Restoring Nine from Little Rock

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss is the supervisor of the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. 

The Restoration

Nine From Little Rock (Local Identifier: 306.5160) was commissioned by George Stevens, Jr., head of the United States Information Agency (USIA), and directed by Charles Guggenheim. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short on April 5th, 1965. To mark the 50th anniversary of winning the Oscar, The National Archives has completed a full digital restoration of the film.

Nine from Little Rock follows the students who integrated Central High School in 1957, focusing on their dreams and aspirations for the future. The desire of the USIA for the film, as outlined in a transmittal memo dated September 1, 1964, was to demonstrate “America’s commitment to freedom of the individual and justice under law,” and to document “the role of the Federal government in upholding the law protecting minorities, following the Supreme Court decree declaring racial segregation in public school education to be unconstitutional.”  The USIA’s specific target audiences for Nine From Little Rock were international youth programs and universities that followed race concerns in the US. The film was screened in nearly 100 cities outside of North America.

The film was photochemically preserved in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the events in Little Rock and was screened in the McGowan Theater along with a program where John Lewis, George Stevens Jr., Carlotta Walls and Ernest Green (two of the Little Rock Nine) spoke at the event. [You can view the program on our YouTube Channel: Part 1, Part 2]

Selecting an appropriate film element for transfer was a challenge. The National Archives holds the 35mm negative for the first reel, but the second reel was never deposited with NARA. Both the 35mm original negative of reel one and a 16mm duplicate of the complete film were scanned for the project. The 35mm negative scan looked exceptional, while the scan from the 16mm lacked dynamic range. There was little to no detail in the dark region of the image and the light areas were completely washed out.  The mid-tones lacked depth and were very thin. But since there was no acceptable way to match the scan from the original 35mm negative to the 16mm negative without the shift being obvious between the two parts of the film, we used the 16mm duplicate for the restoration.

We scanned a 16mm fine grain master (print) using our Sondor Altra 2K. The raw files were ingested into the Digital Vision restoration suite where various automated restoration tools were applied (image noise/ grain reduction, flicker reduction, and basic dust and scratch removal). Exposure/ gamma corrections were applied scene by scene and manual dust/ dirt removal were applied frame by frame as needed.

Click through the slideshow to see stills from before and after the digital restoration of Nine from Little Rock.

In addition, the original 35mm tracks were scanned and restored. Using Pro Tools, the clicks, pops, ticks, and hiss were removed, background noise was reduced, and audio levels were adjusted to even out the levels, tone, and range. New 35mm optical tracks were made from the restored files to accompany the originals for preservation purposes.

The newly restored version of Nine from Little Rock is now available online. A screening of the film will be held in the McGowan Theater at the National Archives building in Washington, D.C. later this spring.


Where are they now?

Guggenheim’s film updates viewers on the accomplishments of the Little Rock Nine as of 1964. Here is what these pioneering students have done in the fifty years since the film was made:

Melba Patillo became a journalist and television reporter in San Francisco after earning her BA from San Francisco State, MA from Columbia, and PhD from the University of San Francisco.

Carlotta Walls graduated from the University of Northern Colorado and went on to become a real estate broker and is the president of the Little Rock Nine Foundation.

Elizabeth Eckford graduated from Central State University and returned to Little Rock where she was a probation officer and substitute teacher in Little Rock’s schools.

Gloria Ray graduated Illinois Institute of Technology and worked for Boeing, NASA, IBM, and co-founded Computers in Industry.

Minnijean Brown earned her BA from Laurentian University and her MA from Carleton University in Ontario Canada. She served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Workforce Diversity at the Department of the Interior during the Clinton Administration and taught social work at various colleges and universities in Canada.

Thelma Mothershed earned her BA and MA from Southern Illinois State and went on to teach in the St. Louis school system for 10 years and work as a counselor in the school system for 18 years.

Ernest Green, the first African American to graduate from Little Rock Central High, graduated from Michigan State University and became a successful investment banker and served as the Assistant Secretary for Employment and Training during the Carter Administration.

Jefferson Thomas earned the rank of staff sergeant and directed field campaigns in South Vietnam with the 9th Infantry Division. After returning he graduated from Los Angeles State College, managed his family’s business, worked for Mobil and the Department of Defense.  Mr. Thomas passed away in 2010.

Terrence Roberts went on to earn his BA from California State University, his MS from UCLA, and his PhD from Southern Illinois State in psychology. He is the CEO of his management consultant firm and has his own private psychology practice.