Preserving Curious Alice
We discussed Curious Alice in a previous blog post and explained why, although it’s beautifully animated and contains some fantastic imagery, it fails at communicating an anti-drug message. Read on to find out how we preserved this title!
In the Motion Picture Preservation lab, we’re enthralled by the film preservation stories that make headlines just as much as the next film fan. Tales of unearthing a trove of 500 films in the Canadian permafrost, discovering a lost 1913 Abraham Lincoln biopic in a barn, or finding a complete print of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in a film archive in Argentina are exciting and open up new worlds for film study. It might seem odd then, that our favored preservation story is a boring one: government agency takes good care of film, agency turns film over to the National Archives, film goes to stacks and needs no intervention on our part. Sure, it’s not very interesting, but it’s the best of all scenarios. The truth is that something has to go wrong somewhere in order to make a “discovery” story possible. In most cases, a creator failed to care for a title or a link in the preservation chain broke down.
Curious Alice is a case where something went just a little bit wrong. The National Archives held a copy, but until just a few years ago, all we had was a scratched, torn, and spliced print. On top of that, the color had faded so that all of those vibrant hues were reduced to pasty pink. Fortunately, this story ends better than it would have because of two essential ingredients: luck and a highly skilled film preservation specialist named Charles Joholske.
The luck part came into play when staff members from the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video branch journeyed to a defunct film lab in Pennsylvania to search for films that may have been produced by the United States government.
In the past, it was common practice for creators to leave their productions at film labs rather than store them, which is how so many government films ended up stranded when the film lab closed. When the NARA team arrived, they were able to identify and recover hundreds of titles that encompassed a wide breadth of federal agencies, from the Departments of Energy and Agriculture to the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Institutes of Health. A lot of the cans contained titles new to the Archives, while some supplemented current holdings with better, more original elements. Archival staff recognized Curious Alice immediately, and given its status as a NARA cult classic, it was the very first item they sent to the lab for preservation.
We were obviously delighted when a better copy of Curious Alice came to the lab, but when we opened the can, we found a slight problem: a 35/32mm internegative and negative soundtrack set. In theory, the internegative, with no physical damage and a lower level of color fading, was a fantastic preservation element. The problem comes in the fact that most of our equipment is not designed to handle the 35/32mm film gauge. That includes our inspection equipment, color analyzer, and any scanners that we now use for digitization.
Charles Joholske took on the task of making new prints of Curious Alice, despite the fact that he could not use the color analyzer to time the negative. That meant he had to look at the image and make his best guess at what light values to use for the printer. Only it wasn’t a wild shot in the dark: Charlie had decades of experience and the ability to look at the negative and assign light values by eye. With a couple of short tests to confirm his educated guess, Charlie created the three polyester film prints that the National Archives holds today. One is kept with the 35/32mm set for preservation, one is an intermediate that is sent out to vendors to satisfy reproduction requests, and one is available to be projected for live screenings.
There’s one more crucial element to this story, and it’s that there’s another threat to film preservation that most people overlook: Every day the field loses the expertise that specialists like Charlie honed over decades of work in film labs. In the early 1980s, even a city like Washington, D.C. (by no means a bustling center of film production) had five different full-service film labs in the area. Today there is one. Any of those labs had at least five times the staff of our preservation lab at the National Archives. The fact is that video turned out to be a better format for purposes such as television news and even the government training films that kept those labs in business. As each facility went dark, those skill sets were obliterated when lab personnel found new professions.
The National Archives was fortunate to hire Charles Joholske and make good use of his expertise, but sadly, we lost Charlie to cancer in 2009. Marvin and Josh, our two senior preservation specialists, with more than eighty years of lab experience combined, are eligible for retirement. For the rest of us, our job isn’t just to preserve the films that come to our lab; in order to carry on our work far into the future, we need to absorb as much as we can from our veteran staff before they retire. I may never be able to time a color negative by eye like Charlie could, but when I see Curious Alice, I am inspired to try.