Supercomputers, Nitrate, and Death-as-an-Interface

This guest post was written by Evan Meaney, Assistant Professor of Media Arts in the University of South Carolina’s School of Visual Art and Design. Professor Meaney’s work centers around the belief that the aspirations and possibilities of art are bound to the technologies that support them. Those technologies, as embodied in specific media, are only useful in so far as they can be taken apart and studied. His recently completed project, Big_Sleep™ draws heavily from the digitized materials at MIRC and includes interviews with MIRC staff. The project will screen publicly for the first time this Saturday at the Association of Moving Image Archivists annual conference in Portland, OR. He was kind enough to share his thoughts on his experience working with MIRC below.

Big_SleepTM_6Archivists, like hospice workers or chaplains, have a tough job. Tough, because they try to preserve meaning and value of materials in decline. They face the very things humans work hard to avoid facing. Those people who tell you to live like there’s no tomorrow do not have your best interest at heart. There will, most likely, be several tomorrows. In many ways, that is the problem. Human beings create things in the present for the future. We mediate our intentions and produce bridges, cakes, and artwork. We’re proud of these efforts, ignoring the notion that bridges will fall, cakes will sour, art will fade, and on and on until there’s not much left. We must do this. If we focused on distant, sparse endpoints, it would be difficult to get out of bed in the morning, let alone make our beds once we’ve left them. We focus on creation in the present and hope the future will just work out. That’s a very human thing to do.

The archivist’s persistence-in-the-face-of-non-existence is a kind of bravery and dedication that affects much today and will affect even more in the days to come. This is where Big_Sleep™  was born.


In 2013, I began a project with my colleague Dr. Amy Szczepanski using grant-time we had left at the supercomputing facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. We wanted to look at the protocological nature of decay and archivism and, if we were lucky, make a piece of artwork that connected the aesthetic, social, and computational sides of that issue. But first, we needed an archive—one with a collection that dated back to the early days of the moving image, one with a lot of material in all states of image integrity, and one with smart and dedicated curators and staff who could speak to the process of preservation. It turns out that all of those threads led us to the same place: Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) at the University of South Carolina.

Big_SleepTM_2Working with the team at MIRC and utilizing their metadata systems, we were able to explore the archive in much the same way that Bill Morrison had done a decade ago when he used MIRC footage to create his masterpiece, Decasia. We were able to secure footage from the early days of nitrate film, materials concerning the first experiments with digital transfer processes, and subsequently express the lineage of content as it became increasingly virtual. Combining this material, interviews with many of the MIRC team members, and computational augmentation from the ORNL lab, we produced Big_Sleep™, a web and cinema project that looks towards the end of archivism.

Big_SleepTM_4Part software demo, part documentary—Big_Sleep™ concerns itself with archival impulses, molecular instability, and numbers counting down to zero. It explores problems in our archival urges. Via a single-channel desktop screencast, informatic elements ebb and flow—creating and relating interface absences. These gaps suggest that no amount of hard drive space can defy mortality. The only way to fully prepare our media for the future is to prepare ourselves for a future apart. The piece presents material from the late William Birch, one of the most important Fox Movietone cinematographers. Examining his slowly-decaying body of work, we find an argument for access in the present. Digital migrations of these early films are often met with limited, temporary success. Looking into the future, one might see a canon of obsolesce. Looking further, one might not see anything at all.


With Big_Sleep™ complete and awarded distribution through the prestigious Video Data Bank, we are able to look back and appreciate the immense wealth of knowledge we found at Moving Image Research Collections. Not only their material archive itself but the knowledge freely offered by their team was invaluable to this project. They are a resource to anyone interested in the moving image and, while it may be difficult to face a world of uncertain tomorrows and inevitable ends, MIRC makes a bold, brave statement about the value of past materials for a future that will never know how to properly thank them.

~Written by Evan Meaney, USC Assistant Professor

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HMD 2015 Recap: Kodachrome, Film Reels, and Cesar Romero

Another successful Home Movie Day! We are grateful to partners Historic Columbia and The Nickelodeon, to the families who submitted home movies for screening, and to all of you who came out to celebrate.

IMG_2908More than 50 Columbians dropped by during the Soda City Farmers Market to chat with our staff about the challenges of preserving and providing access to home movie collections. Many more paused to grab the free 8 and 16mm film reels we were handing out. Although aesthetically pleasing, metal reels can deform the film and trigger decomposition. Giving them away to community members is, to our minds, a nice bit of recycling. By the end of the morning, more than 50 metal reels had found a new home (the teal color moved especially quickly).

IMG_2899Inside the theater, a program featuring images of the city of Columbia and trips around the state from our archive’s collections ran on a loop for free, drop-in viewing. One visitor described the images as “seductive and fascinating.” Another noted how surprising and moving it can be to see children in early 20th Century fashions behaving just like children today.

At noon, we screened the three submissions for this year’s awards competition, all submitted by families that also elected to donate their collections to MIRC. I had the honor of serving on the jury panel, alongside Kristin Morris, Marketing Manager for The Nickelodeon, and John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources for Historic Columbia and author of the beautiful book Remembering Columbia. The three of us were charged with awarding two prizes: a Historic Prize, for the submission we judged most historically significant, and a Jury Prize, for the submission we judged to be “best in show.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.37.33 PMThe Historic Prize went to the De La Cova Family Home Movies, which featured images of a newly-constructed, Mid-Century era suburb of Louisville, Kentucky. We on the panel felt that it was a fascinating document of the environment of the post-war building boom targeted at middle class families. These home movies give us an appreciation of what those spaces really looked like at the time they were built—a concrete idea of the facades, of the chain link fences, of the lack of privacy typical of new development. A brief appearance by comedian Cesar Romero (a cousin of the De La Cova family) didn’t hurt. Antonio De La Cova and Carlina De La Cova won a copy of John Sherrer’s book. We will work with our partners to get their film screened at a Historic Columbia event later this year.

Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.43.54 PMAlthough we ultimately ruled in favor of the De La Cova submission, this was a tough decision. We also felt the Bergmans Family Home Movies, beautifully exposed footage of a tennis match in 1920s New York State.

The Jury Prize and the Audience Award (decided by audience ballot) went to the Grossglass Family Home Movies, which consisted of stunning Kodachrome images of a 1950s family reunion picnic in Eastern Pennsylvania. The brilliant colors and family atmosphere were moving to the entire audience, but especially to donor Dianne Calder, Screen Shot 2015-11-09 at 2.41.24 PMpresent in the audience, who cried seeing her family films on the big screen—the first time she had seen them in decades. For both awards, Ms. Calder won a one-year membership to the Nickelodeon Theatre as well as a prize pack, also generously supplied by the Nick.

Many thanks to our partners for donating space, time, and prizes to help make Home Movie Day 2015 a memorable event. We hope to see you next year!

~Written by Heather Heckman, MIRC Director

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45 Years of “Awareness”

216_JPJoin us on November 12th in celebrating 45 years of WIS-TV’s Awareness. Founded in 1970, Awareness was an innovative news magazine program made entirely by African Americans for a Black audience. The show remains on the air to this day.

Original host J.P. Neal Jr., and former host Jackie Johnson will discuss the creation and early stages of this groundbreaking show, as well as its challenges, its contributions to the local community, and the reason it remains a significant cultural staple for all South Carolinians.

Moderated by WIS-TV News 10 reporter and current show host Meaghan Norman, the program will highlight clips from Moving Image Research Collections’ WIS-TV: Awareness collection. A Q&A session will follow the panel.

Awareness was and remains an exceptional show. The long-­form television journalism of the magazine show format allows Awareness to examine significant issues in detail, including local concerns, the state’s response to national events, political movements, and cultural trends.

The event will take place on November 12th at 5:30pm in the Hollings Library Program Room. It is free and open to the public. RSVP acceptances only to

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The Significance of “Felicia” and Preserving Nontheatrical Film

The School of Visual Art and Design, along with University Libraries, invited North Carolina State University Professor Dr. Marsha Gordon to USC on September 17 and 18. Below, Dr. Gordon describes her visit, and discusses the film Felicia and the importance of preserving nontheatrical films.


Still image of Columbia Police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur, from WIS-TV News outtakes.

I was invited to come down to University of South Carolina to give two talks. The first was to Professor Laura Kissel’s FILM 110 Media Culture class, an introductory course for Media Arts students. In that class I discussed the ways that the subject of race was virtually ignored in educational filmmaking prior to the 1960s, as well as the ways that the mainstream media dealt with the representation of the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles in the wake of the rebellions that took place there in the summer of 1965. This discussion included a local Columbia, SC angle with a screening of a short clip of police Lieutenant Robert Wilbur discussing the subject of rioting; the clip was culled from the WIS-TV News collection at MIRC.


