Morton the “movie man”

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:

to this:

is incredibly satisfying. I think Morton would be pleased.

–Kyla Sweet-Chavez

11 thoughts on “Morton the “movie man”

  1. Kyla, I know that “Morton would be pleased.” And what’s more: all students of Morton and film are indeed pleased! Great work, Kyla! We appreciate your dedication, your diligence and your caring and thoughtful words on Hugh Morton and his work. Bless you!

  2. Yes, but Robert Rector probably deserves the credit for writing notes on the film canisters.

    You can probably tell if it has Daddy’s hand writing. He would sit for hours watching the work prints of his footage, making choices about what to keep and what to cull. It is possible that he wrote notes to keep the reels straight.

    But Bob Rector did the hard work. He edited the bits and pieces of usable footage into entertaining films.

  3. Hi, Kyla! I am delighted that you have taken on the job of processing Hugh’s movie film. He had some pretty great stuff in all those miles of film, and some footage that should probably have hit the cutting room floor. You may not have found the hanggliding film from Hawaii and Austria and Australia yet. He went to international hanggliding meets all over the world, as well as to many “flying” sites in the US
    He went to parks, museums and zoos and aquariums all over the world, too, hunting good ideas for the Mountain.
    We never went to Scotland, though he often threatened to. I was secretly very happy about that because what do you do in Scotland if you don’t take pictures or play golf? And I don’t do either.
    Dedicated, dogged, and thorough, yes. He was also fearless, stubborn, and wholly focused and remarkably patient in getting just the shot he wanted. He was always prepared, with thousands of dollars worth of cameras knocking about in the trunk of his car (A sight that made other photographers blanch.)
    which enabled him to take occasional spot news footage when it erupted in front of him.
    (I am thinking of film he took of burning oil storage tanks near the Greensboro airport which he happened upon before the fire trucks got there. You won’t find that film, he dropped it off, undeveloped, at the Greensboro TV station as he went on his way to Raleigh. He made a lot of good friends that way.)

  4. As someone who’s digitizing old family stuff (not a professional) and a computer professional I need to ask:

    1) are the films being digitized in any way?
    2) are there digital corrections for the “fade to magenta” problem?

    With family slides, we seem to have a similar problem with some slides: Ektachrome seems to have faded badly and toward the ‘red’ end, Kodachrome held up better.

  5. Hello Kyla:
    It’s so very nice to know that Hugh’s motion picture films are in good hands. If I may, I have a question or two about the films.

    (1) I too am concerned about damage and fading, especially to the color film. What can be done to restore color and prevent fading in the future?

    (2) Did Hugh ever backup his film on videotape? I know when I was with WFMY-TV, we would often make a tape dub of film for editing purposes.

    (3) Did Hugh ever shoot negative film? If so, is that part of the collection as well?

    Again, Kyla, glad you are a part of the “Morton Collection Team.”

    Julia: I’m checking into that oil tank fire film with my friends at WFMY-TV. I hope we can locate it and add it to the collection.

    Finally, a brief comment about the color Morton photo used at the top of this post. The picture is “almost identical” to the front cover shot of Hugh on “Carolina Lifestyle” magazine for July, 1982. Except for a slight head turn and a little more smile, the shots are the same…same background, same camera, same shirt. Inside the magazine, the photo is credited to Mark Edward Atkinson. Could he be the unknown photographer of the color Morton image at the top of this post?

  6. We are not currently digitizing any of the films, though we’re beginning to discuss a few different scenarios for doing so eventually. The process is cost-prohibitive, so in order to digitize more than a few of the films we would definitely need external funding, maybe in the form of a grant?

  7. Kyla, I am extremely impressed by your hard work. I remember that horrible pile of file, spilling out of bags. I understand the joy of seeing nice, neat, labeled boxes that are easy to search. It’s quite a feeling of accomplishment. Keep up the hard work.

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