Friday, July 8, 2011

Film Preservation Fridays #7: the New Zealand Project Films – An Interview with Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham

Tropical Nights, 1924 - One of the New Zealand Project Films preserved at the George Eastman House
On Thursday, July 17, 2011 the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival will open up with John Ford’s Upstream, one of the many American films believed to be lost that were recently “repatriated” and preserved thanks to the generous cooperation of the New Zealand Film Archive (NZFA). In preparation for this very special event, we will be joined by two of the individuals that were instrumental in making the entire New Zealand Project possible: Audio Visual Archive Specialist and Project Coordinator Leslie Anne Lewis, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Film Preservationist Brian Meacham.

In a massive international collaboration overseen by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), five major American Film archives have participated in the preservation of the films: the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The success of the project has been due to the assistance of dozens of different archives, studios, laboratories and individuals. Upstream alone involved four organizations in addition to the Academy Film Archive: 20th Century Fox funded the project, the New Zealand Film Archive performed film mending and cleaning, the Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand completed the actual preservation work (read about the technical side of the preservation here), and the NFPF initiated and managed the entire collaboration. The five organizations share a joint award from the National Society of Film Critics for their work. The NFPF has raised money for shipping, project management and most of the preservation work. They also secured funding for Leslie and Brian to go to New Zealand through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

It also needs mentioned that without the stewardship of a several New Zealand film collectors, there would be no films to preserve in the first place. Projectionist Jack Murtagh, for example, safeguarded the print of Upstream and a number of other nitrate films involved in the project and passed them along to the NZFA for archiving. Today's audiences applaud their stewardship.

The interview with Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham follows below, with the individual respondent indicated at the beginning of each answer:

1. Could you talk a little bit about how the New Zealand Project has its roots in an earlier repatriation effort with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia? How are the two projects similar and different?

Leslie: The Australia repatriation project (“Film Connection: Australia-America”) was a chance to test the waters on this type of project – an extremely focused effort to identify and select titles that would be of the most cultural, artistic, scholarly and historic significance to an American audience, and then preserve them through a collaboration between the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and five American archives: George Eastman House, The Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The Australia project was a success for all involved and everyone was enthusiastic about the possibility of future collaborations – I remember discussing it with New Zealand Film Archive curator Jamie Lean at the 2008 SEAPAVAA conference in Manila, and Meg Labrum (Chief Curator at the NFSA) frequently championed the effort, talking it up to her New Zealand counterparts. When Brian Meacham traveled to New Zealand in 2009 the pump was primed and his visit provided the perfect opportunity to get the project off the ground.

The main differences between the two projects are in terms of scale and the preservation path we’re taking. In Australia I inspected 42 titles and 8 were selected for preservation. The work was done at Haghefilm Laboratory in the Netherlands, preservation negatives and prints were deposited in the U.S. archives and the nitrate was returned to the NFSA’s custody. In New Zealand we’ve looked at over 300 titles and so far 75 have returned to the United States. With a couple of exceptions (such as Upstream, which was preserved at Park Road Post in Wellington, NZ) the preservation work on the New Zealand films is being done in the United States at Colorlab in Rockville, Maryland and Film Technology in Hollywood. Due to the condition of the nitrate prints, many of the titles are being scanned and worked on digitally before being output to 35mm polyester film for preservation purposes. In both projects, the end results for many of the titles are (or will be) available to view on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website.

2. Can you describe your initial visit to the New Zealand Film Archive? Did you have any idea that films such as Upstream, otherwise considered lost, would be enjoying the custody of the NZFA as part of New Zealand’s cultural and viewing heritage?

