October is Archives Month

October is the time each year when archival institutions across the country celebrate American Archives Month! Once again our crew here at the Film Conservation Center will be joining the revelry with participation in #AskAnArchivist Day on OCTOBER 5!

A graphic with several speech bubbles of potential questions for Ask An Archivist Day.

Image courtesy of the Society of American Archivists

Write to us on Twitter @HLFilmPreserve with the hashtag #AskAnArchivist with your burning questions: What is the oldest item in your collection? The strangest? What is the best way to preserve my family films? Where do you store your films? How are you preserving new materials?

Want to know? Just ask and we’ll do our best to answer!

Many thanks to the Society of American Archivists for organizing this virtual event.

Home Movie Day update

Greetings Home Movie Day fans!

As many of you know, the annual Home Movie Day event occurs each October. Because of a hectic season here at the HFA we will not be hosting the event next month. Instead, we’ll hold an alternate HMD Boston next spring on MAY 6 2017!

May 2017 calendar with Saturday May 6 circled in red.

Details will be announced here on the HFA Collections Blog as the date approaches. In the meantime, feel free to contact us for home movie advice and questions regarding film care for your family treasures.

See you in May!

A baby pulls 16mm film loose from a film reel.

Kodachrome is the color of Home Movies

Today at work I looked at some anonymous home movies that are deteriorating, to decide if they’re worth keeping or not. Since every home movie is different, I had to watch them to gauge their worth – it’s impossible to tell quality from looking at them through a loupe on the bench.


This was a box of ten or so 8mm films from the 1940s-1950s, purchased by someone on ebay or something, and then they made their way here to the HFA. The cans have no information on them, although at some point someone, either here or there, put sticky notes on a few that say things like “1950s water skier, horseback riding, football arena, farm horse, snowlice (rabbit kill) spring (family), baseball game.” I don’t know about you, but aside from the “snowlice” (maybe it’s supposed to say “snow/ice”), I didn’t find this a particularly evocative description. Sounded rather dull.

I watched the first reel, which was OK. Beautiful Kodachrome, lovely 1950s rural scenes. People swimming in a lake, hanging out with animals on a farm, riding horses, etc.. It seemed like a family vacation reel. It was nice but nothing special. Then I watched a few more reels. I wasn’t expecting the whole box to be from the same family, but it is. The content is repetitive – spring baby animals and flowering trees, summer at the lake, swimming, bringing home dead animals from hunting, then it is winter and there is ice fishing and playing in the snow.

There are a lot of people in these films – many kids and adults. One kid manages to be the star, though. The house, with its made-for-Kodachrome red doors, was a lovely recurring scene. I couldn’t quite place it geographically – it looks like New England, perhaps Vermont, but could be some other northern spot where there is water and snow and hills and trees.

The mid-1950s Kodachrome film is a thing of beauty. It was a filmstock for all seasons, and this cameraperson knew it. It really showcases certain colors, transforming the natural world into art. Autumn leaves and blue skies, red doors and white snow, blue lakes and green fields. People in the films were dressed like they knew the magic of Kodachrome would preserve their visages for a century in red and black wool plaid jackets, blue cowboy shirts, and incredible bathing suits.

The more films I watched, the more I loved them. Yes, the same things were recorded over and over, but there was a touching intimacy to the films in addition to their colorful beauty. The family clearly loved animals, despite killing many black bears, bobcats, white rabbits, and a few things in between. They kept sheep and cows, dogs and cats, and tamed a deer and her baby (which led to a joke scene of a hunter being stalked by a deer). In one snowy scene, a young boy is walking in front of the house with something white stuck to his chest. Is it the baby we saw in the last scene?  He’s not holding the white thing, though; it’s just clinging to him somehow. The camera moves closer, and we see it is a giant white cat, which then licks the boy’s face as the film runs out. My eyes welled up. In another charming sequence, it’s lambing season, and baby lambs are jumping around all over the green pasture. Then the camera cuts to a baby crawling in the grass, dressed in white, looking like a little lamb.

