Story posted September 15, 2011
In the fall of 2007, Richard Masters visited the staff of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and brought an old film and an interesting story. His parents, Maurice and Grace Masters, had owned and operated Master Motion Picture Bureau in Boston.
The Arctic explorer Donald B. MacMillan had been one of their loyal customers, and in addition to developing the motion picture film MacMillan had shot on his Arctic voyages, the Masters helped him edit the footage into short independent films. With him that fall day Mr. Masters had what is now believed to be the only existing copy of MacMillan’s first such film, “Visiting with the Eskimos of Smith Sound,” made in 1930.
The Arctic Museum holds a large archive of MacMillan’s edited and unedited footage, so the appearance of this new film was a delightful surprise. The 15-minute silent film contains some shots that are found in MacMillan’s archive of unedited footage, but also some footage that museum staff had never seen. All of it appears to have been shot between 1923 and 1925 in northwestern Greenland.
In 2010, when the opportunity to apply for a grant from the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF) arose, the Masters’ film was at the top of the museum’s list of footage needing attention. Vintage motion picture film is very fragile. When MacMillan originally shot the footage, he used 35mm film made of cellulose nitrate — a highly flammable and unstable medium. For projection in schools or theaters, he copied his edited films onto 16mm acetate film. While not as flammable, acetate is also unstable and after eighty years, the Masters film was shrunken and warped. This meant that although it had been projected many times, and had the scratches to prove it, the film could never be run through a projector again. To do so would have destroyed it.
With a grant from the NFPF, the museum was able to send the film to Colorlab, a film lab that specializes in preserving old footage. There the film was treated and copied on to new, stable polyester film stock. The new copy was also digitized, for eventual release on DVD. This preservation process is very exacting and took the lab a year to complete. The film has just arrived back at the museum, allowing staff to watch it for the first time.
The museum will be organizing a screening of this newly preserved MacMillan film, as well as some of his other works, this fall.
With funding from the Library of Congress, NFPF provides grants to institutions across the country to preserve and make available to the general public films that would otherwise be lost. Since 1998 they have supported preservation of over 1800 films. You can learn more about them at filmpreservation.org.