George Willeman held in his hands a mystery on film. It had been sent to him in a beat-up, rusted canister by a colleague who had gotten it from a Canadian film archaeologist. Like most films Willeman gets, this one was old. Ancient by movie-industry standards.
It seemed to start in the middle—there were no opening credits. No name, no recognizable actors. But Willeman, a film archivist, knew the reel was important. It was a silent movie shot in color, making it one of the oldest color films ever made, predating 1939’s The Wizard of Oz by at least a decade.
Willeman works at the Library of Congress’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Conservation—Packard for short. The campus, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, houses 90 miles of shelves, 35 climate-controlled storage units, and 124 nitrate vaults built for the long-term safekeeping of the world’s largest collection of films, television programs, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings. Every movie, every TV show, every record you can think of is kept within its underground hallways, fluorescent-lit cement tunnels as long as football fields.
The Packard campus houses silent films that have been restored from grainy nothingness. It has Gone With the Wind and the rest of the classics. It has films on obscure, 19th-century formats, some of which are the last in existence.
It also has Scary Movie 4 and its predecessors. It gets copies of almost every movie that hits the theaters—good, bad, and awful—and the ones that go straight to DVD, too. It has video games and commercials and reality TV. It has Judge Judy. Soon it’ll have those YouTube videos of the toddler feeling disoriented from nitrous oxide and of the guys in lab coats who put Mentos in Diet Coke bottles.
But the most important piece to George Willeman right then was the riddle in the rusted canister. The film’s plot was about the Civil War, and he estimated it was made in the late 1920s. The fact that it was in color meant the filmmakers had put some money into it and most likely filed a copyright. He contacted the library’s reference office on Capitol Hill and searched through copyright forms for films that might fit the description. One did.
The Heart of General Robert E. Lee had been thought lost for almost a century. Now it was in Willeman’s hands. But the discovery raised another question: This reel was the second half of the film. Where was the first?
Seventy miles southwest of DC in Culpeper, the Packard building’s glass walls emit a glow. Gregory Lukow, chief of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division, stands outside, pointing out the facility’s features on a map.
“Underneath this ridge is our collections storage,” he says. “Over here are the nitrate vaults. And this circular point up here was where they kept the turret.”
“Yes, the turret. Where the soldiers planted their machine gun.”
The Packard campus was built in 1969 as a Cold War apocalypse bunker. It had lead-lined shutters, barbed-wire fences, and a machine-gun turret. The Federal Reserve stored $3 billion within its radiation-proof walls. In the event of a catastrophic Soviet strike, the money was to be used to replenish the currency supply east of the Mississippi River.
Until 1992, the bunker also was an emergency continuity-of-government facility, designed to house up to 540 people for 30 days after a nuclear attack. Along with beds and freeze-dried food, it had an indoor pistol range, a helicopter landing pad, and a cold-storage area for bodies awaiting burial in case radiation levels were too high to go outside.
The bunker was decommissioned in 1993 and sat abandoned for four years. During that time, the Library of Congress was facing a storage crisis. The audiovisual collections were spread across three Capitol Hill buildings, two facilities in Virginia and Maryland, an Air Force base in Ohio, and a rented storage center in Pennsylvania.
Lukow’s predecessor, David Francis, heard about the empty bunker in Culpeper and saw a chance to consolidate the audiovisual collection under one roof. It was an opportunity to start fresh. The methods of conservation were changing, and here was a chance to create a collection that could last for centuries. All the library needed was money.
Next: Packard holds 1.3 million videos and more than 3 million audio recordings.
The investment came from David Woodley Packard. Son of Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard, the philanthropist bought the property in 1997 and spent millions building a state-of-the-art facility. In July 2007, he donated the campus to the Library of Congress. It tied Wolf Trap as the second-largest private-sector gift to the federal government. The Smithsonian Institution is the biggest.
In addition to the $160 million Packard spent, Congress has appropriated about $100 million over the last three years. Today the facility holds 1.3 million videos and more than 3 million audio recordings. There’s a listening auditorium with specialized acoustics and a theater that screens rare films—the only part of the campus open to the public. There are massive servers and preservation labs and more than 100 miles of cable to connect it all.
The first film the Library of Congress ever received was from the Thomas Edison Company in 1894, a roll of short scenes shot on an experimental technology called kinetoscopic film.
That experiment in moving pictures would grow into the silent era of film, and the 1910s and ’20s would see the birth of the industry as well as some of the most iconic films in our history. Because of poor conservation, Lukow says, only about a quarter of those remain today.
The list of lost movies is replete with would-be classics. Just a nine-minute clip of Greta Garbo in The Divine Woman remains, and the legendary horror film London After Midnight, from Dracula director Tod Browning, exists only in still photographs. Even films by directors such as Alfred Hitchcock and D.W. Griffith have been lost.
Part of the “nitrate era,” 1915 to 1945, marks another major gap in the library’s collection because of the challenges of storing explosive nitrate film. During these early years of the film industry, many companies destroyed their film reels to mine the trace amounts of silver inside. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that producers bothered to save copies of their films, when new technologies such as cable TV and Betamax and VHS videotapes provided a stream of revenue after a movie’s theatrical run.
The library’s archivists rely on the US Copyright Deposit System, which requires studios to mail them copies of most films and television programs. Donations have filled in the gaps. Bob Hope’s gift of his own material was so large that it warranted the creation of the Bob Hope Gallery at the library’s Thomas Jefferson Building on Capitol Hill. In 2000, Coca-Cola donated the entire history of its TV and radio commercials and paid for their digitizing. Each year, Packard receives up to 150,000 items.
In a sparse white server room, the hum of hard drives illustrates the future of audiovisual conservation. Robotic arms whir and rotate inside massive servers, maintaining a system that currently stores more than a petabyte of cultural history—more than 4,000 computers’ worth of data collected in just three years. It’s all duplicated and backed up in a secret off-site location.
Until now, all of this has been gathered the old-fashioned way: through copyright systems, legacy collections, donations. But that’s about to change.
The Live Capture Room is the size of a dorm room, tiny compared with the echoing vaults and Packard’s vast sorting floor, where rows and rows of carts hold materials waiting to be organized and stored. But the Live Capture Room may be the future of audiovisual preservation.
When it’s completed, inside will be equipment that can record up to 120 TV channels in real time. The goal is not only to capture individual programs but to record entire days of programming as samples of the “flow” of broadcast communication. “We want to be able to capture a day in the life of American media,” says Lukow.
The room also has 72 computer stations to record Internet videos and radio and other Web broadcasts. Lukow’s team will track the most popular categories on sites such as YouTube, selecting videos that reach a certain cultural status.
The move recalls an initiative at the library’s DC headquarters to archive every public Twitter message ever sent. Billions of 140-character musings that can be almost comically irrelevant will soon be a permanent part of our nation’s history. When the initiative was announced last April, the library’s director of communications, Matt Raymond, said: “It boggles my mind to think what we might be able to learn about ourselves and the world around us from this wealth of data. And I’m certain we’ll learn things that none of us now can even possibly conceive.”
Lukow expresses a similar sentiment when talking about the Live Capture Room. “We asked ourselves, ‘What are we not getting?’ It’s not our job as preservationists to say what Americans will be proudest of 100 years from now. It’s not our job to ask what scholars and historians will think about the collection.”
It’s the invisible things, Lukow says, that mean the most. The things so ingrained in our lives that we don’t even know they’re there. The things we don’t notice until they’re gone.
Next: “Slowly, certain sounds and places dissapear.”
In 1939, a 16-year-old named Tony Schwartz went blind. The cause was never found. But for six months the loss of his sight allowed him to forge a powerful connection with the auditory world. He began listening in a new way. Then, as inexplicably as it left, his vision returned.
Years later, Schwartz began making audiotapes. Tapes about New York City, where he lived. About the city’s sound. Tapes without narration or context, only ambience.
Schwartz heard cab drivers and street performers, conversations between immigrants from distant countries, the familiar clang and echo of street construction. Inconsequential things, it seemed, such as the hum of traffic on the 17 blocks of tenement neighborhoods around West 61st Street. Things people heard every day. Why would anybody want a recording of them?
Today those 17 blocks are demolished, replaced by Lincoln Center. The streets Schwartz explored have changed, and so have their sounds. The tapes are all that’s left.
In 2007, the Packard campus acquired Tony Schwartz’s recordings, a half century of work. Schwartz went on to become many things: a sound designer, radio host, author, art director, even political advertiser, responsible for the Lyndon Johnson “daisy” ad, which showed a girl picking petals off a flower until a mushroom cloud erupted in the distance. But the label most important to Lukow is fellow archivist.
“He makes us realize in retrospect how much of the American soundscape doesn’t exist anymore,” says Lukow. “We don’t even know it’s changing. Slowly certain sounds and places disappear. You don’t recognize it until you go back and listen.”
It’s not hard to imagine, decades ago, a dismissal of Schwartz’s “noise” that would be similar to brushing off one of today’s tweets or a reality-TV show. But Schwartz’s recordings have survived: Their value is not the sounds themselves but their link to a lost world.
“We preserve the history,” says Lukow. “That can be well-known feature films or things that weren’t thought of as much at the time. Things we watched in one way or another every day. It’s all part of the fabric of what we saw at any given moment as Americans.”
Deep in the bunker, Patrick Kennedy works in a room lit by the glow of television screens. Kennedy’s job is to take the oldest, most beat-up reels and make them new again.
He sits behind a switchboard with so many buttons, dials, and levers that it looks like the controls of an airplane. Playing on the screen in front of him is an episode of the 1960s TV series Bonanza. Except it’s not good Bonanza; it’s a fuchsia-tinted abomination of it, as if the screen were covered in pink highlighter.
When Hollywood realized the danger of flammable nitrate film, it switched to a film stock called Eastman Color. It was called “safety film” because, unlike nitrate, it didn’t tend to burst into flames. Unfortunately, the chemical makeup of Eastman Color was prone to degradation no matter what storage precautions were taken. Time itself was enough to ruin an entire generation of film. Thus the pinkness of it all. With Bonanza, Kennedy worked for about ten hours to fix each episode. He likens his digital remastering to working in Photoshop: changing and enhancing colors, fiddling with the hue and contrast.
Not all copies of Bonanza are fuchsia—you can get the show on DVD from Best Buy or Netflix. Kennedy’s aim was to restore footage missing from those episodes, such as the commercial “bumps” (“We’ll be right back after a word from our sponsors . . .”).
All this work for a few commercial bumps?
“What exactly were we watching back then?” asks Kennedy. “What role did advertising play? We always say that we’re dealing with America’s cultural heritage here. And that’s what this is.”
No matter how small.
Near Kennedy’s control panel is the preservation lab. It’s a high-ceilinged room that smells of chemicals. Glass cabinets off to the side hold long strands of film.
Here preservationists do a frame-by-frame analysis of old films, restoring them with ultrasonic cleaners, fixing ripped sprocket holes, and removing residue by hand. If the original can’t be repaired, they’ll use state-of-the-art technology to transfer the footage to a new reel. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll digitize it, then transfer it back to film.
Why not just keep it as a digital copy? Why not just digitize everything? Film remains the medium of choice for preservationists. Most movies aren’t stored digitally at Packard. Those massive servers hold primarily audio recordings and some video content that originally appeared on cassette tape. Anything that came on film stays on film.
A movie stored digitally is only a file on a hard drive, Lukow explains. You can’t view it unless you have the right technology. When you’re thinking of preservation in terms of centuries, this doesn’t bode well. A reel of film is primitive by comparison: All you need to view it is a light source and a lens. Film also lasts a long time when stored at the right temperature—35 degrees and 30 percent relative humidity. When Lukow says a long time, he means generations.