Still image from the film “Felicia.”

The main event was showing the film Felicia (Dirs. Alan Gorg, Bob Dickson, & Trevor Greenwood), a film that was just named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2014. I discovered this film in Skip Elsheimer’s A/V Geeks Educational Film Archive (@AVGeeks). Skip has saved over 25,000 16mm educational films and works diligently to share them with the world. He also digitized a copy of Felicia and has posted it at the Internet Archive, so you can watch the film we looked at here.

The film, which was shot prior to the events of August 1965, is about an extremely articulate young woman of color growing up in Watts. Felicia talks about her family life, school, and future in this short, student-made documentary. In Professor Kissel’s class we discussed how this film gave a different picture of Watts than that of the dominant media, and how Felicia’s own voice is used to structure the film, offering important insights into the circumstances that shaped her life and future.


Dr. Gordon presenting “The Other Side of the Tracks: Nontheatrical Film, Race, and the Case of Felicia (1965).”

The day after my classroom visit I gave a more in depth lecture on the film in the Hollings Library. One of the main points of my talk was that scholars and archivists can collaborate to make a real contribution to the understanding of film history. This is really the story of how three student filmmakers cared enough about a social issue (class and race-based inequity) to make a documentary about it; how an archivist cared enough about a forgotten fifty year old film to save it and provide access to it; how film scholars were fortunate enough to find it and have the opportunity to conduct research about it; how this short but insightful film has relevance now, especially in the wake of the recent events in Ferguson, MO, Staten Island, NY, or Charleston, SC.

Dr. Allyson Nadia Field of University of Chicago Film Studies and I have, in addition to successfully nominating the film to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress, conducted extensive research resulting in an article on the film that will be published in Cinema Journal in the early spring of 2016. And we were so inspired by the richness of Felicia that we are now collaborating on a collection of original essays themed to the subject of race and nontheatrical film.

Dr. Marsha Gordon
Associate Professor, Film Studies
North Carolina State University
Twitter: @MarshaGGordon

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MIRC, Historic Columbia, and The Nickelodeon Team Up for Home Movie Day 2015

HMD-ProjectorJoin USC Libraries’ Moving Image Research Collections (MIRC) and Historic Columbia at The Nickelodeon Theatre for Columbia’s annual Home Movie Day event. From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on October 17th, members of the community are invited to attend the free, family-friendly screening. Refreshments will be available and prizes will be awarded. MIRC staff will be on hand throughout the day to inspect films and discuss home movie preservation.

This year, MIRC and Historic Columbia are putting special emphasis on South Carolina, and particularly encourage the public to submit films shot in the Palmetto State. The most historically significant film will earn recognition from Historic Columbia.

CzarnitskyParade[1] copy

Parade in downtown Columbia, 1926. From the William Esper Czarnitsky Collection.

John Sherrer, Director of Cultural Resources at Historic Columbia, elaborates on why these amateur films can be so valuable: “Home movies historically were prized for their importance in documenting events, people and places in ways that still photography could not. For historians, home movies also offer unique coverage that conveys the energy behind the eras in which they are recorded.” Dig out those films and see your own personal piece of regional history projected on the big screen!

Locally shot home movies from MIRC’s collections will play from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. All are welcome to walk in and join the festivities at any point. An official program of films submitted by community members will begin at 12:15 p.m. A panel of judges from USC, Historic Columbia, and the Nickelodeon will select a Jury Prize winner, as well as a winner for the Most Historically Significant film. Audience members will also have a chance to vote for their favorite home movie.


Exterior of Columbia’s YMCA, 1952.

Juror and audience awards will be announced at 1:45 p.m. MIRC and the Nick will provide door prizes and the Jury Award. Historic Columbia is offering a prize pack for the best historical film, and will work with the winner to highlight or display their home movie at an appropriate Historic Columbia venue.

Visitors are encouraged to bring in items to the Nick for inspection, but anyone wishing to have their movie presented in the program on the 17th must submit it to MIRC no later than Friday, October 2nd the extended deadline of Friday, October 9th. Accepted media formats include 16mm, 8mm, and Super 8mm films, as well as digital files.

MIRC will accept the first five film submissions and the first ten digital submissions to screen on October 17th. Limit one submission (one reel of film, or one digital file less than three minutes in length) per household. Participants who submit film will receive one free DVD copy of the entire reel; however, MIRC staff will select shorter clips for public screening.

cola copy

Aerial shot of Columbia filmed on the opening day of Owens Field, April 1930. From the Heyward Gibbes Home Movies Collection.

Home Movie Day is a worldwide celebration of amateur films and filmmaking, held every October, that allows people to come together to view and share the footage they have been holding onto, often unseen, for years. The event provides an opportunity for attendees to bring in their own movies for inspection, learn how to care for films and videotapes, discuss how home movies capture history, and participate in their community’s collective past.

For more information about Home Movie Day in Columbia, contact Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator, at or 803-777-3791. The Nickelodeon Theatre is located downtown at 1607 Main Street.

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Elinor Smith: The “Flying Flapper”

When conjuring images of pilots flying during the 1920s and 1930s, the names that most easily leap to mind are Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh. Earhart may be the most widely known aviatrix today, but in the early years of aviation, there were many women pushing the boundaries of aeronautics. Elinor Smith was one of these pioneers.


Elinor Smith before attempting the women’s looping record, 1930.

Elinor Smith was born on August 17, 1911, and lived a long and fascinating life. Over the course of her 98 years, she set multiple flying records and was voted Best Female Pilot in the country by her peers. One of the most famous aviators of her day, Smith was a test pilot, the first female Executive Pilot (at 18), the youngest pilot ever to earn a US Commerce Department transport license, an aviation commentator for NBC, a writer and editor, and the first woman pictured on a Wheaties cereal box (1934).

Elinor made her first solo flight at 15. According to Aviatrix, Smith’s autobiography, she was the youngest government-licensed pilot at age 16, and it was Orville Wright who signed her FAI pilot’s license.*

On October 21, 1928, in response to a challenge by another pilot, the 17-year-old “flying flapper” guided her plane beneath the four bridges spanning New York City’s East River. Charles Lindbergh gave her words of encouragement just before taking off.

Still at age 17, she broke records for women’s solo endurance flights twice in the same year. She set the first record in early 1929 at 13 hours, 11 minutes, beating Bobbi Trout’s newly established record of twelve hours. These Fox Movietone News outtakes capture the aftermath of the feat. The teenaged flier undertook the ordeal in an open plane in 0ºF weather. It is not surprising that she seems groggy and out of sorts in this clip. Not only had she been flying for more than 13 hours, she was also so cold and stiff she needed assistance to exit the plane.


Elinor Smith sets her first endurance record, 1929.

Before this endeavor, no one was aware that Smith had never performed a night landing. Her initial plan was to stay up until morning and land in daylight, but the extreme cold forced her down. Once she shot her flare gun and the runway lights came on, she was terrified to attempt the descent, especially as the plane was still holding far more fuel than she had originally anticipated. Then a military aircraft came into view and landed ahead of her, giving Smith all the information she needed to get her plane safely on the ground. Later, her brother Joe told Elinor that the military pilot who had guided her down was Jimmy Doolittle, their idol since they were children. As Smith recalls in her autobiography, “…not only had I been rescued from a disastrous finish for the Bird and me, but I’d been saved from this ignominy by one of my heroes.”


Elinor Smith and Bobbi Trout, 1929.

Bobbi Trout regained the record in a 17-hour flight in February. In April, Elinor won it back with a flying time of 26 hours, 21 minutes. In October of 1929, Smith and Trout teamed up for an endurance flight. In this clip, shot before their journey, Trout is asked if there is any question that “the feminine sex” can outdo “the male sex.” “Not if we have anything to do with it,” Bobbi retorts. In May of the following year, Smith attempted to claim the loop-the-loop record from Laura Ingalls.

In 1930, at 19, Elinor Smith was voted by other licensed aviators as the Best Female Pilot in the country. Her counterpart, the winner for Best Male Pilot, was Jimmy Doolittle.


Elinor Smith explains failed record attempt, 1931.

Smith attempted the world altitude record in March of 1931. This flight resulted in a forced landing that left her completely unharmed. She explains what happened in these Movietone newsreel outtakes. On April 9, she made a second attempt, in which she reached approximately 32,000 feet. This flight set the record, but was ultimately declared unofficial as her barograph malfunctioned, only recording an altitude of 28,000 feet.


Elinor Smith on Amelia Earhart, 1932.

Smith, Amelia Earhart, Bobbi Trout, and other aviatrixes were constantly in the center of a debate about whether women could match men in piloting skills. Unsurprisingly, Elinor did not believe that gender influenced ability. In this 1932 interview about Earhart’s transatlantic flight, Smith claims the flight proves there is no difference. “A storm doesn’t care if you’re man or woman, if you can fly through it.”

In 1933 Elinor married Patrick Sullivan and retired from flying after she bore the first of their four children. More than 20 years later, following her husband’s death in 1956, Elinor came out of retirement. As a member of the Air Force Association, she began flying the T-33 jet trainer, and brought paratroopers up for maneuvers in Air Force C-119s.

She was the oldest person to successfully land NASA’s Space Shuttle simulator, which she did in 2000 with an all-female crew. She was 89 in 2001, when she made her last flight in an experimental C33 Raytheon AGATE.

Smith’s candidness in these interviews is utterly charming. Her lightning-quick technical descriptions of her flight experiences illustrate her talent and the extent of her knowledge about the machines she controlled. Elinor Smith may no longer be a household name like Amelia Earhart or “Lucky Lindy,” but her skills, daring, and advocacy for female pilots have left an indelible mark on the history of aviation.

Elinor Smith Sullivan died on March 19, 2010, at the age of 98.

*Smith, Elinor. Aviatrix. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

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Filming the Wreck of the SS Eastland: Harry Birch and the Making of a Chicago News Family

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland Disaster from the Birch family scrapbook.

One hundred years ago this week, the Western Electric Co. in Chicago hosted its employees on the SS Eastland for a day of relaxation, a day away from work, a day together as a family. Over two thousand employees boarded the Great Lakes passenger ship while it was moored on the Chicago River. It was raining.

Harry Birch, a young cameraman in Chicago, probably began his day as usual. He got up to go into the office.

With its decks filled with passengers, the Eastland pushed off from the dock at the Clark St. Bridge on its way to Michigan City, IN. It listed hard to port, took water, and settled onto the bottom of the river. In a few moments, 844 people were dead. On this 100th anniversary of the disaster, others more knowledgeable about the ship’s sinking can write about the events of that day in general. Here, though, I want to touch on how this event impacted just one family, the Birches of Chicago, and how the Eastland may well be responsible for the professional careers of two of Chicago’s most important news cameramen, Harry Birch and his son Bill.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch was a young cameraman on July 24, 1915, having only moved that year from Los Angeles to Chicago. In July he was splitting his time between the Rothacker Film Co. and the Chicago Tribune Animated Newsreel. The films he would make this day for the Tribune would reach across the county, and the globe.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Harry Birch arrived at Clark Bridge dock within minutes of the Eastland’s sinking. Two audio testimonies exist in the Harry and William Birch Collection documenting Birch’s work that morning. The first is a very short audio clip in Harry’s own word’s that begins to describe the event (after a minute of audio the tape is recorded over with music). The second is an audio tape made by Harry’s son, Bill Birch, reviewing the facts of Harry’s testimony after listening to the audio tape made by Harry. Bill summarizes the content of the original tape made by Harry, providing some information about the content. Although Bill is instructing Harry on how to frame a new recording so that it can be used as part of a planned Alex Dreier, ABC News feature story, through his instruction to Harry we learn what Harry did that morning.

According to this combined testimony, Harry was at Erie and Clark Streets when firetrucks roared down Clark St. He grabbed a cab and went with his camera to the dock, arriving just before 8:00 am. He then began filming the rescue effort.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

When I first began talking with Bill Birch in 2005, he asked me if I could help find his father’s film of the Eastland disaster. Although Moving Image Research Collections has over 200 negatives from Harry Birch’s camera in our collection, we did not have his film of the Eastland. A family scrapbook with heart-wrenching images from that day and subsequent days (including frames printed from Harry’s camera) was all that remained. But Harry had passed this story to his son, who carried it with him his entire life—it was certainly the type of news story that drove the young Bill Birch to devote his life to newsreels and television news.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

Images of the Eastland recovery efforts. From the Birch family scrapbook.

To the astonishment of many, two fragments of film showing the Eastland on the day of the sinking recently surfaced in European film archives. In the piece found at the EYE Film Institute in the Netherlands, the Eastland footage begins 1:10 into the video. This longer (and more graphic) clip, almost definitely sold by Selig-Tribune to British Pathé, provides strong evidence in support of Harry Birch being the cameraman. Many of the still images at MIRC mirror the activities captured in this film. The composition and camera angles are also close matches. In all probability, both these sequences were shot by Harry Birch, as he remains the only individual associated with films made on the day of the disaster.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased.

Images of the aftermath of the disaster, including rows of the deceased. From the Birch family scrapbook.

The sinking of the Eastland was the story that established Harry Birch’s credentials as a newsreel cameraman (he would later work for Gaumont-Mutual News and Fox News). Harry had a life-long career in Chicago area films, helping to found Local 666, making industrial films, and finally working in television. His son Bill Birch grew up wanting to do nothing more than shoot the news. He worked for Fox Movietone News prior to and after WWII. During the war he filmed with Frank Capra’s Signal Corps outfit, he established the NBC Network News division in Chicago in the early 1950s, and stayed active in television news through the 1970s, during which time he expanded his portfolio to include feature films and significant documentaries. His son, Randy Birch, also became a television news cameraman for NBC.

A special note of thanks to Marjorie Fritz-Birch, Bill’s wife and partner of over 30 years, for making possible the Harry and William Birch Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Moving Image Research Collections.

~Written by Dr. Greg Wilsbacher, MIRC Curator.

*Note: This entry has been edited since its original posting to include additional historical and contextual information.

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APEX trip to Buenos Aires, June 2015

Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator, was honored to have been selected to participate in the now annual APEX trip, run by New York University’s Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP). Lydia happily agreed to take part in a two-week visit to the Museo del Cine in Buenos Aires, Argentina from the 1st to the 12th of June, 2015. APEX is an opportunity for members of the international audiovisual archival community to exchange knowledge and skills in audiovisual archives around the world. Below, Lydia shares a bit about APEX and her experiences.

View of the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosado.

View of the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosado.

The Audiovisual Preservation EXchange originated from the MIAP program at NYU, which originally began in 2008 when the initiative was aimed to promote Ghanaian audiovisual archives through collaboration and knowledge exchange between Ghanaian archivists, MIAP students and faculty. A similar endeavor occurred in 2009, when a team of film experts and archivists under the direction of New York University’s Dan Streible, associate director of the Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program (MIAP), traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina to help the Museo del Cine preserve its orphan films.

The Museo del Cine Archive vaults, with amazed students.

The Museo del Cine Archive vaults, with amazed students.

Since then, students from the MIAP program at NYU, in collaboration with the AMIA Student Chapter @ NYU, have developed this project to foster international collaboration and academic dialogue on film and media preservation in order to safeguard the world‘s audiovisual heritage. APEX has now conducted projects to Ghana, Columbia (Bogata) and Uruguay (Montevideo), as well as this latest trip to Argentina (Buenos Aires).

The focus of the APEX trip to Buenos Aires was to work with three distinct film collections of the Museum of Cinema, along with one group that worked directly with the magnetic tape collections of CANAL 7 (TV Pública) under the supervision of Jim Lindner. The three film collections at the Museum Archives were the Nitrate Collection (collection of fiction containing newsreels and many unidentified rolls of silent and sound film), the Peña Rodríguez Collection (collection of silent and sound films from a film collector, producer and critic, in which the most complete version of Metropolis was found) and the Argentinian Navy Collection (documenting different activities of the Argentinean Armed Forces from the 1940s and 1950s)

The Museo del Cine exhibition space.

The Museo del Cine exhibition space.

The Museum of Cinema Pablo Ducrós Hicken was created in 1971 to investigate, preserve and disseminate Argentine film heritage. The foundation of the museum was mainly made up from the private collection of Ducrós Hicken, an essayist, researcher and academic Argentine who devoted much of his life to collecting objects and testimonies related to the film world. The museum owns the country’s largest archive of films, photographs and costumes. After many changes over four decades, and many moves to various locations around the city, the Museum finally reopened in its permanent location, Caffarena 51, in a historic building in the neighborhood of La Boca, on the first of August 2011, and it was to this building that the adventure began for the visiting archivists on Monday June 1st, 2015.

Archive film vaults – Nitrate films.

Archive film vaults – Nitrate films.

The Museum has the largest collection of films in the country in many different formats, amounting to over forty five thousand cans of film material. The collections consist of Argentine and foreign newsreels, scientific and educational films, films of military strategy produced by the Armed Forces, filming in Antarctica, fragments of lost films, orphan films, scattered remnants of personal collections, home movies, and many unprocessed and unidentified films. Not unlike many other archives in the world, the archive is under-resourced, under-funded, under-staffed and run by a passionate crew of film enthusiasts who do whatever they can, by whatever means necessary, to care for and preserve the films and film ephemera in their care.

Nitrate film being inspected and cleaned.

Nitrate film being inspected and cleaned.

I worked in the museum archive (a separate building to the museum itself) for two weeks, with archive and museum staff, and with students from the MIAP program, the Selznick school, and UCLA, on the Nitrate Film collection. The nitrate collection consists of several collections and many of the other collections also have nitrate elements in them such as the Navy and Peña Rodríguez collections. This is enough to warrant a separate vault purely for nitrate film, where the temperatures and humidity levels are kept low. The Nitrate team was essentially working with the oldest films of the Museum, ranging from 1900-1950, and made up of 35mm negative and positive prints of fiction films, newsreels, documentary films, educational films, advertisements, etc. mostly from Argentina.

MIAP student cleaning nitrate film.

MIAP student cleaning nitrate film.

These films came from a variety of sources. The producers of the Argentinean newsreel Sucesos Argentinos donated the nearly complete newsreel collection, but other nitrate collections were acquired through either personal or professional contracts of former directors of the museum. These days, since the museum has a flourishing reputation as a collector of nitrate film, many more donations have been received and the archive and museum staff are very proactive in pursuing more donations to complement and grow the archive collections.

The primary goal was to identify the varying stages of nitrate decomposition within the collection of Sucesos Argentinos and Fiction Films, which was achieved by winding through, cleaning and inspecting as many films in the 477 cans of Sucesos Argentina and Ficciones collections as possible. The team managed to get through 54 reels of film in the 10 working days that were spent at the Archive.

35mm Nitrate film close up.

35mm Nitrate film close up.

The films themselves were in very good condition and not suffering from much decomposition. The main damage that was encountered was from old tape splices that had gone bad and bled through layers of film. Out of 54 cans that were inspected very few were not in a good condition, and none were unsalvageable. Almost all of the films were negatives. A few were composite prints that included soundtracks but most were image only. One of the most exciting finds were two newsreel negatives in Ferraniacolor, a subtractive 3 monopack color process that we had never encountered before, and a tricky tinted nitrate print of “La Mosca y sus Peligros.”

Museum trips for the students to the Theatre Colon and to PROA art gallery.

Museum trips for the students to the Theatre Colon and to PROA art gallery.

Over the course of these inspections there was a selection of problems encountered including mold, rolls of film made up of dozens of individual segments with no discernable continuity (Newsfilm stories), loose reels of film not stored on cores, cans with as many as eight rolls of film in them, as well as some serious shrinking and warping. It was important to document the content of each film, and inspection sheets were filled out in detail for every one. This information was transferred to an excel spreadsheet for the archive staff and all cans were numbered and labeled for easy identification. Most of the reels were made up of multiple film stocks. It was always exciting to open a new can and see what we would encounter, both in terms of the films’ physical condition but also in terms of its content. We all learnt many new things about life in Argentina in the 1940s and what Argentinians were being shown on screen. There were a few special editions on a festival in the wine growing region of Mendoza, where the famous Malbec is produced, that were fascinating for me to watch.

Presentation by Bolivian archivists at the NYU Buenos Aires colloquium.

Presentation by Bolivian archivists at the NYU Buenos Aires colloquium.

The fortnight’s work culminated in a colloquium on the final day which was made up of speakers from Argentina, Uruguay, Chile and Bolivia as well as all the APEX teams final reports for an audience of film scholars and archivists, held at the NYU Buenos Aires school. It was a lovely way to wrap up the week’s working holiday and a chance for everyone to review the previous 2 weeks activities and hear more details on the other team’s work as well as the chance to talk to fellow archivists in the region and hear about their ongoing work and projects.

The Museum and Archive staff were very accommodating for the entire time that we descended on them and we had many shared lunches together, as well as lunch time walks around the amazing and very eclectic neighborhood of La Boca, home to the historical Italian immigrants population, a whole host of dog populations and the famous football team of Boca Juniors. Many events were arranged for the evenings, as well as nights off to generally explore the wonderful sounds and sights that Buenos Aires has to offer and the APEX teams got to experience a concert at the famous Theatre Colon opera house, a private screening with the director (Luis Puenza) of an Oscar winning Argentinian film (La Historia Oficial) being restored at Cinecolor, an Orphan films screening with films from Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay, at MALBA a modern art museum in the Palermo neighbourhood of the City, and a Home Movies screening and a tour of an Art Gallery, PROA, in La Boca. There were many other informal dinners, drinks and many café breaks for us all with the wonderful staff of the museum as they took us into their hearts and homes to show us how welcome we were.

A big thanks goes out to them all for their wonderful hospitality and for letting us come and invade their workspaces and lives for a short time.

~Written by Lydia Pappas, MIRC Assistant Director and Curator

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Charleston Hospital Workers Strike, 1969

In March of 1969, African-American hospital workers at the South Carolina Medical College Hospital in Charleston (now MUSC) went on strike when twelve of their co-workers were fired after protesting their treatment and working conditions. The strikers hoped to win back the positions for the twelve who lost their jobs, as well as earn recognition for the Retail and Drug Hospital Employees union, Local 1199B. Employees from the Charleston County Hospital joined the protests shortly after the strike began. The strike was a major event for the Civil Rights movement in South Carolina, and Coretta Scott King and members of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, including President Ralph Abernathy and Andrew Young, came to Charleston to aid the cause.


Ralph Abernathy

This ten-minute clip of local WIS-tv news outtakes illustrates many of the activities and demonstrations related to the protests. Probably filmed between April 25 and April 30, 1969, the footage shows Abernathy marching with a woman, most likely Mary Moultrie. Moultrie, a leader of the strike, recently passed away on April 27, at age 73. The outtakes also show a speech given by Coretta Scott King, as well as the arrival of National Guard troops with tanks, gas masks, and rifles with bayonets fixed. An officer explains to press that the Guard presence was to provide “sufficient” manpower to control potential trouble. When a reporter asks if he thinks the troops would increase tension, the officer simply replies, “no, sir.”

Andrew Young

Andrew Young

In these outtakes filmed on April 28, SCLC member Andrew Young speaks about the strike, the need for young black people in South Carolina to make a living wage, and the willingness of protesters, including SCLC president Ralph Abernathy, to face jail time.

The strike lasted over 100 days, finally ending with a settlement in June. In a 2008 interview on The Colbert Report, Andrew Young explains how he worked to settle the conflict with Stephen Colbert’s father, James William Colbert, Jr., the university’s first Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Learn more about the Charleston Hospital Workers Strike here.

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The Dance Marathon Fad of the 1920s and 1930s


Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

March 21st, from 10am to midnight, is the annual Dance Marathon at the University of South Carolina. “It is an annual spring event that celebrates the culmination of a year’s worth of efforts to raise financial and emotional support for the patients of Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital located in Columbia.” While USC’s Dance Marathon is a fun charity event that lasts 14 hours and raises money for a worthy local cause, dance marathons during their 20th century peak were often grueling contests spanning weeks or months.


Dancers getting into beds for a few moments of rest.

These Fox Movietone News outtakes were filmed on August 1, 1930. The footage covers the tail end of a dance marathon that began almost 16 weeks earlier, on April 11. On the day this story was filmed, the dancers had been going for 2,664 hours, breaking the old world record by over 863 hours. More than 50 pairs began the competition, with just three couples and one single man remaining on the dance floor by August. In this particular event, contestants were permitted to take five-minute naps every hour. The event would end on August 7, 1930, with Anne Gerry and Mike Gouvas taking the $2,650 dollar prize. According to an A.P. piece in the Sterling Daily Gazette on August 8, the pair had danced for 2,831 hours, four minutes, and 30 seconds.


One dancer supports her partner as they continue to move.

The narrator claims that, “the world recently has repeatedly given evidence of a liking for sports and activities of an endurance nature.” Dance marathons began to gain popularity in 1923 as a fun endurance event. By the Depression era 1930s, these competitions were often made into exhausting and exploitative spectacles that abused the financial desperation of the contestants. Though dancers were expected to keep moving 24 hours a day with only short breaks for sleeping every hour or two, most were content with shelter and steady meals, along with the hope of a big payoff if they were the last couple standing.


Still image from “Dance marathon fad reaches new peak–outtakes.”

Marathons could last several months at a time, and objections were voiced to these spectacles even in the late 1920s. A New York World piece published in the Decatur Evening Herald on June 25, 1928 comments on the “idiotic” dance marathon taking place at Madison Square Garden. When published, the event had only begun ten days earlier, but the concern for participants was already intense. “Who knows the ultimate effect that it will have on these couples? Nervous collapse, depleted vitality and badly injured feet seem highly probable, with insanity perhaps as quite possible… We are staging then, a cruel and unseemly show.” This opinion seemed to grow over the years, and as the 1930s progressed, many towns and even entire states banned the contests outright.

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