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Film & Media Archive Completes Grant-Funded Digitization Project

The Washington University Libraries’ Film & Media Archive has successfully completed the project “Level Playing Field: Digitizing and Disseminating William Miles’ Black Champions Interviews.” The project was completed with the support of a 2018 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC).

The grant of $27,228 supported the work of Film & Media Archive staff, who reassembled and coordinated the digitization of Miles’ 1986 documentary series Black Champions and the 32 complete interviews conducted for it. The series highlights the accomplishments of some of the greatest African-American athletes of the twentieth century and features interviews with Arthur Ashe, Wilma Rudolph, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and former St. Louis Cardinal Curt Flood.

While portions of the interviews appeared in the original documentary, the full interviews have never been available until now and required considerable reconstruction. The 16mm prints and 16mm magnetic sound tracks were in fairly good shape, according to Tyler Bequette, film preservationist at the Film & Media Archive, but the interview portions needed for the final program had been cut out and were missing from the prints.

“The reels were the victims of the editing process,” Bequette explains. To solve the problem, he turned to the camera negatives. “These were more complete, though they were still a little more cut up than we’d like. The negative and the sync picture were compared and in cases where we needed both picture elements to complete the interview, both were sent to the lab.”

Including the three one-hour programs that make up the series, 55 picture elements and 76 sound elements were digitized. When the files came back from the lab, Digital Archivist Jim Hone reassembled the interviews. Hone’s process involved re-matching or syncing the digitized camera rolls of each interview with the digitized version of the sound recorded at the time of production. He then carefully removed the portions of each interview used in the digitized programs and re-integrated them into the original interview.

“Each interview presented its own challenge,” Hone says. “Many of the original ¼-inch sound rolls suffered deterioration, making the syncing process difficult.”

While the majority of the work on the project had been accomplished by October, the Film & Media Archive received an extension from the NHPRC to promote the grant at conferences, including the Oral History Association Annual Meeting in October and the Association of Moving Image Archivists Conference in November. Researchers can now view the complete interviews, many with transcripts, as well as a dynamic two-minute trailer created by Hone to promote the project.

For more information about the Film & Media Archive, contact Joy Novak, head of Special Collections Management for the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections.