May '09     

by Mark Kausler

Mark Kausler has been an animator for nearly forty years. His vast collection of rare films has gained him the reputation as an archivist - but don't call him that!

I think I got the reputation as an archivist, because I've helped quite a few historians and authors of books on animation history with requests to see certain old cartoons or to get copies of studio records and drafts (animator breakdowns) of cartoons that I've collected over the years. I try to take good care of the materials, but I'm not really an archivist in the sense that Jere Guldin of the UCLA Film and Television Archive is, or that employees of the Margaret Herrick Library of the Motion Picture Academy, or the Academy's own film archive (where 77 nitrate cartoons from my collection currently reside). To properly preserve film and paper materials takes a lot of support, both monetarily and practically.

I really don't have a numerical count of the film or paper materials in my collection. I stopped counting short subjects about 20 years ago at 5000 titles, I don't have that many feature-length animated films, only about 35 or 40, many of those are 35mm prints.

I started very young collecting "stuff".   I think I started with autumn leaves.   One summer my brother and I collected fireflies in jars for a St. Louis University scientist who thought there might be some medicinal properties in the firefly's tails. From the age of eight, I was bitten very hard by the animated cartoon germ, and started to collect silent 8mm Disney and Walter Lantz prints to study on an old film viewer along with the cartoons I was making in my father's basement after school.

When I started art school in Kansas City, I found a film catalog listing 16mm prints for sale and bought a bad kinescope dupe of a Tom and Jerry cartoon ("Slicked-Up Pup") in black and white. It looked so much better than 8mm that I was hooked! I bought cartoons from that catalog and then found out about a lot of the early dealers as mailing lists got passed around.

So many of the dealers I met either in person or through the mails were either real characters or understanding and generous people. They were almost always men; the few women film dealers were really "fronts" for guys who didn't want their names on the lists. Jack Jardine was one of the first dealers I bought from, he used to write typewritten letters to me and staple old Technicolor 35mm frames to the letters cut from prints of MGM cartoons! Those frames looked beautiful when held up to the light, one of them was from Hugh Harman's "The Lonesome Stranger". I bought some Ub Iwerks Flip the Frog cartoons from Jack, a few of which are still with me. A lot of Jack's prints were on 16mm b/w stock of the 1940s, which had a lot of silver content, and the range of greys and detail in projection are beautiful. Crestfilm of Wichita, Kansas was another early dealer who had dozens of old cartoons, usually for two or three dollars a print. I couldn't afford too many, but Crestfilm tended to have a lot of Walter Lantz sound Oswald cartoons of the early 1930s, so I would go for those. My old friend Veto Stasiunaitis of Niles, Illinois also had a lot of the Oswald TV prints for sale. Veto loves cartoons and is still dealing on E-bay today.

Polish animator Ladislas Starevich's "Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman", 1912.

Charlie Tarbox of Film Classic Exchange in downtown Los Angeles was quite a character. He mostly duped old silent animation such as Mutt and Jeff, and had a nice selection of Ladislas Starevich's stop motion Russian films, such as "Revenge of the Kinematograph Cameraman". I remember his shop was a ramshackle building right under a freeway overpass! Mike Gaines and his father ran Gaines "16" film company in the valley, they had their own building. They got barrelfuls of old TV cartoon prints, such as Bozo Storybooks and Crusader Rabbit episodes of the late 1940s, they put out wonderful film lists.

      I love model sheets, animator "drafts" and Sunday comics. My friend Hugh Harman gave me a lot of his old paper studio records and some memorabilia. I have a collection of articles and paper materials mostly about animation. I used to be a very dedicated clipper and filer, but I have slacked off in recent years as animation morphs into digital simulacra of reality. I can't really say how much paper stuff there is, several filing cabinets full, anyway. I have a large collection of "The Pegboard", the Screen Cartoonists Union paper, going back to 1968.   Historians such as Tom Sito have used it as reference.

When you really think about it, there really is NO safe haven for the moving image. Nitrate film ultimately turns into a brown powder if not exposed to air every so often. The odd thing is that many nitrate films still survive in perfect condition, maybe because the processing was much slower in those days and the prints stayed in the fix chemical bath longer. There is nothing more beautiful in projection than a good condition nitrate print. Something about guncotton (which nitrate base is made from) lets light permeate it much more efficiently than safety base, which is full of acetate and cotton fibers, which tend to block light.

Nitrate film and now a lot of so-called safety films have to be copied to modern Estar base film stocks in order to continue life. Eastman Kodak really should be sued under


class action for misleading the public and archivists into believing that their safety-based film materials were archival. Since this base was made of di and tri-acetate, the belief was that it would outlast the old nitrocellulose base that motion pictures were printed on since the 19 th century. Over the long-term, however, safety base film has developed more problems than nitrate; "vinegar syndrome" plagues the material, especially if it was coated or scratch treated at any time.

