Southern Television Project Updates

Click on the image to view the poster.

Click on the image to view the poster.

Earlier this summer, I presented a poster at an event heralding the Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership, which is funding and supporting PhD students in all fields of the Arts and Humanities in six universities across Nottingham, Leicester and Birmingham. The initiative was keen to have perspectives from students who work with industry partners, so I chose to design my poster around the methodological implications of archiving and researching at the same time. It’s also a neat visual illustration of the Southern Television collection itself, and the work I do in my PhD.

I also recently contributed a blog to the Industrial Approaches to Media (IAM) training initiative website. This initiative is led by my peers in the  Culture, Film and Media department of the University of Nottingham, and I am impressed with the learning resource they’ve created, and I am so happy I could contribute in some small way.

IAM offers perspectives from academics and media professionals to help guide students and researchers wanting to engage with the media industries. It covers best practice for interviewing media professionals,  arguments for more historical research, and opinions about the benefits of industry research.

I (naturally) take a historical approach and blog about archiving the media industries. Because the Southern Television collection is a broad set of internal company documents, it took me some time to figure out how to best approach it as an archive of industry or business, rather than a disparate set of documents relating to a bunch of television programmes.

While the third year of PhD research has proven challenging and tough, I have been enjoying these moments when I’ve been able to step back and consider my role as an archivist and as a researcher.

On Betty Balfour and the Star Attraction of Missing Cinema

Two weeks ago, news emerged that a lost British silent film, Love, Life and Laughter, had been found. A clip was played at the Orphan Film Symposium, and the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam is now in the process of restoring the film before exhibiting it.

When I found out about the rediscovery I was thrilled. I was aware of the film: it was on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of missing titles. Moreover, I used it and another (still missing) film, Reveille, as the subject of an essay and poster presentation during my MA. Both of these films were directed by George Pearson, produced by his company Welsh-Pearson, and both starred Betty Balfour.

BettyBalfourPresentionblogsmall

My presentation and essay focused on the marketing and critical reception of the two films, with a focus on Betty’s star persona (see above). When a film is known to be missing, often it is the star that is the crux of the interest in finding that film. However, that star is not always an actor. Directors, producers, designers and cinematographers often have star personas that can be leveraged to generate interest in a missing title, which is why Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle probably wins the prize for the most-wanted missing film.

I re-read that essay I wrote three years ago, and I noticed that at the time I thought that the BFI’s plea for the significance of Love, Life and Laughter and Reveille  was not based on the star persona of Betty Balfour, but in the possibility that the films ‘may have marked [the director’s] creative zenith.’* When the rediscovery was announced, however, George Pearson’s name was rarely mentioned, whereas Betty came to the fore once more.

Even fewer George Pearson films survive than Balfour works, but he was widely acclaimed in his lifetime, called a genius and even credited by some with inventing the moving camera shot.

Silent London

It is interesting to note the difference between marketing a missing film and celebrating a found one. Appeals for missing films are written by archivists and aimed at other archivists, collectors, historians and cinephiles who are more likely to be attuned to auteurism, more willing to go after the more obscure or cult films, and more likely to engage in the fetishisation of technologies and format. Articles about rediscoveries are written by journalists and pitched at prospective audiences, which include the more casual film fans who are more likely to be interested in Britain’s biggest silent film starlet, rather than a film director who happened to have a well-received sequence of films in the 1920s.

I had fully intended to condense that essay into a blog post for you guys, but I’ve since decided to sit on it in case I decide to publish it elsewhere. You’ll just to believe that I made many incisive and nuanced points about star theory, silent cinema and critical reception. Of course, if you do fancy academic work about Betty (or just want to see her in some other films) then the British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner.

* ‘BFI Most Wanted’, the British Film Institute, accessed 1 May 2011 (NB. the link is now dead: http://www.bfi.org.uk/nationalarchive/news/mostwanted/75-list.html)

Television History: Reconstruction as Research Method

Methodologically, I fancy myself a historian (actually, I fancy myself an archivist in extended training, but that’s by the by). By aligning myself with history, and particularly archival history, I suggest that I look at evidence contemporary to the topic at hand in order to learn more about that topic. Of course, like most doctoral candidates, I employ a compound methodology as befits the questions I’m asking. But still, when explaining to people what I do with my time, the answer is ‘considering television artefacts’. If I wanted to incorporate my professional archivist training, I might also add ‘considering how to organise these television artefacts so that others can consider them, too.’

toothandclaw

The artefacts I’m looking at are mostly in the form of documents. It is a recurring gripe of mine that, even among historians, any artefact that isn’t a television programme is seen as secondary evidence. As most moving image historians know, for varying reasons historical moving images are often lost, destroyed, decayed or – in the case of early broadcasting – never recorded in the first place. So, a historian, upon finding that the television programme they want to study is not available, might either turn to other sources (such as documentation) or give up. The television programme is the gold-standard artefact of television history. Without it, they can use other resources, but the resultant research might be seen as supplementary or secondary – i.e. less good.

Recently, though, I have noticed a seemingly more radical approach to television history, one that recalls episodes of 999 rather than any Media Studies lecture I’ve ever attended. More and more researchers are seeking to reconstruct aspects of television history, as best they can, using the most appropriate tools at their disposal.

For instance, one of the highlights of last year’s Spaces of Television conference was a presentation by Dr Andrew Ireland about the experiment at the heart of his PhD thesis. In this experiment, Ireland used the script from Tooth and Claw, a 2006 story of Doctor Who. He then found actors who resembled David Tennant and Billie Piper and a crew at his university, and set about re-enacting the episode. However, instead of remaking it shot for shot, he instead kitted out a television studio so that it mimicked the constraints of shooting Doctor Who in the 1960s. He then proceeded to re-enact the beginning ofTooth and Claw as a 20 minute instalment of an as-live, multi-camera studio drama. From Ireland’s perspective, the aim was not to reconstruct an old studio drama (he doesn’t use the word ‘reconstruct’ precisely because he has created a new thing), but to reconstruct the process of making one.

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Another example: in my ‘Kine Weekly’ blog a couple of weeks back, I linked to a tweet by Dave Jeffrey. He has evidently been making a 3d computer model of the old Westward Television studio building. By his own admission, it seems that this was merely a handy vessel for him to practice using Blender – an open-source computer graphics software doodah. These visualisations are obviously only digital facsimiles of the original layout of the building, but they also have the potential to be extremely helpful to anyone wanting to gain a greater understanding of how Westward was physically laid out.

Speaking of studios, there is also the Facebook group Pebble Mill, that crowdsources the history of the Pebble Mill Studios by inviting interactions from those who used to work there. The project has been running for a while now, overseen by Vanessa Jackson. Now, interviews are a known source of historical evidence, but I think this is different. Rather than creating oral histories, Vanessa posts pictures and other artefacts she finds from the studio, and asks for help contextualising the artefacts. Responders will comment, confirming who that person is or what that machine was for. They will often – unprompted, yet certainly welcome – offer their reminiscences and anecdotes from their time at Pebble Mill. It is not a reconstruction, strictly speaking, but it certainly goes some way toward reconstructing the everyday life and operations of Pebble Mill, in a manner that is organic and true to the nature of working life, where no one person knows everything.

I’m glad to have come across such a wide range of innovative historical research methods that use archival evidence as I try to unpick exactly how to describe my own. Despite the fact that the methodology is a tiny proportion of my PhD thesis, it is probably the part I have redrafted the most. I am certainly inspired to be bolder in my presentation of documents as a source of primary research, and I have already skewed my topic toward mapping out the policies, infrastructures and operations that underpinned Southern Television – i.e. things that can be in some way reconstructed from documentation – more than their programmes. My methodology is far from unique, too, and it is nowhere near as inventive as the examples listed here. Nevertheless, I think researchers are still too willing to give up on certain areas of television history, because the programmes haven’t survived or the creatives involved are not available. So much of television has been created through systems, processes, structures and infrastructures that evolved over time. Reconstructing these peculiar contexts and visualising them are just as important as watching the programmes.

Lastly, I should say that my ponderings on this matter were inspired by a little exchange I had with my dad on Twitter.

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Dennis Potter Day at the Dean Heritage Centre

dennispotter-TravArch

I would not normally choose to spend a summer weekend at an academic conference. However, I sacrificed last Saturday in order to attend the afternoon session of the Dennis Potter Day talks at the Dean Heritage Centre. My reasons for doing so were threefold:

1. Though producing nationally televised fiction for the BBC mostly from the 1970s onwards, I think Potter and his legacy have a lot to say about everyday, regional, rural life in the Forest of Dean (see his documentary, Between Two Rivers, as a prime example). The fact that the Dennis Potter archive (and thus most academic activity surrounding it) has been physically housed in the area since the Dean Heritage Centre acquired the collection in 2011 means that Potter’s relationship with the Forest is accounted for in his ongoing legacy.

2. The Dennis Potter archive is a collection of documents that the writer kept and that the Dean Heritage Centre are working toward getting catalogued. There are a myriad of legal, logistical and ethical challenges to managing a collection of documents, many of which I am wary of working with the Southern Television collection. The day finished with a Q&A with the Centre Manager and the Chief Archivist, and I was eager to hear what they had to say about their collection.

3. I was curious about the Dean Heritage Centre. The talks occurred alongside a mini-festival celebrating the sort of nostalgia that permeates Potter’s best known works, and it was fitting to hear a constant stream of Andrews Sisters hits echoing in the Forest. There is also a Gruffalo trail, but that is by the by.

deanheritagecentre

The afternoon session, which centred around the usage of the archive in academic work, began with Dr Joanne Garde-Hansen of Warwick University. She detailed some of the motivators behind her work on Dennis Potter and the Forest of Dean, speaking eloquently of the two Potters that exist in memory: the ‘London Potter’ and the ‘Forest Potter’. Her work was all about exploring the Forest Potter, and all his inherent contradictions, using a mixture of archive material and a ‘living archive’ of recollections. Apparently, though Potter was drawn back to the Forest and it features regularly in his work, he is not considered by all to be truly or fairly representative of the area; when anything to do with Dennis Potter is announced on Twitter, there are a few who will tweet back with the sentiment ‘Dennis Potter was not very nice about the Forest of Dean’.

Next came a series of PhD candidates all working in collaboration between the Dean Heritage Centre and the University of Gloucestershire (and, in one instance, Glasgow Caledonian University – nope, I don’t quite get how the logistics of that work either). Hannah Grist is herself a Forester and a past volunteer for the Dennis Potter Heritage Project (the acquisition of the archive was part of the project, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund), and is now performing a piece of meta-research on the project itself and its impact in the local community, funnelling through the Dennis Potter project to ask his legacy is being communicated to Foresters in the present day. Laura Earley is at the formative stage of her research using the collection, and her assessment of her material thus far has generated excitement about using her archivist skills for the benefit of her project. Lastly, Jason Griffiths presented a number of engaging extracts of home audio recordings from Potter’s family, that evidence the everyday life and communal experience (i.e. singing over the dishes) that would later recur in his work.

dennispotterday

After a short, sunny break to reflect on the opportunities and avenues offered by this one collection, we returned to discuss the harsh realities of conserving a collection in the confines of a local heritage site. It is worth noting just some of the issues that archivists and researchers must face when mounting historical research: the Dean Heritage Centre has the collection, but does not have the curatorial staff needed to clear copyright for everyone wishing to use it (the onus is on the visitor to secure licenses to disseminate or publish anything in the archive); cataloguing is a long and laborious process requiring skilled and generous volunteers who are comfortable with learning new software quickly, and without a full catalogue opening  access to the archive is a risky business; logistically, the location of the archive may deter researchers or enthusiasts from further afield (particularly those who are interested in the ‘London Potter’).

I left early to catch the one local country bus back to Gloucester station  and I guess it would be easy to be discouraged by some of the challenges of maintaining a collection. However, it is encouraging to see more archive collections within their local contexts, and to see the flourish of research that has resulted from these regional partnerships.

Apologies to the organisers for not introducing myself in person – I was distracted by the Gruffalo.

If you’d like to see any of the Dennis Potter archive, you can book an appointment in the library. If you’d like to volunteer as a cataloguer (just about the best free training an aspiring archivist can get) then you can do so here.

The Letterheads of Southern Television’s Press Office

letterheads-STVproject

I had a fun time digging through Southern Television’s press releases recently. My aim was to figure out which local programmes and TV specials were deemed significant enough to alert the local media to ahead of broadcast. It would be easy to lose oneself in production documents and scripts, but it can be difficult to gains a sense of perspective. Which of these shows were representing the Southern Television brand? What were the flagships, the standouts? Press releases can be that missing link between source material and interpretation.

At least, that was the idea, but instead I got distracted by letterheads. Seeing as letterhead design is outside the scope of the thesis, I guess there’s no harm in sharing them here.

1959

letterhead1959

There was only release I could find from Southern’s first couple of years of broadcast, and it is lovely to see some development in the company’s compass logo.

1961

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There were a couple of letterheads used fairly interchangeably in the early sixties; maybe they had different functions or belonged to different departments (this one appears to be strictly for programming announcements).

1962

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My least favourite – the simplicity of the Southern logo (which is beautiful IMHO) sits uneasily alongside the big, bold, reversed-colour type of ‘Press Service’.

1965

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You can see the branding change from Southern Television to Southern Independent Television.

1974

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The not-so-subtle change to incorporate the start of colour broadcasting on Southern.

1980

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Stark, simple, no-nonsense, even the superfluous ‘independent’ has been shafted. I like how the proclamation of COLOUR has been replace with a functional disclaimer: ‘All programmes in colour except those marked (M).’

Sorry for the bad phone pics, I’ll swap them for better ones once I get the chance.

Southern Television, in Colour!

I am tempted to name my PhD thesis ‘Southern Television: the Monochrome Years.’

It all began with the need to carve a thesis topic from hundreds of boxes of Southern Television documents. It is nigh on impossible to condense over two decades of company history into one book; like Goldilocks, a good student has to figure out a topic whose scope is ‘just right.’ I could’ve stratified my sample of documents by genre (say, children’s TV), by topic (such as technological innovations) or by person (for instance, a case study of Jack Hargreaves).

Had I done that, however, I would have missed out on the fun of my current methodology – AKA: making it up as I go along.

OK, that’s a little unfair. I initially capped my research to the years preceding Southern TV’s switch to colour for practical reasons – pouf! 900 boxes of evidence magically becomes 300 boxes of evidence! However, I soon realised that this seemingly arbitrary distinction between regional-telly-in-black-and-white and regional-telly-in-colour has more to it; the available evidence is entirely different. The Southern Television document collection contains thousands of production documents and scripts, but only really from the 1970s. Documents pertaining to the black and white years are far more fragmentary and behind-the-scenes in nature: memos, minutes, letters, policies, etc.

Therefore, my thesis deals with those topics that can be explored satisfactorily through those documents. I’ve eschewed discussions of form and content in favour of tech specs, policy changes and the early development of key shows.

Frankly, this is more fun than endlessly rewatching crappy video copies of the same three programmes from 1974 (or whatever). I’d also argue that from an archival/historical perspective, this approach relies more on hard evidence than subjective interpretation. But mostly, it’s just more enjoyable.

However, I felt a little bereft while procrastinating over press clippings from the day Southern Television switched to colour, on Saturday 13th December, 1969. I may just have to include these as a postscript, should my meandering mess of a thesis ever proves to be publishable.

Robert Lilmay, ‘Approach of a New Decade and Southern Goes Over to Colour’, Basingstoke Gazette, 12 Dec 1969, p. 35

Southern Independent Television will sign off from the Sixties and greet the next decade in a manner appropriate to the exciting age in which we live – and reach a landmark in its 13-year history which which can seemingly never be equalled. For this month Southern goes over to colour.

‘Southern Goes Over to Colour’, Portsmouth Evening News, 13 Dec 1969, p. 3

Today is Southern Television’s C (for colour) day. At a cost of £2 1/2 m. a new complex of studios in Southampton was geared to transmit colour at 10 a.m. this morning.

WM Hill, ‘From the Weekend’, Southern Evening Echo, 15 Dec 1969, p. 3

Colour is beauty plus detail equalling reality.

‘Southern Joins the Colour Set’, Kent Evening Post, 15 Dec 1969, p. 3

The completion of colour transmitter installation work at the Rowridge, Isle of Wight, and Dover stations, means that Southern Television joins ATV, Granada, London Weekend Television, Thames Television, Yorkshire Television and Independent Television News in colour programming on the ITA network.

‘Colour Evens the Score in a Clash Between New Rivals’, Southern Evening Echo, 13 Dec 1969, p. 3

It’s a full colour weekend after all. With Southern Television’s official “C-day” comes surprise news that BBC-1 is swinging on the rainbow, too. / The news is a genuine surprise because BBC engineering men have been gloomily saying for weeks that they were lagging behind at the Rowridge (IoW) transmitter.

WM Hill, ‘Colour with a Bang’,  Southern Evening Echo, 12 Dec 1969, p.3

Southern Television has burst into colour… almost literally. […] At 10 a.m. tomorrow there are the three home-grown programmes – “Wheel of Fortune”; “Out of Town” and “Houseparty”, just to start the new era. First Southern face on the colour scene will be that of their chief announcer Brian Nissen and the familiar Southern symbol will appear on a background of cobalt blue.

‘Black Start for Colour T.V.’, Kentish Observer, 16 Dec 1969

Colour television is here. On Saturday Southern I.T.V. started regular transmission in colour, but many were disappointed. […] For, despite the colossal deposit required – £60-£90 according to size – on colour sets, there is a desperate shortage.

‘Southern and STV Colour’, The Stage: Television Today, 18 Dec 1969, p. 9

With the introduction of colour on Southern and STV last Saturday, there are now 30 million people within range of an ITA 625-line UHF colour transmitter.

Gosh, it was a brave new televisual world! I may have to begin a sequel: ‘Southern Television: The Polychromatic Years’!

What 1950s Critics Made of 3-D

Instead of offering a new review of the Dryden Theater’s fab 1950s 3-D season, I thought it would be illuminating to have a look at what the critics at the time made of stereoscopic films. A couple of days ago I spent an hour with the back catalogues of The New York Times and Variety film reviews, and made good us of them!

All the feature films shown as part of the season were new prints made from genuine fifties polarised prints. Just to clarify on point of confusion: many folks think that ‘old-fashioned’ 3-D films were shot and screened in the red-green anaglyph format, but in actual fact they were projected using polarised light and with the audience wearing clear glasses. This means that 1950s 3-D was much closer to the modern RealD experience than the red-green trick comics that were popular in the mid-20th century. The confusion also stems from the 1970s theatrical re-issues of 1950s 3-D films, which were converted to the cheaper and more accessible red-green anaglyph format. I have seen a 1970s red-green print of Creature from the Black Lagoon and I can tell you that the original polarised technology was far better in terms of image colour, clarity and depth. For more myth-busting please refer to the 3-D Film Archive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GvdldBnzjg

Man in the Dark (Lew Landers, 1953)

Variety acknowledged that Man in the Dark was somewhat of a rush-job by Columbia, eager to enter the 3-D market:

Preoccupation with spotlighting what 3-D can do detracts some from the picture’s entertainment value. Story, scripting and performances all are mediocre, which puts the whole load on the attraction of the stereoscopic effects. Considering the novelty of the thing, that’s probably enough.

Variety, Apr 1953

Bosley Crowther of The New York TImes  was in typically grumpy form, and was even more scathing of Man in the Dark:

A few tricks with optical illusions, such as having a pistol seeming to poke from the screen or a particularly repulsive-looking spider seeming to swing right out into the audiences eyes, are the meagre excitements provided in Coumbia’s first stereoscopic film – a conspicuously low-grade melodrama, called “Man in the Dark,” now at the Globe. Otherwise this obvious little item, which must be seen through polaroid glasses to be seen for any effect whatsoever, is a thoroughly unspectacular affair.

The New York Times, 9 Apr 1953

Comments: The film itself was pants, but it was really cool to see that deep-focus, noir B&W cinematography in polaroid 3-D.

Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)

Would you believe that The New York TImes didn’t even post a review of Robot Monster?! The Variety review, however, is remarkably kind and muted considering the silliness of this future cult classic:

The Tru-Stereo Process (3-D) utilised here is easy on the eyes, coming across clearly at all times. […] Phil Tucker’s direction (he also draws producer credit) is off, but stacking  above-par are the special effects of Jack Rabin and David Commons, Jack Greenhaigh’s camera work, and the musical backing provided by Elmer Bernstein. [Yeah, that’s right – Elmer Bernstain! -ed.]

Variety, 11 Jun 1953

Comments: I can die happy because I have now seen the exploits of Ro-Man and his bubble machine. The print we saw was made from a really degraded screening print, so much so that leader had to be inserted intermittently in the left eye’s copy in order to keep the two polarised sides in sync – causing the 3-D to cut out on occasion!

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Variety was in two minds about the stereoscopic cinematography in Hitchcock’s only 3-D outing:

The tints are good, adding to production values, but the depth treatment is a distraction that contributes little to the meller [meller? -ed.] mood. It can be shown in regular widescreen 2-D, perhaps the more acceptable projection method for the majority of its playdate prospects.

– Variety, 27 Apr 1954

By his own admission, Bosley Crowther did not experience the 3-D, as the screening he attended was offered ‘in “standard”‘. I wonder if his favourable review would have been changed by the presence of the perceived newfangled gimmick…

This is a technical triumph that Mr Hitchcock has achieved – the tensing of interest and excitement with just a handful of people in the room. […] Excellent colour and colour combinations add to the flow and variety of the drama’s mood.

The New York Times, 29 May 1954

Comments: Hitch steered clear of any overtly 3-D gimmicky trick shots, and I would not blame anyone if they did not know that this film was originally shot and released in three dimensions. I thought this restraint was the key to its success. So much of 3-D filmmaking is about spectacle, but here the effect is quite the opposite, as it enhanced the feeling of intimacy and claustrophobia that permeates the film.

Inferno (Ray Ward Baker, 1953)

Variety gave faint praise to Inferno:

Three-D and Technicolor are used effectively to make this suspense melodrama a fairly entertaining entry with okay prospects in its playdates. Film, announced as 20th-Fox’s first and only 3-D presentation, has the familiar names of Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan to swing top-of-the-bill bookings generally.

Variety, 18 Jul 1953

H.H.T. of the New York Times (I was lazy, didn’t look up the full name) was kinder with the praise:

For this Twentieth Century-Fox melodrama featuring […] a craggy desert wasteland, succeeds in carrying a little a long way. Although laboriously explicit at times and conversationally hoarding the firework until the finale, adult and restrained treatment turns a simple, grim story idea with conviction, irony and chilling crescendo.

The New York Times, 12 Aug 1953

Comments: This film has been essentially forgotten, as 3-D films are tricky and expensive to preserve or restore. I think this is a shame, as it was a simple yet utterly engrossing survival thriller, and Rhonda Fleming wears an amazing gold swimsuit!

So there you go! I wonder how these comments stack up against modern reviews of Avatar and co…

Film and Tape Under the Microscope

So, a while ago I extolled the virtues of microscopy. Well, now that I’ve gone through the process of taking microscopic images of a number of samples at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) I take it all back – microscopy sucks. OK, it doesn’t really suck, but it does require a certain level of precision and patience to cut, prep and observe microscopic samples of film and tape.

Before being let loose on the equipment, I was primed in the usage and benefits of observing images (still and moving image formats) under the microscope. Essentially, the microscope offers the opportunity to see the structure of any given format, and can distinguish the different materials that comprise a piece of, for example, paper or film.

I pulled a clever looking book off the IPI shelves to help me understand the practice even further. This was my first mistake. While I’m sure that Douglas B. Murphy’s Fundamentals of Light Microscopy and Electronic Imaging (NYC: Wiley-Liss, 2001) is a comprehensive and invaluable textbook for students of imaging science, it mostly went over my head. However, Murphy did neatly distill why we use microscopes as a means of manipulating light:

It is useful to think of light as a probe that can be used to determine the structure of objects viewed under a microscope.

To put this back into context, what the IPI does in its microscopy lab is probe images, in order to understand the structure of an artefact, so they can gain a deeper  understanding of its peculiar characteristics.

Once the book work was done, I was trained in cutting microscopic samples, starting with a standard digital print on consumer ink jet paper (I do not know the exact brand). First, I cut a small strip, making sure that the sample included an area of high density and an area of low density (as in thick dense ink and thin sparse ink). Then I had to carefully secure the sample to a piece of equipment called a microtome (1). I then used the microtome to measure and splice teeny weeny sections of paper. Using a set of dentistry tools (3) I finagled these tiny samples from the microtome to a slide.

Because cutting sections is so difficult, I had to get five or six samples onto the slide, to make sure I would have one that wasn’t mashed up by the blade. After immersing the samples in a solution (causing the samples to swell and thus easier to see under the lens), I mounted the slide under the microscope (2). It took some time to adjust the settings, objectives and focus to get a good view of the cross section of paper; once I had it in my sight, though, I was amazed to see the clarity in the different layers of the paper.

The next stage in the process was to take images from the sample through the camera mounted on the microscope. I had to take a few exposures, because the section was so magnified that it was impossible to get it all in focus at once. These exposures were then post-processed to correct the white balance, stacked into a single image in Photoshop, and a sharpening filter was added just to emphasise the structure of the layers. And then, the fun bit – looking at the finished image:

Whoah, right? That is bog standard glossy printer paper. To the naked eye, paper is a one-layer substance, maybe with a glossy sheen on top; here you can see the pulp, the binders, the sealants and the ink… Microscopy really forces you to think beyond what the eye can see.

So, at this point I was hooked and excited to see some moving picture film through the lens. Here is a sample from a standard chromogenic print (i.e. the sort you get in the cinema). You can actually see the magenta, cyan and yellow layers of emulsion. Fun fact: get a piece of reversal film under the microscope, like Kodachrome, and the colour layers are in a different order (yellow, magenta, cyan) just like a colour negative.

A week or so later, when my supervisor asked if I could look at some cross-sections of magnetic tape under the microscope, I was like ‘Pfft! Of course I can!’. That was my big mistake. Tape is much harder to sample than acetate film, for a couple of reasons:

1. Tape formats are generally much thinner than film, and if you do manage to cut a workable section it is almost invisible.

2. The polyester substrate is far more resistant to slicing and cutting than acetate or paper materials.

I began with 2″ quad tape, and that was not so bad. You can see that the sealant on the bottom is a little rough, and there is a bit of abrasion in the base, but it’s a relatively clean cut and you can see the layers. You can also see that the magnetic material and the binder make up a bigger proportion of the tape compared to the emulsion in the acetate print.

Feeling indestructible, I sliced up some 1″ videotape:

Oh dear, not very clear at all (and with a lot of digital artefacts that cropped up in post-processing). Still undeterred, I attempted a piece of U-matic tape. Well…

I am truly ashamed and humbled… I couldn’t even get the sample straight or in focus, it was that thin and difficult.

So, the moral of this story is patience. You can’t rush microscopy, and you can’t master it in a few short weeks. And yet it was also empowering to learn a new skill, even if I have not conquered it completely. Microscopes are more likely to be found in biology labs than film archives, and I am lucky to be somewhere as unique as the IPI, and that I’m learning to appreciate the moving image artefacts I work with on a deeper, structural level (even if I still curse magnetic tape in all its forms!).

Disclaimer: no unique recordings were destroyed in the making of this blog post.

Rochester Diary: What’s Up, Kodak?

Apologies if any of this is inaccurate, I’ve only been in Rochester for a month!

So back home, among my non-film-archiving circle, the common belief is that I’m currently in NYC working for Kodak. Of course, the truth is that I’m interning at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI), a laboratory based at the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) in upstate NY. Most Europeans have never heard of the IPI or the city of Rochester (the greater urban population of which is roughly equivalent to Nottingham, by the by). But there are a few things Rochester is known for: the snow, the crows and the garbage plate.

Of course, Rochester is also the place where George Eastman established Eastman Kodak in the late 1880s.

Once illuminating my friends to the existence of Rochester, their first question has tended to be ‘but isn’t Kodak bankrupt?’ Not that it matters because I’m not working for Kodak, but yes, it famously filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier this year. Jim Linder of Media Matters, among others, has been posting regular news updates on the state of Kodak affairs, and if you want to know more you can find them via the AMIA ListServ database.

Understanding business and legalese is crucial to any history that straddles the boundary between art and industry. The emergence of film as an imaging format was one the most significant developments in art and industry, and as the most prominent creator of film, the importance of Kodak to the industrial history of Rochester cannot be understated.

At present I’m reading Seductive Cinema: The Art of Silent Film, written by James Card, the first Director of Film at the George Eastman House. As Card says of George Eastman:

Eastman thought he had invented flexible film in celluloid strips for his Kodak camera. [Reverend Hannibal] Goodwin, a dabbler in photography, had patented a flexible kind of film and felt that Eastman infringed on his patent. There were protracted suits, but it was Kodak film on which the history of motion pictures was recorded, not Goodwin’s celluloid.

Why yes, those flexible strips of plastic and photochemicals became the standard for recording picture for more than a hundred years, and Eastman Kodak established itself as the originator of film as we know it.

The relics of Kodak’s greatness are everywhere in this town. Rochester boomed from a few noted businesses: Xerox, Bausch & Lomb, Gleason… My digs are just up the road from the Gleason Works, a factory that stretches for a quarter mile down University Avenue. But Kodak was the single biggest employer and innovator, operating from its vast production and research laboratories. I’ve yet to go on pilgrimage to the Kodak buildings in the north of the city, and I’m unsure which still stand, but I’ve come across several retired Kodak researchers and engineers who continue to uncover the mysteries of film at RIT.

Nowadays, the economy of Rochester has shifted. Academia has usurped technology as the primary employer of residents, through the city’s universities and colleges. Now Rochester is engaged in the task of reflecting on its filmic past. This endeavour was also facilitated by George Eastman himself, who donated much of his wealth to education in Rochester and set up the Eastman School of Music and the University of Rochester’s medical school.  The University of Rochester and the George Eastman House qualify new moving image archivists each year through the Selznick School, and RIT is well known for its studies of imaging science.

Rochester residents and those within the imaging and archiving communities know all of this already. But, amongst all these discussions of litigation over patents, the inherent lameness of consumer printers and bogus nuclear reactor nonsense, I think it is worth noting what the slow demise of Kodak means for Rochester. I wonder how the city will evolve once it emerges from George Eastman’s shadow.

Sources:

Image of Eastman and Edison: George Eastman House Blog

A handy history of Kodak, from Kodak!

Rochester Diary: The Beauty of Microscopy

Being a film historian type, I’ve mostly relied on the sort of research that involves looking at artefacts from the point of view of an Arts & Humanities student. Oh sure, in my MA I learned a ton about different film formats and how to identify them. However, I’m only really beginning to incorporate knowledge of technology, industry and chemistry into my knowledge of moving image history, and my studies in Rochester are helping me immensely.

The first couple of weeks at the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) I have been trained in microscopy, or the process of making enlarged images using a camera mounted onto a microscope. I’ve been mostly taking cross-sections of bits of film, though microscopy can also be used to make enlargements of the surface of film. By seeing the artefact sampled this closely, one can see the composition and the structure of film, which can help to identify unknown or obscure formats, like Dufaycolor or Polavision, for instance. These formats and more were included in the Knowing and Protecting Moving Picture poster, produced by the IPI in 2010.

I’ll be talking some more about the process of microscopy next week, but for now I’d like to highlight a completely free resource for still image historians, students, archivists and curators: Graphics Atlas. The IPI has taken microscopic samples from its vast collection of prints and photographs, to show the differences in the formats. By looking at enlargements, cross-sections, and the texture of images, Graphics Atlas can be used to either identify or research historical imaging processes. They’ve even given a potted history of some of these formats, and there is the option of comparing different samples to really distill the differences. By highlighting individual samples, they can also shed light on some of the more idiosyncratic features of any given image, such as decay or abrasion that may have occurred.

Moreover, though, I think that some of these microscopic enlargements have an abstract beauty all of their own:

1st row, L-R: Etching, Chromolithograph, Woodcut

2nd row, LR: Collotype, Rotogravure, Woodburytype

3rd row, L-R: Collodian POP, Cyanotype, Dye Imbibition