Protecting Your Past–It’s What We Do Here: The Preservation and Restoration of The March

Today’s post is from Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives. Recently, she completed a digital restoration of The March.

The March, the James Blue film documenting the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was released to countries around the world in 1964. Despite this wide reach, the film remained out of the American public eye for decades. That is, until August 1st, 1986 , when Congress passed HR 4985 instructing “the Archivist of the United States to provide for the distribution within the United States of the USIA film “The March.”

After H.R. 4985 passed, the original reels arrived at NARA along with theater copies that could be requested for research or public screenings.  And that was the extent of the film’s availability until The March was named to the National Film Registry in 2008.  After being placed on the registry, requests for access to the film rose.  As demand increased, it was evident that all of the reels (original negatives, original sound tracks, and all additional copies) required full treatment and analysis in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, located in College Park, Maryland.

In Februrary of 2008, the reels arrived in the lab.  The original optical soundtracks were contained in archival cans, but the original negatives were housed in older plastic containers that had cracked and let in dust and debris.  Some of the copies of the film were in metal cans that had rusted or corroded over time.  Audrey Amidon took the lead on the preservation of the film, carefully inspecting the originals and all four of the copies that had been in the stacks.  After comparing all of the elements, she was surprised to discover that sixteen frames were missing from the original negative. The only copy that contained that missing section was in a beat up theater print that had been loaned to dozens of venues across the world.  The additional prints in the collection were also damaged or scratched from years of having been in circulation. In all of these copies, when Marian Anderson performs her rousing rendition of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands”, the sound and picture did not line up. Audrey discarded all but the original negatives and the 1964 theater print that contained the missing footage and created a plan to start from scratch.

As part of the complete assessment, Audrey carefully noted all condition information and preservation actions undertaken for our Labwork Database.

After she completed a full assessment and crafted a preservation plan,  Audrey used our motion picture analyzer to select the proper exposure values for each scene. Our goal in the lab is to have all new copies reflect the original film as closely as possible, so she constantly checked the 1964 print for guidance.  Next, Audrey printed new copies from the original negatives on our liquid gate printer.  The liquid gate minimizes the appearance of scratches on the new copy.  In total, she printed a protection copy to hold as a master, a duplicate negative set that could be sent to vendors for external requests, and a new theater copy that NARA could project in our theater or send out on loan.  Since 2008 these new copies of The March have been sent out twenty five times.

As the 50th anniversary of The March for Jobs and Freedom occurs on August 28th we decided to take our treatment of The March one step further by completing a full digital restoration to mark the event.  Using our DFT 4K Spirit film scanner, I captured the images from the original negative and then used our Digital Vision Nucoda Film Master color correction and restoration program to create the digital master.  I also scanned and restored the negative soundtrack using our Sondor OMA E and Resonance camera and software. While film to film preservation will always be our first defense against future loss and deterioration, digitizing the film allows for finer exposure adjustments, color correction in the case of color film, and removal of dust, dirt, scratches, or other defects that have been introduced over time.

A frame comparison from The March – on the top  is the scan from the original image and on the bottom is the same image after correction and repair of the void in the frame where part of the emulsion was lost. 

This post is only meant to give you a brief overview of the kinds of work that the staff in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab employ to preserve your history.  It is impossible to convey the countless hours that we’ve spent ensuring that The March and numerous other titles are preserved so that they will continue to be accessible to future generations.  Whether you know it or not you see our handiwork everywhere from commercials, via historical television programs, in documentaries, and on the big screen.  As civil servants, it is our honor, and our responsibility, to make our collection available to you in perpetuity – and we can’t tell you what a privilege it is to do so.

Special thanks goes to Digital Vision for their quick response time and troubleshooting solutions, to Heidi Holmstrom for hours spent on image processing, and to Tommy Aschenbach and Colorlab for the time and effort spent in creation of the Digital Cinema file.

The restored digital theater copy of The March will be shown in the McGowan theater at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. at noon on August 26th, 27th, and 28th to mark the 50th anniversary of this important historical event.  The March is also available on NARA’s YouTube channel.

For information about other federal records relating to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, see the National Archives’ Rediscovering Black History blog.

2 thoughts on “Protecting Your Past–It’s What We Do Here: The Preservation and Restoration of The March

  1. What wonderful work you do, Criss, Audrey, Heidi, and others, in preserving and making accessible our film treasures. Such expert and tender care makes a huge difference. Thanks for a fascinating post about one of my favorite films in our holdings!

  2. To learn more about James Blue, director of THE MARCH (1964), please visit his Facebook page: Remembering Documentary Filmmaker James Blue (1930-1980).

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