Studio News from John, Part 17: Turning a Negative into a Positive

I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at you - since September 2018, but we’ve all been busy here at the studio, with “My Love Affair with Marriage” in production. I’ve been occupied by entering the first completed segment of the film, “Mother’s Song” into various festivals since its premiere in May at the Stuttgart International Animated Film Festival - while also learning how to make proper exposure sheets for our Latvian compositors, and, in some cases, fixing the sheets made by previous interns that are hard to decipher.

But I’ve also managed to follow up on a task that’s been on my “to do” list for quite some time, since I started working for Signe in 2015, in fact - and that task was to track down her old missing negatives from Technicolor. Let me back up a bit, for anyone who may not be familiar with how films were made, back before the Digital Age. We used to shoot animation on a thin plastic light-sensitive substance known as “film”, which was sort of named after the substance that used to spool through “projectors”, because I guess it left a film-y residue behind? OK, nobody really knows why it was called “film” except that it just WAS film-like. Right? (Jeez, that’s better than calling it a “movie”, just because it, you know, moves. What genius came up with that?)

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Anyway, back in the yesteryear of the 1980’s and 1990’s, if you were a NYC pre-digital filmmaker you would shoot your film, then take it to a lab, such as Technicolor, for developing and processing. This original film, the substance that moved through your camera and got exposed to light, one frame at a time, became what we called a negative. And then using your negative, the lab could print a positive image on film, which could then be screened by “projecting” light through it on a “projector”. (First you had to take the negative OUT of the developing lab and bring to ANOTHER lab to have the negative cut into pieces and spliced back together by a “negative cutter”, but that’s a whole other process.)

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But once the negative was edited together, and you printed your positive for screening, then you had another problem: WHERE were you going to store the negative? This then became the master copy of your film, from which all of your future copies could be created, and it needed to be properly stored. Thankfully, Technicolor would usually store the film for you in their climate-controlled vault, and if you needed, say, 5 new positive prints for upcoming screenings on the festival circuit, you could call up Charlie at Technicolor, give him the details, then go pick up your new fantastic-smelling prints a few days later.

The problem then became that over the years, the Technicolor vaults filled up with everybody’s negatives, and eventually they ran out of room. Or maybe they just wanted to get out of the film storage business, because it was 2010 and fewer people were shooting on film, thanks to high-definition video cameras, and also everybody was walking around with a video camera on their phone in their back pocket. There were still a few stalwarts shooting on film, but they were becoming few and far-between.

So, in 2011 or so, the notices started going out to Technicolor’s clients - all materials had to be cleared out of their vaults by such-and-such a date, or the materials could be destroyed. (I don’t think they really intended on destroying any film, but a point needed to be made.) This was a big project for us over at the Bill Plympton Studio, because Bill made so many short films (at least one a year) and features (every three years or so). He may have been one of Technicolor’s biggest clients. But even Bill had started the process of transitioning to digital filmmaking with the 2006 short “Guide Dog” and the 2008 feature “Idiots and Angels”, thanks to the efforts of producer Biljana Labovic.

But since Bill had so much material in the Technicolor vault, removing it all created a massive storage problem - where would it all GO? The short-term solution, storing it in Bill’s apartment, was no good because he only had one small air conditioner, so the next typically hot NYC summer could permanently damage the negatives. We knew there were climate-controlled storage facilities in places like Ft. Lee, New Jersey, but then there could be a massive monthly storage fee, and we’d have to trek over to NJ every time we needed to access a negative.

Several months later, a solution presented itself when Bill was contacted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was interested in obtaining a 35mm copy of his Oscar-nominated shorts “Your Face” and “Guard Dog”. We inquired about establishing an entire negative archive there, which would include the proper climate-controlled storage, and setting this up as a donation also had potential tax benefits. At the same time, we would be able to borrow any negatives in the future from the AMPAS archive, and there was also the chance that the Academy might be able to clean and restore any negatives that might have spent too much time in Bill’s non-climate-controlled apartment. This seemed like a win-win.

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At the same time, the studio was attempting to complete its transition to digital filmmaking, and stop the expensive practice of shipping 35mm prints around the world for festival screenings. This would encourage the transition to digital, and we could ultimately create digital versions of any Plympton films that hadn’t yet been digitally transferred, once the Academy had restored the negatives. For years I’d been shipping out boxes of films to festivals around the world, and it was my nightmare. It turns out film is very heavy and expensive to ship - PLUS there’s always the chance that boxes can be lost in transit, or damaged, or some film could get broken in a festival’s projector and a projectionist could just ship it back to us and not mention the damage. In the coming digital age, everything would be easier, and lighter. After a year or so, we finally got all of the negatives shipped to the Academy and we got to enjoy a little extra elbow room at the studio. Now we just needed to get good quality digital copies of each film made, and we could be part of the revolution. (Umm, yeah, this process is sort of still ongoing…)

Like Bill, Signe was also a client of Technicolor for years, and she was also contacted by Technicolor in 2011, and was similarly told that she had to clear her negatives out of their vaults before the deadline, or bad things would happen. Only when she called back to inquire about picking up her films, she was told that there was no material of hers being stored there. What? Where did her films go? Were they lost, destroyed or just misplaced? When I started working for her in 2015, she asked me to try and track them down, when I had some time between other projects. (“My Love Affair With Marriage” was still being written then.)

