Friday, October 4, 2013

Package Pageantry

Every now and then, we stumble across a particular brand, logo, or package design in the archives that strikes a fancy. Sometimes we remember to take a picture. Here's my collection. (That's a brand of 16mm magnetic film stock for cutting synchronized sound and an audio cassette above.)

Boxes (and information) for 1/4" magnetic audio tape reels. Metallics!

A 1/2" video tape reel in a squishy box, like those old VHS cases. This case is in great shape, which is good, considering most of the squishy 1/2" video cases in the archive are among the moldiest things we've found. More metallics!

Lastly, this isn't really about cool logos, but I thought that that chaos on top of this can looked like an Abstract Expressionist artwork. (Maybe a stretch?)

Post by Lyra Hill.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Video Test Log

Very funny, KTQ.

Post By Jenna Caravello

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Great Box Robot Transformation

I like to say that everything going on upstairs at Kartemquin eventually avalanches down on me, here in the storefront. I find myself buried in the tapes that were hiding for years behind our old Steenbeck, walled in by boxes of newly-arrived DVDs, and my first thought upon meeting new directors is always, 'Someday I'm gonna have to type out your movie's title so many times...'
It draws to mind that creature in Jim Henson's Labyrinth, the one that surrounds itself with objects of sentimental value until it begins wearing those objects on its back.
So, as these things pan out, I transformed into the video-box cyborg-cop, wielding the cassette of justice and the canister of vengeance. And Lyra became the great (albeit short) film-box robot. 
Someday there will be action figures of us, I'm sure.

Post By Jenna Caravello

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The E Room: Archivist as Sleuth

Kartemquin Films, né Kartemquin Educational Films, reserves four storage units at The Hall. These rooms are named after Kartemquin's former initials: K, E, and F. The fourth room is humbly named "the DVD room" despite contents ranging from tape masters to financial records. We'll return to the topic of unhelpful labeling later in this post.

There's Ryan in the K room! The K room is where our story begins. The materials that make up Kartemquin's official films, the ones you'll find listed here, live in the K room. The boxes are shelved in roughly chronological order, wrapping around the room (almost a whole wall devoted to Hoop Dreams) and then spiraling in to the center shelves. The last movie housed in the K room is Stevie. After that, the canon picks up again in the F room with The New Americans, etc etc.

Kartemquin stopped shooting on celluloid after Golub in 1988, so my work in the K room ended there. (With a few exceptions, such as Hoop Dreams' 16mm internegative and Stevie's original, S16mm, footage). Jenna, queen of video formats, has gone on to archive the F room while I have begun a much more gruesome project: the E room.

The E room holds the other stuff. The E room is a shadow to the K room, the side of the coin that hit the floor. Commissioned films, unfinished films, test rolls, bin trims left by visiting filmmakers using Kartemquin's machines - even boxes of vintage periodicals, college essays, photographs and correspondence live in the E room. I found the original sound recording unit for Camera #1 in the E room, which you can look at and read about in Carolyn's great blog post.

The E room's contents originate as far back as 1964, when Gerald Temaner and Gordon Quinn were just figuring out what Kartemquin would become. Most of the room falls under my material jurisdiction, and boy, is it weird. But before we delve into this fascinating hodge-podge, let's revisit the K room and give the archive team a pat on the back.

Gosh, isn't it pretty! Taping the top of the last K box closed, I couldn't believe how far we'd come. This room alone contains 7145 inventoried elements, in 435 boxes. Our original estimate hypothesized 9000 elements in all three rooms! We were way off.

Working my way through the K room, I thought I had seen it all. I found a forgotten film. I re-canned a lot of smelly film rolls (see my repulsive yet beautiful mold porn post). There were stacks of loose reels, boxes with no numbers, and film unspooling higgledy-piggledy in disintegrating, amorphous envelopes. To be fair, a lot of the materials were in good, even pristine condition, especially moving into the 1980's. Handwriting that I recognized on elements from the mid 70's had, by the next decade, developed more rigorous organizational technique. By the time I got to Golub, the items practically inventoried themselves.

These are rolls of original negative. Every can is consistently labeled with stock number, exposure index, footage count, edge code, roll number, exposure date, processing date, and project title. I had little to do aside from assigning inventory numbers, testing for non-existant disintegration (all these rolls are sealed in plastic bags), and entering the obvious data. Stevie's original footage is similarly straightforward.

Not only are the Stevie boxes properly labeled inside and outside, but they bear additional marks of computer precision by way of barcodes, inspection records, and timecode assignment.

As an archivist, I have a complicated relationship with cleanliness and order. Of course I want everything to end up in this state, and finding elements like the ones in these photographs is heartening. Someone before me did their job well, and these precious materials will last longer, remain more accessible, than the rolls I rescued from rust and re-spooled. On the other hand, clean elements are boring. Where's the heroism in data entry? (There's plenty of heroism in data entry.) Where's the mystery in a box like this?

So anyway, back to the E room.

There is no shortage of mysteries here. My familiarity with the archive helps me identify many items, especially picture rolls. I will recognize a face, or a shot, or a proper noun (location, minor character) written somewhere on the item. Audio rolls are harder, since I have no visuals to reference, and can't listen to the material.

But what to do when the project I become familiar with has no name, and no remembered history? Increasingly, I am finding bundles of items that obviously belong together but are difficult to inventory, because I have to decide whether to assign them their own collection, or list them as 'Undetermined'. The dreaded 'Undetermined' collection is a last resort. Every element inventoried therein must be exhaustively described in hopes that it will someday be reunited with its true clan.

Often, the critical decision hinges on the existence of a title. When I started on the E room, I found a lot of funny footage of a man and woman in trench coats engaging in chase scenes, exploring a demolished building, approaching strangers at the beach, and conversing in a luxury hotel room. This was obviously not a documentary film. When I talked to Gordon about it, he recalled: "It was going to be Gerry's [Gerald Temaner's] masterpiece. Like a Chris Marker film, lots of different footage with voiceover, a film essay. He never finished it." Gordon can't remember the title, and neither can Gerald.

I need a title before I can create an element record in the database. I need a title to write on the new label before I pack up the box and return it to the Hall. Often, as was the case with Gerald's movie, I have to continue blindly collecting like objects until I stumble upon a label consistent enough to assign as title. Then again, sometimes, I find one element bearing labels from four different collections. I'm up to my elbows in mystery.

If I'm wearing mystery sleeves, they're attached to a grime jacket. This photo makes me laugh. That's a staple in the middle of a roll of film. Strands of film are generally attached with cement adhesive or tape. Making a splice with a staple is detrimental to several feet of film, more if the staple disintegrates and rusts (which it will). It's comically hardscrabble. That scrappy attitude permeates much of the E room.

These two boxes (sitting on top of E-019) were once taped together and declared a single box. When I got to them, they were sticky as well as flakey, the tape's yellowing, skeletal sinews preserving the illusion of a whole. There is so much of this tape in the E room.

Here are some creepy film cans. Instead of putting them in a box and giving the whole box a box number, which would have been easier for everybody, someone assigned a box number to each individual can. Carolyn and I were relieved when we realized 20 out of the 350-something E boxes were actually individual elements.

Here's my desk after hauling in the first batch of E boxes. Up on the top shelf, you can see two examples of the let's-pretend-this-is-one-box taping technique. Here's my desk after I finished inventorying these elements:

Wowie zowie, look at that! Fresh boxes, nice big labels, and everything inspected and tucked away safely! This is the kind of cleanliness that I find most satisfying. The kind that comes after arduous physical labor and exhaustive research. I love the E room. It transforms my data entry duties from a bran muffin into the icing on an exquisitely complex cake.

Here's me in the E room attempting the aforementioned physical labor. Onward!

Post by Lyra Hill

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Equipment Graveyard

Talk to anyone about archiving and very quickly the conversation becomes one about obsolescence. At some point, all types of film and video equipment, hardware and software, audio-visual formats – all the technologies used to produce and playback moving images – die. And by 'die' I mean they are no longer in wide use, no longer supported by the companies that manufactured them and brought them to market. 

As we continue to inventory the collections, we record the format of each item we inventory, creating a kind of format map of the archive. This will help us better address reformatting parts of the collection.  So when we set off on the inventory last year and created a database that could account for all kinds of current and obsolete formats - film, video, audio, even hard drives – we didn't think much about what to do if we came across any gear. There wasn't supposed to be any – not in the archive. And well over a year into the inventory there wasn't any, until now.

Lyra Hill, who is inventorying all the of the film elements, opened a box and found this: 

The Auricon Sound-On-Film Recording Amplifier

"Singing with music"

What is it?

In short, it is part of a system designed by Auricon that allowed filmmakers to record sound directly to film with an optical soundtrack, in-camera. The sound quality wasn't great and the system was bulky – Auricon later released cameras that would record sound onto film with magnetic sound tracks which became more common. When Kartemquin bought its Auricon, Camera #1, they stripped it of this gear because they were not interested in recording sound on film in this way and modified the camera to their own specifications.

The amplifier and a few of its accessories were packed in a box, taken to The Hall and forgotten. 
The original Auricon ribbon microphone (as heavy as it looks)
RCA electron tube
Yes, that's a tiny bottle of motor oil

Lyra and I needed a little help from Kartemquin's tech guru, Jim Morrissette, to understand more about how this thing functioned. We were all pretty fascinated by it.  It's beautiful to look at and in great condition though there are no batteries and the various odd connectors spilling out of it show their age.  