A lot of Disney 35mm IB Technicolor safety prints have gone vinegar, because they were scratch treated and then re-issued. The scratch treatment coating seals the base so that it can't breath, or out-gas, the acid fumes, thus dooming the base to eat itself up. Vinegar syndrome makes the film smell highly of acetic acid, which is a prime component of triacetate film base, and then the film shrinks and develops a brownish haze over it. Soaking the film in chemical baths helps to retard the onset of VS to a degree, but it can never really be cured. The biggest disappointment for me with vinegar syndrome was when it gobbled up my 35mm IB print of "Fantasia" that I assembled from several different prints. It's no longer project-able, sad to say.

Safety as I said, is prone to vinegar syndrome, Estar base, introduced in the 1970s, is a lot more chemically stable - polyethylene, I believe - but is really not old enough to know how it holds up archivally. The old IB Technicolor process, which produced color that did not turn red over time, was discontinued in 1972.   A couple of attempts to revive the process in the 1980s did not work out. In 1982, Kodak introduced LPP color stock, which has proven stable since then, archivists have high hopes for this stock.

Beta, VHS, half-inch, two-inch and other formats of videotape are not really archival, due to oxide shedding. Videotape runs risks of the base deteriorating, because most tape is triacetate stock.

Laser disks, introduced in the 1970s were at one time the great hope of film archivists, but proved to be unstable. "Laser rot" infected the disks and caused them to peel apart in layers like an onion. Digital copies, (DVDs, mp3s, CDs, etc.) are really too new to be considered archival. They are an efficient means of short-term storage, but the technology that underlies digital copying is constantly changing. Five years from now, current DVDs may no longer play, due to older formats being replaced by new formats such as Blu-Ray, and old equipment to play them on being no longer in manufacture.

A lot of digital archiving of old paper materials is going on now, but the paper, even in brittle condition, will outlast most of the digital files that are made from them. True archiving of paper materials involves de-acidification of the paper in specialized equipment, as the Library of Congress uses. It requires special knowledge and funding to do properly. Digital copying is only a short-term stopgap to real preservation of paper archives.

In short, I am not a true archivist because I don't have any funds available other than what I can earn to maintain an archive, I am not paid any substantial amount to even pay storage on film materials, and I am indiscriminate about the FORM of the moving image materials I pick up. They can be 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, VHS tape, Beta video tape, laser disks, DVDs, most anything. As long as it's rare to me ( I haven't seen it) I am tempted to pick it up. Paper materials can be originals, but photocopies are fine, as long as they are reasonably good. I love old magazines and newspapers, but often copy them onto better paper stock if they are getting brittle. I think copying paper onto better stock is more a legitimate archival activity than just scanning the material into a computer. I have a run of Sunday comic sections dating back to 1968, and a lot of clipped runs of strips dating to the mid 1950s. Most of this paper is holding up very well, considering the storage conditions are primitive. (Trunks in the garage.)

It's one thing to acquire materials, quite another to really preserve and care for them properly. Most of my safety film is in storage at a film care facility, which has pretty cold storage temperatures throughout the year. The problem is that it's too humid in there and a lot of metal film cans and reels have rusted badly. I try to get rid of the rusty metal, but it sometimes races ahead of me. Some say there is a chemical relationship between rust and the dreaded vinegar syndrome, - I hope not.

The storage is not real cheap. I wish I could get paid enough annually to at least cover the storage costs on the film collection. The nitrate materials are stored at the Academy Film Archive in Hollywood. I can get the films out of there for use whenever I need them and they have good concrete storage facilities for nitrate, which I never had. It is not a good idea to mix nitrate and safety base together, so now they are stored properly. Paper items are mostly in filing cabinets and trunks, not the greatest for the items in them. Filing cabinets tend to damage papers in the file folders from the drawers continually opening and closing, but most of it is still in usable shape

Thank God I've never had any actual nitrate disasters. I have burned some nitrate film outdoors under controlled conditions to see what would happen. The stuff burns like a fuse and when the fuse burns down to the core with a lot of film wound around it, it's a white-hot furious display. The fumes are toxic - I have breathed some of them, don't do it!

I have projected nitrate film many times on an old Holmes 35mm and now a Simplex projector and have been lucky enough never to have any of it catch fire. My old friend Murray Glass used to come over with nitrate film for me to run for him and like a fool I didn't look at it on rewinds first. Many times really crude splices made with staples and Scotch tape would jam in the projector gate, but since I always stand next to the projector when running the stuff, I shut the lamp house down before the film could ignite.

Vinegar Syndrome is the slow-motion disaster as a few titles a year slowly catch it. VS is infectious, and I have to quarantine the infected materials from the rest of the collection. It's heartbreaking to see a lot of great old cartoons become unplayable.   Don't start collecting film, readers! It will make you cry!

c.2009 Moore Studios, Inc