When a Workprint is the Only Print

This post was written by Criss Kovac. Criss Kovac is the supervisor of the Motion Picture Preservation Lab at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

It’s not uncommon for NARA to receive less-than-perfect material for films created by federal agencies. One of the types of elements we sometimes receive is called a workprint. Workprints are like a rough draft for a film. The editor would make all of the potential edits using workprints and then run it past the director for the final okay before editing the original negatives. Workprints sometimes have composite optical tracks or might be accompanied by separate optical or magnetic tracks.  

Because they were working elements, workprints were generally handled heavily. Some typical calling cards of workprints include tape splices between most scenes, heavy scratches, fingerprints, dirt, tears, markings from grease pencils used to indicate future edits, fades, or dissolves, and slugs. Not slugs like the slimy things in your garden, but rather a piece of blank film that is inserted into the image reel that is used to indicate where shots have been removed, need to be inserted, or to keep the picture in sync with the soundtrack.

In the case of an early 1960s United States Information Agency (USIA) film with the working title of The American Negro (Local Identifer: 306.4786), NARA received a mish-mash of elements. For the image reels 1, 3, and 5 we have 35mm prints and for reels 2 and 4 we have 16mm prints. For the audio, we have five reels of intercut full coat and single stripe magnetic track. We also received several reels of 16mm original negative outtakes.

We have no way to know whether or not the film was ever completed, so the most original and complete copy we have is the workprint and associated audio. All of the reels have vinegar syndrome, particularly the magnetic tracks. Recently, we digitized all of the reels for a reference request. We then digitally assembled them to present the film in the most complete state possible. You can see all of the hallmarks of a workprint in the digitized version–the way that the audio isn’t quite in sync throughout all of the reels, the incomplete scene at 10:15, the deep white emulsion scratches leaving jagged lines in parts of the image, the slug just before Robert F. Kennedy speaks and during the Little Rock footage, and the grease pencil markings marring the left side of the frame during the choir rehearsal.

The film is much like many of the USIA’s other films exploring racial issues in America at the time and was meant to be shown to international audiences. It contains interviews that may not be captured elsewhere with James Farmer, Roy Wilkins, Whitney Young, and Ralph Metcalfe. Farmer, Wilkins, and Young were considered to be among the “Big Four” civil rights leaders along with Martin Luther King, Jr. James Farmer was the initiator of the the 1961 Freedom Ride and co-founder of the Congress for Racial Equality. Roy Wilkins was the executive director for the NAACP between 1955 and 1977. Whitney Young was the executive director of the National Urban League between 1961 and 1971. Ralph Metcalfe was an Olympic Athlete and won silver medals in 1932 and 1936 and later went on to be a four-term US Congressman from Illinois. The film also describes the strides and challenges faced by African Americans in the areas of voting, housing, and education.


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