The following post was written by MIRC Post Production Specialist Brittany Braddock, detailing her work on Fox newsreel footage of Babe Ruth for the Baseball Hall of Fame. Baseball Hall of Fame Senior Curator Tom Shieber’s research on another newsreel from the MIRC vaults, depicting Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig from June 1, 1925, was recently highlighted in the New York Times. MIRC footage of Babe Ruth was also featured in the 2011 opera, Bambino, by USC Aiken professor Dr. Richard Maltz.
In the late 1970s, Fox had a bit of a problem. Their massive collection of Movietone newsreel footage on cellulose nitrate film was aging, and certainly not gracefully. There were several factors that led to the destruction of a vast majority of silent and newsreel footage from this era. Nitrate film was highly volatile. When kept under anything but the most carefully controlled conditions, it was liable to burst into flames or, in less extreme circumstances, degrade past the point of recognition. The disastrous fire of 1978 that destroyed much of the Universal newsreels (over 12 million feet) brought to the forefront the need to act quickly to ensure the safety of nitrate newsreels, the stories they held, and the facilities that housed them. When it wasn’t erupting into flames, nitrate was decaying. As cellulose nitrate ages, it emits acidic gases that break down the film base and cause can rusting. The base becomes tacky and sticks to itself, over time forming a solid mass that I like to refer to as “rock candy.” The emulsion image begins to separate from the clear base and a piece of filmed history quickly becomes irretrievable.
Up until recent decades, much of the film used by both Fox and their peers was kept under unsustainable conditions for a number of reasons. Nitrate was not considered valuable enough to hold onto, as safety film using an acetate base was seen to be more desirable due to less volatility, and some would argue that the intrinsic value of this record of the past was not yet fully recognized. However, thanks in large part to the priceless images of World War II caught by Fox Movietone cameramen, and possibly in part to a space opera, much of the collection would survive, including a few gems featuring the Sultan of Swat himself.
It is a commonly held belief that after the box office success of Star Wars in 1977, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation came into some big money fast and was looking for a tax break – which would come in the form of a big heap of decaying film. After years of negotiations and the loss of much of the originally intended donation to either flame or decay, over a series of structured gifts, the University of South Carolina Newsfilm Library (today, MIRC) received 11 million feet of film, 7 million of which was nitrate. The original plan was to convert all nitrate to acetate safety film and then donate it to the University. Unfortunately, a great deal of nitrate original films were lost after their conversion. One of these films was outtake footage of the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox, in which Babe Ruth was filmed hitting a homerun and rounding the bases on April 14, 1931.
This particular reel made it through conversion to its acetate copy just in time. However, it is nearly unwatchable. The nitrate had to have been so damaged that it could barely even make it through the printer. The image dances across the length of the film base in a nauseating, repetitive manner. Huge portions of the optical soundtrack are lost and much of the frame registers as a blinding white where the emulsion had migrated off the base. One of the most iconic images in baseball history, Babe running the bases, was nearly lost.
When the senior curator of the Baseball Hall of Fame based in Cooperstown, New York found out about the Movietone outtakes, the value was not lost on him. He saw the condition of the only surviving record of this film and asked if there was anything we could do about it. Currently, the archive relies on the program Adobe After Effects to do much of our stabilization work. It is a time-consuming effort that is not entirely foolproof. This method is used to stabilize footage that, when passed through the high definition scanner, adopts a consistent bouncing effect to the image in the frame. When I was approached with the Babe Ruth footage, it was clear that the usual stabilization process would not suffice to make the film watchable, and certainly not to such a large museum audience in Cooperstown. The task at hand became clear. Each of the 4,293 frames would need to be taken into Adobe Photoshop, individually adjusted to align the frame to roughly its original position, and then exported as a tiff file that could then be reincorporated into a tiff sequence and then passed through the stabilizing software. In total, the process of adjusting the images took 30 hours.
When I spoke to Tom Shieber via email following the delivery of the final product, he was thrilled with the result. “Now this wonderful sequence of Babe Ruth homering and circling the bases back on April 14, 1931, can be shared with the hundreds of thousands of visitors who come to our museum each year,” he said.
There is a level of tedium that comes with the work that we do here at the archive. When the material is in poor condition it requires care and time that I’m certain its original creators never could have imagined. I’m proud of so much of the work that I’ve done here, but this project in particular will definitely rank among my proudest efforts. We are all very happy when previously unseen films can make it to a wider audience, in this case the baseball community who will be sure to appreciate these images for years to come.
Written by Brittany Braddock, MIRC Post Production Specialist