Film Preservation 101: This 80 Year Old Film Printer Still Contributes to Preservation

This week we celebrate the National Archives’ 80th birthday. For the motion picture lab, this anniversary was an opportunity to look back to the beginnings of the organization, when the Archives was still in its teen years and William T. Cooper, Jr. posed for photographs with the Depue optical reduction film printer. The photos, taken in 1952, have graced the walls of the film lab for several years and have particular interest for us. Believe it or not, we not only still have that printer, we occasionally use it! You can click through the pictures in this post to see our re-creations of the 1952 photographs.

Of course, a lot has changed since 1952. These photos were taken in the basement of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., back when no one called it Archives I because there was no Archives II. In 1994, after spending a decade in a warehouse in Alexandria, Virginia referred to simply as “Pickett Street,” the film lab moved to our current location at Archives II in College Park, Maryland. We’re still in the basement, but we get sunlight from the atriums on either side of our lab.

The printer has also undergone some changes over the years. You can see that some of the plates are a different shape, and the volt meter on the front was replaced with a much larger, rectangular meter (in person, it’s a really obvious replacement given that the meter is outlined in black tape).

The biggest difference for this Depue printer is in how we use it for preservation. In 1952, the printer was used solely to create 16mm access copies from 35mm originals. The printer works by projecting a smaller image onto the 16mm stock to make new prints, thus reducing the overall image. This also reduces the amount of costly film stock needed and makes copies that would have been much easier to transport for any necessary purpose.

Creating access copies of film is an essential part of any film preservation program. In addition to the simple issue of so many originals being negatives and thus not suitable for a researcher to view, we would never allow originals to be handled in the research room because they are so easily damaged on the equipment that is used to view them. This is especially true as a film ages and inevitably deteriorates, when shrinkage and brittleness make a run on any type of equipment dangerous. Our goal has always been to minimize handling of originals in order to prolong their useful life.

By the late 1970s and through the 2000s, the labs created video copies for access in the research room. Today, we digitize films so that they can be seen both in the research rooms and online.

So, if we no longer make 16mm prints for access, how is it that this out-dated film printer still contributes to preservation at the National Archives? It’s mainly because of its slow speed and minimal contact with the film. Unlike continuous contact printers, which have sprocket wheels that pull at every perforation in the film, the Depue optical step printer advances one frame at a time, pulling down the film with a single claw. We occasionally use the Depue to make new copies of films that are so shrunken that we cannot use our usual printers to make preservation copies–not often, but probably a handful of times in the years that I have been here. In those cases, having kept the Depue for all these years meant the difference between being able to preserve and then provide access to a film and being forced to stick it in the freezer to wait for a day when we are able to digitally preserve the film with our gentle film scanner.

If you can’t get enough of machinery talk, here‘s the link to the patent for the lightboard you see in all of the photos.  Oscar B. Depue was granted a patent for his invention in 1923. We still regularly use one of the Depue lightboards for making 35mm black and white preservation copies on a Bell & Howell printer from the 1930s.

All re-creation photos taken by Richard Schneider. From top to bottom, you see lab staff Audrey Amidon, Harry Snodgrass, and Heidi Holmstrom in the re-creation photos. 

5 thoughts on “Film Preservation 101: This 80 Year Old Film Printer Still Contributes to Preservation

  1. Nice post, Audrey! It’s great to think that we can still make use of supposedly outdated technology here. I wonder what other “vintage” equipment is still useful (and used) at NARA?

    1. Maybe we should do an inventory! I would guess that a lot of the equipment we use in the motion picture lab every day, like splicers and film synchronizers, could be 50 years old. And we used to have an old wooden rolly chair kicking around. I’m not sure what happened to that. It was gorgeous, but actually sitting on it seemed like a bad idea.

  2. I would be willing to be that more than a few carts in use at AI are “vintage”, if not original items.

  3. I am still blown away that a medium created in the 19th century is still better than anything digital that we have today…long live film!!

    1. “Better” is a subjective term, but we certainly like film best! And of course, film is the safest medium for long-term preservation. I always like to tell people that you can stick a film in a improper conditions like a hot attic, and I would still be able to recover something from it decades from now, whereas a file created today that is shown a similar level of neglect might not be accessible next week. Long live film, indeed!

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