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December 7, 2011

SCA Family Stories: From the Archives

Sandra Joy Aguilar and Dino Everett discuss their lives in the archives

The USC School of Cinematic Arts is home to many incredible resources for artists and scholars of the moving image. Two of the greatest resources are the Warner Bros. Archives and the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive.

Students researching in the Warner Bros. Archives Reading Room

SCA Family Stories recently sat down with Sandra Joy Aguilar, the director of the Warner Bros. Archive and Dino Everett, the archivist of the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Image Archive to discuss how students can better use the archives, what kind of person becomes an archivist and why the preservation of film history is more important than ever.

I think we should probably start with where you are. Where are the archives located? DE: The Hefner Archive is located in the basement of the Norris Cinema Theatre. The entrance is around the back of the building – the side that faces Taper Hall.

SJA: The Warner Bros. Archives are in the Hoffman Research Annex, which is a little bit southeast of campus. It’s on 37th Street between Hope and Grand. You can reach it by riding the parking center tram and getting off on the stop right before the parking center.

It takes you basically to the door, right? SJA: It goes right to the building. It’s a good way to go.

What is your role in the archives? What does your day look like?DE: Well, there’s a combination of things since we’re a small archive. We have another full time cataloguer, who works on the student films that come in each semester – getting them cleared for festivals- working with Student Industry Relations. A lot of it is spent on conservation type issues because, as with a lot of archives, we were not designed as an archive. It just, all of a sudden, was. Because we’re in a basement, there are lots of environmental issues.

We try to survey the collections. See what’s interesting. See what we can use to raise the awareness of the archives. Try to interact with faculty and students and see where we can help somebody through the material that has been done over the long history of the Cinema School.

Are your visitors usually students or outside scholars? DE: I would say the majority – it’s half and half –students and the few faculty that know about us. [laughter]

SJA: I take care of the Warner Bros. Archives, which is a paper archive, even though it has to do with

Dino Everett

cinema. It’s the archives of all of the departments of Warner Bros. up to 1967. As studio collections go, it’s really the richest studio collection that’s at a university, which is available for researchers. So, it is a very popular destination for international researchers who want to do either academic work or someone who’s doing a book on one of the Warner films or one of the Warner stars.

My typical day, several days a week, is getting ready for the researchers and helping the researchers while they are in our reading room. We have a six seat reading room. We do over four hundred – up to five hundred – reading room appointments per year. Those are things that keep us really busy.

When we’re not doing that, similar to what Dino does, we try to initiate projects that lead to conservation of different collections. For instance, this summer, we had one graduate student and two student volunteers working on rehousing all of the Looney Tunes animation backgrounds.

Those are beautiful, hand-painted backgrounds that were used beneath the cells where the characters were in the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons. We were able to take them out of their acidic boxes – in no particular order - where they were rolled up and we sorted them by production number, which equates to the film titles. So, now, if someone asks for the backgrounds for What’s Opera Doc? we can just pull one box and show that to them.

Is that common that you get boxes that aren’t organized in any way? DE: Absolutely.

That sounds like a massive job. DE: I mean, even if you think about us on the student end of things, at the end of the semester, we’ll get a box of material and, the closest organization is just that it’s all 480s. There’s nothing beyond that.

On outside donations, it’s usually just cleaning out somebody’s storage. It just comes in. We have to go through it and start from scratch like Sandra did with the animation backgrounds.

Sandra Joy Aguilar (second from left) and Curator Jonathon Auxier (standing
right) with Jack Warner's Grandaughter and Great-Grandson in the Warner
Bros. Archives

SJA: It really depends on the collection. There’s a concept in our field called provenance. You keep things in the order that they were given to you in the archive. You respect the organization of things as they came. For instance, government records, you wouldn’t want to reorganize everything because the organization adds meaning to the individual documents.

What we did, for example, with the animation, was we recorded the individual boxes they came in. With today’s databases and other non-linear systems to organize information, you can retain the original organization and also put the materials in better housing in a way that makes more sense to today’s researchers.

As far as files that we have from the legal department, the publicity department, from production – we don’t rearrange the orders of those at all. We like to leave them the way that the studio department created them.

We take a lot of pains to leave them in order [laugher]. For example, we have procedures that the researchers have to follow. Turning one page at a time. Taking one folder out of the box at a time. Having a placeholder.

It seems like archiving film, television and interactive media is pretty new. Is it something that the public is beginning to take better care with? DE: It’s been around. If you look at archives in general, they’ve been around for hundreds and hundreds of years.

Each field, I think at some points, starts to realize – after they’ve been around for a couple of years, they realize, “Hey, we’re generating a lot of stuff.”

If there’s any wave of new birth it’s because of the digital creation of things. Now, I think it’s on everybody’s mind. The idea that, “Wow, we really need to keep better track of this.” I think it might be a new wave of awareness but not in practice. It’s been around for a while.

SJA: I would say, from the side of studios, one of the ways they realized that keeping things organized is beneficial to them would be in the resuse of elements in one film into other films. A lot of studios do have libraries.

Before I worked in the Warner Bros. Archives, I worked at Industrial Light and Magic. We created a stock element database. We had smoke, lighting, clouds, sparks – those elements – even explosions; they were used over and over again in different movies. Of course, they look a little bit different because they are composited with many different layers but it does benefit studios to be able to access generic elements. That also fuels some kind of libraries and organizations within the industry.

Do you have a favorite piece in your archives? DE: It’s hard to say.

Because you love them all?DE: I have some favorites. We have the number three Bell and Howell

USC Ph. D student Brett Service and undergrad Armen Karaoghlanian rehousing
the animation collection at  the Warner Bros. Archives

camera ever made. And, Herb Farmer, who is an alum who worked here for seventy years, he used a Bell and Howell Filmo camera, 16mm… on the back it’s USC 000001. That’s a particular favorite.

SJA: There are a lot of really interesting a clever memos written between people at the studio. There’s a memo to Lee Duncan, Rin Tin Tin’s trainer, that says, “Now we have talking pictures. We’re going to have to lay off Rin Tin Tin because dogs don’t talk.”

A lot of the animation backgrounds are amazing because you see the colors. The sky will be purple or pink. The creativity that went into those is really great.

We also have a lot of set drawings. Set and prop drawings. Some of them are full sized drawings like the neon sign from Casablanca from Rick’s Café. That’s a full sized drawing to inform the crew to build that sign.

What’s amazing and interesting lately is that some of these things that are in archives can be used to make new things. They can be inspiration for artists. It’s not just a place to excavate history; it’s a place where you can find inspiration for new work.

DE: I just realized I didn’t mention any films. We get a lot of requests for the famous alums. Lucas and Zemeckis films. There are other films that people have made that are really interesting. When people come down we get a chance to recommend them. There’s one from the 1940s called Torment, which is about the frustration of making a film. It’s a lot of fun.

When someone comes down to research things, we’ll sort of interject these other titles from filmmakers they’ve never heard from. Like Sandra said, the older material will be used as inspiration for new things.

A still from John Carpenter's Captain Voyeur which was discovered in the Hugh
M. Hefner Moving Image Archive this year by Dino Everett

Cinema students use us for that a lot. They’ll come down and watch, not famous people’s films, but all of the 508s to gauge the playing field. They may have an idea like, “I want to shoot a film on a soccer field. Do you have anything on a soccer field?” They’ll come down and see how other students have used soccer fields.

You have it organized by soccer field? DE: Yes. In terms of the student films, because the school is really active in getting out there and promoting them for festivals, we do a pretty detailed job.

I say “we” when I really mean [SCA Cataloger] Rudy [Ruiz][laughter].

He does a good job of describing the film. Not just the synopsis but also the shots. When they come in, we set them up on the database and they can look up whatever key words they’re thinking of. It will give them suggestions going back sixty years, seventy years.

Is the Warner Bros. Archives arranged by film?SJA: The Warner Bros. Archives has a title index, a name index and a subject index. Last year, Warner Bros., the studio, paid to have those indexes scanned. We have those online. They’re on SCACommunity and our public webpage.

People can search by title, name or subject. You can also put in a keyword and search all of the 36,000 pages that are in there. What comes up is a page from a paper index. Like a book. It has a heading and a sub-heading. It lists the department and the year.

You can say, “I want to see Bette Davis legal files.” You’ll see letters in there that she wrote. That’s the way it’s organized because it was donated to USC in 1977 and, at that time, there weren’t any type of databases like we know them now. This index that has OCR enables us to do some non-linear access into the indexes that we couldn’t do before thanks to Warner Bros. and also thanks to USC IT. We can’t thank Jason Martinez and his team enough. They built the search engine. All students have access to it.

Archiving seems like a mix of historical, historical and creative work. Do you consider yourself creative or database types?DE: It comes from an analytical side because you have to be more meticulous than freethinking [laughter].

One of the things I really like about archives is that, even thought they try really hard to have standards that everyone follows, each archive has its own unique situation that causes it to adapt the standards.

I think there’s a little bit of both but it’s a lot more from the analytical side. I wouldn’t recommend it for artists [laughter].

SJA: It’s a great question and I agree with what Dino said. There are really strict standards in our field but you always have to apply them to the situation. It’s good to know what the standards are but it’s also good to be flexible. A good archivist or a good curator is really flexible enough to bend those rules to meet the needs of your users. You can’t use the standards at the expense of the people who use your archive.

I personally love art and I see myself as a gatekeeper to this great art that was created by the studio and I think it’s a little bit of both. I get to appreciate the beauty and the content that I’m working with. I think that if you were just completely analytical and you couldn’t appreciate – I know that Dino appreciates the technology, the aesthetic beauty and the technical marvel – I think you need to appreciate art but you also have to have chops in the technical and analytical side.

A rehoused background from the Looney Tunes collection

Keeping it positive, do you have any pet peeves about people that visit the archives? DE: The ideal visit for us is, you call beforehand and set up an appointment. Is that positive? We need to make sure we can handle you at that moment in time.

There’s prep work involved. DE: Sure. They want to see something. We need to first make sure we have something viewable. They may want to see a certain film but all we have is a negative and a soundtrack. We could make a version that’s married and they can view but we need the time to do so.

I understand there’s a catch-22 with us because we don’t have an online presence where they can search and find out what they want and send in a request. I get it. We try to be very gracious if we have to turn them away. Ideally, it would be to make an appointment first.

SJA:It’s definitely true that there’s prep work involved in every single visit. We have a limited amount of space in the reading room and every researcher needs an appointment before they can come.

Is that done online?SJA: No. They call or send an email. That’s important.

I think the other thing that’s important to know is that research takes a lot of time. Especially with paper files. It’s impossible to just go directly to the one gem that you’re going to use for your paper.

You’re probably going to have to sort through many files and maybe many many boxes until you find what you’re looking for to help you construct your argument for your paper or even your topic.

For USC students and prospective students, please plan ahead and start coming earlier to start looking at films and topics. Don’t wait until the last minute. It’s hard for us to really make it happen in terms of the reading room appointments and finding the material.

With research, the key is to just get started. If you look, there is an interesting story behind the making of each film.