Adventures in Film Preservation

Gillian Lee was an intern with Preservation Services in the summer of 2017. She contributed this guest post, which even features a visit from Santa!

Several frames of film in good shape
This summer I tackled an accession from the WSLS-TV (Roanoke, VA) News Film Collection, 1951 to 1971. This accession consisted of more than 200 boxes and cans of film that needed to be inspected, inventoried, and rehoused before they can be digitized for research and scholarship.

A more fragile clip of film
The film arrived in various states of damage and disarray; sometimes I would open a can and find that the film inside was already on a reel and, on top of that, gorgeous, needing only for me to check that it was wound heads out (i.e., that we wouldn’t accidentally digitize it backwards) and rehouse it. Other times the film was fragile, torn, or hurriedly (read: dangerously) stored, with 13 little rolls of film crammed into one can, leaving it warped and often dirtied with fingerprints and dust.

Equally as frequent an issue, indeed something of a recurring nightmare, was the makeshift compilation reel. Back in the day, WSLS would splice together anywhere from 2 to 10 clips of film. Sometimes they would sometimes use cement splicing, an acceptable, professional method which, upon my testing the splice 50 years later, often broke, but which could be fixed with a tape splice without damaging the film. Other times they would wrap several inches of masking, Scotch, or a stretchy, red, electrical-esque tape around the two pieces of film.

Taped end of film--masking tape is not good for film

Now, I have only ever been taught to handle film with the utmost gentleness and care. After encountering a battery of these guerrilla splices, the hurry that WSLS was in to meet deadline after deadline as a news station was glaring. Tackling this collection means that I got to use patience with material which until that point had been handled with a complete lack thereof. I got familiar with three machines as beautiful as they are invaluable to working with film: the MoviScop, the squawk box, and (of course) the tape splicer. I learned to watch for one (or more, if you’re lucky) of the four major indicators of whether a piece of film has been wound backwards: people walking, cars driving, smoke rising, and rain falling. I learned how important a steady hand is if you’re ever going to actually listen to a piece of film on a squawk box (it’s impossible).
Moviscop viewer with upsidown image of Santa

No film, it seems, gets abused like news film—its job, after all, is more or less done after it rolls the first time. When it comes to processing archives, the hurry with which the material is treated has serious consequences, and the amount of work and patience required to abate the damage is equally serious. On one hand, it meant that I got to experience the frenzy of the news station from fifty years in the future, theoretically getting to know the people whose hands labelled the film and spliced it together. I didn’t just catch the news 50 years late, but I saw the fossils, the evidence of what they went through in order to get these films aired on time and keep the show running. On the other hand, it meant I spent a long time squinting at handwriting and scrubbing at tape residue. The theoretical connection I was able to make to filmmakers past is satisfying, but not so much as it is important for everyone (seriously, everyone, go look at the already-digitized collection) to catch more than just a glimpse of what the local news was like before video, in Southern Virginia, in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. It was a phenomenal and totally unique experience, and I thank UVA’s Preservation Services (and the Lee Endowment) that helped make the internship possible.

Film forever,

Gillian Lee

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