motion picture preservation lab

World War I: Now in HD

It is almost eerie to watch the silent black-and-white footage, panning over the rubble remaining from small villages of France and Belgium, seeing cannons fire, and watching a zeppelin drop bombs on London rooftops, all without a sound. These are just some of the haunting images captured on the reels of recently digitized footage of World War I.

The National Archives houses the largest repository of World War I documents in the United States, and it encompasses not just paper records but also still pictures, microfilm, and motion pictures related to the conflict.

Many of us undoubtedly associate the harrowing feats of the World War II with footage of the action we’ve seen in 1940s-era films and documentaries, but most people do not associate World War I with moving pictures.

One may be surprised to learn, however, that we hold more than 1,600 reels of documentary film regarding World War I.  Now more than 75 years since the footage arrived here, staff in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab are working hard to preserve and digitize the moving pictures.

Once the footage is properly mended, it will be scanned in high definition and made available on the National Archives’ YouTube channel, where the public will be free to access it.

It has been more than 100 years now since the United States entered World War I in April 1917. We have come quite a way technologically from a time in which horses were used for warfare and films did not yet capture sound. Now anyone can view the American infantry training grounds at Camp Meade or the trenches of France on their smartphone from half a world away in just a few seconds.

Read more about the preservation efforts underway at World War I: Now in HD | Pieces of History

Uncover more World War I Centennial Resources at the National Archives


Preservation of Frank Capra’s movie, “The Negro Soldier”.  A look at the preservation process from beginning to end.


To celebrate the 80th anniversary of the creation of the National Archives, staff from around the country submitted contemporary photographs of their workplace and people to show what we look like in 2014 for anyone interested now and in the future. 

You can see more photos of staff at the photo set on Flickr

Images from top:

Mickey Ebert, Education Specialist; and Chris Magee, Archivist; practice “NARA and National Symbols,” a distance learning puppet show for kindergarteners with Hairy History and War Eagle, puppet  at the Interactive Distance Learning Lab at the National Archives at Kansas City. Photographer: Jessica Hopkins. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Audrey Amidon showing a close-up of acetate film in an advanced state of vinegar syndrome in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives at College Park. The film base has shrunk more than the emulsion causing the wrinkly surface you see here. Photographer: Richard Schneider. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Brad Brooks, Brian Swidal, Laurice Clark, and Amy Bunk hanging up the seal of the National Archives at the Office of the Federal Registrar. Photographer: Jim Hemphil. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

Devon McKeown cleaning archival records at the National Archives at Chicago. Photographer: Mary Ann Zulevic. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration. contractor digitizes Los Angeles Naturalization Petitions at the National Archives at Riverside. Photographer: Joseph S. Peñaranda. Source: US National Archives and Records Administration.

It’s National Coffee Day!

Two wounded American GIs pause for coffee while recuperating in a Red Cross outpost during World War I in this footage from a CBS newsreel collection.

[Stock Newsreel Excerpts]
Series: Motion Picture Newsreel Films Used for a Documentary Series on World War I, ca. 1908 - ca. 1930Collection: Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc., Collection, 1953 - 1982

For the past two years, the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab has been digitizing a series of Army Signal Corps films as part of a larger project to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Find more vintage World War I footage on the @usnatarchives YouTube channel.

Uncover more World War I Centennial Resources at the National Archives

#CameraDay: Signal Corps Cameramen 1917-1918

“American and French Photographic Staff” ca. 1917
Series: Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 - ca. 1981Record Group 111: Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860 - 1985

It’s #CameraDay!  This photo, from the Signal Corps series, shows a combined unit of American and French cameramen during World War I. The man on the left is a motion picture cameraman for the U.S. Marine Corps, and the man in front is a still photographer and U.S. Marine. 

For the past two years, the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab has been digitizing a series of Army Signal Corps films as part of a larger project to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Meanwhile, technicians from the Still Pictures Branch and the Digitization Division have scanned tens of thousands of Signal Corps photographs from World War I. Along the way, they forwarded photos of the cameramen to Motion Picture Lab staff, knowing that we love to see records of the people who shot the motion picture films we work with every day.

These photos, along with the rest of the series American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918, are available in the National Archives online catalog.

Signal Corps photographers shoot film with a motion picture camera. (111-SC-4386)

Learn more about the history of the Signal Corps during World War I at:
Shooting World War I: The History of the Army Signal Corps Cameramen, 1917-1918 | The Unwritten Record

Uncover more World War I Centennial Resources at the National Archives

Why are these dogs are excited?  Tomorrow is the 150th Anniversary of the Yosemite Grant Act!