The Better Man, 1912 - George Eastman House
Brian: My wife and I had planned a trip to New Zealand in the summer of 2009, and in preparing for the trip, I looked up the New Zealand Film Archive in order to see if I could arrange for a tour while we were there. At the same time, I’d been helping work on a repatriation project with the National Film Preservation Foundation and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and it occurred to me that New Zealand might be home to some American film treasures, just as Australia had proven to be. I asked Annette Melville of the NFPF if I might suggest a collaboration with the NZFA when I was there, and she agreed that it would be a good idea. During my tour of the archive, I asked about the NZFA’s holdings of American silent films, and was told that indeed, they had quite a collection, and would be able to get me a list of the titles after I returned home. I didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed likely that they might have some films that would be of historical and cultural interest, especially the types of mostly forgotten newsreels, animated shorts, and one-reelers that would be of interest to film archivists. I wasn’t holding out hope that we would find a film like Upstream, which proved to be more significant and interesting to a much wider circle of people, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise when we did.

3. What sort of work did you initially perform on assignment in New Zealand? What did you learn about the initial batch of films in the inspection process, and how did this ultimately inform the selection of 75 titles for preservation and repatriation?

Brian: The first order of business was to wind through every reel of nitrate that had been pulled from the NZFA’s offsite nitrate storage area and determine the condition of the film and any information about title, director, cast, studio, and date that wasn’t already in the NZFA’s database. For the most part, the films were in surprisingly good condition, with nitrate decomposition present, but not as widespread or as extensive as we might have feared. We gathered as much information about the films as we could, in terms of both condition and cataloging, so we when we returned to the U.S., all of the participating archives could make informed decisions about what should be returned for preservation. The more we knew about each title, the easier it was to make a case for or against spending the time, effort, and money to return it, house it, and preserve it.

Idle Wives -1916
Leslie: We started by closely examining each of the 145 titles identified by the archives and scholars as being of potential interest. In many cases we were confirming that the title on the inventory actually matched the title of the film in front of us. I remember pulling out the first reel labeled Upstream and putting it on the inspection bench – one of the scholars had looked at the inventory list and said “You know, there’s a lost John Ford film with this title…”, but until we actually looked at the film itself there was always the chance that it was going to be a documentary on the migration of Alaskan salmon or something. I know I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out to be about actors in a boarding house, not fish in a river! Upstream has gotten the most attention, but frankly there was something interesting in nearly every fireproof-box we brought into the inspection room – the archives and scholars had a difficult task narrowing down which would be brought back to the U.S. for preservation.

Each of the films was examined for completeness, and evaluated for physical condition and optical quality. We determined not only which films would be of the greatest interest, but also which were in most dire need of preservation due to damage and decay. We took well over 1200 pictures of individual frames to aid in the identification and selection processes. Though some had been well-used in their former lives on the exhibition circuit, we learned that the films were in generally good condition – thanks in large part to the New Zealanders whose care and commitment to the films in their custody has been nothing short of exemplary.

4. The list of titles for preservation and repatriation was circulated to the five major silent film archives in the United States for participation in the project. How did the Academy Film Archive decide which films to choose from this list?

Brian: The list was circulated among preservationists and archivists on staff who all added their suggestions and comments. We put the films in order of preference, based on a few criteria (though of course, it would be hard to turn down any of the titles up for grabs). First, we chose films that would add to our existing strengths, in subject areas that we specialize in. Second, we chose films that would add to an existing body of work by a filmmaker or actor in our collection. And finally, we chose films that would fill in holes in the history of filmmaking, where our collection lacked material from important filmmakers or studios.

5. What does your role as project coordinator entail?

Mary of the Movies, 1923 - Sony/UCLA
Leslie: Basically what I do is shepherd each of the films through the preservation process, from the time they reach U.S. shores until the nitrate and preservation elements are deposited in the receiving archive’s vaults and a new print of the original film is returned to New Zealand. I act as a liaison between the five U.S. archives, the various laboratories and the NFPF, keeping track of what stage each title is in, making sure they’re completed in a timely manner, etc. The first 75 films – which includes 11 features – will be preserved by the beginning of 2013, so we need to keep to a relatively strict schedule; at the moment we have about a dozen films in the preservation pipeline, with new ones starting every month. I also provide background research and notes for some of the titles.

