Out of the Dark: Bringing Films to Light at the National Archives

The film you are watching is “The Negro
Soldier,” a 1944 documentary produced by the U.S. Army’s Special Services Division
and Hollywood’s famed director Frank Capra. The film chronicles accomplishments by African
Americans throughout American history, emphasizing their participation in U.S. armed conflicts
dating from the American Revolution to World War II. Although the order for the desegregation
of the military services did not occur until 1948 and took many years to implement, “The
Negro Soldier” represents an early effort by the Army to use film to show the significant
contributions of African Americans to the U.S. war effort. In 2011 “The Negro Soldier”
was chosen to be preserved in the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. This film’s place in history was ensured
by the specialized work of the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Office and the Special Media
Preservation Laboratory of the National Archives and Records Administration. We are the caretakers
of one of the largest audiovisual collections in the United States, and whether it’s footage
of the Bay of Pigs invasion, sound recordings of the interrogation of Nazi war criminals,
or a documentary film on the apprehension of Bonnie & Clyde, it’s our mission to preserve
and make available to the public our government’s historic images and sounds. In order to see how this is done, we’ll
follow the lifecycle of the classic documentary film “The Negro Soldier,” from the time
of its arrival at the Archives to its place on the shelf of the Research Room as well
as into our online catalog, where it will be available to researchers both here in the
United States and around the globe. The processing work begins when the accession
containing “The Negro Soldier” arrives at the Archives and the film cans are unboxed. Some government agencies send thousands of
films at the same time, and other times we only get a few. And you never know what you’re
going to find. Sometimes the boxes are filled with old, rusty, metal film cans with no identification,
and other times the films are neatly packed in a box with a full list of titles and film
formats, and — if we’re really, really lucky – a full set of descriptions. After initial appraisal agreements are finalized
between the Archives and the federal agencies that created them, we use our own established
criteria in our evaluation of each film. This helps us make retention and disposal decisions,
for example: Does the film document important activities of the agency? Is this a film that
would exist at another library or archive? Are important people captured in the movie?
These are all the kinds of things we take into consideration. The first step in the processing workflow
is to identify the title of the film, see if it exists anywhere else in our holdings,
gather together all the film’s elements and label them with an identifying number
that will remain with all components of the film when it is later re-canned, shelved,
and catalogued. An inventory is drawn up that captures all this information. What makes motion picture processing unique
– and complicated – is that a single film may not just be a single reel. A movie may
often have its visuals on several reels, with its narration and music track also on several
reels. So a single film can have enough separate components to take up one or two boxes! Now
in the case of “The Negro Soldier,” we have a film that plays out over five reels,
with its soundtrack and its visuals combined on a single strip of film. Our film is now ready for its next destination
– the Preservation Laboratory. Welcome to the Motion Picture Preservation
Lab. We have six enthusiastic staff members with the specialized skills that enable the
National Archives to preserve and protect America’s historic motion picture collection. To do this, we evaluate the condition of our
original films, and prepare them for cold storage so that we can keep them as long as
possible. We copy to newer film stock or digital formats when deterioration of the original
puts the images at risk of being lost. Every day, we handle films that might not exist
if care had not been taken to retain and preserve them. We work on material that covers a wide
range of content and condition, from deteriorated 16mm color footage from World War II to pristine
camera negatives shot for educational films in the 1980s. Today, we’re working on The
Negro Soldier. When we inspect films, we’re looking for
signs of deterioration. We’re measuring acidity levels and shrinkage.
