Pete Hammond

Determined to show it is more than just a one trick – or is that one night - pony the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences opened up its extensive, and impressive, film vaults for the press on Tuesday and provided clear proof they are also running a world class archival and preservation program for film and digital and other  materials. As the Academy’s Managing Director of Programming, Education and Preservation Randy Haberkamp said, “this is what we do the other 364 days of the year”  in a demonstation that the organization is about much more than just Oscar night. As a preview of what film fans will get a chance to see on September 10th (for invited guests) and 11th (the public)  and in honor of the 10th anniversary of the Academy’s Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study located on Vine St. in Hollywood, Academy officials led by Haberkamp  showed off the impressive space that used to be an ABC television studio and is now housing three floors of vaults and storage areas for the approximately 400 restoration projects and other programs the Academy sponsors each year. The 10th anniversary event called Inside The Vaults will also feature the Los Angeles premiere of the Archive’s newly restored print of the 1920 The Mark Of Zorro as well as the rare Mary Pickford short The New York Hat (1912).  In relation to the latter, the Academy and the Mary Pickford Foundation are partnering on a multi-year initiative to promote the “legacy of Pickford and the silent film era”. Pickford was one of the founders of the Academy. Artifacts from her career including letters and photos will be displayed, including a 1959  letter in which she discussed her plans and support for a Hollywood museum. Haberkamp said at long last the Academy is trying to make her dream come true with the creation (in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) of a permanent Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. The museum project is currently in the midst of a major fundraising drive and expects to reach the next leg of its goal with Board approval on October 16. Bob Iger, along with Governors Tom Hanks and Annette Bening are leading that financial effort.

During Tuesday’s tour the Academy showed off some of the potential pieces the museum will contain including the earliest wood motion picture cameras used by Pickford and Charlie Chaplin as well as the latest acquisition donated to the Academy: A coat, hat, wig and props trunk that belonged to Harpo Marx and given to the Acad by his son Bill Marx who once served as the comedian’s prop master.

Among the many vaults visited was the traffic department  which works on prints and collections and loans out film and materials to archives around the world. Last year over 525 items were loaned out and 888 were used by the Academy for their own programs. Another vault, kept at freezing temperatures as low as 40 degrees and 25% relative humidity is what they loosely refer to as a “before and after” vault housing various pieces of film including alternate takes and rarely seen sequences. It is a researcher’s paradise with new entries coming in all the time.  Currently archivists are working on the large Saul Bass collection.

Another vault is used strictly for film storage with each print carefully catalogued for easy access. Haberkamp and Academy Film Archive Director Mike Pogrzelski explained that even though digital is the clear future their goal is to also preserve as much film as they possibly can. “It is because future generations should have the opportunity to see films the way they were originally created,” said Haberkamp who adds that it’s doubly important since ever-changing digital technologies have not been solidified. Their “film to film” project preserves all different kinds of movies, short and long, and that effort will be celebrated at the end of September with a special weekend-long screening series.

The Academy employs four full-time preservationists who are hard at work on many projects including the preservation of 230 war shorts that were made on very dicey nitrate film and are now being painstakingly restored at a pace of several dozen a year. Since nitrate is very dangerous the Academy actually leases vaults at the UCLA Archives facility in Santa Clarita to store them. The vault also includes the 60,000 trailer collection, the world’s largest. 70 to 100 researchers come in each year to use these facilities. Another vault showed work in progress on numerous film and video programs including clips from Oscar shows, Academy special programs and filmmakers’ own home movies which have been donated to the Academy.

Andy Maltz, the Director of the Acad’s Science and Technology Council showed off their own shooting stage ( The Stella) and groundbreaking work at their  lab which is used for research and experimentation into the next generation of technology.  He said the Academy puts not-so-subtle pressure on the industry to  constantly innovate by showing off their complex work and sharing their studies with  filmmakers who will want to go on and use some of these breakthroughs in their own work.

And in the conservation area Academy employees were hard at work restoring and repairing posters, photos , production designs and other items from their massive collection that numbers over 70,000. Work being done included an original production design sketch for a house in Gone With The Wind that is one of many objects being borrowed by the Frankfurt Film Museum for an exhibit later this year called “85 Years Of  Oscar”. Work is also being done for the Academy’s own exhibition of Universal Horror coming this Fall in honor of U’s 100th anniversary. In the last 12 months alone the Academy’s Events and Exhibitions efforts (overseen by Ellen Harrington) totaled 90 different programs including 58 in Los Angeles, 14 each in New York and Washington D.C. and 2 in London among other locations.

The Academy also showed off more large vaults with rows and rows of moveable shelving being prepped for precise temperature controlled shelf space for the large numbers of donations they have and expect to get, particularly in the ramp-up to the museum project which should be completed in 3 to 5 years and will be located at the old May Co building on Fairfax and Wilshire. Some of the large poster collection now at the Academy Library on La Cienega will be moved over to the Pickford  since the library has only limited shelf space left for the ever-expanding collections. Lining the halls of the Pickford (which also includes a state-of-the-art screening facility) are some of the rarest and earliest examples of poster art

For Haberkamp this is all about the future. “To preserve, store, exhibit. This building may look like a cement box to some but it is a great place where great things are happening, ” he said.

Tickets for September 11th’s Inside The Vaults are sold out but there will be a standby line on the day of the event and numbers will be handed out beginning at 5:30pm.

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.