What I’ve found particularly helpful is that because I inspected many of the films and provided the archives and scholars with the initial reports, I come to each title’s preservation knowing what is going to be needed, the amount of time it’s going to take and can coordinate with each archive’s preservationists on the best approach for that particular title. Each of the archives have a different approach towards preservation (such as the amount and type of reconstruction they will do if a title is incomplete or damaged, or differing philosophies towards restoring color or removing scratches) – its been interesting experiencing all of these at one time!

Dodge Motor Cars, ca. 1917 - the Academy
6. Other than Upstream, which has been preserved in collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox, could you mention one or two other films of special significance that the Academy preserved though the New Zealand Project?

Brian: So far, preservation has been completed on The Sergeant, a 1910 short film from the Selig Company that was one of the first films to be shot on location in Yosemite. A clip from the film is available for viewing ( and the complete film will be found on the NFPF’s upcoming DVD set “Treasures from American Film Archives Vol. 5: The West” ( We’ve also completed the preservation of The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies—Episode 5, the Chinese Fan, a 1914 Edison serial about a young woman reporter who finds a kidnapped girl (and naturally, doesn’t inform her family until her paper gets to report the scoop). Just this week, work was completed on two industrial films from the New Zealand collection. One is called Dodge Motor Cars, ca. 1917, and shows in great detail the massive and complex production facilities that produced Dodge’s coupes, roadsters, and sedans. From forging the drive shaft to stuffing the seats with “curled hair,” we see each step of the production, and then watch as they cars are road tested on treacherous test tracks in the winter. Fordson Tractors (1918), a short produced by Ford Motors’ tractor division, demonstrates how easy it is to learn to drive a Fordson tractor, and how useful a tractor is in plowing large quantities of land quicker than a team of horses, a necessity in helping out with the war effort at that time.

7. What is the next stage of the New Zealand Project?

Leslie: Right now we’re in the midst of returning another group of films selected from over 160 titles I inspected in a second trip to New Zealand at the end of 2010. In terms of preservation, we have plenty to keep us busy! As we finish preserving films you can look for them to be shown at various festivals and venues (in both the U.S. and New Zealand, as well as internationally), and video copies of many of the titles will be available to view on the NFPF website.

8. What are the benefits of collaboration for the various parties involved?

Leslie: I think everyone would agree that this collaboration has been a good deal all around – for the archives, scholars, historians and fans alike: The U.S. archives are adding significant artifacts to their collections (and in some cases completing incomplete titles they already held), the NZFA will have screenable prints of many previously inaccessible titles in their collection, and a number of fascinating items have come to light that otherwise might not have had the chance to reach a modern audience.

(End of Interview)

I would like to thank Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham for taking time out of their schedules to answer questions and share images. Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation provided suggestions and Kyle Westphal of the George Eastman House brought the importance of collectors to the table by pointing me towards an article by Jane Paul and Steve Russell in Newsreel: the New Zealand Film Archive Journal.

Tropical Nights
Our final Film Preservation Friday will be put on hold so that another end-of-the-week preservation event can take center stage. At 11 am on Friday, July 15, as part of the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Amazing Tales from the Archives I will feature presentations from archivists at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House and UCLA Film and Television Archive, not to mention Ken Fox’s presentation on Mr. Fix-It intertitle creation. This event is free and open to the public, and anybody in attendance will have a truly unique experience learning how film archives work with materials that resist identification and readily available historical context. Once the excitement of the Festival has receded, please check back for my final Film Preservation Friday posting. We will be looking at a very special project that has been years in the making, and is now in its final stages of completion. Thanks for reading.

1 comment:

  1. Would just like to commend the New Zealand Project for a really fine job restoring these lovelies. I hope they all go through digital conversion, and are put out in video sharing sites someday. Those pictures not only paint a thousand words; they are worth a thousand or a trillion bytes. Not everyday you gain access to these kinds of gifts, so might as well keep them in every way that we can. And should.