Earlier we wrote about an Oscar-nominated film preserved at the National Archives (NARA) called Jenny is a Good Thing. It was produced in 1969 by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, but for a long time we didn’t know where the original film reels were stored. In 2007, NARA archivists rescued over 3,000 government films from a defunct film lab. Fortunately, Jenny is a Good Thing was among them!
At this point, you’re probably wondering: “what are A&B Rolls and why are they so important?” A&B Rolls are usually assembled from the film that was exposed in the camera, so they are the most original, and therefore highest-quality, picture rolls that exist for an edited motion picture. (They’re more complex than some of our other topics, so we’ve designated this post as Film Preservation 201.) For a one-reel film like Jenny is a Good Thing, we had a picture A-Roll, a picture B-Roll, and a Soundtrack. That’s three rolls of film, but a projector can only handle one! To make the final single reel of film, you load up a film printer and print the A-Roll onto a new piece of raw film stock. Then you rewind the raw stock and print the B-Roll onto it. Rewind again, and print the soundtrack. Process the film stock and then you finally have Jenny is A Good Thing, containing all of the picture and sound the director intended.
If you look at the photo above, you can see a set of 16mm A&B Rolls being run through a film synchronizer. Where one reel contains picture, the other contains black leader. When copying the A-Roll, the black leader leaves space for the picture from the B-Roll, and vice versa. For straight cuts on 16mm film, this technique allows messy cement splices to be inserted on the black-leader side of the frame line so they are invisible in the viewing copy. You can also dissolve between the A-Roll and B-Roll by overlapping the picture (see above photo) and controlling the exposure. It is even possible to superimpose a title over an image by exposing the picture from the A-Roll and the words from the B-Roll.
All of these techniques are demonstrated in our A&B Roll demo video below:
A&B Rolls may be reproduced both photochemically and digitally (we did an HD scan for Jenny is a Good Thing), but before reformatting, the rolls of film must be inspected and any necessary preservation work performed. Jenny was a particularly perplexing case, because at some point pieces of black electrical tape were placed on both sides of every splice. Before it could be printed or scanned, every piece of tape had to be removed and the oily black adhesive washed away with a film cleaning solvent.
Jenny is a Good Thing did not escape completely unscathed. If you watch the film, you can see slight color fading at the cuts, caused by the tape. However, the improvement over this video made from a faded print is stunning.
Follow our Film Preservation 101 series to learn about basic film preservation topics! More advanced topics to come with Film Preservation 201 . . .