Note from Elizabeth: This post was written by Kyla Sweet-Chavez, a graduate student in the School of Information and Library Science here at UNC and an employee of Wilson Library. Kyla is an experienced filmmaker and film archivist, and we’re very lucky to have her as a member of the “Morton team,” processing the motion picture films.
You can tell a lot from what a person has left behind, or perhaps you can just conjecture a lot. I never met Hugh Morton, but as a student assistant working on processing his film collection, I visit with him each workday. As I work my ways through the cans of film, I’ve come up with some words that I think could describe him:
Dedicated: There are boxes and boxes of film and most fall within several categories: Grandfather Mountain; Mildred the bear; Hawks and Hang Gliding; (37 variations on the) Grandfather Mountain 30-second spot; Highland Games. Morton obviously had a passion for his part of the world and didn’t often stray from it cinematically.
Thorough: Morton was a film archivist’s dream, labeling most of his boxes and cans with exactly what he shot and even making value judgments: “Ravens–good” or “Hawk, Reject.” He kept many of the films in their original boxes, which I’ve photocopied, so archivists of the future can make informed preservation decisions.
Dogged: Morton knew what he wanted. Notes and letters were often included to the film labs and TV stations, telling them exactly how his film should be printed or broadcast. He must have been on a few VIP Customer lists (and that of the USPS), so many films did he send off to the lab. He seemed to want his films to reach a broad audience. Films he sent to TV stations included typed-up perfectly timed narration to “help” them deliver his message. Many prints are in cans that have been returned by TV stations and schools from around the nation who showed his films.
You might think a film archivist sits around watching films all day but truthfully, I haven’t seen any of the Morton films in motion. I take the film from its can, inspect its overall condition, do some cleaning or repairing as necessary and if the film is unmarked, try to determine what it’s about and when it was made. (Kodak and Dupont had a system to date their film stock, using series of symbols imprinted on the edge of the film, which is how I determine the date if it isn’t marked on the can or leader). Surprisingly, many of the films from the 1970s look worse than those from the 1950s. An element of their chemicals made them “fade to magenta,” leaving them pink and washed out.
So, when can you see the Morton collection on YouTube? It’s a long journey from the original film to an online streaming copy and realistically, most won’t make that journey. The film has to be in good shape with minimal shrinkage, thoroughly cleaned and repaired, head and tail leader attached and then digitized. Doesn’t sound like much, but when you’re dealing with over 1000 films, even the most basic processing like I do takes time.
But one of the best parts of archives work is the feeling that you have accomplished something tangible. Even as Thorough and Dedicated and Dogged as Morton was, there were still a few messes to clean up, and going from this:
is incredibly satisfying. I think Morton would be pleased.