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Highlights Archives

Nitrate Film Preservation Grant Received

This is all that remains of a circa 1916 newsreel shot on nitrocellulose film

The Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research has received a $5,600 grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation to preserve and share a short silent film, "The Lumberjack," which was made in Wausau, Wisconsin, in 1914. The center is a partnership between the Wisconsin Historical Society and the University of Wisconsin-Madison to care for more than 300 manuscript collections, 15,000 motion pictures and television shows, 2 million still photographs, and several thousand sound recordings.

Explosive Footage

Producers of "The Lumberjack" shot the movie on Kodak nitrocellulose film, the most popular medium for moving images from 1890 to 1951. Although it was cheap and flexible, as nitrate film degrades over time it becomes quite combustible. The Society owns approximately 100 reels of this volatile nitrate film, with titles ranging from local amateur footage to full-length feature films from Hollywood's golden era. These early movies are not only too fragile to watch, but actually pose a fire hazard. Conserving them so they can be safely stored and viewed is a challenge for film archives around the nation.

Significance of 'The Lumberjack'

According to newspaper accounts at the time, local citizens constituted the film's entire cast, and its scenes feature buildings and locations in and around the city of Wausau. An itinerant production company, the Paragon Feature Film Company of Omaha, shot the 18-minute, silent 35mm film in 1914.

Its unconventional production style (using local residents as cast) created a unique resource for genealogical and local history researchers. The film is also a good example of those produced by independent companies, many of them now largely forgotten, when movies were still young. Without preservation, "The Lumberjack" is unlikely to survive, given the chemical composition of nitrocellulose film.

First Fruits of the Forward! Campaign

The conservation grant stems from an initial success of the Society's Forward! Campaign — an endowment for an expert conservation coordinator. Katie Mullen, who joined the Society's staff in that role last year, soon identified nitrate films as a top priority. She hired film preservation expert, Heather Heckman, to examine the nitrate holdings of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research and the Society. Heckman analyzed each reel to determine the extent of decay, and Mullen and fellow archivists determined strategies for treating each item.

A typical 1,000-foot reel of film — about 18 minutes of footage — commonly costs more than $6,000 dollars to reformat. So Allison Page, a film archivist at the Society, applied to the National Film Preservation Foundation for funding to re-master "The Lumberjack." It should be available for viewing by early 2012.

Future Plans

Mullen and her colleagues at the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research have applied for two more grants intended to address the nitrate film challenge. The first is another application to National Film Preservation Foundation to conserve "Our Own Gang," a Wisconsin-made version of the well-known Hal Roach "Little Rascals" series. This pastiche, shot in Madison in 1933, used local kids as its cast and featured memorable downtown locations in its scenes. It is a natural complement to "The Lumberjack."

The second grant application is a $350,000 proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities for up-to-date scientific research on the volatility of nitrate film, to be carried out by the University of Wisconsin. This application follows an article by Heckman in the Fall/Winter 2010 issue of American Archivist on the insufficient state of knowledge about nitrate films' combustibility.

:: Posted August 11, 2011

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