Restoring the Past One Frame at a Time
RTF professor preserves the history and stories told through film
When you ask Caroline Frick if she has a favorite film, she will wince ever-so slightly, betraying a hint of frustration.
She will steer the conversation away from whether "Citizen Kane" or "The Godfather" should place first in the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Movies list.
Perhaps Frick, an assistant professor in the Department of Radio-Television- Film in the College of Communication, has seen too many films to pick just one. Or perhaps she would rather discuss what she's most passionate about – discovering and preserving historic films.
Only a small number of film aficionados worldwide can match her expertise researching, cataloging and restoring prints. "As a kid, I remember asking my mom if there were librarians – but for films instead of books," Frick says. "When I heard that there were, I never looked at anything else."
As the founder and executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, she has devoted her career to the discovery and preservation of Texas films. The organization attempts to collect and preserve all Texas films – educational films, local advertisements, abandoned local television airings, documentaries, feature films and even home movies.
Her work discovering, restoring and digitizing these films is not just a personal obsession – it helps to preserve the film and cultural heritage of Texas.
TEXAS ARCHIVE OF THE MOVING IMAGE
Frick, who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., began archiving as an intern at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., before working at the National Archives, American Movie Classics, the Library of Congress and Warner Bros.
Eventually, she enrolled in the Ph.D. program in the Department of Radio- Television-Film at The University of Texas at Austin. While still a student, she started the Texas Archive of the Moving Image in her apartment in 2002.
Since then, the organization's collection of Texas films has grown into a full-fledged library accessible to the public through streaming on its website: www.texasarchive.org.
The nonprofit is comprised of five part-time workers who enlist and teach students the tools of the trade at offices in downtown Austin. It offers more than 1,000 films, including footage of natural disasters, Texas Department of Public Safety training films and humorous commercials. "The oldest films we've archived are copies from the aftermath of the hurricane in Galveston in 1900," Frick says. "Those are some of the earliest films that exist in the entire world."
Some of the films may seem odd, but Frick explains there is tremendous value in this material. "If you think about it, the Zapruder film of President Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas became one of the most famous home movies of all time," she says. "Yet, no institution had emerged to preserve, study and exhibit these images specifically related to Texas until the Texas Archive of the Moving Image."
Frick's work has resulted in numerous honors. In 2010, she served as curator at the George Eastman House International Museum of Film and Photography, home to one of the largest feature film collections in the world. And in 2011, she became president of the Board of Directors of the Association of Moving Image Archivists.
When celluloid film decomposes, it shrinks and gives off a vinegar smell. Some film is in such poor condition it must sit in chemical vapors for months before becoming malleable enough to restore. Only then can archivists begin the process of building new sprockets, matching color and fixing scratches.
While celluloid film has nearly disappeared from conventional use, Frick says it continues to enchant her. "There is romanticism to celluloid," she says. "We’re getting closer to digitally replicating the amount of information captured in the film image – but with digital, there's no flicker or the same kind of softness. It's likely that the more we remove ourselves from celluloid, the more some people will fetishize the artifact itself."
Celluloid film was first used for still photography in 1822 and for moving images in 1893. Each second of footage is composed of 24 frames, and restoration requires a setting similar to a darkroom.
Restoring traditional film stock is an expensive, laborious and isolating process requiring careful choice of project and significant donations, often from the private sector.
The most expensive films to restore are full-length features. Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation estimates it costs up to $100,000 to restore a black-and-white film and several-hundred thousand dollars for a color film.
BRING OUT YOUR FILMS
Since 2007, the Texas Archive of the Moving Image has partnered with the Office of the Governor's Texas Film Commission on the "Texas Film Round- Up," which has already digitized more than 10,000 films.
The program offers free digitization of films for individuals and organizations throughout the state. "Our partnership with the Texas Film Commission is unique," Frick says. "We have the only program in the U.S. that combines a film production incentives program with a preservation initiative and educational service – the first of its kind."
As part of the program, Frick and her colleagues visit regions of Texas to collect and digitize moving images from the public that also become part of the organization's archive. The Round-Up even conducts educational events highlighting Texas moving image history through screenings, demonstrations, lectures and interactive exhibits.Through the organization's program, "Teach Texas," K-12 educators use films to introduce students to periods of history caught on film.
"I think Caroline’s work is just amazing," says Paul Stekler, chair of the Department of Radio-Television-Film. "The proof is in just strolling through the thousands of Texas films that she's preserved and put on the Web, accessible to anyone. What she's doing is at the pinnacle of film study, film preservation and history of American popular culture."
TEXAS AND BEYOND
Frick's 2011 book, "Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation," chronicles the development of the preservation movement and lays bare the institutions and people responsible for deciding which films to save and which to ignore.
Frick is currently conducting a global search to find silent films produced in Texas but housed overseas. In the near future, she plans to bring a Texas feature film home from another part of the world.
So, what are her favorite favorite films?
If you talk with her long enough about film preservation, she will eventually tell you. "My list is constantly in a state of flux," she says. "The Robert Mitchum film 'Out of the Past' is amazing, and the movie that changed my life was 'Bringing up Baby.'"
Frick says she shows her students every semester the 1947 film noir classic and the 1938 comedy starring Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. "I feel we need to save films so we can show future generations what the world was like at a moment in time to highlight the points of view, diversity and art of Texas, our country and the world."
Nick Hundley, (512) 471-7209