Re-Visiting Old Places and Inspiring New Generations, Part I

Submitted by abertin

Hi again, Northeast Historic Film blog readers! It’s me, Amber, once again here to tell you about some of the exciting things Northeast Historic Film has been doing lately. This time, I’m going to discuss one of the trips I took this October to spread the word about NHF, regional film archives, and all the work we do to preserve non-commercial cinema.

Recently, I was invited to speak and teach a workshop at one of my alma maters, Colgate University, where I received my undergraduate degree. I was very happy to return to Colgate. I found incredible mentors who taught me a great deal about topics far more expansive than film while I was there, so it’s very humbling to think that they now believe that I have something to teach their current students. It was also nice to have a chance to spread the word about Northeast Historic Film beyond our designated geographical area of northern New England.

Most of the students weren’t familiar with what exactly film archivists do or what is contained within the walls of a film archive, so through our discussion, I wanted to de-mystify the film archive. A big part of doing this is familiarizing everybody with the material objects film archives collect, so I started by letting them handle a 35mm and an 8mm reel of film. From there, we discussed what an archivist looks for when he or she is inspecting a film, why we keep our collections in temperature and humidity-controlled vaults, how we provide access to our collections, what the differences between analog and digital preservation are, how film archivists are addressing the so-called “death of film”, and many other topics. I was inspired by my time with the students to think deeply about our priorities as film archivists and how archivists communicate with the public, so hopefully, the favor was returned and they all learned something about the work film archivists do to preserve films and were inspired to participate in our work.

While at Colgate, I also taught a day long 35mm film projection workshop for the students who work in their projection booth. Film archivists spend a lot of time discussing how to preserve the film itself, but just as important is making sure that the films we preserve are accessible. We do this in many ways, but I think the most fun way is public screenings of the physical films themselves. There’s nothing like the sound of a film projector or the sense of community that permeates throughout a theater during a public screening. There’s something almost hypnotic and truly modernist about the concept of a group of people looking at the same screen filled with images created by a tiny piece of celluloid running through a large, loud machine operated by a single human being; however, we cannot continue to offer these experiences if we fail to take care of the projectors, the technology that allows us to present these films to the audience or, more imminently, fail to cultivate and pass-on the quiet art of film projection. The work we do to preserve these films is useless unless there are people who know how to exhibit them and share them with an audience, so I am always happy to train anyone who is interested in learning how to safely and conscientiously project film. On a more personal note, I was really excited to work with the projectionists because I developed my interest in film preservation in the projection booth, more specifically, this very projection booth at Colgate University where I worked as a student projectionist for three years. It was here that I handled film for the first time and it was here where I first asked the questions about the care of film that would eventually lead me to becoming a film archivist. Essentially, this space is very special to me and I have great respect for everything that happens there and all of the people who pass through it.

We covered all of the nuts and bolts aspects of film projection – the change-overs, the threading, the inspection, and the maintenance; but what I really wanted to get across to them, and I sincerely hope that I did, was that what they are learning to do is unique and important. The number of people who know how to project film well is shrinking all the time. From the perspective of a film projectionist myself, this is sad because there’s something magical that happens during a public film screening – there’s an almost indescribable community spirit that fills the theater – and it’s something you can only witness happening if you are at the back of theater in the position of the projectionist where you get to observe the crowd itself. On a professional level, this is sad because as I mentioned above, it makes it harder for film archives to share their prints and it also raises the likelihood that these prints will be damaged during projection. What these students are learning to do matters on a cultural level for all of us, but it also matters to me personally on a professional level because I want to be able to continue sending out film prints with the confidence that the people I send them too are taking as good of care of them while they are away as I and my colleagues would while they are at the archive. I want this because it means that more people will have the opportunity to see this material, which is the only reason I do what I do. The students were all great, enthusiastic individuals and I greatly enjoyed the time I spent with them. I wish them well during their tenure as caretakers of the Golden Auditorium Projection Booth. The booth was great to me while I was there, so I hope it yields you the same luck in finding your purpose – film-related or otherwise.