Monday, October 3, 2016

3 Years Later: We're Still Here!

Post by Ingrid Roettgen

It's been 3 years (almost to the exact day) since this blog was updated, and I am happy to tell you we are still here and still archiving! The Kartemquin Films Archive, though occasionally forgotten or neglected during periods of high stress, continues to chug along at a slow, intermittent pace, encouraged by the frequently changing hands that step in and out of the office. Now it's my turn to try and gently and carefully nudge this beast along down its seemingly unending path to completion. (Although, can you really "finish" an archive for a place like KTQ?)

This year is KTQ's 50th anniversary, which is a really big deal for everyone here and for film enthusiasts around the world. In addition to several retrospective film series', lots of free film screenings, and an anniversary gala, we also had a historical exhibition at EXPO 72 in downtown Chicago. It was amazingly vast and beautiful, with a lot of early film and video equipment on display and photographs and stills on the walls.

However, once the exhibition ended... all of that crap got dumped in the storefront for someone to re-archive. And if you haven't guessed yet, I'm the one who drew that short straw.

But there are some perks-- like finding 100 mint condition Hoop Dreams VHS' still in their shrink wrap

Conceptually, I know what an archive is-- a bunch of old stuff that's been organized. (That's the dictionary definition, right?) But when people would talk about The Archive, I didn't know how to think about it, so it was like this vague, amorphous, looming grey blob in the back of my mind. I tried to ignore it, thinking maybe I wouldn't have to deal with it if I just pretended it didn't exist. But soon enough it came crashing into my life in the form of, well, a mountain of banker boxes. 

Today, I actually started going through those boxes and trying to figure out what the heck to do with all of it. There's old film reels, audio cassettes, VHS', equipment, posters, buttons, and piles and piles of documents. Some of it is from The Hall, some of it is from the basement, some of it is from the bottom drawer of someone's desk, and now I have to figure out what we're going to do with it.

Fortunately, a lot of the boxes are straight from The Hall and are still labeled with their contents intact, so my first course of action was separating those out so they can be put back. Most of my time is spent lifting heavy boxes and moving them from one side of the room to the other while I try and physically organize my workspace.

Some of these items, however, haven't even been assessed or added to our database yet, so I'll be going through these early KTQ film reels and trying to make some sense of them in the future. That doesn't scare me too badly though, since I have lots of people I can turn to for help who have much more experience with the archive than I do, like Ryan. Former KTQ Archivist and blogger who is now the Post-Production Manager, Ryan pretty much knows the answer to any question I ask him.

The bigger problem, in my mind at least, is the literal mountain of paperwork, documents, research, and release forms that no one has ever (as far as I know) really tried to catalog or sort through, that I'll have to figure out how to keep track of. My dream would be to somehow scan them and make them digitally accessible and searchable for ease of access. I'm sure in two years I'll come back and read this sentence and laugh at my foolish naive dreams, but for now, that's the plan I'm going with.

Anyway, today's cool find: a really old handheld camcorder.

Jim tells me this is the first ever handheld camcorder that didn't use film, and that the lens was specially designed to be able to fit both this camera and other film cameras. The viewfinder isn't a direct look through the lens, instead it's a tiny TV screen that shows you the image. I love all of the old equipment lying around KTQ, and even though Jim told me most of it was junk and needed to be thrown away (not this camera, of course), I just couldn't bring myself to get rid of anything. 

Post by Ingrid Roettgen

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, nĂ© 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: