More Les! Churchill Films and Pieter Van Deusen’s What Is Music?

As the films of Les Blank are inaugurated into the canon of “important classic and contemporary films” IU Libraries Moving Image Archive (IULMIA) brings to light some of his less well known work, as cameraman for a series of late 60s classroom films produced by Churchill Films and director Pieter Van Deusen. In late 2014 the Criterion Collection released Les Blank: Always For Pleasure, a DVD/Blu-Ray edition including 14 of the documentary maker’s films and a raft of supplementary material befitting a filmmaker with as long and varied a career as Blank. While this much deserved rediscovery of Blank proceeds and his own films are now more available to be seen than ever, the time is ripe to unearth these works-for-hire intended for the primary school classroom.

In the months after Blank’s death in April, 2013, numerous tributes and memorial screenings were organized around the country. In the midst of the season of celebrating Les, IULMIA staff processing newly acquired 16mm films from circulating library and classroom film collections noted some unfaded polyester prints of music education titles produced by Los Angeles-based Churchill Films in the late 60s. A little research and a flatbed viewing of the prints of these mostly innocuous-sounding educational films soon revealed that they are not only well-made works by a great ensemble of filmmakers of the era, but also contain excellent documentation of music performances and figures of the late 60s Californian milieu that Van Deusen and Blank were a part of. This post focuses on Blank’s notable contributions to the 1968 short film What Is Music? An upcoming post will profile New Sounds In Music and its documentation of experimental music composition happening at Mills College, Oakland, CA circa 1968.

Churchill Films distributed a series of music films for young audiences written, produced and directed Pieter Van Deusen. Thanks to the work of fellow-archivist Geoff Alexander and the Academic Film Archive of North America  in documenting the auteurs of educational film, there exists a biographical/filmography page on Pieter Van Deusen and his work. IULMIA holds prints of all known titles in the series, including: What Is Music?, New Sounds In Music, Wind Sounds, String Sounds and Percussion Sounds. Production credits on the music series of films included Robert Kaufman as director of photography (credited as one of the cinematographers on Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles), and the team of Les Blank and Skip Gershon as 2nd camera and assistant.

Recently IULMIA sought out Pieter Van Deusen to ask about his work on the music films for Churchill, and his acquaintance with Les Blank. Pieter and Les began working together very early in their respective careers, with both appearing in Blank’s 1960 student film Running Around Like A Chicken With Its Head Cut Off. While we hope to present a more in-depth conversation with Pieter Van Deusen in an upcoming post, he was gracious enough send this reminiscence:

Les Blank and I were good friends during the year we studied filmmaking together at USC Cinema.  We cast each other in leading roles in our student films and wound up as neighbors in Woodland Hills (at the far end of the San Fernando Valley).  Also Lisa and Gail (our wives at that time) both gave birth to two boys close to the same age. […]
In 1968, when I had the opportunity of making a series of music films for Churchill Films, I naturally turned to Les to do some of the camerawork.  When he showed up at one location in Hollywood (an Indian Music school), he had just returned from shooting one of his pig roast scenes somewhere in the south.  When he arrived at our location, he said that he’d been so engrossed in the easy-going life that surrounded his time in the south, that he’d been absolutely terrified during his drive along the freeway.  It may be just that combination of easy-going, almost meditative absence of thought and that heightened sensitivity to the experience of seeing that made his cinematography so remarkable.

What Is Music? includes a two and a half minute section (shown in the video above) composed of outtakes from Les Blank and Skip Gershon’s 1968 film The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ Hopkins.  This was the first of the music and folk culture films that would become a hallmark of Blank’s style, and in some respects propelled his career from USC film school graduate freelancing educational film work, to making documentary films reaching broader audiences. According to Blank, the success of The Blues Accordin’ to Lightnin’ was helped by its being programmed as a short playing before that 1967 art-house hit, J.L. Godard’s  Weekend. To the best of our knowledge the footage in the scenes found in What Is Music? appear nowhere in Blank’s work, found hiding away unassumingly in this educational film.

What Is Music? tours young viewers through a distinctly late ‘60s panorama of musical sounds.  We begin with the “accidental” sounds of nature and conclude with a long silent scene of a girl frolicking with dogs in a forest, as the narrator asks viewers to “try and imagine music of your own for a moment…what kind of music would be like this moment in life?” The Hopkins passage is framed as an example of “country blues” and African-American folk culture, appearing just after a segment with traditional Chinese instruments and just before a collage of aboriginal didgeridoo and Indian raga-psychedelia. The music track for the segment  is another in the style of the many improvised, riffing performances Hopkins gives in Blank and Gershon’s documentary. The song plays uninterrupted as Blank’s camera cuts between Hopkins’ performance, posed portraits of a churchgoing group somewhere near Centerville, TX, and country landscapes in the same region taken from a car window.

[Those interested in researching Lightnin’ Hopkins on film are advised of a 1971 episode of the National Educational Television series “Artists In America” titled Sam “Lightnin'” Hopkins, produced by Houston, TX KUHT-TV, which IULMIA holds several 16mm prints of.]

Coming soon from the IULMIA blog: we’ll discuss the Harry Partch instruments, Tape Music and prepared pianos in New Sounds In Music, and further conversation with Pieter Van Deusen.

We leave you with another excerpt from What Is Music?  The final segment in the film’s panorama of world musics, with dazzling animation credited to Roberto Chavez.

~Seth Mitter

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The IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Acquires the Hal and Kathryn Stewart Collection

The Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive (IULMIA) is happy to announce its recent acquisition of the film collection of Hal (1899-1991) and Kathryn (1908-1981) Stewart. The married couple owned and operated the Denver branch of the Ideal Pictures Corporation, one of the major distributors of nontheatrical film in the middle half of the last century. The Stewart Collection’s 662 film reels and Ideal catalogs are the artifactual remains from the couple’s four decades of working in the nontheatrical film field from 1941 to 1980.