Stay tuned for more #Yosemite150 posts!

Excerpted from the educational film “Yosemite Valley" from the Ford Historical Film Collection and recently digitally remastered from finegrain intermediates by our colleagues in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.  Watch the complete film on the National Archives Youtube Channel:

Be sure to check Yosemite National Park’s Pet Regulations before bringing your dogs to the park!


Tinted or toned films in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab

If I asked you to tell me what you think of when you think of silent films, one characteristic you may mention is that silent films are black and white. While it is true that most silent films were shot using black and white film, by the time they were projected many had vibrant colors added to them. From nearly the advent of cinema, films would be colored in a number of ways. Sometimes dyes would be painted by hand or stenciled onto the image, frame by frame. A simpler way to apply color was by tinting or toning. Tinted films were immersed in baths of acidic dye that bonded to the gelatin in the emulsion. In a tinted film, the emulsion remains black, but the tinting is visible in areas that would otherwise appear grey or white. In toned films, a chemical reaction replaces the dark silver in the image with colored metal compounds. For example, if Prussian blue was used, the dark parts of the image would have a blue tint. Sometimes tinting and toning are found together in the same film.

It’s always exciting when we come across a tinted or toned film in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. When we do, we treat it the same way we would treat any color film and work to preserve the tinted and toned hues of the image. We recently worked on several films made with these color processes from the early 1930s.

Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle is a film that was tinted yellow and toned blue. The resulting color is a lush blue-green that complements the nature scenes captured in Yosemite National Park.

A second reel of film containing three National Park travelogues can be seen to be tinted yellow, a color commonly used in daytime outdoor scenes. Identified as Glacier National Park/Lassen National Park/Sequoia National Park, this reel of film provides tours of Glacier National Park in Montana and California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park and Sequoia National Park.

The history of color in cinema is long and fascinating. If you would like to learn more about film color, we recommend Barbara Flueckiger’s Timeline of Historical Film Colors.

“A Merry Christmas To All”

This vintage 1926 Christmas feature comes from the Ford Historical Film Collection and was recently digitized by our colleagues in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.  

Henry Ford believed that motion pictures held great educational and advertising value.  As such, he established the Ford Motion Picture department in 1914 and filmed a variety of topics. These films were later donated to the National Archives (including The Great Train Robbery, featured earlier this month). 

Wishing you a Merry (if not quiet) Christmas & Happy Holidays from Today’s Document!


Happy 125th to Sequoia National Park, established on September 25, 1890!

These vintage 1930s scenes of Sequoia National Park come from Glacier National Park/Lassen National Park/Sequoia National Park, a color-tinted film reel featuring tours of Glacier National Park in Montana and California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park and Sequoia National Park.

This footage was recently treated by colleagues in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. Read more about their efforts in working with vintage color tinted films at:  Colorful Chemistry and a Visit to Your National Parks | The Unwritten Record

Watch the complete film at the usnatarchives YouTube Channel. The Sequoia National Park footage begins at approximately 7:06:

Sequoia National Park is jointly administered with neighboring Kings Canyon National Park, which also celebrated its 75th Anniversary earlier this year!

Learn about more Anniversary Events at Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Parks, from the National Park Service.

Record of a Homecoming: Preserving Interviews with Doug Clower and John McCain

Photograph of John McCain After Being Released as Prisoner of War. National Archives Identifier: 1633553

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.

Sometimes you just never know what you’re going to find in a can, or in this case, four cans. What I did know is that it wasn’t going to be good, at least physically, because I could smell it from several feet away – that telltale smell of vinegar syndrome. Encountering vinegar syndrome is a lot like having a bag of salt and vinegar chips explode in your face, or getting an unintended tour of a vinegar distillation tank. The smell is merely a symptom, however; vinegar syndrome causes a whole host of preservation issues that can sometimes be fatal to a record.

Luckily, in this case, we were able to preserve the reels before they fully deteriorated. The reels contained interviews with former prisoners of war John McCain and Claude Douglas Clower, recorded after their release from North Vietnam. The two men were shot down and captured by the North Vietnamese in the fall of 1967 and spent more than five years as prisoners of war under horrific conditions. They were released as part of Operation Homecoming on March 14, 1973. The interviews are unedited accounts of their experiences as POWs, their return journey, experiences with the press, and their gratitude at being brought home.

Listen to the preserved interviews here:

This item is sound-only. Although there was likely a picture, we do not have it in our holdings.

There are many reasons why vinegar syndrome happens – oftentimes it’s because acetate based film and soundtracks have been stored in hot and humid conditions, but it’s also kicked off by films with vinegar syndrome that are stored in close proximity. Vinegar syndrome is auto-catalytic meaning that the process is continuous, irreversible, speeds up over time and, for lack of a better term, is contagious to the films around it.

In addition to being incredibly stinky, vinegar syndrome can cause the film to become brittle, soft and sticky, or as hard as a hockey puck. The film is also likely to shrink horizontally and vertically, the emulsion may separate from the base, and plasticizer crystals can form.

A magnetic soundtrack with vinegar syndrome. This films is shrunken and curly, and therefore difficult to handle. The film’s plasticizer has also created a crystalline pattern on the surface and will shed during transfer or handling.

On this day, all four of the magnetic sound reels in front me were a level 3 on the Acid-Detection Strip Scale. There are three levels with three being the worst – this means that the reel is facing imminent loss through shrinkage, warping, and handling issues, and should be copied right away.  These reels were severely warped and had a shrinkage level of 2.2%, so it was going to be a challenge to preserve them.  

I inspected the reels–a mix of full coat magnetic track intercut with single stripe magnetic tracks– while wearing a respirator. The respirator wasn’t just to prevent the smell from reaching me – it protected me from irritation in my nasal passages, throat, and lungs while I was working on the soundtracks.

In order to save the content of the film I was going to need to transfer the reels on ourSondor OMA E and ingest the output signal into our digital audio workstation where we capture a WAV file using Wavelab. After that step is completed we create a new optical track using our MWA LLK5 optical sound laser film recorder printed out onto new, stable, polyester film stock.  You can learn more about this process in detail from a previous blog post.

Via Record of a Homecoming: Preserving Interviews with Doug Clower and John McCain | The Unwritten Record


Holy Act of Congress, Batman! Equal Pay for Equal Work!

January 29 is the fifth anniversary of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In commemoration, our colleagues in the NARA Motion Picture Preservation Lab have posted this 1973 Public Service Announcement (PSA) in which Batgirl explains the concept of “equal pay for equal work” to her boss (Batman) and co-worker (Robin). Luckily for them she is equally adept at disarming nefarious devices.

via Media Matters » Holy Act of Congress, Batman! Equal Pay for Equal Work!:

The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 was the first piece of legislation signed by President Barack Obama. It updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had made it illegal for employers to discriminate on the basis of sex when determining pay for employees doing the same work.

The 2009 Act resets the 180-day statute of limitations for filing an equal pay lawsuit each time a paycheck reflecting a discriminatory pay decision is issued. It was named for Lilly Ledbetter, whose equal-pay suit against her employer was dismissed by the Supreme Court because she had not filed it within 180 days of the discriminatory pay decision. Ledbetter says she was not aware of the pay discrepancy during that window of time.

Batman , ca. 1973.
From the General Records of the Employment Standards Administration


Every year, archivists and preservationists from around the world gather for the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) conference. This year it was held in Seattle at a hotel that looks out over the city’s famed monorail. Heidi Holmstrom, of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, and Holly McIntyre, of the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Archival Unit, represented NARA at the conference.

AMIA opened its first full day with a plenary focusing on disaster recovery in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The conference sessions were many and varied. Local archivists were on hand to provide an overview of film collections held by Seattle archives. Alumni of the AMIA/Image Permanence Institute internship program presented the results of their research into factors affecting acetate film deterioration. Heidi had the opportunity to present on the work of the digital motion picture subgroup of the External Reference Committee convened to support NARA’s recent Quality Assurance/Quality Control project.

A number of sessions addressed the challenges presented by born-digital media and the digitization of analog formats. Because moving image media files are so much bigger than text files (a scan of a single film can easily be several hundred gigabytes), they are even more difficult to manage and preserve. High-capacity networks and storage are needed to allow for files to be processed, moved, and secured. A digital asset management system designed for media files can streamline and simplify the tasks of moving, verifying, transcoding, and storing digital moving images. Learning about the systems and procedures that other institutions have in place can help provide guideposts for NARA as we work to preserve and provide access to the moving image records of the Federal government.

While AMIA sessions are a great way to learn about what others are doing, in the evenings attendees have a chance to show off their own institution’s holdings. This year’s conference featured two Archival Screening Nights, at which NARA presented a total of three films. The selections for this year were chosen from past programs by popular vote, and it was wonderful to see that NARA’s films have made an impression over the years. The NARA films shown were:

Curious Alice (ARC Identifier 5717248) – A trippy film using the Alice in Wonderland story to show children that drugs are bad.

How to Succeed with Brunettes (Item 330-DVIC-25147) – A dating etiquette film for Naval officers.

Effects of LSD-25 on Troops Marching (ARC Identifier 2123707) – This film is exactly what the title says.


“A Merry Christmas to All”, ca. 1926

This vintage 1926 Christmas feature, a partial adaption of the classic “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (aka: “The Night Before Christmas”), comes from the Ford Historical Film Collection and was recently digitized by our colleagues in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab.  

Henry Ford believed that motion pictures held great educational and advertising value.  As such, he established the Ford Motion Picture department in 1914 and filmed a variety of topics. These films were later donated to the National Archives (including The Great Train Robbery, featured earlier this month). 


Happy ‪#‎AskAnArchivist‬ Day!

We have five staff members from across the National Archives answering your archives questions. Tweet us your questions–our experts will be standing by at 11 am ET  on Twitter at @usnatarchives!


Audrey Amidon and Criss Kovac
Audrey and Criss work in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, where they and their colleagues perform conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives. They write about their work and their favorite film finds on The Unwritten Record. Audrey studied film archives at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England and previously worked at the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum. Criss studied film preservation at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and has been supervisor of the Motion Picture Lab since 2005.


Stephanie Greenhut

Stephanie Greenhut runs, the online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives, and shares teaching resources via National Archives Education on Facebook and the Education Updates blog. She focuses on education technology, incorporating primary sources into websites, apps, eBooks, and other online learning resources. She is a former classroom teacher.


Natalie Rocchio
Natalie specializes in digital outreach for the Center for Legislative Archives. She creates content, manages, and maintains the Center’s twitter and tumblr accounts, as well as the Center’s portion of She has a Master’s degree in History with concentrations in American History and Public History from American University.

@archivespres (Preservation Programs)

Nancy Stanfill
Nancy is a Preservation Technician at the St. Louis Preservation Program. She co-chairs the Preservation Programs Social Media accounts, which includes highlights from the Persons of Exceptional Prominence (PEP) records and updates on breakthroughs in filming and scanning severely burned records. She has a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science with a Certificate in Conservation from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a member of the first class to begin the program in 1993.


Joseph P. Keefe

Joe is an Archives Specialist and Reference Team Lead and Social Media co-coordinator with the National Archives at Boston. He began his National Archives career in the Federal Records Center where he worked in both research and the Transfer of records into the facility. He moved to his current position as an Archives Specialist in 2006. Joe has a bachelor’s degree in History from Framingham State University in Framingham, Massachusetts and a MA in American History from the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

He has lectured on numerous subjects in New England including genealogical research, Census, Naturalization and Passenger Lists and 18th 19th and 20th Century Military records, 54th Massachusetts Infantry and National Archives records related to World War II.

The Challenge of the Push-Pull Track
There are many sound systems that have been used for motion picture films over the years. Some of the earliest relied on sound recorded to a disc or cylinder that had to be played back in sync with the film. Even after optical soundtracks became the industry standard there were multiple optical systems available. Soundtracks recorded as variable area or variable density are easy to play back with standard equipment and fortunately most soundtracks we see are one of these two types. However, NARA also has a good number of films with push-pull soundtracks.
Push-pull tracks cannot be read by standard equipment because the sound information contained on the two halves of the soundtrack must be processed and combined together. If the processing is not done, you can easily mistake the audio for a monologue by one of the teachers in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
NARA’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab recently installed a new system for reading optical sound that will finally allow us to decode push-pull soundtracks in house. A camera records a high-resolution image of the soundtrack that is then converted into audio information by software on a digital audio workstation. The software can isolate the two halves of the soundtrack image and process them together to output clear and undistorted audio. If preservation of the film original is required, the audio can be recorded optically onto stable polyester film stock.
Listen to our push-pull test to hear the difference!


Seeing Yosemite From a Saddle - Happy 125th Anniversary to Yosemite National Park!

Originally established with the Yosemite Grant Act signed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, authorizing the protection of the “Yo-Semite valley” and “Mariposa Big Tree Grove,” the area around Yosemite Valley would eventually be incorporated into Yosemite National Park on October 1, 1890.

These vintage scenes of Yosemite National Park come from the National Park Service film Seeing Yosemite from a SaddleOriginally tinted yellow and toned blue, the resulting color is a lush blue-green that complements the nature scenes captured in Yosemite National Park.  This footage was recently treated by colleagues in the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. Read more about their efforts in working with vintage color tinted films at: Colorful Chemistry and a Visit to Your National Parks | The Unwritten Record

Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle (Tinted and Toned), ca. 1932.
Department of the Interior. National Park Service. Harpers Ferry Center.
Record Group 79: Records of the National Park Service, 1785 - 2006

Don’t miss our earlier posts celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Yosemite Land Grant (6/30/1864)

Originally posted by todaysdocument


Are you fired up for the Sochi Winter Olympics?

Here’s a flashback from 50 years ago from the 1964 Winter Olympic Games in Innsbruck, Austria, courtesy of our colleagues at National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab:

This Week in Universal News: The 1964 Winter Olympics

WINTER OLYMPICS RECORDS FALL AT INNSBRUCK: The eyes of 37 nations are on Innsbruck, Austria as their favorite sons – and daughters – vie for the Gold, Silver and Bronze medals. A Russian husband and wife team win the pair figure skating. The Ski races are highlighted by Egon Zimmerman’s victory in the downhill. Great Britain wins her third Gold Medal in the history of Winter Olympics as the team of Bony Nash and Robin Nixon win by 12/100th of a second. Christine and Marielle Boitschel, representing France, run one and two in the women’s Slalom. Jean Saubert wins Uncle Sam’s first medal – a Bronze – as she places third.

Universal Newsreel Volume 37, Issue 10, 02/03/1964

via Media Matters » This Week in Universal News: The 1964 Winter Olympics


Celebrating the Original National Beer Day

Prior to full repeal of Prohibition with the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, President Roosevelt signed the Cullen-Harrison Act, (aka the Beer-Wine Revenue Act), which amended the Volstead Act to allow the manufacture and sale of beer with a 3.2% alcohol content. Previously, the Volstead Act had prohibited the sale of any beverage with an alcohol content above 0.5%. 

Signed on March 22, 1933, the Cullen-Harrison Act went into effect on April 7, now observed as National Beer Day.

(Clips excerpted from: “Brewers All Set To Go As Congress Votes To Make Beer Legal,” Universal News, Volume 5, Release 128, Story #7. March 16, 1933)

Learn more about the U.S. Government’s changing approach towards alcohol at the newest exhibit at the National Archives Museum in Washington, DC, Spirited Republic: Alcohol in American History. The exhibit contains many records from NARA’s holdings, including films digitized by our colleagues in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab!

More via The Unwritten Record » A Spirited Republic in Motion: Prohibition is Repealed!


The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights

In honor of Blind Americans Equality Day and White Cane Safety Day, we’re sharing this post from our colleagues at the Motion Picture Preservation Labs, courtesy of guest blogger Brian Real:

In 1964, the United States Information Agency (USIA) hired educational filmmaker Gary Goldsmith to make a documentary about how blind persons were treated within the United States. The Soviets portrayed Americans as uncaring when it came to disabled individuals, so a simple, straightforward film showing American organizations caring for the blind would counteract this negative messaging. The film would be made for and distributed to foreign audiences through the USIA’s information centers in more than a hundred nations.

The USIA recruiter explained they wanted a film about the treatment of the blind “to counteract Soviet propaganda portraying the United States as a heartless society that exploited the weak and had no support for people in need. They wanted to show that people with disabilities had government support.” The contract was for a ten minute documentary on American organizations that helped blind persons. As Goldsmith conducted research into this area, though, the project became far more interesting.

The project changed as Goldsmith conducted research. Instead of providing a broad look at the treatment of the blind in the United States, the resulting product, Born a Man, told the remarkable story of Jack Polston. Polston had recovered from an accident that blinded him and resumed his previous career as an electrician. Despite seemingly focusing on one person, Polston’s rehabilitation and life is representative of a larger movement supported by the National Federation of the Blind to promote legislative actions, training programs, and other efforts that would give blind persons greater mobility and more socioeconomic opportunities. 

Learn more of the history behind this remarkable motion picture at: The True Story of a Blind Electrician: “Born a Man” as a Document of Disability Rights | The Unwritten Record

Born A ManSeries: Moving Images Relating to U.S. Domestic and International Activities , 1982 - 1999.  Record Group 306: Records of the U.S. Information Agency, 1900 - 2003