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Part of the collection of preserved films at the Chicago Film Archives in Pilsen.

Preservationists and archivists extend the lives of film for many years

by David Nelson
Jan 12, 2012


David Nelson/MEDILL

Chicago Film Archvies director, Nancy Watrous, holds up a portrait of Margaret Conneely, one of the amateur filmmakers whose work is now preserved at the facility.


Courtesy of Chicago Film Archives

A section of film from "A Pictorial Story of Hiawatha" (1903), before its successful restoration and preservation.

Those embarrassing home movies might be around for a lot longer thanks to film preservationists and archivists. Due to scientific processes as well as modern storage units, the lifespan of film has now extended so that even great grandchildren and beyond will be able to see how life transpired centuries before.

Nancy Watrous, director the Chicago Film Archive in Pilsen, said without proper care old family movies can shrink or fade completely.

With thousands of reels and up to 60 collections of film, the archive has become a vital organization protecting amateur and professional movies, specifically from the Midwest.

Subjects of these films vary drastically.

“One man brought in the films of his parents who lived in a nudist colony in 1930’s Germany,” said Watrous. “There was footage of them playing sports, swimming, downhill skiing.”

Each year the archive participates in National Home Movie Day. Preservationists inspect personal films, which can be donated to the project. The German nudist colony was one of the films.

For Watrous, the material brought in (usually obscure non-commercial films ranging from the years 1903 to present day) displays important aspects of everyday people’s lives that have begun to fade. “They are wonderful documents of life in the Midwest,” said Watrous. “And we’re trying to unearth parts of history that are overlooked. It’s documentation that probably wouldn’t otherwise be saved or seen.”

She said that many of these personal films have been left to decay in basements or attics because people might be embarrassed to share them or don’t believe they’re important. “People think home movies are forgotten domestic documents without any historical significance.”

But the process of saving the films is more complicated than that and not as easy as simply transferring them to a DVD.

“First you have to look at what degree of damage a film is in,” said Anne Wells, the processing archivist and collections manager who began work at the archives as an intern. “There are many things that can affect a film. It can be shrunk in the wrong temperatures, or it can have vinegar syndrome.”

The syndrome occurs when cellulose acetate film releases acetic acid as a result of poor storage conditions. The acetic acid is a key ingredient in vinegar and can create an acidic smell and cause degradation. “We have to send those films away to specific labs that work with the film,” Wells said, adding that her co-worker, Watrous, once drove a film personally to Color Labs in Rockville, Md.

Once the films return to the archives they are stored in expensive polypropylene containers and handled with white cotton gloves. The storage process allows for films to survive for decades.

Nitrate films, the dominant format before the 1950s, suffer from shrinkage but also scratches which can be fixed by placing the film in liquid perchloroethylene. Additionally, uneven perforation on the edges of film reels during its original printing also causes frustration for preservationists. But the process isn’t all science, it involves some artistic decisions as well, especially when dealing with films produced with a creative eye.

“Sometimes you have to deal with issues of censorship during the time a film was produced,” said Ken Weissman, supervisor of Film Preservation at the Library of Congress's Packard Campus in Culpeper, Va.

“A film called ‘Baby Face’ starring Barbara Stanwyck incurred the wrath of the censors, and several major scenes were cut,” he said.

One of Weissman’s favorite projects was working on the Frank Capra’s 1939 film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” starring Jimmy Stewart. “We discovered as part of the restoration process that there were at least four versions. We looked at reviews, road show versions, the director’s cut, until finally settling on the version we thought was the intended," Weissman said.

Much like the Chicago Film Archives, he also works with personal films and home movie collections.

“You have to keep home movies as cool and dry as you can,” Weissman advised. “Sometimes basements work well, but sometimes they don’t if they’re prone to humidity in the summer or if they flood. Definitely not in the attic.”

Furthermore, Weissman also recommended that if you want to preserve your films, you can transfer them to DVDs, but restoring the film and keeping it is really vital. “Film lasts and it fares much better than DVDs or video tapes.”

“We keep our facility incredibly cool with very low humidity,” said Watrous of the archive, which stores miles of memories.

Although film of her own life is not featured in the archive, she has many personal connections to the collection she has worked hard to preserve. Watrous’s friend Margaret Conneely is also her favorite amateur filmmaker. Conneely, who died a few years ago at the age of 91, displayed her profound vision through dark domestic themes. “I asked Margaret if she would have liked going to Hollywood,” Watrous said, “but she said no. The studio system at the time would have stifled her creativity.”

Watrous and Wells both believe in the power of film as therapy. For many the films offer catharsis to those sharing the film. The organization is also working on showing their films not only in public forums where people can interact and vent any childhood memories, but in retirement homes where residents with memory problems can remember.

“These films represent eras when the world was so different and so much was going on,” Watrous said. “It can be so therapeutic. And they have the best stories and the truest stories of what is going on in the films.”