It’s easy to love a well-shot film. Most scenes were correctly exposed, and the addition of a finger occasionally making its way into the frame only adds drama to the proceedings – who is holding the camera now? Who usually holds it? Sometimes the film is left to run as the arm holding the camera drops, filming a topsy-turvy world, most dramatically so during a toboggan run sequence, sadly underexposed.

To try to explain these films (this film?) by merely listing what has been recorded, which is often how home movies are explained in catalogs, is like doing the same for a feature film. It does not do it justice, and it does little to make sense of it unless you’re opening a stock footage mine. I wish I could somehow add smells to the description – the aroma of lobster cooking outside, the crisp autumn air, the flowering trees, the horses – the film is that evocative. The films are silent, but the sound of the projector is hypnotic. I feel like this is my own family and I feel nostalgia for this life before I was born.

Kodachrome is dead. LONG LIVE KODACHROME!

boy with cat

We have a new look!

Hello dear readers and welcome to our updated Harvard Film Archive Collections Blog!

We’ve changed the look and structure of this blog in the spirit of accessibility. Going forward, this blog will feature easier to read text and contrast, helpful alt text for our lovely images, and accessibility across platforms.

We hope that this change will provide better accessibility for all who wish to follow our work with the HFA film collections, special projects, musings on film history, and observations about the place of the archive in preserving the many aspects of media that surrounds us.

Thank you to the WordPress Accessibility team for providing the tools for this update, and thank YOU dear readers! We hope you continue to follow us in good health.

See you at the movies!

Silence, please!

Depending on how you count, the first 40 years or so of motion pictures did not include recorded sound. As many have said before me, this doesn’t mean they were experienced in silence by the audience, but they did not have soundtracks, so we call them Silent Films.

Sound film went mainstream in 1929, and in short order all films made by the industry (I’m not including artists, students, and independent filmmakers here) arrived at the cinema with a soundtrack printed on the film right next to the picture.  This standard lasts to this day, although as we all know, there aren’t that many new 35mm prints making their way to cinemas.  Frowny face.

1 frame 4 Stereo Tracks Scope copy


With the popularization of television thirty years after the advent of sound,  fewer people went out to the movies, preferring to stay at home glued to the screen instead.  In search of content to keep them in their seats, TV programmers would regularly show old films, preferably those in the public domain.  The new “sophisticated” TV viewer simply didn’t appreciate silent films the way his or her parents did, and certainly watching a silent film at home alone is quite different from the contemporary audience’s experience.

In a bid for the younger TV viewer’s attention, producers created shorter, newly edited versions of silent films specifically for television.  These versions, often showing silent, 18 frames per second films at sound speed (the noticeably faster rate of 24 fps), with sound effects and a comic narration, took the place of their originals in the pop culture memory for decades.

Some series were better than others, of course. One such was The History of the Motion Picture, which boasted several serious film collectors/historians on the production side: Paul Killiam, Saul J. Turell, and William K. Everson.  These men took their silent comedy seriously.  The History of the Motion Picture was released to the educational market, and later Ernie Kovacs brought the series to TV (1960-1961) as Silents, Please! with a filmed introduction by himself.

In an episode of Silents Please!, a narrator would talk over the action, describing the story, the history of the film or series, give background information on the production and stars, etc.. We watched an episode from the HFA’s collection recently, canine hero and superstar Rin Tin Tin in TRACKED BY THE POLICE (1927).  It was a bit like watching an essay about the film, and since it both showed the film and talked about it at the same time, it was a real time-saver!  The narration didn’t pause, even when there wasn’t much to say, so there were times when it was too much, other times when it was interesting.  It included some dumb jokes, but was overall quite illuminating for someone who had no handle on silent films or Rin Tin Tin.

These film essays have gone way out of fashion. Their style is dated, their content may be good, but their reputation is not. They can be seen in retrospect as making fun of the silents, with their goofy jokes and fast running. In fact, they truly revived these films, turning many people on to silent cinema; the passion of the men behind them brought forth new cinephiles.

I believe silent films on television were the inspiration for most of the older film collectors who still walk among us.  We often find silent films, abridged, with soundtracks, or as released, in collections from men who bought and traded films for most of their lives.  These characters are mostly senior citizens now, and their collections are being broken up and sold or winding up en masse in film archives as they die off or move into smaller housing.

Today, silent films are seen less often on television, and certainly not in this educational manner. Perhaps the film is prefaced by Leonard Maltin or some other film fanatic speaking to its history, but the experience is neither that of the original theater-goer, nor that of the television viewer of the early 1960s.  Nostalgic when new, these TV silent film essays are doubly nostalgic now.


TV by design

Paul Killiam productions

Silents Please




Extreme acetate decay!

Sometimes some really horribly decomposed film turns up at the conservation center.

These pictures are of some extreme cases of vinegar syndrome.  The films are from the 1920s, and are a diacetate safety base.

crystalizing on the reel extreme diacetate decay 2 decomposing diacetate film


These white crystals are a result of the plasticizer pulling away from the base. We will see if a lab is able to work on them for us – they are also very shrunken.  These films are, of course, unique, so we hope to be able to get something off them.

MA safety film logo one frame

This is the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety seal, OK-ing the film for non-theatrical projection, although these were made to be shown at the local cinema.

The Soviet Film Collection catalog is searchable online!


It’s been a minute since we’ve revisited the Soviet Film Collection in the blogosphere, but work on the collection has been continuing here at the archive. We are happy to announce that the catalog of films is now searchable online in HOLLIS+, the Harvard Library online catalog.

A staff screening of a few short films from the collection introduced a new favorite for our conservation team: Lõputu Päev or Endless Day (1971/1990), directed by Jaan Tooming & Virve Aruoja.

This experimental film was banned under the Soviets and ordered for destruction at the time of its initial production in 1970. Fortunately, Director Virve Aruoja saved the prints and brought them safely out of the country. The film was completed in 1991 after decades of hidden storage but not released until 2006. This delayed premiere did not do much to dampen the powerful effect of Endless Day; the film unfolds like a visceral absurdist dream with jarring movement and a cutting soundtrack. The National Gallery of Art has a wonderful article on the film’s history and production, which can be found here.

You can also view the film in its entirety online through the Estonian Public Broadcasting website.


We will continue posting about screenings and new finds from the Soviet Film Collection as they occur. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy searching the catalog and finding your own favorites!

Animation films from the HFA collections

Unid scratch film_KAqua

There are some amazing animated films that have been gracing our film benches over the past few months. Some favorites we’ve inspected include Sleeping Beauty (1934) by Russian filmmaker Alexander Alexeieff, inventor of pinscreen animation, Perpetual Motion (1992) and a beautiful scratch film (pictured above) both from the Karen Aqua Collection.


Perpetual Motion (1992)

We especially enjoyed inspecting a print of Adventures of an * (1957), a moving short that depicts the life cycle of a man from childhood to adulthood, and utilizes a brilliant jazz score to offset the images.


The Adventures of an * (1957)

You can explore the holdings in our Animation Collection on the HFA website and through the Harvard Library Catalog, HOLLIS+.

[note: since this posting we have learned that the unidentified scratch film pictured at the top of this page was likely produced by one of Karen Aqua’s students as part of Aqua’s animation workshop course. Many thanks to Ken Field for his insight about this collection!]

Star Wars

As the world waits impatiently for the new Star Wars film, we take a look at the old one.


This is a Super 8 condensed version of Episode IV, made for the home market in the dark days before everyone had a VCR.  Instead of the entire film, you could watch the highlights at home.


The condensed version is around 20 minutes long, and the storyline is sort of carried, but all we see are the action sequences.

We ran this for an elementary school group that visited a few years ago, and one kid was very excited by this movie – “Now I understand why everyone loves Star Wars!  I’m going to go home and watch them all right now!”

It really warms our hearts when our jobs as archivists make a difference.