The Fox Movietone News Digitization Project: Year One in Review

Outtakes from 1927 news story about a 50th wedding anniversary.

In 2013, Moving Image Research Collections received a grant from the NEH Division of Preservation and Access. The $229,997 Humanities Collections and Reference Resources award supports Phase One of the Fox Movietone Digitization Project.* The two-year project, which began in May of 2013, is dramatically improving online access to the Fox Movietone News Collection. With this grant, MIRC is in the process of making an estimated 14,000 of 23,000 total titles in the collection discoverable and viewable through our Digital Video Repository, including revised and expanded metadata. More than 60% of the films in the collection will be much easier to search, and the vast majority of these titles will be streaming online for the first time.

The digitization of the Fox collection is an immense but necessary undertaking. The collection includes fascinating images of 1920s culture, experiments in early sound technology, and iconic footage from the WWII era. Enabling free, streaming access to this collection is crucial. While this wealth of material is already a source for some of our culture’s most recognizable images, the majority of the collection remains unseen by researchers, filmmakers, and the public—a fact the team at MIRC is working to change. Director Heather Heckman says, “I am in awe of the efforts of both project and permanent staff here at MIRC. This project is a massive operation that has touched every single one of our workflows.”


Outtakes from a staged news story featuring musician Uncle John Scruggs.

The 14,000 titles that will eventually reside in the DVR have already been transferred from film to tape over the years. In the fall of 2013, more than 1,300 Betacam SP and Digital Betacam tapes were captured to create digital files. Because the capture process yields one file for all the stories on a single tape, MIRC post-production staff must cut each individual title to verify quality and generate the access copy. Due to the inescapably time-consuming nature of the process, and a later start because of the transfer period, the production workflow has progressed more slowly than cataloging. In a four-month period with a part-time staff member, over 2,200 individual stories on approximately 200 master tapes were cut and prepped for the online repository—an impressive rate of over 500 stories per month. We hope to increase the labor in the post-production workflow to further improve output.

Cataloging Manager Ashley Blewer has been working on the Fox digitization project for 10 months. In that time, she and her team have labored tirelessly to revise the metadata for thousands of records. The catalogers view each individual story in order to expand or correct the existing metadata before adding the records, in large batches, to the repository. The video footage is then linked to the record and published on the site. Currently, there are over 1,500 videos publicly available in the DVR. Over 5,100 records in total have been updated with improved metadata, and those not yet live only await their accompanying video before being released. These updated records represent more than 1/3 of the total number of stories requiring revision, putting the cataloging workflow on schedule for its ten-month working period.

Outtakes from a 1919 story about the increased cost of candy.

Many of the videos in the DVR are of obvious and unquestionable historical significance—for instance a rare newsreel about the attack on Pearl Harbor. But much of the Fox collection’s value comes from lesser-known news and human interest stories that, when viewed together, help to form a vision of life and culture in the first half of the 20th century. The ability to browse thousands of clips online makes it possible for researchers and visitors to engage with primary source footage they may not have even been aware existed.

Subsequent phases of digitization will create both digital preservation surrogates and access copies of all the titles in the Fox Movietone News Collection. MIRC chose to make immediate access the priority in Phase One, however, for multiple reasons. Researchers, educators, media makers, and cultural heritage organizations are placing a growing number of requests for materials in the Fox collection. The newsreels and outtakes receive more reference requests than any other collection at MIRC, even after adjustment for its relative size. This online repository facilitates research requests and helps to satisfy the increasing demand for this footage. Improved metadata and intellectual control not only makes the collection more discoverable, but will also lay the groundwork for future work.

We get a view of the streets of NYC in these 1930 outtakes of Mary Rizzo dancing from Columbus Circle to Times Square.

In the last year, a project decades in the making took shape with verifiable results. The challenges we faced early in the grant period will inform and improve the work that follows. Halfway through the endeavor, we at MIRC are optimistic about the anticipated outcome, and are pleased with the results so far. As Newsfilm curator Greg Wilsbacher states, “It’s really good to see so many Fox stories going online for the world to see.  This is the type of project that demonstrates the power of the Internet to open up collections that were difficult to access in the age of video tape.” MIRC is grateful for the funding that makes this important venture possible, and we continue to strive to make this wonderful material accessible to the broadest audience possible.

* Other awards from the same program include a grant to support the planning and development of the Academy Motion Picture Oral History Digital Archive—a repository of oral history interviews with members of the film industry from 1947 onward; a grant to the National Film Preservation Foundation to repatriate and restore 26 nonfiction films made in the US in the 1910s and 1920s from EYE Film Institute, Netherlands; and a grant to the American Geographical Society Library at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to digitize, rehouse, store, and create metadata for its still and motion picture film holdings. A list of recent Humanities Collections and References Resources grants can be found here.

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