Movie Magicians, the Archivists

Conventional wisdom tells us that a B/W negative or YCM matrices should last one hundred years or more. In the past, I have parroted as much when I write about the efficacy of shooting and finishing on film.

This can be true—if the materials have been stored in an ideal environment and if original and vulnerable nitrate based film has been transferred to acetate-based stock. In the real world, a much less ideal scenario often holds sway.

This has recently come crashing home to me in the course of attending a series of seminars and papers presented by the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) in their two-day conference at the Dunn Theater of the AMPAS Pickford Center. The convocation is called “The Reel Thing”. Grover Crisp and Michael Friend of Sony Pictures Entertainment coordinated the symposium. I was invited to attend by Grover whom I know well from the re-mastering for DVD and Blu-Ray of films such as Silverado.

Here is a schedule of some of the events that were presented recently, August 21 and 22.

The Reel Thing XXII Program Excerpts

Many fascinating and urgent issues were discussed and I plan to present some of them in future postings along with links for you to explore further. There is such a wealth of amazing topics in this schedule that I cannot begin to plunge into their depths.

But there is one single thing I want to discuss in this posting and that is the compelling interest and relevance that these seeming archival issues have to our immediate assignments as working filmmakers.

Early in your career there is a compelling momentum to work and forge ahead, looking toward the next film even before the current one is finished. As the credits accrue and as you begin to see films in video iterations and in broadcast media, even clips on Youtube, it begins to dawn somewhere in your deeper cranial recesses that there is a body of work forming that defines you as a unique voice — well, at least the films that seem to have a shelf life beyond the opening weekend and a one week promotion of the video release.

I remember when I was privileged to be on the jury of the 1987 Venice Film festival with my mentor Vittorio Storaro. I arrived in Venice a bit late the first day, August 28; the jury had convened already and as I was hustled into the green room I met a row of drawn faces. It had just been announced that director John Huston had died. His last film The Dead from the James Joyce short story was scheduled to open the festival that night. We started to discuss Huston’s life and career.

In this pre-IMDB era it was not easy to reference the 47 films he had directed—but we all knew that his very first directing credit was The Maltese Falcon of 1941. The list grew as we each spoke the name of a favorite Huston film. Even his wacky, little known cult film of the mid 50s, Beat the Devil from a Truman Capote script had its champion. The premiere that night of The Dead was both a cinematic wake and a celebration. The film ends with one of the most poetic voiceover readings in the history of cinema. There was audible audience weeping throughout this palace of cinema cynicism.

Seated near me was writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who was to be honored by the festival in a major retrospective. At this time he was retired; he had accrued close to 50 writing credits and had directed 23 films, among them as writer-director of All Abut Eve and The Barefoot Contessa. As I sat there I could not help but wonder how Mankiewicz, who was only three years Huston’s junior, sensed his own mortality, even as his own illustrious career was to be highlighted the coming ten days. As it happened, whenever I was not screening the films in competition, I sat with Mankiewicz as he watched his own films, some of which had been made more than forty years before. He volunteered that most of them he had not seen since the initial release. Most of them had been made in the pre-video era and it was not so easy for him to see his early work. Those years also represented a period when the concept of meaningful archiving had not assumed such value, the deep pocket revenue source of the studio film library still being a questionable concept.

I have made this lengthy diversion from AMIA’s “The Reel Thing” as an illustration of the way the immediacy of our career can slip away from us even as it is building. I now find myself with nearly 40 years of credits myself, going back to my first film as camera assistant, Monty Hellman’s Two Lane Blacktop. So my attendance at the AMIA presentations gave me a personal slant to the whole concept of archiving and preservation.

The point I would like to make here is pretty elemental. As we filmmakers work, we are building a body of work that will be archived. And in this emerging post film era  (oh my god, I can’t believe I wrote that) the necessity of archiving and migrating the digital masters has become ever more urgent. One of the symposium speakers, an archivist from Belgium with a mordant sense of humor, rocked the room with this comment. “In the era of digital materials, our master tapes will last for 50 years—or for 5, whichever happens first.” This is no mere joke. Several speakers gave examples of digital data that began to disappear in less than 5 years. And unlike in the analog era, where materials tend to degrade slowly and can often be restored to close to pristine form (ironically, by means of sophisticated digital techniques), digital data, as it “degrades,” often just disappears completely.

We filmmakers work at the beginning of the film chain; we create the images. The archivists are at the other end.  Their efforts are directed to protect and preserve the image. Sadly, we do not seem to have much cross-pollination. When was the last time you saw an archivist visit the set? Or, when was the last time you wandered through a film vault or among state of the art archival robot servers? Here is AMIA’s homepage:

Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) link

I think it is crucial that we make an effort to mingle in and discover each other’s world. The archivists’ and restorers’ cutting edge techniques are fascinating of themselves. As important, though, is the fact that the men and women who have this amazing love and dedication to the history of film are the custodians of what we create.

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