Ngā Taonga Goes to Hollywood

After an entire day of travelling, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision’s Documentation Archivist Tracy White had arrived in Los Angeles. “It was just like being on another planet,” she says. “The hotel was only a few blocks down from Hollywood Boulevard.” It was right in the middle of a major cultural landscape and White was there to present at Documenting Cinema – the Film Librarians’ Conference 2019 about the Archive’s collection of film images, documentation, costumes and props.

Hosted by the Academy of Motion Picture, Arts and Sciences (the organisation behind the Oscars), this was only the second ever international Film Librarians’ Conference, the first having been held in 2017. Once she made it past security on the door, through metal detectors and bag search, White joined a sizeable crowd. “There were over 200 attendees, which the organisers were really pleased about. I got the impression that the original idea was for this to be directed at film librarians, but archivists, museum staff and others had jumped at the opportunity too, because there’s no other event quite like it for people who deal with the documentation materials related to film and moving image formats.”

The Margaret Herrick Library. Photo by Tracy White.

Naturally quite a quiet person, White impressed her colleagues at Ngā Taonga when practicing her presentation before she left: Our Today is their Tomorrow: Documentation and Artefacts Collecting, Research and Preservation, co-authored with colleague Mishelle Muagututi’a. At the conference, surrounded by peers was another matter. “It was a little bit scary presenting to so many people – I was quite nervous,” says White. “Once I got up on stage though it went well, and people laughed in the right places, so that always helps you relax.”

White also received a big boost from one of the organisers, Anne Coco. “She is a real force of nature – so much personality. She was telling me that when they saw our application, the committee said, ‘Ooh, we have to have them!’ So, no pressure at all,” she jokes. “They were thrilled that there was somebody from the other side of the world who wanted to come to their conference. They’re keen to have Ngā Taonga back, too.”

The keynote address on the first day was a great way to open the conference. “It was especially affirming for Documentation Librarians or Archivists. The speaker was Larry Karaszewski and he works in partnership with Scott Alexander. They’re responsible for biopics that focus on unusual people.” Their work includes Ed Wood, Man on the Moon and The People vs. Larry Flynt. “He started off by saying ‘what you do saves lives’ – and then carried on for an hour, seemingly without any notes.”

Karaszewski spoke about his journey into film and how visiting libraries, film libraries and having access to special collections related to film has influenced him right throughout his life and career. He has conducted plenty of research for these films and now has boxes and boxes of papers. “Going full-circle,” says White, “all of those boxes will probably end up going to the Margaret Herrick Library”.

Similar to the ‘saves lives’ quotes, the previous conference keynote was from filmmaker John Landis. “In the last 20 years a remarkable thing has happened. That is which the ephemera of film production has become a hot commodity!

The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Photo by Tracy White.

As previously noted on the blog, White has a special interest in the work of Levin-based Morrow Productions. Her presentation incorporated an introduction to their collection at Ngā Taonga, including films, scripts, documentation and 24 boxes of animation cels. Preserving these cels is a major challenge for Documentation staff. Experts at Ngā Taonga greatly increase their lifespan by quarantining the most degraded and housing the remainder between acid-free paper in temperature-controlled vaults.

White was especially excited to see a presentation given by a researcher from the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, who discussed the work that she had been doing, experimenting with new approaches to preserving degrading animation cels. “She and a couple of colleagues came up after my presentation and were really interested in hearing more about our work with the Morrow animation cels. In contrast to the Disney animation material she worked with (which is all quite similar), collections such as ours are really varied,” explains White. “People in New Zealand could have been making their own paints or using old acetate cels. She had a lot of hints and tips, and was also very open to sharing her research.”

The Pickford Centre for Motion Picture Study in Los Angeles. Photo by Tracy White.

This kind of interaction between archival colleagues was a definite conference highlight. “It was great to be there with so many like-minded people,” White says. “We were all speaking the same language, about scripts, storyboards, design and oral histories.” There were plenty of relatable comments from other archive staff, too. “You could see many similarities with what people have to deal with around the world. A lot of crucial archival work, preservation and storage is being done on a shoestring budget.”

After the conference and with a bunch of new contacts and business cards, White hopped back on the plane to return to New Zealand. A couple of days later she was back in familiar surroundings in Wellington, returning to work with lots of fresh ideas and inspiration.


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