This first post of a two part series is contributed by Valeria Dávila Gronros, a digitization technician at the Digital Production Unit of the Oregon State University Special Collections & Archives Research Center. She is an Argentinean photographer, filmmaker, and digital films restorer, about to obtain her BA in Cinema Studies by the Universidad del Cine of Buenos Aires.
Getting started with film preservation: A rite of passage
Film preservation, or “the continuum of activities necessary to protect film for the future and share its content with the public,” is not only relatively new for libraries, museums, and archives, but also hard to implement. Hence, the fact that we are embracing these practices is a rite of passage for the Library, but also for myself.
I have longed to get involved with the preservation of the Valley Library’s films since I started working at SCARC’s Digital Production Unit early in 2017. For me this was the natural course career-wise, considering my background in film and in digital film restoration, but especially after being trained in film preservation at the “Film Preservation and Restoration School Latin America,” hosted by the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) and the Cinemateca y Archivo de la Imagen Nacional (CINAIN) in my home country, Argentina, days after my joining to the DPU. Now that we are embracing preservation practices with the “In Our Care” KOAC TV films project, I feel fortunate for being part and am deeply grateful to my supervisor Brian Davis, and SCARC’s director Larry Landis, for placing their trust in me for this task. And I hope for this project to be the foundation for future film preservation actions at the Library.
The “In Our Care” KOAC TV films preservation project
The “KOAC TV Films Collection” contains 96 acetate 16mm film reels produced by or for the “KOAC” TV station of Corvallis between 1947 and 1975. In the past few months, the Library has been considering digitizing the “In Our Care” television series, part of said collection, which contains 35 film reels from 1959 documenting Oregon’s prisons, hospitals, and schools for the handicapped and delinquent. An inspection of the films was necessary in order to know their features and physical condition, and to prepare them for eventual digitization. Once I was done with the inspection, it was decided to also clean, repair, and rehouse the films in a second stage of the project.
The inspection expectations
We knew some characteristics of the series before inspection, so this examination was expected to help us identify and document technical aspects, pictorial content, and physical condition in further detail.
From the technical standpoint, I expected to determine whether the films were positive, negative, or reversal; color or black and white; silent or sound. For sound films, I expected to identify whether they had magnetic or optical sound, and if optical, whether they had variable area or variable density sound recording. Also, I would try identify whether the elements were camera originals, duplicates, or prints.
From the damage and decay standpoint, I expected to ascertain physical damages and decay to detect films at risk and segregate them to avoid contamination. When stored properly, new films last hundreds of years. But when stored in poor conditions, they suffer chemical (“vinegar syndrome”) and biological (mold) decay. The “vinegar syndrome” appears as a reaction to humidity and produces a distinctive vinegary odor. Mold, which appears under warm, humid conditions, can irreversibly damage the film’s image layer. There is also mechanical decay (broken perforations, scratches), caused by negligent handling and projection, faulty equipment, and deficient repairs.
The inspection process and findings
For inspection I used low-tech tools available at the Library: a hand cranked rewind bench with split reels, and a light box with a magnifying loupe (10x) that I use to inspect photographic negatives before digitization.
Inspecting the film cans: These films were stored on boxes, horizontally and vertically disposed. Most cans were of metal, and some were rusty (Fig. 1). Other few were of polypropylene. Some cans contained just one film, while others two or three; some films were properly stored on cores, while others on reels (Fig. 2). Reels are intended for film projection, not for long-term preservation, so those last should be transferred to cores.
Inspecting the films on the rewinder: After viewing several feet of each film, both with a naked eye and using the loupe, I discovered this series contains a myriad of negative, positive, and reversal elements, with predominance of positives; B/W and color elements, with predominance of B/W; and silent and sound elements. Among the films carrying images only, some had their sound elements stored separately. Some films had been composed combining B/W with color, positives with reversals, and even silent with sound. Some examples:
During inspection I paid special attention to the film edges to differentiate between camera originals, duplicates, and prints. For instance, one can easily distinguish a positive from a reversal (both have positive images) because positives have clear edges while reversals have black edges. Camera negatives have equal density on the edges and in-between the image frames, while duplicates tend to have a lavender cast to it, and may have perforations from previous film generations printed on the edges. This way I was able to determine this series contains originals, duplicates, and prints on Kodak, Eastman, Dupont, Gevaert, and Ansco film stocks, being kinescopes and workprints the predominant elements in the collection.
Kinescopes are filmed recordings of live television broadcasts, produced by the studios in the early times of broadcast TV to preserve programming for rebroadcast by other stations. Kines’s were most commonly distributed in 16mm B/W film for its lower cost, and given its poor image quality, they were largely replaced by videotapes after the 1970s.
Kines’s were largely purged during the transition to VHS, so finding them, even among a TV film collection, is valuable. Given they were recorded from a TV monitor, usual technical problems of kinescopes, such as scan lines, or a dark bar across the image, are distinctive features that can be very helpful when it comes to identifying them.
More unusual to find, since they used to be discarded after serving their purpose, are workprints. Workprints are rough prints made from the original negative that is used by editors to make rough-cuts before intervening the original negative. Workprints can also be made from reversal film to avoid damaging the very original elements during the editing process. In this last case a copy from the reversal film is used as a workprint. Being heavily and careless handled, is usual for workprints to have tape splices between most scenes, scratches, fingerprints, dirt, tears, markings for future edits, fades, and black or blank leaders throughout the print. Some examples:
Damage and decay
With a myriad of elements, comes a myriad of damages. The images below illustrate some common, and singular, damages I found in this series:
Distorted blank leaders at the beginning of the films, especially those not secured with tape, and old tape and glue residue were other pretty usual findings.
Documenting the information gathered during inspection help archivists make informed decisions and track any changes in the films condition over time. Therefore, after inspecting each film, I recorded my findings on a spreadsheet in the cloud. I also made photographic records, some of which I am using in this article.
What is next?
In the second stage in this project we intend to dry-clean the films, repair broken perforations and splices, check shrinkage, transfer the films stored on reels to cores, and rehouse all films onto new polypropylene cans.