Kathryn and Hal Stewart

The Stewarts’ work in the film business started much earlier than their time with Ideal. According to their daughter Susan Stewart Moss and son-in-law Robert Moss, the generous donors of this collection, the Stewarts met in 1925. Kathryn was employed as a silent film accompanist at the Star Theater in Fort Lupton, Colorado. The Star was one of a small chain of theaters owned by Hal and his brother in Colorado and New Mexico. After they married, the couple traveled around the eastern United States showing films such as De Mille’s King of Kings (1927) and The Silent Enemy (1930) in small towns without movie theaters. At some point in the mid-30s, after returning to the Rocky Mountains, the couple entered the distribution business founding Barnes-Stewart Films. How the Stewarts became involved with Ideal is still being researched. Their experience as itinerant exhibitors is one possible connection as Ideal specifically marketed its rental service to what were called at the time roadshow men.


The Denver office of the Ideal Pictures Corporation.

The Stewart collection represents only a tiny percentage of the thousands of films distributed by Ideal. In fact, the ever-expanding size of its rental library was one way Ideal  promoted its service above other nontheatrical film distributors of the time such as Films Incorporated and Bell & Howell. However, the films in the Stewart Collection offer a representative sample of the large number of film genres Ideal rented under the umbrella term nontheatrical film. This collection shows how nontheatrical film was more of a business model incorporating any type of movie that could be used outside of an initial theatrical run than a genre or formal set of filmmaking techniques. For example, the Stewart Collection includes educational films, travelogs, sponsored films promoting Pan Am airlines and Standard Oil,  B-Westerns, serials, musical shorts, and US government produced propaganda films from World War II.


IULMIA’s staff is still inventorying and inspecting the films in the Hal and Kathryn Stewart collection. Future blog posts will use this collection to examine what nontheatrical film was and who would have seen these films. Upcoming installments in this series will explore nontheatrical film circulation through a close look at the business practices of Ideal Pictures and its founder Bertram Willoughby, and highlight individual films in new digital transfers to look at the specific genres of nontheatrical film including travelogs, religious films, and promotional films.

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IU Libraries Moving Image Archive Launches Exhibit of WWII Propaganda Film

In honor of the 70th anniversary of D-Day and the Battle of Normandy, the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive has digitized 116 World War II propaganda films now available as part of archive’s “WWII Propaganda Films and IU: Audiovisual Production, Circulation, and Education” permanent online exhibition. The exhibition focuses on IU’s use of mass media to educate and inform American audiences during WWII.

The United States Coast Guard Song: Semper Paratus ; The Army Air Corps Song

The United States Coast Guard Song: Semper Paratus ; The Army Air Corps Song

This online exhibition is available for free to the general public and may be browsed by film title and subject. The original movies were distributed by Indiana University during and after the war years as part of the IU Bureau of Audio-Visual Aids and are now part of IU Libraries Moving Image Archive’s core collection of educational films, which is one of the largest such collections in the world.

Many titles in the exhibition are available online for the first time, such as “The Children See It Through,” a 1941 film produced by lauded wartime documentarian Paul Rotha that focuses on the life of British children during the war. The exhibition also features a wide selection of government-sponsored films and newsreels from the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, with content including the purchase of war bonds, the growing of victory gardens, and the war efforts made by students of historically African American colleges.

Additionally, the exhibition includes instructional films intended for limited audiences, such as a film instructing engineering students on how to build a B-26 medium bomber. Clark Gable, Jimmy Stewart, Orson Welles, Bing Crosby and Dylan Thomas are among the many credited performers and creators of the films.

A selection of films from the exhibit

A selection of films from the exhibit

“These films offer a unique window into American history and demonstrate the important role that film archives play in preserving and providing access to our shared cultural heritage,” said Rachael Stoeltje, head of the archive. “Without the Moving Image Archive and the IU Libraries’ commitment to preservation and access, this digitization project and the exhibition likely would not have been possible.”

This digital collection and exhibition are part of the IU Libraries Moving Image Archive’s continued commitment to digitizing and providing online streaming access to archival motion picture film collections and to raising awareness among the general public of the wide variety of films available at IU. By providing free online access to these films, IU Libraries Moving Image Archive also hopes to promote a deeper understanding of the ways in which governments and filmmakers presented the many aspects of wartime life through the use of moving image recordings.  See more information here.

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Out, Damned Mold! Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive Visits the Preservation Lab

The E. Lingle Craig Preservation Lab is located in the Ruth Lilly Auxiliary Library Facility (ALF), neighboring the Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive (IULMIA or “illumia”). And, like all good neighbors, the Preservation Lab came to IULMIA’s aid when we needed them.  We wish it was for something as charming as a cup of sugar, but sadly IULMIA’s mission was far more unappealing:  mold removal.

IU Libraries Film Archive staff examine mold in the Preservation Lab

IULMIA is home to over 70,000 films spanning nearly 80 years of film production, and the majority of these items are acetate-based.  In addition to chemical decomposition from vinegar syndrome, acetate based films are susceptible to mold growth if stored at inappropriate temperatures or humidity.  Polyester films are also susceptible to mold growth, though thankfully not vinegar syndrome.  IULMIA is fortunate enough to be stationed in the state-of-the-art ALF, which maintains a consistent temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit and a stable relative humidity of 30 percent. Within this environment, the unique treasures of the collections can be preserved for hundreds of years, and this temperature and humidity can slow down and even halt entirely the growth of mold on film.  While processing a new collection of 2,000 films that arrived at the ALF in early 2014  IULMIA staff encountered a small number of films with evidence of slight mold growth.  Among these items were 16mm prints of David Wolper’s, The Making of the President 1960, Francis Thompson’s 1957 N.Y. N.Y. and the 1978 Will Vinton documentary, Claymation. Mold can be dangerous if inhaled, and so we were faced with outsourcing the cleaning of the films to ensure staff and patron safety, or to discard the infected items.

