Click play on the grainy, black-and-white image titled simply “Houston Time Service” on the website of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image and you’re treated to a 110-second Houston love story.
The film, from the 1940s, is about a phone number Houstonians could call to get the correct time. Ruth McClain Graham owned the service, according to an Oct. 24, 1947, Houston Chronicle story. Two years earlier she had married Shadrack E. “Shad” Graham, an itinerant filmmaker, who, apparently taken with the proprietor, produced the film promoting the business.
But film, like love, can be short-lived, and that’s what has driven Caroline Frick’s race against time. The role of film preservationists like Frick, an associate professor of film at the University of Texas’ Moody College of Communication in Austin, becomes ever more crucial as moving images depicting life and history become unplayable.
As the years play on, the decay of aging motion picture film accelerates, as does the quality of magnetic tape on which video is recorded. Video projectors and old-format tape machines break, are not repaired and discarded. The race to get these recordings into a digital format – also unlikely to survive forever – becomes more crucial with each passing year.
“This is what we are trying to prevent,” says Frick, who founded and is executive director of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, or TAMI, in 2003, opening a plastic bag filled with what looks at first glance to be beef jerky. It’s actually decomposing celluloid, curled and blackened. The smell from the bag is a pungent, vinegary rot, and in TAMI’s crowded offices near downtown Austin, you can catch a whiff if you stand next to stacks of boxes filled with 8-, 16- and 35-millimeter film.
Another threat is in the shrinking universe of ways to watch these historic movies, a dwindling number of obsolete devices available for playback. Frick points to a Sony reel-to-reel videotape machine on the floor that once was the pride of a television station editing room. It was designed to work with a now-abandoned, 1-inch tape format.
“We were able to play something once on that after we got it, and then it broke,” she says, sighing. “We’re still looking for parts.”
A staff of five — all part-timers — are in the office on this chilly January day. Some work on physical restoration of film, others scan it into computers for digitization. Another crew catalogs and curates, putting context to the images that, ultimately, stream across the internet to computers, phones and tablets.
It is a daunting task, hampered by a lack of funding — TAMI’s annual budget is in the $300,000 range — and made overwhelming by the sheer amount of content that flows in. So far, TAMI has digitized about 58 terabytes of film and video, but only 10 percent of that is available for viewing at its website, texasarchive.org.
“The number one reason for the disconnect between what we have digitized vs. what is streaming is budget – the human labor of researching and contextualizing the content,” Frick says. “Everyone is excited about what AI will be able to do some day (for automated curation) but, as of yet, nothing is as reliable or useful as the human eye and brain.”
I’m old enough to remember calling a phone number to get the correct time. Crazy to think about now, but here we are. In any event, preserving old film is a much more challenging task than preserving old books because of the technological barriers. Look at it this way: Most of us have obsolete technology from recent years that has information on it that is now unreadable to us, like various forms of portable storage from computers. The TAMI folks have to deal with machines from decades ago, where there may literally be nothing else like them in existence. Once these old films are gone, that’s it, they’re completely lost to history. Whatever the value of any individual piece of celluloid may be, it sure is a shame to lose something like that. Read the rest of the story and check out the Texas Archive of the Moving Image. Maybe you have something that would interest them.