Memory, Images, History
Sunday, September 5, 2010
Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, UCLA, Los Angeles
Held in Hollywood at the Academy Film Archive’s Linwood Dunn Theater, the 25th iteration of “The Reel Thing” proved to be as innovative and thought provoking as the first, back in October 1995. Indeed, thanks to its two originators and tireless organizers, Grover Crisp and Michael Friend, both of Sony Pictures, “The Reel Thing” has provided us with a seamless documentation of the technological revolution of moving image archiving from the mostly analog era of the mid 1990s to our decidedly digital present in 2010.
That bridge from the analog to the digital was illustrated most convincingly at “The Reel Thing” (2008), when “First Sounds” software programmers digitized charcoal voice recordings, which not even their inventor could playback. Suddenly, through digital technology we clearly heard a voice from an analog imprint, a “phonautogram,” recorded in 1857, thus pre-dating Thomas Edison’s first sound recordings by decades. Check out the website at firstsounds.org
At The Reel Thing just ended, another technologist proposed to capture the electronic data from magnetic media, e.g. 2” Quad video tapes, without using a conventional tape head that puts stress on the tape, but rather by “reading” data on the tape. Possibly more importantly, if this technology proves to work (actual results are still forthcoming), it would eliminate the need to archive all videotape hardware, presently required to access obsolete tape formats. I’m filled with utter admiration at the way Grover and Michael seem to effortlessly wrangle professional colleagues at the cutting edge of new preservation and archiving technologies.
Initially organized as a pre-conference event at the Toronto AMIA conference, “The Reel Thing” has been a part of every conference of the Association since then, but has also traveled to Los Angeles, New York, Amsterdam, and Bologna. The Association of Moving Image Archivists, but especially its brave office staff, have been an incredibly important support for what is essentially a volunteer effort on everyone’s part.
I can’t remember how many Reel Things I‘ve attended over the past twelve years, but enough to know that every visit has paid off. The consistently illuminating reports from the mostly for profit world of studios and commercial preservation vendors, have shown me the challenges of a technological landscape, which I’m forced to negotiate from the perspective of a poor, non-profit archive. The intellectual exchanges between a community of like-minded but not always agreeing practitioners have been just as important.
The opening night this year featured a 4 K digital projection of an 8 K scan of Dr. Zhivago (1965). Two further evening screenings of new preservation projects, Fantasia (1940) and The Fly (1985) were supplemented by a midday screening of an early Frank Capra silent, accompanied brilliantly by Alan Stark, normally a mild-mannered technologist. On the more serious side, a significant number of presenters discussed ever more efficient algorithms for digital clean ups or faced specific problems in the digitization of films from degraded film preservation masters. Other highlights: Ralph Sargent, whose career goes back decades, gave two extremely informative lectures on the history of optical film sound and early videotape recorders, respectively. Rita Belda discussed Columbia’s historical exhibition strategy in the transition to sound film, as reflected in surviving nitrate elements from 1928-31. Theo Gluck and his team of preservationists introduced a whole program of Disney digital restorations. And Andrea Kalas discussed innovative survey techniques at Paramount to assess the condition of movable digital media. Not the most exciting of topics, especially to outsiders, but certainly just as necessary for our field, if we are to successfully preserve ever more moving image media in the digital realm.