Archival Spaces 252
DAS – Digital Asset Symposium (Online)
Uploaded 25 September 2020
The Digital Asset Symposium – DAS – , originally scheduled for New York’s Museum of Modern Art in June, finally took place online on September 16-17, 2020. Organized by the Association of Moving Image Archivists, and sponsored by a host of vendors from the archival field, it was the tenth meeting of digital film/media specialists since 2007, the last four at MOMA. I had not attended DAS since 2012 when it was held in Los Angeles (https://www.cinema.ucla.edu/blogs/archival-spaces/2012/11/08/das-2012-lifecycle-digital-asset). Given the East-West coast time difference for a virtual event, the symposium was limited to four hours of programming each day, beginning at 1 PM EST/10 AM PST.
After AMIA President Dennis Doros welcomed everyone, moderator Nick Gold introduced Ant Rawston of Microsoft Research, who discussed “Project Silica,” an initiative to utilize glass as a long term storage medium for digital media. Unlike hard drives or even clouds, which have a limited lifespan, fused silica promises to remain stable for storage over ten thousand years and is not subject to environmental decay, whether by heat, humidity or cold (unlike any other known media carrier). So far, Microsoft has proven the concept, but both write and read speeds of data are apparently not yet viable for commercial exploitation. Another issue: once written, data is baked in and can’t be written over, unlike all plastic media. While Rawston gave no indication of when archivists will be able to purchase the silica medium, he indicated that its sale is only a matter of time.
Next, Kyle Evans from Tape Ark/Seagate, discussed “Digital Data Preservation Across Industries – A Shared Experience,” focusing on the energy sector’s data. Unfortunately, other than noting that analog tape should be transferred to digital, the talk offered little to archivists who have been dealing with decaying audio and videotape for decades. More interesting was Sally Hubbard, Maureen Harlow, and Athena Livano-Propst’s discussion of the Public Broadcasting Corporation’s efforts to combine semantic and machine learning technology to create richer metadata sets for non-textual content, while employing standards-based cataloging procedures. Semantic technology is text-based, for example, Google searches, in contrast to machine learning technology which is image-based. Google Images searches work by searching text around images. Combining the technologies will eventually allow for complete searches of text and images, giving researchers the ability, e.g., to find an image of Elmo eating vegetables.
The final presentation of the day saw Ricky Riccardi, Director of Research at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York, introduce the Museum, in particular, its massive digitization efforts over the past several years. Few people know that the jazz trumpeter and singer, Louis Armstrong (1901-1971), spent his free time in the last twenty years of his life, personally archiving all his recordings, film and television shows, tapes, scrapbooks, and even trumpets in a house he purchased in 1951 for his wife, Lucille. In 1986, the Collection was transferred to Queens College and in subsequent years a professional archivist was hired, the collection opened to researchers (1994), and the house refurbished as an historic landmark (2003). With a $2.2 million grant from Robert Smith’s Fund II Foundation in 2016, the Armstrong House hired Deluxe and other vendors to digitize the entire collection, creating more than 60,000 digital assets. Since the 2019 COVID Pandemic shut down the house temporarily, Riccardi has created numerous online exhibits on various topics, where visitors can experience media by simply registering. In 2021 a new research center is scheduled to open across the street from the House.
Thursday began with another museum intervention, the Museum of Modern Art Film Department’s presentation of their new exhibit, “Private Lives – Public Images,” which for the first time explores the Museum’s amateur and home movies. That collection goes back to the days of Iris Barry (1930s), when the Museum accepted the home movies of Biograph Film Co. executives, as well as those of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, while later collections came from artists and others donating their work. Curated by Ron Magliozzi, Katie Trainor, Brittany Shaw, and Ashley Swinnerton, the exhibition attempts to find an adequate presentation form for moving images, beyond the usual screenings in theaters. The question they asked themselves was how to differentiate various kinds of film images, so they don’t all look the same? After searching cataloging records, the curators viewed over 600 films, before selecting more than one hundred, viewable on different-sized, custom-made monitors (digitally) and in analog film projections. The exhibition is open to the public through 21 February 2021.
