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:

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

It's been awfully quiet on the blog lately but we have a good reason....we've been so busy counting tapes and films that we're hitting our target early! Our initial goal was to reach 9,000 newly inventoried items by the end of January 2013. But it looks like we're going to reach that next week. Just in time for a much needed Thanksgiving break. 

As satisfying as that is, we're still not done. We found that even though our initial estimate of 9,000 sounded like a lot, it was actually low. When estimating the number of individual things (tapes, films, drives) stored across 4 rooms, in hundreds of boxes -  some with 5 things in them some with 100 – you run the risk of being a little off. 

Plus, we have found a number of previously unaccounted for boxes tucked away in closets, offices, The get the idea.

So, for the numbers geeks out there - what does that mean? By the end of the inventory we expect to have recorded information for about 15,000 items. Currently, our database now holds over 12,000 records. 9,000 newly created records and over 3,000 imported from existing documents. More than 2,000 film elements (negs, workprints, prints, mag track, etc), 5,500 videotapes, and 1,000 audio tapes have been inventoried.
We're aiming for completion in April.  Stay tuned...more progress and much more interesting posts to follow!

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Mold Porn

I've written before about finding film elements in deplorable condition. The mold and rust gnawing away at Kartemquin's archive have effected some collections worse than others. Taylor Chain 1, for instance, was filmed in the early 70's, but remained unfinished until 1980. It was damaged badly when the previous Kartemquin studio burned down in 1972. The missing footage necessitated a re-edit of the film, which meant acquiring further funding, which, as everyone knows, doesn't always come through right when you want it.

Other films with extensive damage include The Last Pullman Car (which literally just became available on DVD), Marco, Trick Bag, and Home For Life - one of Kartemquin's first films, and an incredible preservation success story. The photos above show elements from Trick Bag: a melted roll of unused work print; waterlogged, burned notes; and a melted, warped reel of 1/4" audio tape.

The saving grace in all of this has been finding the most important, irreplaceable elements to be, if not in pristine condition, then at least functionally clean. I have yet to find a film project which is irretrievable, even if its 'deleted scenes' are looking grim.

Worse than smoke and fire damage, and, unfortunately, more prevalent in the archive, are water damage and mold. Gordon recently retold the story of the aforementioned fire. "I was standing in the room" he said, "with flames all over the house, holding a garden hose, drenching the boxes to keep them from catching." It was a thrilling story, and I'd be hard pressed to find a better solution in the heat of the moment. But inwardly, I winced. I'd been confused as to why I was finding so many blackened, warped items also covered in skin-crawling mold.

But the mold I'm finding isn't just from intentional flooding. After relocating to its current location, and before renting space in The Hall, Kartemquin stored its archive materials in the basement, a miserable pit so damp it might as well have habitually flooded. The photos above, and at the top of this post, are from the 1984 film Women's Voices: The Gender Gap. The Gender Gap recently received a preservation grant from New York Women in Film and Television, and the fresh new archival elements it afforded are tucked away snugly. But some of the old footage from 1984 hasn't been so lucky. I found several rolls of picture outs where the emulsion has melted completely, been eaten away by mold, or both.

The nice thing about mold and melted emulsion is that when the film being victimized is vibrant with color, like The Gender Gap, the damage can be just as compelling. It's the silver lining on a big moldy cloud. Pulling footage off a sticky, smelly roll and illuminating it on my light table occasionally reveals works of Brakhagian beauty. Even black and white film, stiff from overexposure to heat, might display the fine seaming and delicate crackle of a centuries-old masterpiece (or your shabby-chic side table).

Going through the compromised footage from Gender Gap, Ryan and I had an idea. We set up the roll, running it through the Moviscop (a small device that allows one to watch film as it's hand-cranked through the machine) and a digital camera pointing down towards the Moviscop's small screen. We took three videos of the mold in action. This one is my favorite, for the way the mold starts to sweep in, like curtains, or an elegant wipe, transitioning between medium shot and close up.

Moldy Footage #2 from Kartemquin Films on Vimeo.

One might think that the animation sequences in Gender Gap would dissolve more beautifully than the live action ones. Not true. Ron and Sydney Crawford, the animators (working with art by Nicole Hollander) must have kept their studio free of contaminates. Any animation outs I found were just fine - with the notable exception of this fabulous color balance slate.

Post by Lyra Hill

 The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

To Be (Dis)Continued: An Archive of What Wasn't

In her book Dust: The Archive and Cultural History, Carolyn Steedman discusses the fragmentary nature of archives, and the stories they leave out. She says, “And nothing starts in the Archive, nothing ever at all though things certainly end up there. You find nothing in the Archive but stories caught halfway through: the middle of things. Discontinuities.” Every day on the inventory project we are in the middle of things – of some story we are unraveling about Kartemquin and its films. This can be difficult when you are digging through boxes of poorly labeled tapes, and film cans where the labels cracked off. 