We decided to take advantage of working next door to one of the most impressive preservation labs in the country and consulted with Paper Conservator Doug Sanders.  With Doug’s expertise, we clarified that the mold was “dead” (that is, it would not fruit any more while stored in proper archival conditions) and able to be treated safely in the Lab.  Not only did Doug give us a great primer in best practice techniques for handling moldy archival items, but he also offered us the Preservation Lab to treat and clean the films. This consisted of dislodging the mold growth from the tightly-wound film reels with small paintbrushes, vacuuming the dislocated growth from the reels under a fume hood, and cleaning the remaining “infected” area with 99.9% isopropyl alcohol.  IULMIA staff were hugely interested in the techniques of conservation, which are a mix of craftsmanship (whittling wooden applicators and applying cotton to create incredibly precise Q-tips), science (Doug and his team discussed the chemical properties of metal, gelatin, and ink during our training), and good old fashioned resourcefulness (the vacuum used by the Lab was not originally for preservation of paper, but rather a medical supply for removing mucus from human patients). This creativity reminded us of the film archive world, where machines and supplies are often dwindling or repurposed due to the status of film as an “obsolete” medium.

IU Libraries Film Archive staff cleaning mold in the Preservation Lab

IU Libraries Film Archive staff cleaning mold in the Preservation Lab

Due to the Lab’s skillful training, we safely and efficiently completed cleaning the mold from a cartload of films in one morning.  This short but fruitful collaboration with the Lab was an important step in maintaining our materials for patrons and researchers visiting the IULMIA in the future.


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A Conversation with Nathan Salsburg of the Alan Lomax Archive

Alan Lomax (far left) recording with musicians for “American Patchwork”

Nathan Salsburg is the Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity (ACE).  The ACE was founded “to explore and preserve the world’s expressive traditions with humanistic commitment and scientific engagement.”  As home to the Alan Lomax Archive, the ACE preserves and promotes the life’s work of the ethnomusicologist, including thousands of sound and moving image recordings, photographs, and field notes. 

Nathan was kind enough to answer some questions about his experiences in audiovisual archiving and curation in anticipation of his presentation in Bloomington May 25th, 2014.  An Evening of Music and Film with Nathan Salsburg and the Alan Lomax Archive will showcase raw footage from the recordings that eventually made up Lomax’s PBS series “American Patchwork”.  The event will also feature a solo guitar set by Salsburg and the screening of some rare 16mm music-themed footage presented by the IU Libraries Film Archive.

IU Libraries Film Archive: How’d you get into this line of work? What was your path to the very cool title of “Curator of the Alan Lomax Archive at the Association for Cultural Equity”?

Nathan Salsburg: I came to it as a fan, which I still am. I was raised on my parents’ Dave Van Ronk, Mississippi John Hurt, and Dylan records, and after I graduated college and moved to NYC in the summer of 2000, I wrote the Woody Guthrie Archive (then based in Midtown), who took me on for a couple afternoons of volunteerism. They told me the Lomax Archive was hiring and I applied. Started that fall: making coffee, doing post-office runs, writing accession numbers on DATs, if that gives you a sense of the period. Had considered some kind of grad program in folklore or ethnomusicology, but the reality of paid work with one of the largest and most storied private collections of field recordings eclipsed that idea, and has done since.

IULFA: In this very professionalized field, you are unique in terms of your credentials – you don’t boast an MLS or specialized degree in archives/preservation. How has this hindered/helped your work?

NS: Ha, that’s a nice way to say that I have no credentials whatsoever! Right, my primary interest was never in collections management or preservation or any of that — I wanted to put out records. Not long before I arrived, the Archive, under the direction of Alan’s daughter Anna Lomax Wood, had succeeded in digitizing all of its audio, photo, and video and film collections; this dovetailed with the launch of Rounder Records’ 100-CD “Alan Lomax Collection” and an emphasis on both licensing and digital cataloging, ultimately with the goal of complete online access and direct digital dissemination to other institutions. By 2004 we had largely become a digital archive, with all of Lomax’s original media being accessioned by the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center as part of their Lomax Collection — which united Alan’s post-1944 recordings with the early ones he made with his father under the Library’s auspices (1933–1944) — and by then most of my work was taken up doing editorial on what became ACE’s Online Archive. Then in 2008 I started putting together albums of Lomax’s recordings for various outlets. So the issue of my particular credentialessness was never put to the test, as I’m lucky to be involved at a time in the collection’s life when I can be most useful as an editor and a curator.

IULFA: How has the Lomax Archive changed during your tenure? What are some challenges you have today that you didn’t have when you started?

NS: The Archive was really ahead of the digitization curve — Anna went after and got support from big grantors like NARAS and Save America’s Treasures (since done in by the Federal Government). For several years we were one of the biggest sound archives to have for all intents and purposes all of its collection in digital formats. That, obviously, gave us the leg up we needed for launching the online research center, and also gave me the chance to move back home to Kentucky with all of the Lomax Archive in a few hard drives. So that was certainly the biggest change — analog to digital — and it felt good to give presentations at conferences on our digital initiatives and get a room packed with curators and archivists and librarians who were attempting the same thing with their collections and looking to us for advice.

The irony, though, is that we were too early to build the site with social media in mind, and what seemed so cutting-edge just a few years ago hasn’t fared so well in translation through Facebook, Twitter, and all the rest, and it desperately needs an overhaul. So now the biggest challenge is redesigning the system with an eye to long-term flexibility, durability, relevance, and ease of access online.

Alan Lomax in 1982.

IULFA: Your work with patrons must be very exciting and diverse. What kinds of people contact you about your collections?

NS: We’re an interesting case, I think: we get plenty of queries from users of our online archive, but for most in-depth research folks go to the reading room at the American Folklife Center, where most of the original Lomax media — and most associated documentation — is held. So although we’re a digital archive, it’s largely the audio, photo, and moving image that’s accessible online; we didn’t attempt to create an attendant space on our site for Lomax’s papers: even crucial documentation like field logs (although images of most of his tape boxes are available through the site).

We’re lucky to have that partnership in play with the AFC. They’ll handle most serious research requests, but when they get contacted with licensing queries, they’ll pass them onto us. (This is part of saying how lucky we are to have the LOC in charge of the physical preservation of the original media. We’d be in tough shape if we had to shoulder that burden ourselves. And in fact they’re nearly finished with the digitization of the nearly 150,000 papers in the Lomax Collection there.)

But we do get a lot and I mean a lot of usage requests: occasionally for licensing for films and tv, but mostly for University Press books, academic journals, theses, etc. And then so many requests for songs for remixes. I won’t attempt to say what percentage of these do anything beneficial for the original performance, but we do grant nearly every respectful use and try not to let our own tastes get in the way of spreading awareness of the collection.

The best contacts we get, though, are from families of the artists that Lomax recorded. These have increased exponentially over the past few years and that’s thanks to YouTube; we hear from a lot of nephews, grandchildren, cousins, etc., who come across clips of their relative(s) singing or playing or dancing. One of my favorite comments we ever received came from the granddaughter of a leader of a lining-hymn at an Old Regular Baptist Church near Mayking, Ky.

This is my papaw John Wright lining the song!!!!!! I have been to many of his services and there is nothin in the whole wide world like it!!!! It does my heart such good to see and hear him sing again and he_ looks so wonderful to me!!!!! Thank You GOD for being able to see him again till i join him!!!!!

IULFA: Tell us your thoughts about access and outreach, and more specifically, the hugely popular YouTube channel you curate.

NS: YouTube has been such a massive boon to us: in terms of publicizing the collection; making contact with the families of artists; and just getting into folks’ eyes and ears. We’ve got over 15,000 subscribers and nearly six million views, which is just such an exponentially bigger audience than Lomax’s work has ever had previously. He would have flipped had he been able to see what YouTube makes possible, not just in terms of the reach of his own collections, but more generally in terms of the potential for cultural self-representation. Lomax insisted as early as the early ‘60s that there were too many media receivers and too few transmitters, and the arc of the second half of his career was largely dedicated to leveling the playing field; the notion of what he called “cultural equity.” YouTube is the most democratic means yet of site-specific players, singers, dancers, etc., doing their own, if you’ll pardon the phrase, “self-collection,” and self-presentation, and self-representation.

IULFA: How about repatriation and the archive?

NS: Being a digital archive lets us do all kinds of things online, but it also makes our repatriation efforts possible. We’ve donated hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio and moving image media, plus many hundreds of still images, to archives, libraries, and community centers all over the world, for the sake of returning Lomax’s collections to the places they come from. The most recent one of these repatriation events was held at the Senatobia Public Library in the Mississippi Hill Country last October, following a similar event and donation to the library in Como down the road a year earlier. (You can read more about the events here, and a more impressionistic piece I wrote here.) Seeing the response from the community, and specifically from all the family of artists that came to the ceremony, was my proudest moment with the Archive.

IULFA: Finally, can you share a couple of “gems” from Lomax’s recordings with us?

NS: It’s tough with Lomax’s recordings – there are so many of them from so many places, across so many years, but of course I have my favorites: ones that I’ve returned to year after year and that never lose any of their awesomeness, which I mean in the traditional sense (and the vernacular one). In my top five of moving-image favorites is this clip from a 1978 picnic on the Bartlett plantation outside of Como, Mississippi, led by Napoleon (or Napolian) Strickland and his band. Napoleon was a phenomenal multi-instrumentalist – played guitar, diddley-bow, harmonica, and fife – and he shows off the latter two in this segment. The performance is so good, but I also really appreciate how he hams it up for the camera, and subtly directs his band into formation for it, which belies the notion that this is “ethnographic” filmmaking in the traditional sense.

And here’s an audio-only bonus. I’ve worked for the Lomax Archive for 13 1/2 years, and it took me 13 1/2 years to hear this song, which I’ve become utterly obsessed with. Just yesterday (May 15) I stumbled across it in the digital equivalent of the bottom of a file cabinet: Lomax’s 1967 recording session from St. Eustatius, which is this postage-stamp of an island in the Dutch Antilles, south of Anguilla. (I had to look it up.) He was there on vacation with his partner at the time, Joan Halifax, and he obviously was doing some one-off recording with folks he met. This tremendous singer-guitarist, identified only as Alice, sang two English ballads – one of them among the best versions I’ve ever heard of the hoary old “Barbara Allen,” which I’d listened to before, and then this bizarre and hilarious and wonderful ballad called “Jerusalem Cuckoo,” that I’d completely overlooked. I’d love to know where she got these; especially the latter, which has all these Cockney elements, even in the title: “Jerusalem” is rhyming slang for “donkey,” in some impenetrable associative logic. Make sure you listen through to the very end. Everything about it is sublime.

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A Conversation with Dean Plionis

Dean Plionis

Dean Plionis began his career in a number of production-oriented jobs in Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia, having studied film and television at Boston University.  Currently, he serves as the Director of Operations at Colorlab, a position that requires him to ensure the company’s efficient operation in preserving films and processing negatives. He notes that his transition from technical work to preservation work was a challenge, in that he had not previously been exposed to the world of film preservation. This transition is something he feels is “representative of most peoples’ experience in modern productions…there are schools and programs that do teach a lot of film handling and curating skills, but in general there’s a good deal of on-the-job training and education.  We work with such a huge variety of film formats, splicers, printers, and video and digital equipment that it’s not realistic to expect any one candidate to have all of that experience.”

Colorlab staff members, including Plionis himself, have hyphenated responsibilities; such multitasking in laboratory work is considered the norm in an increasingly digital-oriented preservation landscape. “There’s this hybridization of new digital and original mechanical technology, techniques, and workflows that’s been evolving over the last five to ten years and will continue to do so in the future,” Plionis notes, adding that more traditional workflows require an evolving, DIY skillset, particularly given declining manufacturer support and frequent modification and maintenance of preservation equipment. “Most productions originate on digital platforms now and each year, fewer of those productions are backed up or archived to some sort of physical medium…it’s not really an archival-friendly environment because the footage doesn’t exist in a physical form.”

