AMIA 2015 Conference wrap-up – Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this article, please click here.

FROM VIDEOGAMES, ALL THE WAY BACK TO NITRATE FILM STOCK:

The AMIA Nitrate Committee had a chance to meet and discuss various issues surrounding the care and handling of my favorite antique moving-image medium, Nitrate film stock.

Co-Chairs Heather Heckman and The Library of Congress’ Rachel Parker led the meeting and reminded us that the National Fire Prevention Agency (NFPA), will be releasing new standards for all its clients in 2019. These regulations are expected to ease the somewhat restrictive rules governing exactly how much and when and where Nitrate film can be handled. PRO-TEK has been a contributor of information and feedback to NFPA during its open calls in the past. Heather has been in close contact with the NFPA and has helped them to see past some of the myths and legends of the film stock and, hopefully, helped them to relax some of the restrictions. PRO-TEK remains one of the few private companies left in this country with the expertise, training and certifications for shipping and handling Nitrate film. To us, it’s another vibrant and important part of what we do and we have many clients who rely on us to handle Nitrate film for them. As the June 29th 2016 deadline for revisions to NFPA 40 draws closer, we will watch closely for further developments. Meeting with the few colleagues and institutions that handle Nitrate film and exchanging ideas and info is one of the most important parts of AMIA, for me.

Which leads us to more FILM:

Elena Rossi-Snook, Preservation Specialist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library, chaired a meeting of the Film Advocacy Task-Force. There, representatives from the remaining film manufacturers, including; ORWO, FUJI and KODAK were present and available for a discussion with film archivists and preservationists. The task force has begun the process of exploring an idea to coordinate the purchase of film-stock by those who use and need it, so that larger group purchases can help stabilize the supply-and-demand. Since film stock manufacture is such a complex process, if a client that previously purchased 100,000’ feet of a particular stock now only needs 1,000’, how can that manufacturer scale up and down so quickly? It’s through these coordinating efforts of organizations like AMIA and the FATF that perhaps a better big-picture can be drawn.

Elena led a talk about how film as an origin-medium is still a vital part of both the creative community as well as a great teaching tool. Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams still choose to shoot on film, but that is as much an aesthetic choice as anything else. Our jobs, as archivists, is to continue to be agnostic about the origin-medium of our clients, but best practices within the archival community demand that we continue to use film and advocate for it’s use as an archival medium. In that regard, film is still part of the future. No hard drive or LTO cassette will ever be as robust and economical a storage medium as a set of YCM’s still is, in many cases.

THE LONG GOODBYE: CURATION THROUGH CAREFUL DE-ACCESSION

This session was a much-needed discussion around a subject no one likes to talk about. But it’s something we all think about and encounter in our work as archivists, every day. It’s the art and craft of knowing what and when to not archive something. Sean Savage and Stefan Palko, both of The Academy Film Archive and Deb Stoiber from the George Eastman House led the talk.

So much content can be created when, for example, a movie is made. Rough cuts, temporary edits, trims and outs and all sorts of temporary and interim versions of a film can exist and often show up at an archive, stuffed into boxes or crates, with little metadata and oftentimes, no context surrounding the material.

All of us struggle to meet the needs of history and our clients to make sense of all this material. What needs to be kept and under what storage conditions? What can be eliminated or lower-prioritized? No one wants to admit to destroying or de-accessioning anything, but it may often be necessary. Not just because of budget restraints – though those limits are all too real, especially when working for a client with limited means, which is practically everyone. But also, de-accessioning goes hand-in-hand with good curation practices.

Often at PRO-TEK, our job is to separate the signal from the noise – help the client figure what is most important and valuable about their holdings. If they ship us a pallet full of film, they may not want to or need to vault everything on that pallet. Original negative and audio tracks are invaluable – but workprints from the editors’ bench may be in the same box with the original negative. And there may be multiple and redundant videotapes all stacked together with important tape masters. Good curation demands separating these materials and giving their owners a clear and realistic portrait of what they have because they can’t keep everything.

Stefan Palko talked about how the cold vaults he manages at the Academy are nearly at full capacity. Yet, pallets full of film show up all the time. With the recent closing and/or consolidation of many film laboratories, the movie industry is losing much of its inadvertently cheap or free storage. While many studios have control over their original negatives, they may have left a lot of trims and outs and other materials sitting in boxes stacked in the hallways of the labs they were processed at.

Now those labs are closing and pallets of film and other media are suddenly arriving on various institutions doorsteps.

When Crest National labs closed, 30 pallets needed a home and the Academy took 12. With Deluxe Labs closing, 36 pallets and counting have shown up. There are currently, as of this writing, 312 uninventoried pallets currently at the Academy warehouse. Is everything on these pallets a one-of-a-kind unique element that must be preserved? Maybe, maybe not.

Sean Savage, also from the Academy, talked about this issue in relation to a specific project, the acquisition of the Saul and Elaine Bass collection. Filmmakers that worked for decades, Saul and Elaine Bass made feature films, short films and most memorably, title-sequences for many famous Hollywood movies.  The Academy received nearly 20 pallets of material from these filmmakers studio and it took 10 years to finally sort through most of it. So many groundbreaking projects were undertaken by the Bass’ so very careful curation was needed.

“WHY MAN CREATES”, an Academy-Award winning short film by Saul Bass was among the titles the Academy had material on. Again, original negative aside, what must be kept and what is redundant and so costly and pointless to archive that doing so will detract from the higher priorities?

The Academy uses a “Tribunal” to answer these questions, a group of archivists and preservationists, many not directly engaged in the specific project being discussed, will analyze and vote on what to preserve and what can safely be de-accessioned. They ask themselves questions, like; “Is the content unique”? “Does it have scholarly or research  value?” “Are there similar or redundant holdings in our or someone else’s collections?”

In the case of “WHY MAN CREATES”, the Bass’ kept much material, but the archivists had to prioritize some over the other. Normally, workprint might be considered redundant or worthless, especially if the original still exists in good condition. But in this case, workprint revealed a previously unknown alternate ending to the film, something only workprint could reveal. Or, footage that might at first glance appear to be ordinary stock footage – say, what the camera saw while being pointed at the side of a building. But when an actor or Saul Bass steps into frame a little later, this footage suddenly takes on new and increased value. Careful content analysis and broad-ranging research leads to better curation and careful de-accessioning that can enhance that curation.

Deb Stoiber of the George Eastman Museum spoke about their need to balance their limited resources with the needs of their donors. Museums and similar organizations have to observe state and federal laws regarding donations of materials. If an estate leaves the Eastman Museum a box of films, they have to be carefully looked at. Trimmed scenes from a movie may lead to an expanded director’s cut or a restoration of a film. But a commercially produced print of that movie, complete with splices and scratches, may not warrant the same level of care.

Deb talked about their process for de-accessioning, which also goes through a board that weighs, not only the laws surrounding donations, but also, the uniqueness of every element in their collection. Some elements may be kept longer due to legal restrictions surrounding donations for tax purposes, some elements may be immediately added to the permanent collection and some may be offered back to the original owner or to the rights-holder.

This is a very tricky and sensitive process, one that we always approach with a lot of caution. But without thinking critically about what we must preserve, we can’t help a client prioritize and elevate their material. Good curation is not about volume; it’s about understanding exactly what you have and how it fits into the bigger picture of what’s out there and where.


AMIA 2015 Conference Wrap-Up is a 3 part article series written by Danny Kuchuck. To read Part 3, please click here.

Danny Kuchuck
Danny Kuchuck is Film Technician and Project Manager at PRO-TEK.
Danny Kuchuck

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