Film archaeology

I’m sitting at a film winding bench with Jo Dixon-Didier, a Ngā Taonga Collection Developer who specialises in film. We’re surrounded by film handling equipment: splicers, archival tape, cleaning products and empty film cans. Light shines up from the lightbox in the bench as Jo slowly winds through a reel of 8mm film.

“This is a colour reversal original,” she says, gleaning bits of information from the film as it passes in front of her. “There we go – this one is Kodachrome. I’ll keep coming further down… and it says ‘Safety Film’. Just after that ‘S’ is a little dot – that denotes where the film stock was produced. This one is from Rochester in the United States.” I’m impressed. This feels like archaeology: sifting through, finding important details. “And here we have a triangle and a circle,” she points, “which are the date codes.”

Jo Dixon-Didier behind surplus film leader. Photo by Frances O’Brien.

Imagine receiving large amounts of decades-old film and trying to make sense of it. This is a big part of what Jo does. Film cans and boxes may be well-labelled, but often there is no, or contradictory, information. How, then, can you tell when a film was made, or where it might have come from? Luckily, lots of this information can be determined by the trained eye: the format, stock type, and year and place of manufacture. The rest of Jo’s work is a surface level assessment. She can record the condition of the film and do a basic content assessment: are there any intertitles or interesting scenes that jump out?

The edge code symbols on a roll of 8mm film. The triangle and circle indicate 1957. Photo by Jo Dixon-Didier.

Grabbing a loupe, I take a close look at the tiny date codes. Home movies in New Zealand were very popular from the 1940s to the 1970s. But being tucked away at the bottom of the world, Jo explains that interpreting the codes isn’t always straightforward. “United Kingdom and American date codes are all pretty consistent, but they were unfortunately repeated, so the 8mm symbol is the same in 1938, 1948 and 1958. In New Zealand though, we got a lot of stock that was manufactured in Australia and I haven’t been able to track down a guide to what years those symbols signify. It seems at some point they became consistent with the American system, but there’s a fuzzy period where I can’t seem to match them up with anything.”

There’s a number of extra challenges that come into the mix, too. Film may have been brought or sent over by British or American ex-pats. The film may not have been exposed until sometime after it was produced. And for filming longer events, multiple reels were needed. For consumers, 8mm film came as 50 foot reels, each of which gives about 3mins 40seconds of film time. So a compilation is “often just a number of 50 foot reels spliced together,” potentially with a mix of films produced at different times and in different locations. After consulting date code charts and looking at the film, Jo is able to state that this film is from 1957.

The edge code information reveals this is Kodachrome II film. Photo by Jo Dixon-Didier.

The ability to figure this stuff out requires someone with a solid background in film. Luckily, that’s what Jo brings to the job. After graduating film school in Auckland, she worked as a cinema projectionist. That film handling experience helped her land a job in 2006 in the motion picture film processing laboratory at Park Road Post Production. It was at Park Road that she gained a wealth of film knowledge and expertise, including archival standards and film conservation. After the laboratory closed down in 2013 she worked on various contracts at Ngā Taonga, the New Zealand Film Commission and Archives New Zealand before joining Ngā Taonga permanently in 2017.

Jo Dixon-Didier at a film winding bench. Photo by Frances O’Brien.

Many of the home movies that are deposited with Ngā Taonga show one thing: Kiwis on holiday. “People loved filming their holidays,” reflects Jo, “as opposed to filming their normal life at home.” There’s a lot of places you see often like the Rotorua thermal region, the Marlborough Sounds, the Chateau at Tongariro and the Hermitage at Aoraki Mt Cook, and tons of footage at the beach. They were popular tourist spots and well worth filming. “Looking at the collection, from the 1940s to the 1960s a lot of Kiwis holidayed at those places. And it might sound funny, but I don’t know if they still do? That’s because I haven’t worked with any home movies made after the 1980s.” The video revolution made it quite easy to record to tape, but most of those tapes are still in closets or attics. That means our home movie collection is mostly film-based, and will require Jo’s knowledge.

I take another look at the film on the winding bench. I see trees, water and the beach jumping out at me. It is, of course, a family on holiday.

Written by David Klein

Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision website.

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