When David Weiss obtains a canister of old movie film, he gives it the sniff test.
“I pry off the lid, sniff it, and if it doesn’t knock me over with the smell of vinegar, it’s pretty good,” Weiss said. A whiff of acetic acid – known in the biz as “vinegar syndrome” – indicates advanced deterioration. If the film smells like moth balls, it’s in decent shape.
Weiss is the executive director of Northeast Historic Film, an organization dedicated to preserving New England’s heritage by protecting old movies. Their Bucksport, Maine, location houses more than 10 million feet of historical film. The group works to salvage film in all conditions: burned, scratched, torn, or salad-smelling.
Preserving historical films is a way to stay connected to “the reality of the past,” Weiss said. When he began preserving New England’s old films in the 1980s, his goal was to make historical footage accessible to people hungry for their heritage. In Maine, this heritage was more often than not lumber based, and films ran the gamut in content from 1930s’ log driving to 1940s’ training films for the pulpwood industry.
The first film Weiss rehabilitated – a 1930s logging film shot on a 6-mm camera by the owner of the now defunct Machias Lumber Company in Maine – was made into the movie From Stump to Ship. In its original format, the 30-minute film was silent but came with a script for narrators to read while the film was playing. In the revised version, a Maine resident narrates the script as a voiceover in the film. (“Fo uh one hundred and sixty nine consecutive ye ahs, the forests on the Machias Rivah have resounded with the sound of the woodsman’s axe.”) The film includes footage of men using two-man crosscut saws, hand tools, sleds, and horses to log in winter. Viewers see the men eating one of their many meals of the day and watch how logging camp cooks prepared beanhole beans (see recipe, next page). In the spring footage, men use peaveys to coax logs down the river, deftly running across moving logs in their spiked boots.
When From Stump to Ship had its initial showings in 1985, “people flocked to it,” Weiss recalled.
“It wasn’t brilliant filmmaking, but we gave people something that was important to them – an unvarnished view of that industry. Everybody’s grandpa worked in the woods, so there were close ties to big industry here. It was relevant,” he said.
Soon, the film became part of the curriculum in Maine elementary schools. Copies were given as presents for Father’s Day, Weiss said. It was shown in nursing homes and at historical societies. In 2002, the Library of Congress added From Stump to Ship to the National Film Registry. “The success of that film led us to do more,” he said.
Today, the Northeast Historic Film collection offers hundreds of documentary films on life in old New England, including such classics as Dead River Rough Cut, a film about two Maine beaver trappers, and King Spruce (in one part, when dynamite is brought out to clear a logjam, the narrator dryly concludes: “very few logs are lost, and very few men.”) In Days Gone By: Vermont Country Ways, includes personal narratives and footage of chores, harvests, barn raisings, and seasonal rhythms of old time Vermont.
The film preservation process includes much more than adding a narrator or artfully splicing footage. After the initial sniff test, the real work begins. If the tiny perforations that edge the film are cracked, they must be repaired. If the film is tightly coiled around a small reel, the staff transfers the brittle film to a larger reel. Dirty film is run through a cleaning machine to remove dust and dirt.
Finally, the old film is digitized and transferred to DVD, Blu-Ray, or made into a computer file. In order to transfer all that film, though, the original machines needed to play it must be up and running. That means keeping old projectors and the now-historical VHS players functioning.
Weiss said owners of historical film footage should preserve the film before it’s too late. And if you do get it transferred to DVD, don’t throw out the original film, but store it in a cool, dry place (he recommends the closet in your guest bedroom). Without the original, he said, transferring moving images into whatever future format exists may not be possible.
The historical films Weiss works preserves are not all tied to big industry. One of his favorites is a six-minute film, Cherryfield, 1938.
“It’s really simple,” he said. The film is footage by a resident of a small town in southeastern Maine during the Depression. “Someone went around and took shots of everybody in town: school kids, teachers, shopkeepers, guys cutting wood. In a very short time, you feel like you’ve wandered around town and gotten to see who’s there and what they’re doing,” Weiss explained. “There’s no plot. But it reveals a very nice portrait of a place; that person had a nice eye.”
The original film is in horrible shape, Weiss said. It’s got water damage, scratches, and sections spliced out. “The strength of its images comes through anyway.”