Plionis says the biggest misconception people have about film is that it is inaccessible; he argues that digital and video formats are often less accessible than film, due to the lack of regularly-maintained technological support systems and the difficulty of reverse-engineering in accessing data. He cites recent industry discussions regarding 2” Quad tapes, the video format that was introduced in the 1950s – this format is no longer used in production and many in the preservation field are concerned about what continued efforts will be made once the last video heads for the format are produced. “Once the data encoding standards change – as they do regularly in the digital realm – all bets are off if that data is not continually migrated. The context of time over a period of decades needs to be considered when it comes to evaluating the ‘accessibility’ of any given media format, and film has certainly withstood that test,” he says, adding that “there have been studies showing that the long-term costs of preserving data to film are actually lower than preserving data digitally, once you factor in the costs associated with continually migrating digital data and upgrading computer systems in order to keep up with technological changes.  A newly-made film stored in a climate-controlled environment can last a hundred years or longer with minimal maintenance.”

Thus, while other formats have come and gone, film has remained a consistent presence in the preservation field, due in part to what Plionis refers to as the “human-readable” advantage of the medium – the images housed on a reel of film can be viewed by the human eye in a way digital images cannot. “From a technological standpoint, all that’s needed for a motion picture film is a light source and some sort of shutter, which people will always have the ability to recreate…original films really are the ultimate masters that preserve your ability to go back and re-visit the material as technology and standards change.”


Colorlab staff often work with damaged prints.

Yet film preservation carries unique challenges. Plionis says, “the most difficult challenge the field of preservation faces is that it requires the allocation of time and resources today for the payoff of people having access to it a generation or two later.  Will they care, be thankful, and in turn, take it upon themselves to pass on this data to future generations?  There’s an element of trust involved that your preservation methods will hold up and that there will be someone waiting for it on the other end of time.” Format-specific preservation challenges are often represented by conflicting goals: Colorlab staff are charged with preserving the film, manipulating the image and sound as little as possible, while simultaneously correcting or repairing damage that has occurred since the time of creation.  Of Colorlab’s processes, Plionis notes, “we prefer to use photochemical processes to fix issues where we can, such as using liquid-gate when printing intermediates to naturally hide base scratches or rewash treatments to soften and anneal scratches in the emulsion.  Digital methods are still used but there is definitely an aspect of fixing an image too much, just like you can ‘photoshop’ an image to the point where it looks fake and inauthentic.  In general, we have a more minimalist intervention perspective and we certainly won’t add color to a B/W image that never had color or do anything like Spielberg or Lucas did with reissues of their older films where they digitally removed the guns from the hands of agents or added CGI over their original effects.”

At the end of the day, Colorlab staff defer to clients, as the stewards of the films, to make decisions regarding preservation. “We feel it’s more our job to stand back and explain the options available,” Plionis says, citing a recent project in which a client requested the addition of an explanatory title card in an incomplete silent film: “The question then becomes, do we try to make that title card match the exact style of the other inter-titles or not? Maybe that’s too ‘interpretive’ while the other may disrupt the viewing experience if it seems too out of place.” Questions of authenticity become a discussion between client and staff, with Plionis adding that “choices like that are really the client’s to make.”

In addition to working with clients on preservation projects, Colorlab staff regularly provides outreach by attending archival conferences and conventions such as AMIA, The Orphan Film Symposium, and The Flaherty Film Seminar, often participating in technical discussion panels. The company occasionally takes on interns, but the high learning curve that goes into training and education is often a deterrent.

Currently, Colorlab staff are working on several high-profile projects, including preservation of original production and interview outtakes from the civil rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, a documentary about Carnegie Hall’s 1986 renovation, The 28-Week Miracle, and a film called Nenotri I Dyte (The Second November), for the Albanian Cinema Project, an effort to introduce historically-isolated Albanian cinema to global audiences for the first time. Additionally, Colorlab recently provided archival transfers to Ken Burns for his upcoming 7-episode documentary, The Roosevelts.

Though Plionis believes that film’s days as a mainstream production format are numbered, he doesn’t see the format going completely away: “there will always be a group of people devoted to it, just like there’s always a group of people devoted to using any other obsolete format and technology.” Film’s greatest advantage, he argues, is in its use as a preservation format, “given its time-tested resiliency, its human-readability, and the fact that a projector or other scanning equipment can always be reverse-engineered…the key to seeing film survive in this format is basically tied in with the larger argument for preservation.”

~Kaitlin Conner

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Over 7000 titles added to the IU Libraries online catalog!

Over the weekend the Indiana University Libraries added 7,327 records of educational films to its online catalog, IUCAT. The films are part of the IU Libraries Film Archive’s 2011 acquisition of around 12,000 reels from the Lane Education Service District. With this new addition, the IU Libraries Film Archive now has over 25,000 records up at IUCat.

The Collection field at IUCat

The Collection field at IUCat

The IU Libraries Film Archive’s catalog records can be searched by selecting the archive in the “Collection” pulldown menu on the main page of IUCat.

Originally, the Lane Education Service District loaned these films out to the 16 school districts in Lane County, Oregon. Centralizing large film collections in this manner was a common way to efficiently and economically serve a larger public with a greater range of films than if each school bought their own films. In fact, Indiana University began collecting and distributing films in the 1920s along similar lines. IU was part of the University Extension movement where state universities would mange and share educational media throughout their state.

A stack of films from the Lane Education Service District waiting to be cataloged

A stack of films from the Lane Education Service District waiting to be cataloged

These 7,327 titles span the history of educational filmmaking from the 1940s through the early 90s. Looking at the collection as a whole presents a narrative of what educators thought were the pressing issues of their times. At this macro level, these films reveal changing attitudes to teaching methods and social issues. The Lane Education Service District will be of interest to scholars from a wide range of interests including the history of popular science, how children learned about sexuality and human development, the anti-drug movement, views on disabilities, and much more.

The films are equally intriguing at the level of the individual title. To pick a title at random, Signals And Gestures In Traffic Direction, brings up a 1954 film with the following brief description from the online catalog: “Demonstrates the proper signals and gestures for traffic officers to use in directing traffic.”[1] Unfortunately, the film isn’t digitized yet – though one can watch it onsite at the IU Libraries Film Archive – so we can’t get a direct sense of how the film accomplished its training mission.

But a quick search for the title in the Media History Digital Library’s Lantern search tool uncovers an article on page 60 of the 1954 Business Screen Magazine Production Review, “Visual Training Program for Traffic Officers Sponsored by Insurance Group.” Signals and Gestures was the first in a four-part series of films sponsored by the National Association of Automotive Mutual Insurance Companies designed to train “officers directing traffic from Maine to California” so they are “doing it in exactly the same way.” Vogue-Wright Studios, a Chicago film company that made industrial and public relation films, produced it. The Traffic Institute of Northwestern University, described as “a national enforcement authority,” offered technical advice on the film’s content.

Still from "Signals and Gestures" from 1954 "Business Screen Magazine Production Review"

Still from “Signals and Gestures” from 1954 “Business Screen Magazine Production Review”

Signals and Gestures in Traffic Direction shows how commercial interests and higher education united their interests through educational filmmaking to manage and standardize behavior at a national level. Why this film, made to train traffic cops, is in a collection of classroom films primarily directed at elementary students is a whole other question. But it points to the way these films, seemingly fun and innocuous, deployed educational media as an extension of corporate and governmental interests, and how the classroom screening was a site where competing views on profit and pedagogy came into contest.

And an EXTRA SPECIAL THANKS goes out to all of the people whose work made these records accessible:

Mechael Charbonneau, Associate Dean for Technical Services and Spencer Anspach, Library Systems Analyst/ Programmer from the Technical Services Department for cross-walking the data, cleaning up the records and setting up the workflow to allow the Film Archive staff to link the films to the records.

And the IU Libraries Film Archive excellent employees: Sean Smalley, Asia Harman, Josephine McRobbie, Jason Evans Groth and Jacob Shelby for identifying, bar-coding and linking each and every physical film to it’s catalog record and recanning the films and testing for deterioration.

Also, thanks as always to the remarkable Auxilliary Library Facility staff of Vaughn Nuest, Matt Myers, Sean Frey, Meko Mai and Craig Kinney for ingesting and shelving all 12,745 film cans for long term preservation storage at the ALF facility.



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A Conversation with Nico de Klerk


Nico de Klerk

Nico de Klerk

A film historian, curator and researcher, Nico de Klerk’s professional interests lie outside the typical film canon. During his student years, he “roamed a bit initially” before receiving an English degree at the Leiden University and later obtaining his Master of Arts in Discourse Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His interest in film came much later, and “it came with a  vengeance,” he notes.  Building up his expertise with volunteer stints at Amsterdam art houses and Skrien magazine, he eventually settled at what was then called Nederlands Filmmuseum (now EYE): “Because of the  museum’s programming, I developed an interest in early cinema, nonfiction in particular – that is what made me want to work there,” he says.

His role as the institute’s first Collection Researcher was in keeping with the museum archives’ mission at the time: “the philosophy was that the archive’s perceived weakness, i.e. its lack of canonical and other titles that show up in every top 100, could be transformed into its strength.” He notes the works of programmers Eric de Kuyper and Peter Delpeut, who screened series of unknown materials from such silent film-era directors as Yevgeni Bauer, Franz Hofer, Alfred Machin and Leonce Perret, as well as expedition films of the 1920s and color-film tests of the 1910s. “As an archive, I think, we were one of the first in trying to put ‘peripheral’ topics center stage and open it to outside expertise and input,” he says.

amsterdam workshop 94

Proceedings of the 1994 Amsterdam Workshop on early nonfiction.

amsterdam workshop 95

Proceedings of the 1995 Amsterdam Workshop on color in silent film.

Such measures included the creation of the Amsterdam 
Workshops, in which groups of 50 to 60 international archivists and scholars were invited to participate in discussions of materials and topics de Klerk researched— such as early nonfiction, colonial cinema, the program format, and advertising film. de Klerk would then create unique programs for the sessions. “That’s when I discovered the power and the effects of programming,” he says. The workshops were also intended to give participants an impetus to incorporate their experiences into their own professional lives.

de Klerk’s passion for the peripheral topics of cinema history extends to his interest in orphan films, which he attributes to his work with the EYE. Attending the first Orphan Film Symposium in 1999, de Klerk was unaware of the existing community of like-minded professionals with this interest. “You might say I worked on orphan films before I even knew the term and what it meant…that first symposium was a homecoming…what touched me was the devotion people displayed to those largely forgotten and unknown materials, the knowledge people had acquired about the stuff they showed and introduced, and – most of all – the democratic atmosphere, in that it didn’t matter whether you worked at Yale or UCLA or had a non-cinema day job and did your research in your spare time.”

de Klerk's work on J.C. Lamster, an early filmmaker in the Dutch East Indies, was published in 2010.

de Klerk’s work on J.C. Lamster, an early filmmaker in the Dutch East Indies, was published in 2010.

With such a vested interest in the diversity of both archival holdings and the field itself, de Klerk argues that the greatest challenge facing the preservation community is conformity in programming – that the types of films featured in archival screenings are those that can be viewed at home. Such retrospectives are “predominantly based on a few principles – personality, nationality, genre…insofar these institutes have their own collections, only a fraction of their holdings are being presented.” de Klerk argues that the types of materials that belong to “the slow lane of film history” have been relegated to online exhibitions and presentations, despite the fact that many institutions may lack the resources for a proper online presence; further, these films were originally seen in a theatrical context in much the same way that some of the more retrospective-ready titles were. “I see no reason to relegate these materials to a mere digital life, certainly not when they are presented without any relevant form of contextualization,” he says. “If your mission is to present the heritage you are responsible for, it is imperative to find ways to meaningfully and imaginatively present all your holdings.”

