A Day in the life of a Film Archivist

Sometimes a career path is like an expressway, starting with an early on-ramp from college or other post-secondary training and making smooth, successive lane changes on the way to a well-defined destination. Another career path may resemble a scenic route, with lots of twists, turns and time for exploring what’s out there, with endpoints that are more of a moving target.

You could say that Mike Cahill has taken both routes over the course of his career. Currently a film archivist for PRO-TEK Vaults, he has been involved in some interesting work throughout the years, including radio, video production – even working in the space program.

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After studying art and cultural anthropology at Wichita State University, Mike moved to Houston to attend Rice University, where he pursued a curriculum in photography and photographic chemistry. He remained in Houston, where he became a writer and producer for a Top 40 radio station and interviewed visiting celebrities like actor Raymond Burr and Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame. He also became proficient in multi-track studio recording, creating hundreds of commercials as well as comedy bits and songs for local and national radio shows. On the side he was photographing the station’s visiting celebrities.

While most people think of broadcasting and entertainment work as being fun and exciting, you might be more awestruck at the idea of working for NASA, which Mike also did. As a media liaison at the Johnson Space Center during the space shuttle era, he was part of the Public Affairs Office on January 28, 1986. That was the day of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, resulting in the loss of all seven astronauts on board, three of whom were Mike’s friends. It was a heartbreaking experience for him and everyone at NASA, and a dark time as the entire nation mourned the tragedy.

For NASA’s return to flight with the launch of Discovery in 1988, everyone in the space agency was ready for some optimism and a greater sense of lightness. For his own amusement, Mike had composed and produced three comedy parody songs that celebrated space flight, sharing them with a few of his colleagues. Anyone who follows manned space launches knows that NASA does a wake-up call for the astronauts every morning. Three days before the launch, Mike received a phone call from astronaut Kathryn Sullivan asking for his permission to use all three of his songs for wake-up calls.

“On day one of the mission, Robin Williams introduced the first song, which was a Shuttle-inspired parody to the theme of the 60’s television show, “Green Acres”. That one ‘landed’ me a special invitation from the Shuttle crew to an astronauts-only landing party. For days 2 and 4, my parodies of the Beach Boys’ “Fun Fun Fun” and “I Get Around” woke the crew and brought laughter to mission control.”

Crews from upcoming shuttle missions ended up approaching Mike to create custom songs for their flights as well, resulting in a total of nine space-themed parodies along with three original songs for NASA flight crews, one of which appears in the IMAX movie “Mission to Mir”.

According to astronaut Robert “Hoot” Gibson, Mike holds the distinction of being the first person to create original music used for space flight.

From Production to Preservation at PRO-TEK

MichaelCahillAnother leg of Mike’s career journey involved corporate and industrial video production. It was through this work and his growing passion for shooting film that he was introduced to the technical side of filming and began meeting collectors and other aficionados. By this time, he was living in southern California, where he met fellow PRO-TEK colleagues Jim Harwood and Stan Taffel. With his film, video and audio production experience, they suggested he might enjoy the work they were doing in film preservation and archiving. Mike joined PRO-TEK in 2008.

In the past four years, he has employed his photographic restoration skills for behind-the-scenes still photos of six CINERAMA features, videos of which appear as bonus content on the last six CINERAMA movies released on Blu-Ray.

Mike is currently engaged in a long-term archiving project for a major film studio, part of a nine-person team involved in restoring an estimated 15 million still photography images and negatives, preserving the original format and also digitizing the majority of them.

Following a rigorous multi-step process, each image is:

  • Assessed for both content – who or what is being pictured, context and so on – and quality.
  • Cleaned, placed in archival-quality sleeves, labeled and categorized.
  • Scanned and digitized at high resolution quality and reviewed by a technician who corrects scratches and other imperfections to the client’s guidelines, while carefully preserving the photographer’s original intent.
  • Tagged with comprehensive meta data to create a road map for future discovery.
  • Uploaded into the studio’s content management system for easy access.

mike-cahillOn this project, PRO-TEK has been brought in to rescue and preserve the studio’s still photography assets. The contents of each box are often a mystery. Mike and his teammates can sort through thousands of random, seemingly unremarkable images, yet any one of them could have historical significance or economic value, so every item is treated with equal care.

One of the greatest challenges to the team – and one of the greatest pleasures – is the accurate identification of celebrities and production staff in many of the rare photos, vital information to include in the meta data.mike-cahill_quote

Going through each item in a collection requires equal amounts of focused attention and delicate handling. The work can be routine and sometimes daunting, but the rewards come in the discovery of rare, one-of-a-kind finds and the satisfaction of contributing to a body of work with historical and cultural value for the public, as well as monetary value for the content owners.

It’s those intrinsic rewards that keep all the skilled artists, film historians and technicians at PRO-TEK engaged in the company’s long-term restoration and preservation projects.

As for Mike Cahill, his career path may be somewhat unconventional, but he can take immense satisfaction in knowing that he has been a part of, and is now recording and preserving, some notable slices in this country’s history!