Next, Chris Lacinak, President of AVP, presented “Bursting the Inverse Bubble: Audio and Video in the Information Economy,” which picked up the earlier thread on creating new search mechanisms for audio visual information. Noting that full text searches, which became possible 25 years ago have revolutionized our lives as much as anything in the net, Lacinak decried the still inadequate tools for searching audio and video, given that the amount of such data on the web alone (as well as in archives) is staggering. Challenges to creating such search engines include: 1. The private nature of many collections, 2. Lack of interoperability, 3. Closed loop systems, 4. Lack of democracy. AVP is currently developing a search machine (Audiovisual Metadata Platform) that will search metadata, e.g. transcripts of podcasts, to make the search on non-text material easier.
Next, Kelly Pribble, Studio Engineer at Iron Mountain, and Gregory Maratea, the Company’s Director of Global Client Solutions, discussed Iron Mountain’s workflow, policies, and procedures for the storage of physical and digital assets. In particular, they discussed decay, stabilization and digitization of analog tape formats, then presented their preservation work on the Tupac Shakur Collection, which includes non-media and media assets. Finally, Mike Castro and Randal Luckow, VP of the HBO Archive and Director, Archives and Asset Management, respectively, discussed the monumental task of collecting, archiving, and preserving literally everything associated with the eight seasons of the hit television show, Game of Thrones (2011-2019). Once the show was a success, HBO management decided to collect everything, in order to have material for various fan experiences, including exhibitions and a studio tour. Apart from 3,707 hours of actual footage, they collected sets, props, costumes, photos, designs, other material from 18 different departments. In their workflow, they were careful to follow standard archival practice regarding diplomatics, respect de fonds, provenance, and original order. They are presently building a new archive facility outside Belfast and a studio tour will hopefully open there in Summer 2021.
Overall, this abbreviated DAS was extremely interesting for moving image archivists and librarians. Interestingly, five of eight presentations came from private industry, rather than archivists at non-profit institutions. This is a profound change in the archival field over the past twenty years, indicating the degree to which private industry has adopted scientifically based archival practice. On the other hand, organizers should consider how they can differentiate themselves better from AMIA’s own annual conference and “the Reel Thing,” since several DAS presentations were firmly entrenched in analog archival practice with only brief nods to digital asset management.
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Archival Spaces 251
The Thanhouser Collection DVD, Vols. 13, 14 & 15 (1911-1916)
Uploaded 11 September 2020
Ned Thanhouser, the grandson of the founder of the Thanhouser Film Company, Edwin Thanhouser, has been busy over the past decade, finding lost films and preserving them in conjunction with various film archives, including the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the Academy, UCLA and George Eastman Museum. He has now released a three-DVD set that includes twenty one-reel films, made by the Thanhouser Company between 1911-1916, which American film historians consider the “transitional era” from a cottage industry of individual producers of short films to the vertically integrated studio era, uniting production, distribution, and exhibition. The Thanhouser DVD Collection, Volumes 1 through 12 with 57 films from 1909 to 1917, had been previously made available. Releasing them also online (https://www.thanhouser.org/index.html), makes Thanhouser one of the best documented film companies of the period. The DVD sets can be ordered at the same site.
