News Column

Preserving IU's classic movie archive presents a 'reel' challenge

December 8, 2013

YellowBrix

Dec. 08--The beginning of David Bradley's production of "Peer Gynt" finds his young star lying flat on his belly, head face down in a stream or a pond.

Suddenly, his head pops up, the bangs of his hair whipping back. In a black-and-white, silent film from 1941, this bony lad doesn't offer the stage presence of the man who will play Moses or Marc Antony one day. Yet there is something familiar about his face, part of this Norwegian fairy tale. Rachael Stoeltje, an Indiana University film archivist, zeroes in on his big lips and bulging cheekbones.

More than 15 years before he parted a sea in "The Ten Commandments," a 17-year-old Charlton Heston embodied a daydreaming Peer Gynt for Bradley, a B-movie producer who became a renowned film historian. IU just happens to own a rare piece of the actor's history, because Bradley's reels were acquired by the university after his death. The film has traveled to the Louvre in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, but it has a home in Bloomington.

Thousands of these time capsules sit at the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility, piled on one another. They hold World War II propaganda films, early episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and the home movies of director John Ford, the man behind John Wayne.

The contents in the canisters, however, are due for transformation. Film is dying -- metaphorically -- because it's a platform rarely used by Hollywood today. It's literally in decline, as well. IU has 2,200 reels stored at the library facility's freezer, kept at negative-4 degrees to stop the film from breaking down into acetic acid in a process called "vinegar syndrome."

IU President Michael McRobbie announced in his State of the University speech this fall that the university's audio and video holdings would be digitized in five years as part of a $15 million partnership with Memnon Archiving Services.

But when Memnon begins digitizing in late spring, popping tapes in and out of recording decks, it won't be able to process film reels.

Capturing frames from a film is more time-intensive, because those machines aren't designed to digitize multiple reels at once. The hours of a do-it-yourself approach could be costly for IU. Associate Vice President Laurie Antolovic, charged with overseeing IU's media preservation effort, received soft estimates from her staff saying they could digitize half of IU's 33,000 hours of film -- but in 15 years and for $8.5 million.

McRobbie set a preservation goal for the entire media catalog of 2020 -- the university's bicentenary -- but officials at IU are still pondering how to digitize the film. Stoeltje has listed what should be converted first, prioritizing every sort of film rarity. One reel, for example, holds an episode of an educational talk show called "Traveling Stars," with Dean Martin puffing a cigarette, bashing Roman coffee during a 30-minute special about Italy and the shoot of "Ten Thousand Bedrooms."

Time is more on IU's side with film than it was with many of the university's decaying audio and video cassettes. But the clock isn't stopped, even for films in climate-controlled conditions. The freezer stock has no more than 14 years left before it's lost forever. The film on the reels from Bradley's collection is shrinking. The frames from early films in color are fading.

"We should do it, we should do it all, and we should do it now," Stoeltje said.

Copyright challenges

Digitizing film used to be so daunting that it was considered more cost-effective to build facilities like the auxiliary library facility at IU, storing thousands of reels in a warehouse at cooler temperatures to slow decay rather than converting the content.

With one film on a shelf, however, access has always been an issue. One reel can only be shown to one person at a time, with Stoeltje or one of her assistants handling the reel with plastic gloves, surgically attaching a film's strand to a player and guarding the film as it's being viewed.

In theory, digitizing would allow anyone with an Internet connection to watch a classic film, as easily as uploading it to YouTube.

But it's not that simple. Any IU film digitization effort would have to be paired with the hiring of rights management librarians, Antolovic said, because the university might hold the only reel in existence for some shows or movies, but it may not own the rights to it. For example, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was produced by National Educational Television. IU does not actually hold the copyright to the content in its library. A station in New York does.

If Stoeltje wants to provide a copy of a film to a researcher, she has to contact the rights holder first. At times, the copyright trail has been so confusing that Stoeltje has had to prove to stations that they own the rights to a film -- and she needs their consent to distribute.

Antolovic said she believes the price to convert film has fallen enough to make it a viable option, regardless of copyright issues. But the university has to test the market to see what private partners might have to offer. IU might also want to look at recouping its investment somehow, possibly charging outside researchers to access the films that are digitized.

As with Memnon and audio and video, the university has ambitions to become nationally and internationally known for this kind of preservation, perhaps finding paid opportunities to digitize other universities' collections, Antolovic said.

But it needs a partner first.

"It's not a small amount of money we are talking about," she said. "It's probably unrealistic to do it ourselves."

Even with a partner, Antolovic said, it's probable that IU will have to search for more private or public dollars to get a project up and running. It could seek endowments from organizations that see IU's films as worth preserving.

At a recent conference for the Association of Moving Image Archivists, Stoeltje screened a clip of a John Ford home movie saved by a National Film Preservation Foundation grant. IU had applied to have new negatives and film prints made for 17 films, but only got enough money to remake three. Services from Colorlab in Maryland to reproduce three 10- to 12-minute films -- these starring John Wayne and Henry Fonda -- cost a little more than $7,000.

Stars unfiltered

To some extent, the process of converting film reels to digital content isn't completely new. Stoeltje and the Lilly Library have posted various titles to the Internet, digitizing what they can when they can, including an IU-produced film called "Fraternity Idea," featuring then-IU President Herman B Wells as a professor. There is also a World War II propaganda film, "Out of the Frying Pan, into The Firing Line," which features the gracious cartoon dog Pluto giving up grease in his bowl so it can be used to make explosives.

The peculiar titles found in the IU collection have a way of opening a portal to the past. On the "Traveling Stars" program, hosted by Shirley Thomas, guests seem unrehearsed when compared with today's talk shows. Without the fear of memory -- much of the early television programming wasn't recorded, Stoeltje said -- the stars don't put much effort into faking anything.

Dean Martin barely feigns interest with Thomas and co-star Anna Maria Alberghetti of "Ten Thousand Bedrooms" during his appearance on the short-lived television show. Martin's head swivels around throughout the program, looking for something to hold his attention. Questions about where he visited during filming are rebuffed by "We looked at postcards, we didn't get out of the hotel at all."

He lights a cigarette, halfheartedly replying to questions when Thomas tries to engage him in a conversation about his Italian roots. His father was from Pescara, Italy, but the actor doesn't want to say where the town is on a map.

"One-hundred-and-twenty-five miles south or north of Rome," Martin says.

Alberghetti prods him to be more specific.

"East of Rome, 300 miles," Martin says, "but I couldn't get there because I was taking little Jeanne (his wife) out buying postcards, gloves and shoes."

"Did you feel a great kinship with the Italian people?" Thomas asks.

"I felt right at home," Martin says. "Anytime I wanted something, I spoke in Italian and got exactly the opposite of what I asked for."

Polite laughter from Thomas eventually transitions into one of many segments from the program's sponsor -- a diet cookie called Duets.

"When you do things the Duets way, you can continue to eat your favorite food," said the dapper spokesman, holding an "orange-flavored" cookie that he promises contains no harmful chemicals. "And watch the pounds melt away."

Stoeltje stops the film, turning the player's knob to rewind, the reel wrapping around itself and fattening. It's a taste of history, the wonderful and the weird.

"You have to wonder," Stoeltje said, "what was in those cookies."

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