Arts + Culture

Exhibit highlights legacy of 'film'

As the movie studios go digital, these historic film gauges, books and ephemra highlight film's role in movie making

|
Film archive exhibit
Mark Quigley/UCLA

There’d be no film industry without "film."

As Hollywood hurtles into the digital age, that’s what an exhibit now on view at the UCLA Arts Library until April 25 serves to remind us.

Among the few dozen film gauges, books, video cassettes and ephemera in two glass cases near the library’s entrance are an 8 mm film gauge of a Buster Keaton comedy, a copy from 1927 of the magazine Motion Picture Projectionist opened to a page instructing theater projectionists on how to correctly splice reels of film, and a slightly yellowed, worn box of reels — 16 mm film featuring Walt Disney characters.

"I feel it’s important to give our students, many of whom don’t have a great deal of direct experience with legacy media formats, an opportunity to view some examples of film, tape and physical media that still very much co-exist with streaming digital content," said Diana King, librarian for film, television and theater in the UCLA Arts Library, which is located in the Luskin School of Public Affairs building. King co-curated the Roll Film/Cue Tape: the Legacy of Moving Image Formats exhibit with Mark Quigley, manager of the Archive Research and Study Center in the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

As the major movie studios have started switching to digital — the L.A. Times reported a few months ago that Paramount Pictures would be the first studio to move to digital-only distribution — Quigley and King began talking about how to celebrate the nearly century-long legacy of the moving image as captured in analog form.

One of the largest objects on display is a video reel of two-inch tape, which Quigley said is an example of the earliest types of video formats used in television production. "Television productions produced on two-inch tape that have survived are akin to time capsules," Quigley said. "The limited aesthetic qualities of the medium — vibrant color but combined with often harsh lighting and very little depth of field — are uniquely TV."

All the books and paper ephemera are owned by the UCLA Library, while the film reels, magnetic tape and other physical objects are from the UCLA Film and Television Archive, which is the second-largest moving image archive in the United States after the Library of Congress.

"Once Mark had identified the media formats for the cases, I matched up the most appropriate print materials to go with them," King said. One of King’s favorite objects in the exhibit is a small book by Cecil Hepworth from 1897 titled "Animated Photography: The ABC of the Cinematograph," which has chapters warning of the inherent dangers of projection at that time.

The book states that there’s a small possibility that a projectionist, if not careful, could escalate "an extinguishable blaze into a conflagration that no available aid could quench," said King, quoting from the book. Added King, "I’m not terribly sure it would have convinced me to become a projectionist."

Until 1949, film was made from nitrate, which was flammable. That year Eastman-Kodak introduced 35 mm cellulose triacetate-based "safety film," according to the notes accompanying a piece of cellulose film in the exhibit.

The decades-old examples of film in the exhibit should last for hundreds or perhaps thousands more years if stored in proper temperature- and humidity-controlled environments, as they are in the archive’s film storage facility, Quigley said. "Although considerably less stable, many magnetic media formats, if stored properly, prove robust long beyond their projected life expectancy," he added. "Conversely, a recently produced born-digital film can be difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve if any of its microscopic bits or bytes become corrupted."

While migrating the legacy formats to more modern formats is labor intensive and often technically challenging, the staff of the Film and Television Archive frequently transfer video reels, as well as film, print and video masters to support students, academics, and professionals needing to view rare materials for research, Quigley said.

As apps on our phones let us carry movie cameras in our pockets, what’s the future of film then? Quigley said that the studios continue to produce color-separation film masters as backups to supplement digitized archives.

That covers the professional side of film preservation, but ironically, enough, the public’s desire to preserve film is fueled in part by the digital revolution.

"There are actually apps you can purchase now that try to recreate the look and feel of 8 mm film," King said. "So even in the digital world you find the influence of legacy formats."

Media Contact