We make repairs so that the film will be ready to be transferred or played. Sometimes we
end up spending an entire day repairing a single reel of film. We’re also identifying
the film elements so that we can make sure that the originals are given the highest level
of protection and that only duplicate copies are available in the research room. We inspect about 4 million feet of film a
year, but even at that rate, it would take almost 300 years for us to look at every reel
in the collection. As long as we can purchase film stock, we’ll
continue to do film to film preservation. Digital is a great tool for providing access
and doing restoration work, but it’s not a great tool for long-term preservation. Whether we’re going from film to film or
digitizing for access, there are certain steps we always go through. For each title, we do
all of the inspection and hands-on repair of the original elements to make sure they
won’t be damaged if we run them on the equipment. For reels we’re printing, we also time them
to ensure that the new copies will remain faithful to the original copy. We clean them
and then print them on our printers. We have a wide range of printers; we have one that
was made in the Thirties, one that was made in the Fifties, and one that is relatively
new to the Archives. We choose the printer based on the condition of the original film,
because the printers have different handling capabilities. We then process the film and
then do quality control to make sure that everything has turned out the way it’s supposed
to. For The Negro Soldier, we’re creating a new film copy and a digitally restored copy. With the film copy, we can place it on a shelf
in a managed storage environment, and it will last upwards of five hundred years. With a
digital file, if it’s not managed and migrated, it may only last up to five years. Although we still use film stock as our primary
preservation format, motion pictures are being digitized in the lab for a variety of purposes. When researchers ask to see films that do
not already have reference copies available, we transfer the reels on our HD scanner and
make DVDs for public access. We save the files for later use in the National Archives’
online catalog or to be posted on social media sites. In addition, we digitize high profile
titles and films that are too fragile to be copied on our printers at greater resolutions
of 2k or 4k for access and preservation. This is our preservation-level film scanner. It creates digital files that preserve and
protect the essence and characteristics of the film stock itself, namely the film grain,
the color properties. And the saturation, density and contrast levels that exist in
the film original are carried forward to the digital file. Now, we’ve used this equipment
to scan films like The March and The Negro Soldier which have stable film elements, but
generate enough public interest to warrant high-resolution film scanning. This is our digital workstation. Once the
reels have been scanned, we use software to do overall density and color corrections. We can also use restoration tools like a scratch
tool and a dust tool on a scene by scene basis if needed. Once preservation projects have
been completed, we preserve the raw and the corrected file permanently. Now that “The Negro Soldier” has been
inspected, cleaned and copied, it is ready for its next step — description. We can use the digitized DVD or we can load
one of the clean prints onto our flatbed screening machine to view for description
purposes without running the risk of damaging either the film or our machinery. Just having a title in our catalog is often
not enough. Ideally, we’ll view the film in order to enter information into ARC, our
online catalog. We’ll describe the movie’s themes, its intended audience, any important
historical figures or locations that are shown, that sort of thing. Sometimes, as was the
case with “The Negro Soldier,” we’ll receive original description in the form of
shot lists or production files. All this information can then be combined with the preservation
lab’s inspection sheet data on the length of the film: the original, reproduction, and
viewing copies that now exist; and what their formats are. The lab’s specific information – what
we refer to as the “physical holdings” will be valuable for the researcher who reads
the description online and might want to watch or purchase the film. Once viewed and described, our film must be
secured in the proper storage area with regard to temperature and humidity to minimize the
deterioration of the film over time. Original, reproduction, and reference copies are each
stored in their own location. Archival preservation color film is typically
stored in a vault at 25 degrees Fahrenheit, 30% relative humidity. This colder temperature
prevents color film from fading over time. Our black and white reproduction copy of “The
Negro Soldier,” however, will be stored at a much warmer temperature — 65 degrees
Fahrenheit, 30% relative humidity… …with one or more viewing copies available
in our Reference Room. Researchers who come here can view this or
other films on our flatbed screeners, or watch reference video cassettes or DVDs on our players. In most cases, researchers can make copies
by using their own equipment or by using equipment available in the Research Room. The access to government films that we provide
at the National Archives is unparalleled. We get researchers in from all around the
world who are amazed at the availability of our holdings. The National Archives has now completed its
work on “The Negro Soldier.” The original film will stay preserved on our shelf with
multiple copies on hand for duplication and viewing. Its message will be saved for current
and future historians, educators, and documentarians. Anyone with an interest in this subject, or
countless other subjects — both national and international in scope — can visit our
facility in College Park, Maryland, or access our holdings online.

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