The 2013 Orphans Midwest Film Symposium will be hosted at Indiana University Bloomington this week. For more information, including a full calendar of events, visit the Indiana University Cinema website.

~Kaitlin Conner


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Campus Culture and Gender Ideology: A Look at 1953’s Your Daughter at I.U.

your daughter at iu       your daughter at iu 2

Beneath the veneer of the seemingly idyllic 1950s America lay an undercurrent of social unrest, as postwar expectations of gender roles, particularly·in regards to receiving a university education, sought to reinforce traditions that had all but been upended in the previous decade.  Prior to World War II, admissions at Indiana University Bloomington saw men outnumbering women three-to-one in the classroom. During wartime, women outnumbered men two-to-one.

gi bill

Students register for classes using their GI Bill (1947). Image courtesy of Indiana University Archives.

Thanks to such measures as the G.I. Bill, the postwar years saw the majority male student population return to Indiana University, and images of female empowerment of the previous decade (perhaps best represented by the iconic Rosie the Riveter campaign) were replaced by images of docility, compliance, and traditional femininity, as women were once again being primed for futures as wives and mothers.

Your Daughter at I.U., a 1953 college recruitment video marketed toward the parents of prospective female students, serves as a striking representation of how gender roles were being negotiated in the postwar years.  As the film’s (male) narrator cheerfully proclaims in its opening moments, “modern life is complex…to meet it, our daughters need a many sided-education.” The result of such a well-rounded education?  “A woman may be the center of the home, bringing up a healthy, well-adjusted family in comfortable, attractive surroundings.”

your daughter at iu 4

“Students in the home management house care for a real baby…and as you can see, he gets good care!”

The film’s  exploration of career paths for Indiana University students highlights professions viewed as traditionally feminine – nurses, teachers, and other positions related to home economics and domestic work.  The university is depicted as offering courses in “basic subjects” including “arts and crafts.”  Further, such curriculum options are deemed necessary not for the student’s betterment, but for the eventual support of her husband and family: “[the woman] will do most of the family buying, and she will be her husband’s  partner in major decisions; therefore, she must understand financial matters and how to deal with them.”

your daughter at iu 5

“The modern woman may be a wage-earner until she gets married, or even after marriage. Or later, when her children are grown, she may help her husband in his business.”

Yet Your Daughter at I.U.’ s representation of traditional gender roles was incongruous with notable campus developments of the time.  Only one year before the film’s release, the Indiana Memorial Union Board began admitting women for the first time, despite the fact that the organization had been active since 1909. Also of note is the publication of Alfred Kinsey‘s controversial Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, which challenged conventional beliefs about female sexuality. The hiring of Eunice Roberts as Indiana University’s Assistant Dean of Faculties cemented the university’s status as one of the few colleges at the time employing a woman full-time to develop educational programs and services for women.


A student reads Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male (1948). Image courtesy of Indiana University Archives.

Such achievements in redefining gender norms were in direct contrast to university policy, which aggressively policed female students’ behavior. According to a 1947 social guidance booklet distributed by the university, female students were instructed to wear sweaters, skirts, ankle socks and loafers, and were forbidden from wearing slacks or shorts in the campus dining halls.  Jeans were also prohibited save for a few exceptions – lounging on Saturdays, at hayrides, or at picnics. Further, the Association for Women Students published a yearly handbook of mandatory moral and social standards, guidelines that were perhaps best expressed in the curfew policy.  Nightly curfews applied to all women, and expressly stated that women had to be in their dorms or houses by 10:30 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and by 12:30 a.m. on weekends.  Social Standards and House Regulations were distributed to dormitory residents in much the same way these other social guidance booklets were.

Arguably, the Indiana University of the 1950s was something of a microcosm of the United States at large, simultaneously reinforcing and questioning cultural expectations of gender roles, which would soon be on the cusp of significant transformation with the emergence of second-wave feminism in the early 1960s. Your Daughter at I.U. is an important work in understanding the intersection between conventional gender role expectations of the postwar era, how these expectations were reinforced in the context of receiving a university education, and perhaps most importantly, the gradual yet significant unrest in maintaining them.

Your Daughter at I.U. is held in the Indiana University Libraries Film Archive’s Educational Film Collection and can be viewed online via the university’s video streaming service. 

~Kaitlin Conner

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An interview on video collecting with Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector co-director Dan Kinem

The private collector plays an integral part in the field of moving image preservation. However, their important role is often shunted aside in favor of professional and institutional efforts. Sure, you can accuse them of being obsessive, but the media collector is the person doing the hard work in the trenches. They go places archivists don’t have the time or money to go to, saving neglected tapes and films from dumpsters, thrift stores, and estate sales. In recovering overlooked and looked-down-upon media genres they provide a needed corrective to the canons formed by academia, professional critics, and archives.

In conjunction with the Bloomington, Indiana screening of the fantastic new documentary on the cult and culture of video collecting, Adjust Your Tracking: The Untold Story of the VHS Collector, Andy Uhrich of the IU Libraries Film Archive interviewed the doc’s co-director Dan Kinem via email.

The documentary screens in Bloomington at 8pm on Tuesday, August 27th at the Fine Arts Building. Dan and his co-director Tim May will be on hand with loads of old VHS tapes. Go see the movie and catch the video collecting bug! For more information on the screening, which is being promoted by Video Boom and the IU Student Society of Retro Archivers, go to The film’s official website, where you can follow the progress of the tour is at

Q: As a reader of your and co-director Tim May’s website VHS***fest, I assume you’re a video collector. But I don’t want to put words in your mouth. Would you consider yourself a video collector? If so, how’d you start?
A: I would definitely consider myself a video collector. I’ve always loved movies and have always bought movies, regardless of the format, but it wasn’t until a little over 3 years ago that I got hardcore into collecting VHS tapes. I started realizing how many movies weren’t on DVD and how much interesting material was on the VHS format. I slowly started buying movies here and there and the collection kept growing to the point where I have about 8,000 VHS.

Q: How’d you move from a collector of video to making a documentary on video collecting?
A: I started meeting other collectors and slowly realized this resurgence in the love of the format was important enough to document and the people involved in this subculture were interesting and entertaining enough to make a movie about them. It just seemed like the perfect topic for a film and something I felt could entertain a general audience and people who already loved VHS, too.

Q: In your opinion what separates video collecting from collecting film prints or DVD collecting? Or, I guess now, from a person’s Netflix queue?
A: Well, in my opinion DVDs are disposable. They are easily damaged beyond repair and in most cases done poorly. When a DVD is done well, with special features and great cover art, then it’s a great format. There isn’t the scarcity element to DVD, either. They are so easy to find, duplicate, etc. Whereas with VHS there are many tapes out there that might only have a few copies and if people don’t dig them up they might be gone forever. There is also so much more material on VHS to uncover. Collecting film prints is a great hobby and one that I really respect. It is obviously going to be the preferred way to watch a movie in most cases but it isn’t accessible to everyone, unlike VHS. Netflix queue “collections” or digital file “collections” is a joke. Watch and enjoy the movies but calling a bunch of files on a computer a collection is disgusting.

Q: What’s the relationship between the videotape as an object and the film recorded on it? Maybe this is another way of asking what’s special about videotape in relation to other media?
A: VHS has a certain quality to it that lends itself well to exploitation and obscure films. It adds a fuzziness to movies that makes them scarier and in many cases more unique/interesting. You get all the pops, cracks, tracking lines, etc. and no other format is like that. It also was so easily accessible to the common man that you get so much content that isn’t available anywhere else, whether that be home movies, weird shot on video movies, documentaries, how-to videos, shorts, etc. So much stuff that will never reach another format.

Q: Are certain genres of film more collectable on videotape now than others? What distinguishes a collectible VHS from non-collectible VHS? As a follow-up to that question, in your trailer Josh Schafer states that the “great thing VHS can do [is] bring people the weirdest s*** possible.” What happens to the more normal stuff? For example, are there VHS collectors of Tom Hanks movies?
A: Horror is definitely the most collectible genre, mainly because so much of it isn’t available on any other format and also because of the amazing box art on many of those titles. There are many different factors, but it all depends on the person. The first thing to look at is, “Is this on DVD?” If it isn’t, then it’s worth picking up for cheap because it’s another movie you wouldn’t get to see otherwise. Another factor is how often you come across this certain release/movie. People don’t buy Jurassic Park because those are everywhere and it has been released on DVD multiple times. However, if you see a copy of Lunch Meat [a 1987 horror film about cannibal rednecks], you will realize you’ve never seen that tape before and that it is hard to get otherwise. There are always people who will collect anything. There’s thousands and thousands of people out there who still own all the Tom Hanks shit on VHS, but if you want to fill your collection with rare, out of print, hard to find titles then Tom Hanks isn’t the actor to look for.

Q: Your trailer also quotes Dimitri Simakis of Everything is Terrible that “if we don’t get this stuff no one else will and that’s really scary.” I wonder if you could expand on that. What would get lost and why is it important? What else do we – collectors, archivists, genre film fans – need to do to save this material?
A: So many movies, TV shows, home videos, how-to tapes, etc. would be lost forever if there aren’t collectors out there digging for these obscure films, which in many cases only had a very limited print run. There’s so many movies out there that people will probably never see because all available copies were thrown out, destroyed, or lost. As archivists/collectors it’s our job to dig for these rare movies, bring them home, talk about them, share them with others, write about them, document them, etc. A film fan should want to devour as much film as possible and there are so many lost gems on VHS.

Q: On a similar note, what sense is there among video collectors that what they are doing is preserving this stuff? Is there any thinking about these collections as archives? Have you noticed any crossover with the world of professional film/video preservation?
A: I feel like most people who collect are preserving these tapes. Even if they aren’t sharing them online they are still keeping them safe in their collections and making sure they don’t get destroyed. Every VHS collector I know would gladly share one of the tapes in their collection with you. That is why VHS collecting is so fun and the community is so great. I have noticed a lot of crossover, I feel both come from the same mindset that “We love movies and we want to save them and watch them however they are available.”

Q: In your mind, what’s more important: the film recorded on the tape or the tape itself? Or can the two not be separated? I ask because the standard form of video preservation is to digitize it and downplay the original artifact: to save the content at the expense of the carrier. As an expert on video collecting do you have any thoughts about such a policy?
A: The film is always most important. That is why I got into collecting is because I love movies, but ignoring the significance and importance of the original box, tape, company, artwork, etc. is idiotic. That is just as interesting as the film most of the time and there’s so much history in each release that it would be stupid to ignore that. Obviously buy these tapes to watch the movie and to share with other people, but enjoy the release of the movie, too, that’s half of the fun.

Q: It’s great that you all are on going on tour with the documentary and often screen it in conjunction with VHS swaps. This makes it a communal event beyond the normal act of going to a movie theater. In your way of thinking, what’s the ideal way to see Adjust Your Tracking? At the movie theater? Off of a VHS tape on a standard def analog TV? Illegally downloaded on a computer? Or does this sort of thing not matter to you all?
A: I really just want people to see the movie. I don’t care how they see it, just that they watch it and enjoy themselves. I want to get the movie as widely seen as possible. But, if I had to answer, I would say in the theater screened from a VHS tape would be the best way to see it. Secondly, would be with a bunch of friends at your house on a VHS tape.

Interviewer’s note: since this is a blog post from a library, we’d be remiss in not mentioning books on this subject. For readings on the histories of video collecting check out the following from your local library: Lucas Hilderbrand’s Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright and Joshua M. Greenberg’s From Betamax to Blockbuster: Video Stores and the Invention of Movies on Video 

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