Founded in New York in 1909 by Edwin Thanhouser, his wife, Gertrude, and brother-in-law Lloyd Lonergan (the company’s chief writer), the Thanhouser film Company evolved from Edwin’s work in legitimate and vaudeville theatres in Milwaukee and Chicago. The studio began producing films in New Rochelle at the very end of 1909, quickly establishing a stock company of actors who would appear repeatedly in the Company’s films over the next seven years, including Marie Eline, Florence LaBadie, James Cruze, Muriel Ostriche, William Russell, Marguerite Snow, and Harry Benham, among others. In 1912, Thanhouser was absorbed by the Mutual Film Corp., a newly formed distributor that brought together other independent producers, like Keystone, Majestic, and Kay-Bee, in order to protect them from the monopolization efforts of the Motion Picture Patents Trust. After the New Rochelle studio burned to the ground in January 1913, Thanhouser moved operations to Florida and Los Angeles, before returning in May 1913 to a rebuilt studio in New Rochelle, with other films were still being shot in Florida/California and in Chicago.
Vol. 13 opens with two adaptations of Henrik Ibsen plays, The Pillars of Society (1911) and A Doll’s House (1911); produced on tiny stages in medium long shots with actors and furniture crowded together, both short films reduce complex dramas to melodrama. The adaptation of literary works by Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, George Elliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Oscar Wilde, etc. became a specialty for Thanhouser. Next, The Austin Flood (1911), one of Thanhouser’s few actualités, documented the complete destruction of the town of Austin, PA., Northeast of Pittsburgh, a day after the Bayless Dam broke, killing 78 inhabitants. While the great majority of Thanhouser films portrayed members of the middle class, The Star of the Side Show (1912) is a somewhat perverse look at “freaks” in a circus side show, including a romance between little people. Shot in a Florida orange grove, The Girl of the Grove (1912) is a melodrama with a feminist twist, in which a philandering husband is sent packing by a young woman he attempts to seduce, after she has rescued his wife from suicide. In The Thunderbolt (1912), money embezzled by a broker finally makes it back to its owner after lightning reveals its hidden location.
Vol. 14 continues with the melodramas, Cross Your Heart (1912), Idol of the Hour (1913), The Girl in the Cabaret (1913), Coals of Fire (1914), and Their Best Friend (1914), all of which involve middle class families, often children, threatened by greed, avarice, and lust. All are ultimately resolved happily, the exception being Idol, which follows the slow decline of an artist model from toast of the town to charwoman. No longer stage-bound, these films include many outdoor scenes in city and country that visualize American life before World War I. One of the great pleasures of these films is really seeing the fashions, the faces, the cars, architecture, body language, and other signs of modernism. Far from modernist, but charming, the DVD also includes the fairy tale, Jack and the Beanstalk (1913).
The final DVD, Volume 15, begins with The Mother of Her Dreams (1915), a touching melodrama of an orphan girl who yearns to find a family. She dreams of a fairy mother who guides her to a real lost little rich boy in the woods. In the missing final scene, the boy’s family adopts the girl. Thanhouser’s success rested on its policy of good cheer, a policy directed specifically at the American middle classes, who were beginning to venture into the cinema in ever greater numbers. The Twins of the GL Ranch (1915) is a western that visualizes a robbery/rescue, and features the famous “Thanhouser Twins,” Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, who appeared in over thirty films between 1912 and 1916. The volume continues with three comedies, John T. Rocks and the Flivver (1915), Toodles, Tom and Trouble (1915), and Guiders (1916). Like Twins, the first two comedies feature extended chase sequences, while a gaggle of Keystone like cops make an appearance in Guiders, shot in Florida, partially on ostrich and alligator farms.
The DVD concludes with a “bonus,” An American in the Making (1913), part industrial, part immigrant story. Financed by U.S. Steel with scenes shot in Chicago (e.g. at Berghoff’s famous German restaurant, where I ate as a kid) and at a steel mill in Gary, IN., the film highlights safety features in industrial work, while showing a young European immigrant establishing a family in America, thanks to his job in the steel industry.
Given the fact that these films have been digitized from preserved analog sources, without a significant amount of digital clean-up, the visual quality of the films is generally good with nitrate decomposition only marring a single early title. All the films are accompanied by well-known silent film musicians, Nathan Avakian, Stephen Horne, and Ben Model, making this collection a delightful journey into a past, now over 100 years gone
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