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Posted by Patricia Zimmermann at 2:32AM   |  11 comments
Nitrate Film Decomposition

Blog written by Jan-Christopher Horak, director, UCLA Film & Television Archive

 With the development in the United States in the late 1960s of government funding sources for preservation through the National Endowment for the Arts and the growth of local, regional, and television archives, a sea change occurred in the U.S. archival community. While moving image preservation had previously been handled by only a few nitrate-holding archives, including George Eastman House, UCLA Film & Television Archives, Museum of Modern Art, and the Library of Congress Motion Picture Division, literally dozens of new archives were founded in the following years, making the need for a North American organization apparent. Suddenly a host of regional archives, archives of special collections (dance film), and television news archives appeared on the scene. What had been a loose organization of film and television archives at the end of the 1970s, the Film Archives Advisory Committee/Television Archives Advisory Committee (FAAC/TAAC), was formalized in a new organization, the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA), founded in 1990. Unlike FIAF, which was based on institutional membership, AMIA became an organization of individual archivists and other persons engaged in film and television preservation, including commercial laboratories, the major studios, and stock shot houses. By 2003, membership had grown to nearly 1000, with yearly conferences, a newsletter, archival education, scholarships, a journal, and an internet listserv as a part of its mandate. The organization has also expanded from a strictly North American organization of archivists to one with members spanning the rest of the world. As a result, of these structural changes, the field of film and video preservation has matured from a group of individual collectors into a discipline with standards and sanctioned practices.

While films and videos were often stored in substandard environments, film/video archivists now attempt to maintain strict standards for climate control and vault safety. By the late 1980s, it became increasingly clear that both acetate and nitrate materials benefited from extremely low humidity and very cold environments. The lifespan of nitrate film, for example, could be doubled by lowering the ambient temperature in a vault by 5˚ and the humidity by 5%. Storage suddenly became the first line of defense for preservation, not the transfer of images to newer film stocks, making the 1970s slogan “Nitrate Can’t Wait” an anachronism. At the same time, the Library of Congress and other institutions developed cataloguing standards for moving image materials, while the archives themselves began the massive project of properly cataloguing their holdings. Finally, the old policy of sending out for screenings “unprotected” prints, i.e. materials which had not been preserved, was discontinued in most archives. Instead, preservation priorities were often formulated, based on the need for public access to given titles. Making all this possible was regularized funding.

The National Endowment of the Arts was created in September 1965 through an Act of Congress. Based on a recommendation from the Stanford Research Institute, the NEA formally announced in June 1967 the awarding of a $1.3 million grant for the establishment of an American Film Institute, which furthermore received matching grants from the Ford Foundation and the Motion Picture Association of America. Based on the model of the British Film Institute, the AFI’s mandate was to support the production of quality films, train filmmakers, and foster the preservation of American film. From the start, the AFI’s role was not to actually preserve film, but to act as a conduit for collecting films and funding archives, such as the Library of Congress and George Eastman House. Essentially, the AFI became a re-grant agency for NEA film preservation funds, while taking an allowable 30-35% cut for administrative overhead. And while the archives received a total of more than $ 10.5 million for film preservation between 1968 and 1972, the AFI’s overhead costs took an ever bigger bite out of funding, so that by 1972 film preservation accounted for a mere 9% of its expenditures. NEA continued funding the archives through the 1970s and 1980s, but its funding levels remained at about $350,00 - 450,000, despite inflationary costs for film preservation, due to increased laboratory costs. With restrictions placed by the Reagan NEA on the kinds of content that could be preserved, as well as continuing to cut back funding, film preservation reached another crisis in the early 1990s. (to be continued…)






Thank you for sharing with us another insightful aspect of film archiving.

I was just wondering: despite all the efforts of the archivists, there is just so many of you. How do the archives engage the public to participate and contribute to your efforts?

Public relations is a very important aspect of film archiving, since, as you note, support from the public is vital for financial support.
At UCLA Film & Television Archive, we have been doing a "Festival of Preservation" for many years, in order to introduce restored films to the public. However, until the 14th Festival (2009), the programs were only shown in Los Angeles. As the new Director, I instituted a travelling program, which brought the Festtival to new audiences in San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC, Columbus, OH, Houston, etc., thus creating a "national" audience for the Archive's preservation work. In the digital realm, the Archive is planning a website that will make work accessible in the virtual realm, again reaching new audiences for potential support.

It is great that your archive is making all these efforts to engage the audience. How are the attendance for the Festival then?

I am always curious as to how other countries react to such efforts. In Singapore, it is a strange phenomenon that despite our superbly high movie attendance per capita, we remain nonchalant about film heritage, especially our own.

One of my classmates has launched a campaign (Save Our Film), supported by Asian Film Archive, to raise such awareness. While I think it is a great project, but I am doubtful to its eventual outcome. I wonder if you have any suggestions to 'talk' to the public?

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Although very few people still utilize negatives to develop images and photos, there are others that scan these film negatives to obtain clearer pictures, and prefer this option of scanning negatives as compared to scanning the actual images. Going back into the world of 35mm films, when they are developed into prints, a part of this developing process generates film negatives. These small strips in reality possess the exact and precise images that were brought into existence when you snapped the photo with your film camera.

Its a nice story sir.

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