Screen Shot 2018-03-27 at 2.44.32 PM

Frame still of ‘The Champion’ with ‘burnt-in’ opening title

When you’re going to digitally preserve a film (or a film series or an entire film collection), the important first step is to gather information on your film. Is your film 16mm, 35mm, 8mm, or 9.5mm, etc.? Is it color or black-and-white? Do you have the original negative, or only a print? Is the magnetic soundtrack available? If you only have an optical soundtrack, is it a negative or the positive? The list goes on – and the information can get pretty granular – but to keep this post simple, I’ll focus on the basics for a single film with an exciting title: The Champion.

A-Roll_Champion

Frame still of ‘The Champion’ A-Roll (16mm Reversal)

The Champion was filmed in 1971 by Jim Doran, a student in the Department of Speech and Telecommunicative Arts at ISU. It features wrestling prodigy Dan Gable, whose wrestling career at ISU produced an impressive 117-1 record. He was also a two-time national champion and a gold medalist in the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, West Germany. So clearly, The Champion is a significant record for preservation in ISU Special Collections and University Archives.

We found for the picture elements, trims, an edited work print, A-B Rolls, and combined prints. With all the different versions held, how do we pick the best one for preservation?

B_Roll_Champion

Frame still of ‘The Champion’ B-Roll(16MM reversal)

With 16mm reversal film, filmmakers developed the A-B roll negative cutting system. After finalizing the final cut using a workprint they would then cut the master materials into two individual rolls, the ‘A’ roll and the ‘B’ roll. The A-B roll alternates between shots and opaque leader, completely in-sync. This pattern was called ‘checker boarding’. You can (and should) verify that all elements are in-sync by running each film through a gang synchronizer to ensure that the same number of frames are on each element. When you have A-B (and possibly C-D) rolls of 16mm film in your collection, treat them as your master negatives.

Pilot_Signal

1/4″ final mix sound track under a magnetic viewer with 60 hertz pilot tone

With the soundtrack, you might see optical tracks titled ‘A wind’ and ‘B wind’, a 16mm magtrack (the magnetic track), or a ¼” final mix master magtrack.  I chose to digitize the ¼” final mix master magtrack. There are a variety of reasons to choose the magtrack over the optical track whenever possible, but the most important reason is fidelity. Optical tracks are vulnerable to scratches, dust, and dirt that sound like pops and clicks when they’re transferred. Optical tracks have also been mixed with the Academy Curve in mind, so they contain attenuation of 18 decibels at 8Khz. Not to mention the poor signal to noise ratio, as a result, they don’t have the highest possible sound quality. The ¼” final mix, if it’s available, will be your highest quality soundtrack. The only issue you have to be aware of is sync(pilot tone). Keeping your sound perfectly in-sync with the picture is more difficult than you might think! (But that’s another post.)

So…the end result of scanning the A-B roll and digitizing the 1/4 “final mix soundtrack for The Champion is here. Compare that to our older, SD telecine version here. Hope this brief introduction to A-B roll film preservation was helpful. Cheers.

As I reach the end of my internship, I would like to share a brief description of some of the projects I have worked on during the last three months as well as some personal observations.  Two of the film projects I addressed were the re-housing of the Alexander Lippisch Films Collection and the condition assessment of the general Film Collection located in the film vaults. For my first task involving the Lippisch Films, the goal and workflow were quite straightforward. The majority of the 306 films (in most cases roughly 100 ft.) were stored in their original metal cans or cardboard boxes. They were also in their original reels, which was often a Tenite reel that had decomposed, covering the film with a white powder. Finally, they were stored in groups of approximately 20 objects per box inside large, archival boxes.

A decomposed Tenite reel.

A decomposed Tenite reel.

My work with this collection consisted in transferring all films from their original plastic or metal reels into 3-inch plastic cores. This is the best way to keep film, because it avoids the potentially damaging pressure that a reel might produce, and it also prevents the extreme curling that is caused by 2-inch cores. In addition, protective head and tail leaders were added to all films and then stored in adequate 16mm archival plastic cans.

The Lippisch Films in their original reels.

The Lippisch Films in their original reels.

The Lippisch Films transferred into 3-inch cores and re-housed.

The Lippisch Films transferred into 3-inch cores and re-housed.

Even though I didn’t have the time to thoroughly inspect, clean and repair all films, I was able to provide them with minimal stabilization and remove as much non-archival tape as I could. The tape had damaged the adjacent areas, producing stains, silver mirroring and other chemical reactions.

Film had been secured with non archival tape

Film had been secured with non archival tape.

Tape being removed. The tape has damaged the emulsion.

Tape being removed. The tape has damaged the emulsion.

Finally, a selection of films was prepared for digitization. The digitization projects currently being carried out at Special Collections have access purposes only. This means that the image quality of the files produced is good enough for research and access but does not meet the standards of long-term digital preservation.

Another issue I addressed was testing the decomposition level of the acetate films. Since its inception, motion picture film has been manufactured with three different plastic bases. The first utilized base was cellulose nitrate, discontinued around 1951 due to its extremely high flammability. Nitrate was eventually replaced by cellulose acetate which is still being used today. The third, polyester, also continues to be used, particularly for theatrical release prints. Unfortunately, acetate has proven to be chemically unstable and is prone to chemical decay, especially when it is not stored in the appropriate conditions of temperature and relative humidity (40 Fº and 30-50% RH). This type of decomposition is known as vinegar syndrome, in reference to the strong odor produced by acidic gases liberated by the decaying films.
The Image Permanence Institute at the Rochester Institute of Technology developed an important tool, A-D Strips, which helps determine the extent of chemical decay in acetate-based collections. This is achieved through the use of indicator papers that measure the pH in films. During my internship, I tested the collection with the help of students and Special Collections staff. The results and the data collected will allow us to understand how the chemical condition of the collection evolved and decide what are the most urgent actions to be carried out within a thorough preservation plan.

A film without noticeable physical changes. Before re-housing.

A film without noticeable physical changes. Before re-housing.

Severely decayed film.

Severely decayed film.

In summation, I would like to share some thoughts about my experience as a film preservationist who learned some paper conservation techniques, and worked for three months in a paper-based environment. Most of the differences that I perceived derive most likely from the fact that audiovisual objects are machine-dependent, as opposed to books or paper documents. This means that in order to “read” a movie or sound record a machine is needed (i.e. projector, deck, computer, etc.). This main difference with paper is reflected in the conservation treatments that the materials need in order to be preserved. With books and paper, we work on the object to make it readable and agreeable for immediate contact with our eyes. With films, we work on preparing the object to be read or processed by a machine. Anyone who works in the field of conservation understands the importance of preserving our cultural heritage in its varying facets, from the intimate value of a family photograph to those works that are considered national patrimony, or even world heritage. I am pleased to have collaborated with Iowa State University in saving valuable audiovisual documents that are part of its identity as an institution and a community.