Gordon said, "it's junk", but we're keeping it. In spite of being obsolete, obscure, and something that Kartemquin never even used, it taught us about one more way filmmakers could record sound on film and fleshed out a little more of Camera #1's history. It is also evidence of how evolving technologies shaped the way filmmakers worked, while filmmakers continued to transform those technologies into the tools they desired.

As an active production company, Kartmequin has and maintains quite a bit of production equipment – cameras, lights, sound gear, etc. All of it is very well organized, secured and maintained, including historic items like Camera #1. We have removed the Auricon Sound-On-Film Recording Amplifier from the inventory and are turning it over to the equipment room at KTQ for safe-keeping with the other historic gear.

Post by Carolyn Faber
Photos by Lyra Hill

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Made a funny little find today while archiving The New Americans rough cut episode VHS tapes.

This tape, 15 minutes long and labelled "Pronounce-a-Rama" contains a proverbial bouquet of three talking heads, reading out words and names that are relevant to The New Americans series. KTQ editor Leslie is the last face on the tape, and I suspect she was the one who named it so perfectly. Enjoy.

Post By Jenna Caravello

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happy Holidays From The A-Team

The Archive Team, I mean.

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Pity The Fool

I found this in a box of 5 Girls papers. Happy Tuesday from The Archive, all the girls are here.

Post By Jenna Caravello

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Love Letter to VHS

Hello. I’d like to talk about something close to my heart.

I suppose you’re reading this post on a laptop or smartphone, and I’m willing to bet you haven’t owned this equipment for 10 years. It’s widely understood that, for a few reasons, our digital devices are throwaway tools. Incompatibility, expensive repair, and new technology are a few of many things that lead to machine obsolescence. Someone just yesterday explained to me why a 2006 computer wasn’t working, saying, ‘it’s old’. And I’d like to give a shout-out to my already passé 1-year-old mini-DV HD camcorder: I love you, but none of the three cords you came with are compatible with my new computer.

The concept of ‘throwaway’ technology didn’t always indicate that some more useful technology came along as a replacement, and didn’t imply a cash investment. It also didn’t mean that you were engaged in an arms race with your friends for the more pristine piece of machinery (although your dream in 1982 may have been to own a Sony Betacam camera).

At one point I imagine someone said, “Lets make a video medium for the people. Cameras will be cheap, and so will tapes, players, and dubbers. It will be practical, accessible and universal, with low maintenance costs, a substantial recording capacity, and the quality will be horrible but at least it’ll be unique in its simplicity.” Not to mention, this analogue video medium sustained its inexpensiveness and (above all) universal operability for over 30 years. Let’s talk about VHS.

What other medium has a more 'throwaway' reputation? Ryan and I were archiving camera-original elements of a film we had never heard of, labelled "Art Beat". Thinking we had found a lost Kartemquin film (and excited to talk about it here), Ryan went searching for an edited master or commercial copy of the film, only to find one VHS with the same label, containing 4 episodes of 'Friends' and 2 episodes of 'Frasier'.

Was this VHS at one point Kartemquin's only edited master? I doubt it- but for the time being it was my only chance at seeing the film, and more useful to someone as a home recording of primetime television.

I opened a box of 40+  VHS tapes the other day while archiving and my brain flipped like a pancake. It’s a pain to see so many VHS tapes in one box… the feeling is unlike opening a box of Beta-SP tapes, which are expensive and signify movie elements of importance. A pile of VHS tapes in an archive is probably going to be a bunch of tests and dubs to help editors with sound synching and timing.

But what I love about VHS is its contradictory “cheapness” and usability. While archivist Lyra sat in her corner, arm-deep in rotting work print trims, and a folder of mysterious zip drives with little labeling awaited my attention, I looked through that box of nice clean VHS tapes, confident they’d play in our machines even though they were 20 years old. What a nice medium, I thought. Perhaps VHS is misunderstood. Perhaps it is the last form of recordable media that will hold its data and maintain its universal playability and quality over the generations. Perhaps VHS is that holy grail of film storage filmmakers all dream of...

And then, vindication!:

Here at Kartemquin, the editors were digitizing some Hi8 footage as part of an ongoing 20-year old project. They discovered that they didn’t have a machine that could also digitize the audio signal from those Hi8 tapes, but! Those VHS dubs used for synching in editing (like I mentioned earlier) were still intact, and so was the audio. Project saved!

Since then, I've bought a VHS camera and have started a label to distribute my friends' films on VHS. So far supplies have been cheap, and I bet you a dollar people'll be watching those same tapes 20 years from now, and falling in love with VHS like I have.

(Magnifying glass + my VHS camera = cool depth of focus!)

Post by Jenna Caravello

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by: