motion picture preservation lab


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.


Classics Restored: The Negro Soldier and Let There Be Light, November 7 at Archives I

In honor of Veterans Day, we premiere high-definition versions of two classic World War II–era documentaries, preserved and digitally restored by the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Team.

The Negro Soldier (1944; 43 minutes) was produced by Frank Capra’s Army motion picture unit to help unite white and black troops in the fight against the Axis. Let There Be Light (1946; 58 minutes), commissioned from Academy Award®-winning director John Huston by the U.S. Army Signal Corps, follows the treatment of emotionally traumatized GIs.

The screening will be introduced by Dr. David Culbert, author of Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History.

Wednesday, November 7, at 7 p.m. in the McGowan Theater at Archives I.

Capturing audio from shrunken and buckling magnetic soundtracks can be challenging, but in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab we are equipped with archival sound heads for our Sondor machine. The archival head has a small wheel that can be lowered to hold the film down so it has good contact with the head during playback. The sprocket wheel can also be changed to accommodate different levels of shrinkage. We had to use this archival setup to capture much of the Truman Library’s Screen Gems Collection to our digital audio workstation.

In the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, we regularly encounter vinegar syndrome and film shrinkage, but many of the magnetic soundtracks encountered during our Truman project proved extra challenging. Some of the reels curled up as soon as they were unspooled, making them difficult to handle or transfer. Another indicator of deterioration is the plasticizer that has leached from the cellulose acetate base and is visible on the film surface.

While the Truman picture elements in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab are in better shape than the magnetic soundtracks, we still sometimes find very visible signs of deterioration. Some types of film splicing tape used in the past react with film emulsion over time, causing discoloration. We remove harmful tape, clean off the residue, and resplice the film using more stable tape. Though we can’t remove the discoloration, it will be much less evident when the film is reprinted to new black and white polyester film stock.

Sometimes the oldest technology is the best! The Motion Picture Preservation Lab used this Model J printer from the 1930s to print new polyester preservation elements from deteriorating films in the Truman Library’s Screen Gems Collection. Because the printer runs at a relatively slow speed, it is gentle on fragile films. For scratched film originals, the lab also used a newer wet-gate printer to minimize the appearance of scratches.


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.

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!