I made some inquiries, but kept hitting one dead end after another. Finally after two years of trying, I had to abandon the search, and Signe had to reconcile the fact that she might never see some of her negatives again. She was also interested in making good digital copies of her films, but she needed those original negatives in order to make the best digital copies. Scanning anything else would produce an inferior digital copy, it’s always best to go back to your master recordings, the negatives in this case, to get the best quality.

Fast-forward to 2019, when a distributor became interested in Bill Plympton’s 2004 feature, “Hair High” - a film which Signe and I both worked on, I was an associate producer and Signe was an art director. We found out, to our astonishment, that it had not been included in the shipments to the AMPAS archive. I’ll admit here that I messed up, I never thought to cross-reference the inventory from Technicolor with Bill’s filmography, to see if there were any films missing. Mea culpa. But if “Hair High” wasn’t at the Academy, and it wasn’t in the studio, and it wasn’t at Technicolor, then where WAS it?

I made one last desperation call to Technicolor’s NYC office to ask about it, since I knew for a fact that it had once been stored there. I was given the number of Technicolor’s Los Angeles branch, and someone told me that there was a vault somewhere in California where all the unclaimed films had been sent. AHA! We still didn’t know WHY it wasn’t included in the material picked up from Technicolor’s NYC office, but at least we knew where the negative might have been sent! After we successfully tracked down the original negative and sound reels from “Hair High”, I mentioned to the staff at the vault that I also worked for another animator, and she was also missing some negative reels that had been stored at Technicolor NY. Would they be willing to do a search on those film titles, to see if anything popped up?

Now, there’s so much material in this vault that a search for anything takes several weeks. But right now there are people in Technicolor’s employ who are tasked with figuring out who all these lost reels belong to, and over the next few years, they hope to get as many films as possible back to their original owners, or at this point, perhaps those filmmakers’ estates. There are probably treasures galore within that vault, but it’s an incredibly time-consuming process to check each single reel, out of THOUSANDS, and look for clues to establish ownership, and then do some kind of web search to find that person’s contact info.

Now, if it were me, I’d consider that there must be paperwork somewhere on all of Technicolor’s transactions over the years - I have no idea to what extent their systems were computerized, maybe all the client information is on outdated MS-Dos computers or stored on floppy disks or something.

To make a long story short, after a few weeks, the vault staff got back to me and told me that they HAD located material from several of Signe Baumane’s films. They had them under the name “Simone Baumane”, so that may be the reason why the initial search in 2011 didn’t turn up any materials stored in her name. Some version of auto-correct may be to blame, or perhaps it was just bad handwriting. But they had tracked down the negatives for Signe’s short films “Love Story”, “Natasha”, “The Dentist”, “Five F*cking Fables” and “The Threatened One”.

We had to go through a short process of proving Signe’s rightful ownership of these films, but that was easy enough. (Thankfully, Simone Baumane didn’t also try to prove ownership…) And Signe had to sign some paperwork to authorize the removal of these films from their vaults, and arrange shipping to her Brooklyn studio. So there were a few hoops to jump through, but the good news is that the films have been found and are leaving California this week to be shipped home.

It’s still a little galling that mistakes were made back in 2011, but at least we’ve solved the mystery and after four years, I’ll finally get to cross this off my “to do” list. As I write this, the films are in a box and are being shipped across the country by UPS, with luck Signe will have them by the end of this week. Now the saga isn’t over, because we’re back to the initial storage problem: WHERE are we going to store them? She doesn’t have any air conditioning in her Brooklyn studio, and her refrigerator can only hold so many reels and still have room for food. Luckily, SIgne’s Latvian co-producer of “My Love Affair with Marriage” has connections with Latvian film archives, and is now also in the business of restoring old 35mm films. So there’s a place for Signe’s negatives in Latvia, we just have to figure out how to get them there - but compared to not knowing where these negatives are, it’s a nice problem to have.

If you were also a client of Technicolor NY before 2011, and you’re also missing some of your original film negatives that were stored there, you can contact me using the form on this web-site or through Signe’s Brooklyn studio, and I’ll let you know how to get in touch with the vault staff in California. Let’s help get as many of these lost films as possible back to their rightful owners!

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