was Stanley Nelson. He said he had 1,700 different sources in that. So many of those images were like 1/4" reel-to-reel, VHS, DigiBeta, certainly a lot of 8mm and 16mm film. And he was able to digitize most of that material for his project. The film doesn't contain all of it, but that material is now safe, pretty much. But there's a champion behind all these types of efforts that make them work."

This raises another enormous question, which is how politics contributes to which historical materials get preserved, especially in the current world climate. It's something White is actively involved with one of his current projects: preserving and digitizing revolutionary archives from the 1960s movements.

"I think it's important that the issue of how politics gets involved in preservation choices needs to be addressed head on," he says. "With my company, Sutton Hoo, we're looking at a lot of revolutionary archives right now from the '60s because we don't want this stuff to disappear. For example, all the people who were doing the vérité work when a lot of these movements were forming early on. These are the things that were being distributed by Third World Newsreel or other groups like that. But there was a whole push going on at that time for people to take control of the media. So you have people with porta-backs, plus the 16mm, and I guess 8mm too, but a lot of 16mm people who were documenting so much that was going on. A group like Kartemquin has a lot of that material, partly because Gordon Quinn was shooting it at the time. But there are a lot of others that are just by the wayside. That is where we're looking at, at this point—that those voices that were strong at one point, or at least trying, don't get buried in history. They're out there now, and it's important that they survive and are still a part of that conversation somehow. If it gets lost then it winds up not entering into the discussion. But we need to make sure there is a way that these critically important parts of our history are just there, for the politics of it, as much as anything else."

"Ultimately," White continues, "we hope to create an archive of revolutionary materials from around the world, but beginning right now the focus is on what was happening in the 1960s, but to be able to get into the archives on the environmental movement, the women's movement, on civil rights, and all these things where they changed the world in so many ways. They certainly changed our lives, and so much of what they did is not that visible, or the way that is now seen and perceived is very different than it was in terms of what the archives show. So we have this mantra: 'We go to the archives and we let the archives speak.' So we try to find what it's in the archives and then bring creative people in at a later time."

This is the model White used to bring to fruition the Beatles documentary, Eight Days a Week —The Touring Years, which he co-produced.

"I was working with the Beatles since 2003, and we got really, really heavily into it, escalating into 2011-12," he explains. "Then Ron Howard was brought in by the Beatles in 2014. We went to Los Angeles and just lined up all our footage chronologically and spent two weeks with all the editing team going through that material. It was an amazing experience and you started to see a film emerge from there. There were hundreds of hours of material, which was then boiled down to a 90-minute film.

"This is all being put together for what I hope will be a lot of programming made out of it in the future. We give people the slate of marble and then we look for the Michelangelo to find that statue buried in that marble."

Ron Deutsch is a contributing editor with Documentary. He has written for many publications including National Geographic, Wired, San Francisco Weekly and The Austin American-Statesman. He is currently developing a new documentary project in collaboration with the Center for New American Media.