KTQ staff, including co-founder Gordon Quinn, help us identify and understand what something is, how a certain film was made, etc. and we record that information in our database. We do as much as possible while leaving enough breadcrumbs on the trail.

A recent example of this is a film in the archive known only as Science Project. While looking for elements from another film, Lyra found a box labeled with this rather nondescript title. It begged a few questions.

Gordon explained:
It was a Kartemquin project. We were not able to raise the money to finish it but have the material to tell an interesting story about science and the drama surrounding it. We followed a group of U of C scientists lead by Leonard Wharton and my friend Danny Auerbach to build a linear accelerator for molecules. When they turned it on after years of work at first they were jumping up and down because they thought it was working and a huge breakthrough. As they continued testing it into the wee hours of the morning they came to realize that they were seeing a false signal and that the apparatus had a fundamental design flaw. My friend Danny loses his voice. It is a film about the outcome of most experiments—they fail. There is a rough cut of the film somewhere with workprint and track that was transferred off the Steenbeck in very low quality. The VHS of that may be over my desk.”

The irony is of course that Science Project (shot in the early 70s) is a film about failure that in its own way also failed. Potential funders would not support it. It is now housed in a room at The Hall with other projects not finished for one or another reason. Apart from the story each of these incomplete films intended to tell and never did, together they have become an unintended archive of the unfundable - an important, invisible history of independent filmmaking: a history of what wasn't.

As we approach this part of the collection during the inventory, we can only imagine the stories behind these abandoned projects which, if we are lucky, end with poor video transfers of rough cuts on VHS tapes over Gordon's desk. 

Post by Carolyn Faber 

  The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Friday, August 17, 2012

Viva La Public Art in Chicago

Hello, my name is Lyra, and I'm in charge of the film elements in Kartemquin's archive. I handle all of the 16mm film and magnetic tape, with some open-reel audio and 70's radical newspapers thrown in.

Most of my time is spent digging through rusty cans for moldy film strips that smell so strongly of vinegar that I have to wear a dust mask. It's heartbreaking to open a box of original negative, a most precious resource, and find it in poor condition. Thankfully, the elements in the worst condition are generally the 'trims and outs' - tiny strips of picture and sound snipped from shots during the conforming process, too small for interesting outtakes, and usually duplicates of higher quality material. Of course, trims and outs are important too, and you never know when a two foot strip of film is the only existent copy of that recorded instant.

The elements that tend to be in the best shape are, thankfully, the most important ones. To make a finished print of a 16mm film, you need a master mix track and an edited negative. The negative can be in a number of different forms. Typically, you'd start with A&B rolls - multiple strands, made up of alternating shots, which combine when printed to complete a seamless movie. A&B rolls are the most precious materials because they're made up of pure, original footage - the very film that ran through the camera in the first place!

We're working through films chronologically, so my era falls between 1966-1988, with a few exceptions. Around 1974, I encountered the elements for the film Viva La Causa, a succinct look at murals in Chicago's Pilsen community, produced and directed by Teena Webb, one of the original members of the Kartemquin collective. Viva La Causa was shot on color reversal film, and I found all the necessary elements to produce a beautiful print, including A&B rolls in perfect condition.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I was handed another box, speculated to contain elements of Viva La Causa, with pristine A&B rolls inside! Public Art in Chicago and Teena Webb's name were all over the contents. Common knowledge held that Public Art in Chicago was an alternative title for Viva La Causa, and when I looked at the footage, I saw shots of the same murals that appear in Viva La Causa. But, while both films were the same length, and on reversal film stock, Public Art in Chicago was in both B&W and color, with a different credit sequence. Besides, having found A&B rolls of both films, I knew it was impossible that they shared footage. What had been assumed to be an alternative title ended up being a completely different film that nobody remembered!

It's still a mystery as to where Public Art in Chicago originates. The prevailing theory is that it's a personal project of Teena Webb's, made in conjunction with Viva La Causa - or perhaps a collaboration with the Public Works Commission of Chicago. As much as I'd like to know, we have to stay focused on the inventory for now and hope that along the way, further investigation will reveal some answers. In the meantime, I'll be chugging along, dusting off other gems lying within the rusty bodies of better-known works.

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Hoop Dreams Pick Up Lines

Hey all, archive lady Jenna here.
I wanted to talk a little about the weird and sometimes surreal labels I find on project elements while sorting through boxes.

For the most part, a video tape will have written on it some pretty useful movie-jargon that helps us determine how to catalog it. But for practicality's sake and because a production team has to deal with SO much media, not every label is written with loving care- or legibly. Pieces of tape with handwritten abbreviations and processing-house labels with typewritten misspellings are translatable though,  I mean, I suppose it's my job understand them. But I won't pretend I don't let my mind wander on these prompts. Incongruous markings on any one tape begin forming narratives and ideas for bigger projects. Stay with me.

A Betacam tape labeled in ballpoint pen, "HD injury interview" could be a High Definition interview of someone's sentient head wound, but its not. I know it to be a camera master tape of Hoop Dreams' William, who injured his knee and gave interviews on the subject. But the other day, when I came across an audio cassette labeled "Hoop Dreams Pick Up Lines", I couldn't keep it to myself.