Beyond the lab is a large room full of old wooden crates and tall shelves packed with gadgets. The air smells musty, like a tomb. “You might be reminded of that final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Lukow says.
It’s a storage room, filled with technology the future forgot. Film and radio equipment dating back decades, obscure systems that worked only with obscure formats. Strange things, such as “video disks” that played movies with a needle, like a record player. Packard’s preservationists venture down here to cannibalize old systems for replacement parts when something needs salvaging. “We have to be state-of-the-art for not just 2010 but 1910 as well,” says Lukow. “But,” he adds, gazing across the room, “you never know when one piece in here might be the last of its kind.”
When an old reel of nitrocellulose film is stored improperly, it releases chemical fumes. When it’s mixed with enough oxygen, you’ve got trouble.
Next: The importance of nitrate film.
December 7, 1978, was a construction day at the National Archives in Suitland. The workers were inside the facility’s storage vaults—built three decades earlier as temporary containers for film reels.
The construction workers went out to lunch and left some of the vault doors open. They had been using power tools, and the residual heat ignited the film’s fumes. Firefighters opened the rest of the vaults in search of trapped workers, exposing more film to the heat and quickly spreading the blaze.
One thing about nitrate fires is that they can’t be put out by water. They burn out on their own. Firefighters were helpless to stop the inferno, and they watched as 12 million feet of film was wiped out.
The Packard campus stores nearly 140,000 cans of nitrate film in a wing of its underground facility. After the National Archives fire, steps were taken to make sure such destruction never happened again.
The nitrate vaults, made of thick concrete, are kept at 39 degrees. A sprinkler system is installed in each, not as a way to put out a fire but to douse surrounding areas so the flames won’t spread as easily. A chimney in each vault is designed to funnel the smoke out.
Two years ago, Packard received what archivists call the Maddox Collection, a jumble of boxes and bins of nitrate originals that had been hidden in an old shed in Duck Run, Tennessee. Their owner, John Maddox, was a film collector who would screen them in his back yard; many turned out to be one-of-a-kind copies dating back to the early 1910s.
But the nature of nitrate film—the danger of it—leads to the question asked so often at Packard: Why keep it? Why not transfer it to a less volatile format? Lukow at first gives a technical response, describing the higher resolution, the deeper image, how the technology of copying it is still improving.
Then he talks about Frank Capra, the moviemaker who is as much a part of Americana as Mark Twain. Buried somewhere in these vaults is a nitrate copy of his Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. A classic. But it’s not just any copy. It’s the original, the film that was inside the camera that Capra sat behind while James Stewart stood in front.
“At some point in the future, we will probably be able to make a perfect replication of the Mona Lisa,” says Lukow later. “Will that ever be the same as standing in front of the original?”
He asks the question as if he doesn’t have an answer. But then he answers it: “No. It won’t.”
Just past the security desk near the facility’s entrance is Packard’s theater. The campus is one of only five places in the country that can legally screen nitrate films.
A red velvet curtain drapes the stage, which is framed by Art Deco paneling that evokes the golden age of Hollywood. The chandeliers are replicas of those from the fabled Warner Grand Theatre in San Pedro, California. And when the theater screens silent films, a reproduction Mighty Wurlitzer organ plays along, as it would have long ago.
It was two years after the discovery of one reel of The Heart of General Robert E. Lee that George Willeman unearthed the second. When the American Museum of Radio and Electricity in Bellingham, Washington, was cleaning out its basement, a staffer stumbled across an old canister without a label. It wasn’t part of the museum’s collection, and someone suggested donating it to Goodwill. A Seattle film buff intervened and spent a year looking for someone to help find the other piece of the puzzle.
Last July, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, he discussed the old reel with a Library of Congress official, who put him in touch with Willeman. United once more, the two reels are undergoing a digital restoration so the film can be shown in Packard’s theater in time for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. This forgotten film, once lost to history, is now a permanent part of it.
This article first appeared in the April 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.