So, technically "pick up lines" are bits of narration and interviews that will be added to (or replace) parts of a movie's previously recorded audio. I told the Kartemquin staff, 'Let's ignore what we know this is and let the basketball-themed innuendos fly.' They came up with some amazing ones, and so did some people on the ole Facebook. So here is a collection of what I got back, a bunch of pick-up lines that may work on a honey who has recently seen Kartemquin's 1994 documentary Hoop Dreams, or just really, really likes some b-ball.

- Get ready for a free-throw baby, 'cause I'm great for holding.
- Did you get recruited to St. Joseph's? 'Cause baby you got gaaame.
- I bring my towel on the court with me 'cause when I see you I can't stop dribbling.
- Baby you tryin' to recruit me? 'Cause I'm not tall, I'm just sitting on my wallet.
- Four years ago all I used to dream about was playing in the NBA. Now, I dream about you, darling. -Tim Horsburgh
- I have more bonus features than the Criterion Hoop Dreams DVD. Want to be in a deleted scene? -Zak Piper
- Girl, I wish Steve James was here so he could narrate what goes through my head when I'm with you. -Zak Piper
- I know we just met and all, but let's not re-create Hoop Dreams... do we really have to sit here for three hours before we get to the good part? -Zak Piper
- I was Hoop Dreamin' of you and guess what? I got a slaaaam dunk! -Dan Stewart
- I was a player, but I took a seat on the bench for you. -Kia Monét
- I know I got you on the rebound, but once I drove downcourt, it was a swish; nothin' but net. -David Depew
- Come on back to my place and we can get cozy... and we wont have to worry about turning the lights off. -John Facile

Post by Jenna Caravello

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Hall or: How I Started Worrying and Learned to Love the Archive

Welcome to the Kartemquin Archive blog! Today we'll be venturing into The Hall, a magical place that some believe only exists in KTQ lore, but in reality is the home to the elements of all our completed films. We, the archive department, utilize The Hall quite frequently, as our job is to sort through everything stored there.

Before joining the archive department, I worked as an intern at KTQ. I often heard of this "hall" and its contents, and as a self-described documentary nerd, the prospect of a facility housing the elements of some of my favorite films (Hoop Dreams, Stevie, Inquiring Nuns) excited me to no end. My imagination went wild; obviously a facility of such great importance to the medium would undoubtedly be described as “sleek," “state-of-the-art," or even “sexy." I imagined the cold, grey tones of the room would pair well with the dry climate controlled air and encompassing florescent lighting, a perfect environment for browsing through reels and tapes like a child in a candy store.

The Hall, as it turns out, is nothing of the sort.

The Hall is like a playground for anyone interested in filmmaking past, present and future. A museum not yet realized, just collecting dust, waiting for its prince to swoop down and take it away. Occasionally the motion sensitive lights will go out, requiring one to run back into the hallway just to get a flicker of visibility and the lack of air conditioning coupled with Chicago’s hot summer suggests a necessary post-Hall change of clothes.

And while the HAL9000-esque garage door opener and eggshell and turquoise hallways hold a sort of charm, the net ceilings and cardboard boxes do not really provide the proper climate for items that likely belong in a museum.

Film and tape are sensitive materials, and even when housed in proper cassette casings, they are still quite susceptible to various molds and general degradation. The moisture-collecting cardboard boxes and rusting film canisters aren’t the best home for historically important film and video, but they're what we have to work with.

Our present goal is to get through these boxes and make note of the contents, and it’s condition, information that we can then use to help facilitate a move to better storage in a more competent facility.

Weekly Hall trips aren’t something I particularly look forward to; yet, the strong, lingering scent of vinegar and thick humidity just reinforces the importance of my job.


The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by:

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


Welcome to the Kartemquin Films Archive Project Blog!

Over the past several years we've been taking steps to stabilize and ensure the future of the vast collection of film, video and born-digital materials that make up our archive. With generous support from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation, we are in the midst of an extensive inventory of Kartemquin's audio-visual holdings from the past 45 years.  From 16mm film and Beta-SP to hard-drives and everything inbetween - we are numbering and recording information from every single film can, tape case and hard drive.

Our new custom-built database will help us profile the collection by format, condition and many other criteria, so we can set priorities for ongoing archival projects to keep our films accessible. The archive is rich with examples of documentary film production history, and institutional memory is strong - we are capturing and documenting as much of it as we can.

Follow our blog as the archive team shares finds, mysteries and observations throughout the inventory. Apart from stories about the films themselves you'll see and hear about what we are doing, how, why and what we learn along the way.  

See you soon,

The KTQ Archive Team:

Zak Piper
Nora Gully
Carolyn Faber
Lyra Hill
Jenna Caravello 
Ryan Gleeson 

The Kartemquin Inventory Project is generously funded by: