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December 18, 2017

Scanning JoAnn Elam’s “Filmabuse (Original)”

By Justin Dean and Brian Belak

One of our missions for the Woman Behind the Camera project is to digitize and make accessible online the film work of JoAnn Elam, but as can be the case, that has sometimes turned out easier said than done. Recently, we found a curious reel labeled “Filmabuse (Original)” that presented a challenge for digitizing and required altering our previously established workflow. This uncut double-8mm reel appeared to be an element of a previously digitized (and already streaming) film, “Filmabuse” (circa 1975), an abstract 16mm film that was likely printed from originally hand-painted film. Although probably not the original hand-painted film itself, “Filmabuse (Original)” appeared to be an element that “Filmabuse” was printed from. From what we can determine, the same footage from “Filmabuse (Original)” is repeated four times on “Filmabuse,” each time with variation in direction and orientation. What was initially striking was how vivid the colors of “Filmabuse (Original)” were when compared to “Filmabuse.” Not only was some vibrancy likely lost in the initial printing, but, due to the color process used to make the print, the color of “Filmabuse” has faded over the years.

“Filmabuse (Original)” – Double 8mm

“Filmabuse” – 16mm

We were excited to digitize and share this unique object, both because of the context it adds to the finished film and because of how beautiful it is on its own. But digitizing the film presented certain challenges, not least because of its odd film gauge. When unexposed, double 8mm (AKA Regular 8mm) is the same width as 16mm, only with twice as many sprocket holes (perforations) on each side. As the film runs through the camera, it first exposes only one half of the film’s width. When the length has been exposed, the camera operator reloads the same film into the camera a second time, now oriented so the other half is exposed. The film developer typically then slits the film in half along its length and attaches the two ends, resulting in a full reel of developed film that is 8mm wide.

Comparison of 16mm and 8mm

Comparison of 16mm and 8mm

This is a typical consumer’s experience with double 8mm, but some artists (like JoAnn Elam) have experimented with using double 8mm in its uncut form as another format for filmmaking. Uncut double 8mm has twice as many perforations as 16mm, but the additional holes are simply inserted in between those normally on 16mm. This means a double-8mm film can usually be treated with the same equipment as 16mm, and every other hole will just be ignored by the 16mm-spaced sprocket teeth. This helps explain why the printed film “Filmabuse” is 16mm instead of double 8mm: the printing process is easy and the finished film could be screened in any venue with 16mm projection.

We would normally be able to treat “Filmabuse (Original)” like any other 16mm film we’ve digitized from JoAnn Elam, but in this case, the film had damage to its perforations and edges and was severely warped. This made transfer with our Tobin Telecine, the machine we use for the bulk of our digitization, very risky. The Tobin is essentially a film projector with a digital camera which captures a video of the film as it travels through the gate. Both the Tobin and a projector use sprockets to pull the film by its perforations through the machinery, so if a film is too damaged to run through a projector, like “Filmabuse (Original)” was, it shouldn’t be run through the Tobin either. Therefore, we decided it was an ideal candidate for scanning using our Kinetta Archival Film Scanner. Unlike a Tobin or film projector, the Kinetta is sprocket-less. It uses rollers instead and is much gentler to damaged films. However, the set-up and production process of a Kinetta scan is much greater than the Tobin—as is the final file size—which is why we typically use the latter when digitizing for access.

Kinetta Archival Film Scanner

Kinetta Archival Film Scanner

This was our first time scanning double 8mm. Because it lacks sprockets, the Kinetta relies on a sensor that detects every perforation in order to stabilize the image. We set what gauge the scanner is working with, and it knows to look for the correct number of perforations and their spacing per frame for that gauge. Because the print of “Filmabuse” is 16mm and the double 8mm version presumably matched that framing (and requires the use of a gate 16-mm wide anyway), we first set the Kinetta to read 16mm perforations. This caused a problem, though, for the stabilization software was getting flustered each time it recognized the additional holes in the double 8mm film. When we set the software to stabilize based on 8mm, we were able to get a stable scan because the software knew to look for perforations with the correct frequency.

There was, however, a downside to scanning as 8mm. Both 16mm and 8mm normally have one perforation per film frame. In the frame-by-frame capture of the Kinetta, this means that for each perforation (and therefore, for each film frame) a corresponding digital frame is created. But because 8mm is intended to be cut to half the size of 16mm, when treating double 8mm like 16mm there are actually two perforations for every “full” frame. As a result, in the raw scan, for every film frame an additional “half” frame was created in between the full ones.

Raw "Filmabuse (Original)" scan

Raw “Filmabuse (Original)” scan

The question then became how to remove these “half” frames to create a file that plays back properly using the full frames of 16mm. It helped to think of the frames in terms of numerical value: frame 1, frame 2, frame 3, etc. That way we could consider the frames as two groups: evens and the odds. Depending which frame in the scan we designated the “first” one, this meant the “half” frames would fall on either every even frame or every odd one. The final file we wanted would then be one that removed every other frame and included only either the evens or the odds that make up the “full” frames.

We decided the quickest way to remove frames was to use the command-line video-editing tool FFmpeg. Manipulating frames in this way requires first converting the digital information of the video file into a raw bitstream. The following line of code does that, taking an .mp4 file and transcoding it to a raw YUV stream.

ffmpeg -i input.mp4 -an -vcodec rawvideo -pix_fmt yuv420p rawbitstream.yuv

From there, FFmpeg can be directed to select only odd or even frames from the video and create a new bitstream using only one or the other.

ffmpeg -r 2 -s 2880×2160 -i rawbitstream.yuv -filter:v select=”mod(n-1\,2)” -c:v rawvideo -r 1 -format rawvideo -pix_fmt yuv420p -an odd.yuv

ffmpeg -r 2 -s 2880×2160 -i rawbitstream.yuv -filter:v select=”not(mod(n-1\,2))” -c:v rawvideo -r 1 -format rawvideo -pix_fmt yuv420p -an even.yuv

Finally, the bitstream is converted into ProRes for minimal compression.

ffmpeg -f rawvideo -vcodec rawvideo -s 2880×2160 -r 24 -pix_fmt yuv420p -i even.yuv -c:v prores -profile:v 3

However, before we could go about removing frames, it became necessary to figure out which frame we actually wanted to consider the first of the film. That way we would know whether to remove evens or odds. What made this extra tricky was that there were no clear markers distinguishing one frame from another. On exposed film, a solid line normally separates the end of one frame from the beginning of the next. But since this film was originally painted instead of photographed, the color from the paint flows freely along the film strip. It makes it difficult to think in terms of frames when the reel has an appearance akin to color flowing across a scroll. Again, thinking of “Filmabuse” as 16mm, the way we chose to consider “Filmabuse (Original)” was: what sections would be a frame if the reel ran through a 16mm projector? Since splices typically do not cleave directly into frames, we considered the top of the first frame to be right at the first splice where the head leader is attached to the film.

The first splice of "Filmabuse (Original)," indicating the likely first frame

The first splice of “Filmabuse (Original),” indicating the likely first frame

This gave us our starting point, and it turned out that every “half” frame corresponded to an odd frame in our count, meaning we wanted a file that included only even frames. Using the FFmpeg commands, we created a new file of “Filmabuse (Original),” confirmed to correspond to the 16mm playback of “Filmabuse.” This file and the full master now reside in our digital collection storage, and a version will be made accessible online soon. The film itself resides safely in our vault.


The authors are indebted to the contributors to StackExchange and the AMIA Open Source Committee’s ffmprovisr project, without both of which FFmpeg could not have been implemented into this project.

November 1, 2017

JoAnn Elam’s Everyday People (1978-1990) at Chicago Film Archives

By Aurore Spiers, University of Chicago

The JoAnn Elam Collection (1967-1990) at Chicago Film Archives (CFA) consists of approximately 735 film, video, audio elements and some paper material, which JoAnn Elam’s husband Joe Hendrix donated in 2011. In addition to Elam’s best known films, such as Rape (1975) and Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982), the collection includes dozens of short films and home movies as well as footage and audio tapes for some unfinished projects like Everyday People (1978-1990). Diaries, notebooks, research material, scrapbooks, and production notes for Everyday People complete CFA’s collection, which gives us unprecedented access to Elam’s rich body of work.

JoAnn Elam in the 1970s.

JoAnn Elam in the 1970s.

As I began working on the JoAnn Elam Collection last summer, I became interested in Everyday People, one of Elam’s most personal films that remained unfinished at the time of her death in 2009. According to her diaries and notebooks, she started filming her colleagues from the Logan Square post office in Chicago in late 1977, a few years after she was hired there as a letter carrier. In 1978, Elam wrote about the “post office movie” she wished to make: “It’s about delivering the mail, day-to-day, rather than specific events (1978 strike). Strike, work rules, management harassment, relationship to public. Other issues are brought in as they affect day-to-day.”

JoAnn Elam's Notebooks, ca. 1977-1983.

JoAnn Elam’s Notebooks, ca. 1977-1983.

Following a decade of major strikes leading to the Postal Reorganization Act of 1970, the newly created United States Postal Service (USPS) implemented a series of measures to modernize its facilities and mechanize the sorting of the mail. Several titles from the JoAnn Elam Collection document this moment in the history of the American post office, when tense negotiations between the administration and the postal workers’ unions led to more protests and strikes, and, in some cases, victories for the workers. At least three times between 1978 and 1982, Elam served as one of Chicago’s union delegates to the National Association of Letter Carriers biennial convention. Elam’s “post office movie,” which she renamed “Everyday People” around 1980, would focus on how these events and issues impacted the letter carriers’ work every day.

Cartoon from JoAnn Elam's Scrapbook, date unknown: "If you don't carry your route in 8 hours, I'm going to HARASS you!"

Cartoon from JoAnn Elam’s Scrapbook, date unknown: “If you don’t carry your route in 8 hours, I’m going to HARASS you!”

The version of Everyday People available for streaming on CFA’s website is the most complete rough cut found on a VHS tape (date unknown). This 22-minute version was shot on 16mm and video, in black and white and color, and probably with the help of several friends, including Chuck Kleinhans from Jump Cut. It includes footage and audio interviews of Elam’s colleagues at the post office from the 1970s and 1980s, with and without titles. Elam’s personal diaries and notebooks from 1977 through 1983 and her production notes from the late 1980s help us better understand Elam’s project, her hesitations, the political views she wanted to convey, and the structure and formal devices she intended to use. Together with the rough cut, this extra-filmic material offers a glimpse into Elam’s creative process, from the conceptualization to the editing of Everyday People.

Still from Everyday People (1978-1990).

Still from Everyday People (1978-1990).

The film Elam envisioned was ambitious. In about one hour, Everyday People would describe what the work of delivering mail consisted of, how it was fulfilling to the mailmen and women of the USPS, how the events mentioned above affected them, and how they could become good letter carriers. In Elam’s words, the film’s objectives were: “1) to show people who have no awareness other than getting their mail what it’s like for the people who deliver it—to show what work involves; 2) to show some of the basic fulfilling aspects of work—competence (doing it right), relevance (structured relationships with people), exertion, discipline; 3) to analyze the way the post office operates—how and why things are done, and how mail delivery and the carrier’s work are affected; 4) to make letter carriers more aware of what their job is and how I think it should be done. More specifically, to encourage and reinforce a particular attitude toward the work, the people, and management. How to be a good carrier.” The film would include images of letter carriers delivering the mail and interviews, thus achieving its four objectives visually and formally, through sound and editing. The intended audiences included experienced and new letter carriers as well as the general public, the receivers and senders of mail.

Page from JoAnn Elam's Scrapbook, date unknown: "What Your Letter Carrier Knows About You."

Page from JoAnn Elam’s Scrapbook, date unknown: “What Your Letter Carrier Knows About You.”

What Elam called her “ongoing What-Kind-Of-A-Movie-Is-This? Struggle” was certainly one of the reasons why the film remained unfinished. For instance, on September 23, 1978, Elam wrote to herself: “Keep in mind the movie is really about The Mail (The Mail is an endless mystery) and the Postal Service (the Post Office is an endless folly) and The Weather (Everybody Talks about The Weather and nobody does anything about it), and Conditions of Employment.” A few weeks later, on December 16, 1978, she kept wondering: “What is my relationship to my material? Is it the mailmen or the mail? It’s The Work.” On February 4, 1979, Elam expressed that, “there are several specific things I want to get across, like that people should put their name on their mailbox, put apartment numbers on letters, etc. Other than that, I would like them to understand that some mailmen (many) are proud of doing a good job and are involved in their work. What I want to convey about the work itself is the nature of it (what we do), the material of it—mail, equipment, clothing, mailboxes; the combination of repetition and variation, the attitudes that the role creates, toward the physical surroundings, people, ourselves.” At times, these practical considerations gave way to fantasy, as when Elam mentioned “the ideals. How it [the USPS] should be,” briefly renaming Everyday People “the Fantasy Post Office.” Always on Elam’s mind, however, was to pay tribute to the hard-working letter carriers delivering mail year round, often subjected to harassment, racism, and sexism from management, and undervalued in American society.

Reaching the American public was crucial to Elam’s project, even if the film’s multiple modes of address proved extremely difficult and probably delayed the production further. Although Elam’s notes are unclear, she might have wanted to use sound as a counterpoint to the images, with the “sound message” addressed to the “general audience” and the images to the letter carriers, who would “pick up on subtle messages, unconnected but not conflicting with sound message.” Elam’s film would continue experimenting with sound, images, and titles in a similar way to Rape, where the titles sometimes repeat or add to the women’s testimonies about sexual abuse. But compared to Rape, Elam said, “Post Office will have more variation and conscious pacing. Sections will be broken up by commercials. Sound and picture will develop in parallel (…). Little if any lip synch.”

Pages from JoAnn Elam's Scrapbook, date unknown.

Pages from JoAnn Elam’s Scrapbook, date unknown.

Unfortunately, Elam does not say what commercials she wanted to include and whether those would speak to her “general audience” and/or the postal workers. Still, this reveals Elam’s interest in the way mailmen and women were represented in the media, as her scrapbook of newspaper clippings further evidence. Letters from 1984 to various record companies also indicate that Elam tried to acquire the rights to several popular songs, such as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” Elvis Presley’s “Return to Sender,” and The Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” Put in dialogue with the voices of mailmen and women, the commercials and songs would show the social value of postal workers to themselves and to the communities they serve in a profound yet whimsical way.

Cartoon from JoAnn Elam's Scrapbook, date unknown.

Cartoon from JoAnn Elam’s Scrapbook, date unknown.

The extant version of Everyday People from CFA’s collection accomplishes some of these ideas about structure and editing. It starts with sequences showing Nancy Morgan, Juan Ortiz, Joe Hendrix, and Joan Davis delivering mail. As men of color and women, Elam’s four colleagues stand for U.S. Post Office’s diverse workforce. Superimposed yet not synchronized onto this footage, their voices speak of the racial and social diversity and of the opportunities offered to women and African Americans at the USPS. A series of more rapidly edited shots of Morgan, Ortiz, Hendrix, Davis, Elam, and other letter carriers going in and out of buildings follows. Hendrix, Davis, Morgan, and Ortiz (in this order) then talk about their relationship with the communities, their responsibilities, and the difficulties they encounter on the job over footage of them on their rounds. During these two montage sequences, two songs titled “I am a Happy Mailman” and “Watch that dog” (using the melody of “Jingle Bells”) also present their work as gratifying even if demanding. We next see various workers sort the mail at the post office, carry it into trucks, and deliver it, along with archival footage of postal workers from the early twentieth century. Even if this version of Everyday People ends abruptly, with Hendrix stating that these “old days are gone,” it is probably close to what Elam had planned in that it documents the labor required for the American people to receive bills, paychecks, personal letters, and packages every day.

The relation between sound and image that Elam struggled to conceptualize makes her vision of the post office most manifest in the rough cut. While the images convey the repetitive and mechanical nature of the work, the voices of the four postal workers offer a more complex account destined to the general public. Against common ideas about the postal workers’ incompetence and laziness, Everyday People insists on their courage and dedication.

Significantly, Elam’s production notes indicate that Franz Kafka’s “Couriers” was to be used during the closing credits. Kafka wrote that couriers “were offered the choice between becoming kings or the couriers of kings. The way children would, they all wanted to be couriers. Therefore there are only couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other—since there are no kings—messages that have become meaningless. They would like to put an end to this miserable life of theirs but they dare not because of their oaths of service.” In Everyday People, Kafka’s world without kings is the USPS, where the growing mechanization and the use of computers has led to the devaluation of human labor. Despite the repetitive nature of their work, Elam explains, letter carriers are not robots, but valuable workers that the general public should support in their fight for decent work conditions.

Page from JoAnn Elam's Scrapbook, date unknown: "Couriers" by Franz Kafka.

Page from JoAnn Elam’s Scrapbook, date unknown: “Couriers” by Franz Kafka.

As a work in progress, Everyday People presents a challenge to film scholars interested in JoAnn Elam. Over a period of at least ten years, Elam changed her goals, the structure of the project, and the material she wished to include several times. She apparently showed versions of the film to some of her friends from Chicago’s experimental film community and to her colleagues from the post office, whose feedback she valued immensely. Traces of her long search for the right aesthetic are everywhere in her diaries, notebooks, and scrapbooks, but the personal nature of these documents often make them obscure to the unintended readers that we are today. Still, Everyday People has shown me the merits of incomplete film works. Because they often reveal so much about their creator’s filmmaking practice, they force us to search for new methods, which would consider film fragments, scraps of paper, and discarded ideas on the same level as more definitive elements. The work of Chicago Film Archives on the JoAnn Elam Collection gives us a place to start.

September 11, 2017

The JoAnn Elam Collection at Chicago Film Archives

by Aurore Spiers, University of Chicago

The JoAnn Elam Collection (1967-1990) at Chicago Film Archives (CFA) is one of the 58 archival projects receiving generous support from the Woman Behind the Camera. It consists of approximately 735 film, video, and audio elements and some paper material, which JoAnn Elam’s husband Joe Hendrix donated in 2011. Since then, CFA has inventoried, digitized, and catalogued some of this material, giving the public unprecedented online access to the filmmaker’s work. 

In addition to Elam’s best known films, such as Rape (1975) and Lie Back and Enjoy It (1982), the collection includes many short films, home movies, and unedited footage for Everyday People (1979-1990) and other unfinished projects. It also features medical films by Elam’s father, James O. Elam, M.D., and home movies by Joe Hendrix. This heterogeneity together with the diversity of formats (8mm, Super 8mm, video, 16mm, and audio tapes) and the scarcity of remaining information about some of the material make the JoAnn Elam Collection an archival challenge, one that I was excited to learn about and work on as CFA’s research intern this summer. 

JoAnn Elam, date unknown.

JoAnn Elam in the late 1970s.

JoAnn Elam was born in Boston in 1949 to James O. Elam, a physician who specialized in anesthesiology, and Elinor Foster Elam, an active member of the League of Women Voters in Chicago. She grew up in various places in New York State and Missouri, as the Elam family moved around for her father’s work. In 1966, she moved to Yellow Springs, OH, where she attended Antioch College and met her first husband, the experimental filmmaker Bill Brand. He and Elam participated in the local, vibrant artistic community of Yellow Springs and Elam’s first finished film, 3 Goats and a Gruff (date unknown), was supposedly shot there in the late 1960s. 

In the early 1970s, Elam and Brand moved to Chicago and Brand enrolled in the MFA program at the School of the Art Institute, where Elam sat in on Stan Brakhage’s lectures. In 1973, Elam, Brand, Warner Wada, and Dan Ochiva formed Filmgroup, later renamed Chicago Filmmakers, which had the mission to showcase their work and the work of other young experimental filmmakers during screenings at the N.A.M.E. Gallery downtown. Chicago Filmmakers remains a staple of independent filmmaking today. Elam’s group of friends at the time, nicknamed the “Rhinos” or the “Rhino group,” also included B. Ruby Rich, Linda Williams, Julia Lesage and Chuck Kleinhans from Jump Cut, and many other filmmakers and scholars. Although Elam did not achieve the same level of recognition as some of the members of the “Rhino group” and Chicago Filmmakers, similar cinematic experiments characterize most of her finished and unfinished works from the JoAnn Elam Collection, such as Filmabuse (ca. 1975), Disabuse (date unknown), and Sprockets (ca. 1976).


Promotional material for “JoAnn Elam Chicago Filmmaker,” New York City, October 2, 1983. Courtesy of Susan Elam.

Equally influential for Elam was her involvement in the labor movement of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1973, the same year that she co-founded Filmgroup, Elam started working as a letter carrier for the United States Post Office in Logan Square in Chicago. At least three times between 1978 and 1982, Elam served as one of Chicago’s union delegates to the National Association of Letter Carriers biennial convention. Several titles from the JoAnn Elam Collection document this moment in the history of the postal workers’ unions, when tense negotiations with the Post Office administration led to many protests, strikes, and, in some cases, victories for the workers. In Everyday People, which was one of Elam’s most ambitious projects that unfortunately remained unfinished before she died in 2009, she explores the letter carriers’ role in the communities they serve, their difficult work conditions, and the racism and sexism they face every day. The film’s experimental documentary form reveals the ways in which both her experience as a postal worker and her ties to Chicago’s experimental film community informed her film practices throughout her life. 

Knowing about these aspects of Elam’s life has been essential to my understanding of the JoAnn Elam Collection. One of the challenges I still encountered was to determine the production locations and dates and to identify the people in Elam’s films. When none of Elam’s notes remained, the help I received from her sister, Susan Elam, and her close friend, Chuck Kleinhans, proved invaluable. In some cases, the personal photographs and memories of Elam they shared with me illuminated her methods as an experimental filmmaker. For instance, in Collards Garden 1985 (1985), Elam appears on screen planting collard sprouts and then picking fully grown collard greens in a time-lapse fashion. Even if Hendrix stands behind the camera, Kleinhans has described him as Elam’s “helper” responding to her directions and whose participation in her projects should not weaken her artistic authority. 

“Small Gauge Manifesto” (1980), which Elam wrote with Kleinhans as a pamphlet distributed at Chicago Filmmakers, also gives us some insight into Elam’s preferred film formats (regular 8 and Super 8), editing practice, and viewing conditions. With small gauge film, Elam and Kleinhans argued, “filming can be flexible and spontaneous. Because the equipment is light and unobtrusive, the filming relationship can be immediate and personal. The appropriate viewing situation is a small space with a small number of people. (…) The filming and viewing events can be considered as part of the editing process. Editing decisions can be made before, during, and after filming and can incorporate feedback from an audience.” The conclusion of their short manifesto, “small gauge film is not larger than life, it’s part of life,” describes Elam’s consuming devotion to filmmaking well. As she was often bringing her camera along, filmmaking was always part of her life. 

Promotional material for the "Small Gauge Show" with films by JoAnn Elam and Chuck Kleinhans, Chicago, February 23, 1974. Courtesy of Susan Elam.

Promotional material for the “Small Gauge Show” with films by JoAnn Elam and Chuck Kleinhans, Chicago, February 23, 1980. Courtesy of Susan Elam.

Eager to experiment with conventional filmmaking and editing practices, Elam often filmed her garden, the many places she and Hendrix travelled to, the union meetings she participated in, the people gathered around her at barbecues and family reunions, strangers on the street, her cats and dogs at home, her plants on the windowsill, everyday activities like riding in a car or on the subway, and special occasions using defamiliarizing techniques. Some of the films she made in Monterey, MA, in the early 1980s, such as Monterey Goats (1981) and Monterey Maple Farm 81 (1981), exemplify her fascination for natural beauty and farm labor, which the frequent use of superimpositions, fast-paced editing, and disorienting camera movements make all the more intriguing. Even a short film like Sailboat (ca. 1976), in which a sailboat on Lake Michigan gets closer and then further away within seconds through framing and editing, tests the medium’s potential to reinvent both reality and itself. 

JoAnn Elam in her garden in Chicago, ca. 1980. Courtesy of Chuck Kleinhans.

JoAnn Elam in her garden in Chicago in the 1980s. Courtesy of Chuck Kleinhans.

In many instances, Elam’s experiments helped her search for new, empowering ways to film women, not as images produced by and for the patriarchal society, but as voices rising against it. Rape, Chocolate Cake (ca. 1973), Lie Back and Enjoy It, and Daytime Television (date unknown) are compelling examples of Elam’s reflection on violence against women, traditional ideals of femininity, and the representation of women in mainstream media. 

As one of the few women working behind the camera in the 1970s and 1980s, Elam’s contribution to American experimental filmmaking was original and provocative, making her absence from most film histories all the more regrettable. The work of Chicago Film Archives on the JoAnn Elam Collection remedies this oversight and makes it possible for film enthusiasts, students, and scholars to explore Elam’s films today.

JoAnn Elam in Boyers and Rhinos (1981).

JoAnn Elam in Boyers and Rhinos (1981).


April 26, 2017

2018 International Media Mixer!

The Chicago Film Archives (Chicago, IL) and Lab 80Cinescatti (Bergamo, Italy) are thrilled to announce a new international artistic collaboration—the 2018 International Media Mixer! This project is one of 15 artistic partnerships supported by the MacArthur Foundation’s International Connections Fund.

The International Media Mixer is a cross-cultural “call and response” exchange, bringing together artists from two different countries to explore the process of creating hybrid works of media art. The project sheds new light on the international practice of media conservation and artistic creation.

Here’s how it works: Michelle Puetz, Curator of Public Programming at the Chicago Film Archives, and Karianne Fiorini, film archivist and curator associated with Lab 80 – Cinescatti, each commissioned two local video artists and two local sound artists to collaborate on the creation of four new videos using archival footage. Here is where the exchange comes in: the two filmmakers from Italy and Chicago create new works using digitized footage from the partner archive (Italian-based artists use footage from the Chicago Film Archives and Chicago-based artists use footage from Lab 80 – Cinescatti). Each new silent video is then scored by the sound artists/musicians from the partnering country. Upon completion, the four new pieces will screen in the US and in Italy with live accompaniment by the musicians who created the scores.

The artists selected for the 2018 International Media Mixer are:

Giuseppe Boccassini (IT) + Alex Inglizian (US)
Lori Felker (US) + Patrizia Oliva (IT)
Federico Francioni & Yan Cheng (IT) + Tomeka Reid (US)
Domietta Torlasco (US) + Stefano Urkuma De Santis (IT)



Chicago Film Archives (CFA) is a regional film archive dedicated to identifying, collecting, preserving, and providing access to films that represent the Midwestern United States. CFA’s purpose is to serve institutions and filmmakers of this region and elsewhere by being a repository for institutional and private film collections; serve a variety of cultural, academic, and artistic communities by making the films available locally, nationally, and internationally for exhibition, research, and production; and serve our culture by conserving films that are rare or not in existence elsewhere.

CFA was formed in late 2003 to house, preserve and care for the Chicago Public Library’s collection of 4,500 16mm films—a collection the library could no longer keep. These films became a springboard for CFA to develop as a regional film archive committed to the acquisition, preservation, study, and exhibition of films that reflect the character and heritage of the Midwest. Since 2003, the archive has acquired over 120 collections containing approximately 27,000 films, videotapes, audiotapes, and ephemera—all donated by Midwest filmmakers, collectors, and institutions.

Laboratorio 80 is the oldest cinematographic association in Italy. Active since 1956, when it was known as the Cineforum di Bergamo, Lab 80 offers both theoretical and practical studies in cinema. In 1976, the organization became a worker cooperative and was renamed Lab 80 film. In the late 1990s, Lab 80 film added a production division, and continues to organize festivals and screenings, distribute films, operate a theater, and offer courses and workshops about cinema.

In 2010, Lab 80 initiated an archival project—Cinescatti—which is dedicated to collecting and providing access to home movies and amateur films related to the city and province of Bergamo. The Cinescatti archive consists of 3,000 home movies and amateur films shot in 16mm, 9.5mm, and 8mm between the early 1920s and the 1980s. Made by amateur filmmakers from in and around the city and province of Bergamo, the films represent a variety of cultural backgrounds and experiences. Most of the films in the Cinescatti archive have been digitized and are accessible for specific projects, research, and film production.

logoLab80film_web           cinescattiLOGO_web


April 7, 2017

CFA Media Mixer 2017: Meet this Year’s Artists

We’re so thrilled to announce the amazing lineup of artists participating in this year’s CFA Media Mixer event. Now in its sixth year (!!!), the Media Mixer has grown to be one of our most anticipated and exciting public programs. The project began in 2012 as a way to open up our vault of archival footage to Chicago-based contemporary artists and support the creation of a new video work by pairing these visual artists with local sound artists and musicians.

This year’s artists are (video + sound):

Eric Fleischauer + Matchess
Samantha Hill + Haptic
Marianna Milhorat + Brian Kirkbride

The evening will be hosted by Alison Cuddy, and former Media Mixer artist Latham Zearfoss will be our guest DJ!

At the heart of the project is a desire to give our archival collections new life through the creative interpretation of a new generation of makers. Last month our three visual artists sent in prompts and ideas for their projects, and we pooled our knowledge of CFA’s collections to load them up with source footage (including rarely seen gems and a few staff favorites!). They are just starting to work on editing their pieces and are already in conversation with the three talented and diverse audio artists they have been paired with.

On June 8 you’re all invited to the Hideout to celebrate the world premiere of their collaborations and benefit your favorite Midwest film archive! Tickets can be purchased here. It’s CFA’s Media Mixer 2017!

More on this year’s artists:



Eric Fleischauer is a Chicago-based artist, curator, and educator.  Working across various mediums Fleischauer utilizes conceptually–driven production strategies in order to examine the ramifications of technology’s expansive influence on both the individual and cultural sphere.   His work has been exhibited internationally at venues including The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Interstate Projects, Rooftop Films, Microscope Gallery, Hallwalls, Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Kunstmuseum Bonn – with solo exhibitions at Document, threewalls, and the Gene Siskel Film Center.  Fleischauer’s projects have received critical acclaim in publications such as in, The Chicago Reader, The Washington Post,, and Afterimage. His work is in the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Photography. Currently he is an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Film, Video, and New Media at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.




Matchess is the solo work of musician Whitney Johnson. The project considers the reproduction of sound and meaning through a range of historical material processes, including live tape looping, cassette sampling, and field recording. With the limited palette of a 1960s Ace Tone organ, viola, analog drum machine, stereo reel-to-reel, and voice, she crafts qa sound collage of ephemeral songs on a surface of droning ambient noise. Matchess invokes music of the past, including musique concrète, komische, and early electronic experiments, while also referencing texts of the past, including symbolist poetry, science fiction metanarrative, and her own lyrical technique of the sigil mantra. In addition to her solo work, Matchess collaborates widely in Chicago with such artists as Circuit des Yeux, Gel Set, TALsounds, and many others.




Samantha Hill is a transdisciplinary artist from Chicago with an emphasis on photographic archives. She utilizes archives as source material for multi-media installation projects to connect an individual’s experience to historic developments within regional culture. Hill participated in exhibitions at the Anchorage Museum, Mary & Leigh Block Museum, Hyde Park Art Center and McColl Center for Art & Innovation. She is a recipient of International Sculpture Center Award, Rasmuson Foundation Artist Residency Program and Philadelphia Sculptors Award. Hill’s work is also featured in the book Problematizing Public Pedagogy, published by Routledge Press. Her latest endeavor, the Kinship Project, is an archive of over 150 years of African American family photographs, artifacts and ephemera ranging from 1839 to 2012.




Since 2005, Chicago-based experimentalists Haptic (Steven Hess, Joseph Clayton Mills, and Adam Sonderberg) have explored the intersection between composition and improvisation in concerts, installations, and a string of critically acclaimed recordings. They often work with filmmakers, dancers, and other artists in projects that cross traditional boundaries between music, sound, literature, visual art, performance, and everyday life.




Marianna Milhorat is a Chicago-based filmmaker, originating from Vermont, USA. She received her MFA from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 2012 and BFA from the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinéma at Concordia University in 2007. Working in film and video, she utilizes landscape and duration to disrupt and transform notions of space and perspective. Milhorat’s work has screened internationally at festivals and galleries, including the International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and the Museum of Contemporary Art- Chicago. Her work has received awards at festivals including the Images Festival, EXIS (Ex-Now), and the Chicago Underground Film Festival.




Brian Kirkbride is a musician, sound artist, and software developer whose cross-disciplinary practice integrates field recordings, synthesizers and found sound through conceptually-driven processing. Inspired as much by the marvels of the natural world as the underbelly of the human one, his work has generated the sounds of birdsong from photographs of ferns and drowned excerpts of post-World War II travelogues under waves of overdriven 80s pop melodies. He was delighted to learn that “cat ghost revenge story” represents an entire genre of Japanese film. With his partner, artist Jenny Kendler, Kirkbride has collaborated on several large-scale sound art and data-driven projects, which have been exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, EXPO Chicago, the Lincoln Park Conservatory for Experimental Sound Studio and at Millennium Park for the Arts Club of Chicago and Art Institute of Chicago. Kirkbride founded the artist website service OtherPeoplesPixels and co-founded the OPPfund, which supports the arts, social justice and environmental preservation. He occupies a leadership role in ClimateMirror, an effort to protect at-risk climate data from an anti-science administration, and is currently working on a collaborative art + tech project centered around this work.


We hope to see you on Thursday, June 8th at the Hideout! Please check out our event page for more information about the event, raffle prizes, and to purchase tickets!


March 22, 2017

Bobby Lee (1942-2017)


Our friend Bobby Lee passed away yesterday. Bob was a community organizer and a member of the Chicago Black Panthers. His home has been the 5th Ward in Houston over the past few decades, and he is indeed known as “Da Mayor” of the 5th Ward.

Bobby Lee was one of those rare people who had the ability to form unlikely friendships and connect to the humanity of whoever he was engaged with, whether it was a transplanted, white Appalachian mom or a Chicago police commander, or myself…a girl who grew up in the suburbs, trying to find the audience for her upstart film archive.

I can’t remember if I met or only “knew of” Bob in the early ’80s through photographer Michael O’Sullivan. But I came to know Bob so much better in 2006 when I asked him to be a panelist at an early program CFA created called To Bear Witness: The Question of Violence. He shared the stage with Robert Lucas, who led civil rights protesters in the 1966 Cicero March, and Paul Sequeira, a gifted Chicago photojournalist whose work was prolific here in Chicago during the ’60s and ’70s. The discussion that night veered most often to that careful balance between anger and purpose and loss.

During this time, Bob would call me a lot, and we had long conversations about his past and the work he did in the 5th Ward. This work often constituted mowing older neighbors’ lawns, collecting clothes and toys for the kids in the ward, and building community centers. I was a worried mom then, worried about the dangers that my pre-teen kid might face, and we talked about that too. We talked about Mike Gray, Jim Dennett, and Bill Cottle of the Film Group. We discussed Howard Alk who directed The Murder of Fred Hampton and American Revolution II and his difficult and crazy shortened life. Bob’s losses were considerable over his lifetime. He lost brothers in the Panthers, his younger blood brother El Franco Lee and his nephew, James Byrd who was dragged behind a pickup truck until he died by white supremacists in Jasper, Texas.

In 2008 I went down to Houston to tape Bob for a CFA retrospective on Howard Alk. Bob met me at the airport, parking his big black sedan (if I remember that correctly) right outside the baggage claim. He stepped out of the car with his arms open wide, one of them grasping a cane that seemed to extend into eternity. That began a three day visit I will never forget. I stayed with Bob and his wife Faiza at their house while I was there. We ate ribs, visited his work, and shot that interview about Alk. Each morning that I was there, Bob would get up at 4am to prepare coffee and breakfast for Faiza and me. That is when he also quietly worked on his newsletters (or artistic pronouncements of activities, movements and beliefs). Faiza would go to work, and we went to work preparing to tape his interview.

But the most startling and memorable time I had during that visit was having dinner with Faiza and Bob in their bedroom watching not-too-significant television. I was in my pajamas on the floor, Bob was in a chair, clearly set up for his support and comfort, and Faiza in bed, all of us eating some great food she had prepared and laughing at really stupid stuff. I remember for one sliver of a moment thinking this is both so surreal and so comfortable.

Bob had MS the entire time I knew him. He used a cane and then more often used a wheelchair as time moved on. He was the most positive and forceful person I have ever met.


January 31, 2017

Collaborating with the Korean Film Archive

KOFA’s Sangam facility in Seoul, South Korea

In September of last year CFA was approached by Eric Choi from the Korean Film Archive (KOFA) with a proposition: Eric works in the acquisitions department of KOFA and was inquiring about collaborating with CFA to make any Korea-related material held by CFA accessible to researchers in South Korea through KOFA. We said yes.

KOFA, located in Seoul, South Korea, was first established in 1974 as the Korean Film Depository, a name it used until a restructuring in 1991 changed it to KOFA in 1991. The national film archive for South Korea, KOFA currently holds over 6,000 Korean films, along with thousands of items of film-related ephemera, and operates the archive, a museum, library, and cinematheque. For anyone not in South Korea, KOFA also runs the Korean Movie Database and a YouTube channel featuring full-length films for free (highly recommended).

Pamphlets and DVDs from KOFA

Eric’s project specifically was to seek out documentary footage of Korea held in foreign archives and obtain copies that could be brought back to South Korea and made available for viewing on-site at the KOFA library locations. Particularly footage of the country during and prior to the Korean War (1950-1953) is difficult to find within South Korea due to the poor economic state of the country at that time. Most of the documentary film shot was exported for international newsreels and travelogues.

Since CFA’s mission is to collect and focus on Midwestern film, it might seem surprising that we had any material at first that would aid KOFA in this project. However, even before visiting us in Chicago, Eric was able to identify three films in our collections that do exactly that. Coming from the Frank Koza, Margaret Conneely, and Carl Godman Collections, the three films are a mix of newsreel segments and home movie footage from Godman, a Lieutenant in the Navy during the war. Once Eric was here, we were able to show him two more: another newsreel segment from Koza, and more home movie material from the Howard Prouty Collection, shot by a currently unknown soldier.

At the time, our only digital copies of these films were made in SD from our Tobin telecine machines, but KOFA was looking for the highest resolution possible to store in their archive. Therefore, over the next couple of months, we worked to scan each film on our Kinetta scanner and produce 2K masters to send to KOFA. Each file was also watermarked with CFA’s name to document its provenance. In turn, KOFA will direct any researcher viewing these materials in South Korea to CFA for more information.

Scene of Seoul during the war, from the Koza Collection

Featured in these films are primarily scenes of American troops at combat and leisure in various parts of Korea during the war. One produced by Frank Koza is particularly intimate for a newsreel and important to our understanding of Frank and his collection, as it features a shot of Frank himself, labeling his film cans and sending notes about his observations back to the U.S. The film then shows the occupying American troops exploring war-torn Seoul and encountering the residents.

The two home movies (from Godman and Prouty) are even more intimate, as they weren’t shot with an eye for distribution. Instead, the films show rare moments of soldiers at camp within the Korean wilderness, glimpses of U.S.O.-sponsored entertainment, travels aboard Naval ships, and scenes loading and unloading at places like Wonsan, North Korea—all in bright 8mm Kodachrome color.

American soldiers at camp in Korea, from the Prouty Collection.

American soldiers at camp in Korea, from the Prouty Collection.

The final files were delivered back to KOFA this weekend on a hard drive they had previously sent to us. Also included in their package with the hard drive were two copies of the KOFA-published magazine 영화천국 (Cinema Heaven) that include an article Eric wrote about CFA and his visit to our office. We’re glad to have had this chance to collaborate with KOFA and strengthen our ties internationally to give access to these films and get them seen more broadly!

CFA in the pages of 영화천국 (Cinema Heaven)


January 11, 2017

CFA’s New Year Awards and Grants Roundup

The turn of the year has been full of news for CFA! Here’s a round up of the grants and awards we have received recently, which we are extremely grateful for. Lots of reasons to keep checking back in with us to see what we’re up to!

CFA and Partners Awarded “Hidden Collections” CLIR Grant


Chicago Film ArchivesNortheast Historic Film and the Lesbian Home Movie Project are extremely pleased to announce that we have been awarded a “Hidden Collections” grant, a granting program of the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) that is generously funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. This collaborative project will unleash the work of 50 women filmmakers by supporting the digitization of their works. CFA is particularly happy to increase exposure to the work of Millie Goldsholl and JoAnn Elam, two twentieth-century filmmakers who are largely unknown.

Millie Goldsholl (1920-2012) headed up the filmmaking division of the renowned Chicago design firm, Goldsholl Design and Film Associates. She attended classes at Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s new School of Design when the New Bauhaus movement was just taking hold in Chicago. Her work is playful, political and highly innovative. The Goldsholl’s studio gave space and guidance to new experimental filmmakers such as Larry Janiak, Byron Grush and Robert Stiegler, all who have archived their work at CFA. A large portion of the personal films made by Millie will be digitized and made accessible as a result of this grant.

JoAnn Elam (1949-2009) was a champion of the small gauge film, and an experimental filmmaker as well. She, too, was highly political and at an early age made two feminist films RAPE and LIE BACK AND ENJOY IT. Both still are in distribution. Her collection of films is vast and not easily decipherable. A closer look often reveals a home movie to be subtle commentary. Many of her films depict every day events with shadings of political overtones. So, it’s unclear what is and is not a “finished” film. JoAnn died before finishing her documentary named EVERYDAY PEOPLE. In the coming years, CFA hopes to take a stab at extending her themes into unexpected places.


CFA Acknowledged by the Ruth Page Center for the Arts


Chicago Film Archives, along with the Batsheva Dance Company, will receive the 2017 Ruth Page Award for significant contributions to the world of dance. This unexpected honor came to us just recently for CFA’s “dedication to preserving the legacy of Ruth Page.” With enduring trust from the Ruth Page Foundation and financial support from the Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelley Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, CFA spent three and a half years stabilizing, digitizing and describing this large collection of films and videos that dates from the early 1920s. Today hundreds of performances, rehearsals, home movies and dance films can be viewed streaming from CFA’s website

This award will be presented Friday, January 27th at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance after the performance of Last Work by the Batsheva Dance Company. Hope to see you there!


CFA Goes International!


CFA is happy to announce we have been awarded a grant from the MacArthur Foundation International Connections Fund to produce an International Media Mixer!!

Chicago Film Archives (Chicago, IL) and Lab 80 film (Bergamo, Italy) will partner in this exciting project by exchanging digitized film footage from our respective repositories. Each organization will then commission two media artists (from our respective countries) to create new works using the partner’s footage (digitized, of course!). Upon completion of these four new silent video works (2 in Italy and 2 in the US), the partnering organizations will once again exchange the works so that two musicians/bands from the partnering country can score the new pieces.

Once completed, these four new media works will be screened in the Chicago area and in northern Italy with live accompaniment by the musicians who created the scores. Our Italian colleague, Karianne Fiorini, will be representing Lab 80 film to identify the Italian artists, curate the project, and coordinate the screenings on her side of the ocean. CFA will be doing the same in Chicago.

The goal of this project is twofold. It will allow archivists and filmmakers to explore the process and outcomes of creating culturally hybrid works of media art with archival footage. It’s a sort-of cross cultural “call and response” exercise, mixing and layering artistic audio/visual expressions that emanate from artists of two different cultures. It will also bring definition and a sense of scope to the international practice of media conservation, combining the practices of art and archiving to produce new artistic works.

This project is based upon an artistic collaboration that Chicago Film Archives has sponsored locally over the last five years. CFA provides footage to three Chicago media artists to create original video works. These videos are then handed over to three local musicians, bands or audio artists who each score one of the new works. These three new fully-realized media works are then premiered at CFA’s annual Media Mixer at the Hideout. This MacArthur proposal will add an international component to the mix.

October 12, 2016

Preserving the Bill Stamets Collection

This past summer, CFA was lucky enough to have Shahed Dowlatshahi as an intern. Amongst other things, he did significant work processing the Bill Stamets Collection. Here is what Shahed had to say about what he found in Stamets’ films.


As an unobtrusive observer capturing life as it happened in the 1970s and 1980s, Bill Stamets shot thousands of feet of Super-8mm film on the streets of Chicago. This professional documentarian and photographer filmed protests, parades, political events, and many more public proceedings. A few years ago, some 40 years after these efforts, he donated a large amount of footage, which consists almost exclusively of Super-8mm film reels (there are a few U-matic tapes), to the Chicago Film Archives. Many of the reels are smaller pieces of film, perhaps outtakes, spliced together into 50ft, 100ft, or 200ft reels.

Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, was a major inspiration to Bill Stamets, and much of the footage in the collection consists of Washington’s many public appearances throughout his term. There are examples of footage of Harold Washington as varied as him casually smoking a cigarette in an indoor space as one of his colleagues is giving a speech to celebrating and accepting his inauguration as mayor in Navy Pier.

Art Jones + W

Harold Washington speaks in “Art Jones + W.”

Over the summer, I had the opportunity to inventory the entire collection, inspect the smaller reels, and digitize several of his materials.

While much of the Super-8 films in this collection have magnetic stripe soundtracks, they remain unheard even on the comparatively few films in the collection that were digitized due to the very specific equipment required to digitize these soundtracks. The silence adds a certain timelessness and lyrical quality to the documented scenes of protest and celebration.

The lack of sound helps to focus the viewer’s attention on the images. For example, during “Pilsen Demo – El Salvador – 18th Street,” the camera zooms out from a “God Bless America” mural to the protestors and their banners alleging that the US Governments supported genocide abroad. This focus on the movement of the camera, imposed by the lack of sound, pulls attention to how Stamets, behind the camera, is choosing to interpret the scene around him.

Pilsen Demo – El Salvador – 18th Street

Stamets juxtaposes the words on the wall with the words on the banner in “Pilsen Demo – El Salvador – 18th Street”

Stamets’ strong point-of-view is clear in other films as well. In “Art Jones + W,” a white-supremacist group is gathered for a demonstration in a park. While they assemble their banners and organize, the camera frames a black police officer, standing still. I presume this officer is on duty protecting the right of the demonstrators to exercise free speech. Once again, the strong framing and camera movements bring the irony of the scene into sharp focus; no voice-over commentary, script, or diegetic sound is needed to remind the viewer of America’s racist legacy. The image itself engages the viewer with questions of free speech, hate-speech, and the separation of a person’s professional duties and their sense of right and wrong.

Art Jones + W

A police officer at work in “Art Jones + W.”

These powerful images of protests, parades, political events, and public proceedings are unique. Almost every piece of film in this collection is a reversal positive; this means that these pieces of film are the same exposed as were developed at the lab and the product is a viewable positive with no negative produced. Thus, no copies are available in any other format, and each image is the only one of its kind. Until twenty years ago, many film archives would not have considered such material of value as it falls outside of the professional scope.

Inspecting the Bill Stamets film collection at the Chicago Film Archives in the summer of 2016

Thankfully, shifts in thinking regarding the value of such footage have occurred, and many archives the world over now collect and preserve such “orphan films.” While the Stamets collection occupies a middle-ground between amateur home-movies and professional film-making, the historical and cultural value of these outtakes is undeniable, and thanks to the CFA’s existence and increased advocacy in preserving such material, it is now in safe hands for future generations.

Images of Chicago’s past are given a second life by the Chicago Film Archives

-Shahed Dowlatshahi, September 2016

September 26, 2016

Maggie And The Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter Finding Aid


This past summer, CFA was lucky enough to have Maggie Sivit as an intern. Amongst other things, she crafted the finding aid for the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter Collection for us. Here is what Maggie had to say about her experience creating the finding aid:


Two months ago, I arrived at Chicago Film Archives as a summer intern. One of the projects I worked on during my time at CFA was the development of a finding aid for the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection.

What is a finding aid?

A finding aid is a kind of research guide to a particular collection. It is a compendium of records of the works, organizations, and individuals associated with a group of films. It typically includes an abstract and overview, which answer questions such as: What films are included in this collection? When were they made, for what purpose, and by whom? Additionally, a finding aid includes metadata (e.g., geolocation tags, Library of Congress Subject Headings, production dates, etc.), access and restriction information, and media samples.

Why are finding aids important?

Finding aids are useful to researchers, as well as to anyone who wants to learn about the collections in an archive. Without these records, films might be archivally preserved, but no one would know anything about them or how they related to one another. (Furthermore, unless you visited the physical archive, you might have no idea that they existed.) A finding aid communicates a body of work clearly and succinctly; it provides a collection with context and coherence.

How is a finding aid created?

Creating a finding aid is essentially a process of cataloguing. Cataloging is an act of gathering and organizing (or reorganizing) information. At its most basic level, cataloging a film collection involves creating records, populating these records with information, and linking these records to one another in the appropriate ways.

CFA uses a data management system called Collective Access to digitally manage its collections. Each collection is initially arranged in a hierarchical database model, which organizes data into “trees”, or “parent-child” relationships. Each item (a “child” of the “parent” collection) received upon accession is given a corresponding digital record. Under the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection, the “child” nodes consist of all 253 items (master prints, internegatives, audio reels, etc.) that arrived with the collection. This mirrors the way the physical items are grouped in the vault.


Hierarchical organization of Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection, as seen from backend of Collective Access. Much dry, so boring.

This is not particularly useful to researchers (nor members of the public), who do not normally need or want to know about every duplicate print, A- and B-roll, internegative, or spliced segment that arrived in a canister, box, or bag.

Consider that the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection totals 253 items. This includes 11 different film reels associated with the film The Silverfish King (“Silverfish King A-roll”, “Silverfish King B-roll”, “Silverfish King Print #1”, etc.). That is a lot to slog through — especially when you multiply this (or a similar number) by 30 works.

To begin cataloging the collection, I knew that I would need to create a record for each of the works. Additionally, I would need to create another type of record — called an “entity” — for several organization and individuals (production company, filmmakers, etc.) that were new to CFA’s database. Then, I would continue fill in the records by writing abstracts, descriptions (for works and the collection) and biographies (for people and organizations). Finally, I would link all of these together by creating relationships within the database.

Creating work records

The first thing I did to begin assembling the finding aid was to create a work record corresponding to each work in the collection. In total, I created 30 work records for the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection. (Again, while there are e.g., 11 items associated with the film The Silverfish King, there will be only 1 work record.)


Work record for The Silverfish King, seen from backend of Collective Access.

Unlike item records, which treat films as physical objects (a reel inside a canister stored on a shelf in the CFA vault, subject to certain principles of damage and deterioration, etc.), work records treat the films as viewable works. A work record is broken into the following categories, each of which contains a set of fields:

  • Basic info (e.g., Identifier, Run time, Digital copy available?)
  • Cataloging description and notes (e.g., Production date, Abstract, Description, Language, Genre, Form, Subject)
  • Credits (e.g., Sponsor, Main Credits, Additional Credits, Corporate names)
  • Access and Use (i.e., who can view the work and how they may use it)
  • Relationships (related works, items, entities, collections, and series)
  • Media (stills or streaming files, if the work has been digitized)

Subject headings

One of the most important steps in populating a work record is “tagging” works and collections with subject headings (under “Cataloging Description and Notes”). Subject headings enable people to search for films by subject matter (“Domestic life”, “Industry”, “Lake Michigan”), genre, and form, and is a powerful tool for researchers. CFA uses two subject indices in its work records: a controlled vocabulary tailored to CFA, and the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

Let’s look at an example: The Silverfish King, a short film by Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter. Over fanciful, doodle-like drawings of an animate insect embarking on various adventures, a narrator describes the way that his childhood fascination with a silverfish morphed into a phobic obsession.


Scenes from The Silverfish King

Based on keywords from that description, “Bug”, “Insect”, “Silverfish”, “King”, “Childhood”, “Obsession”, and “Phobia” are all plausible tags for The Silverfish King. However, if you are searching for films about “Kings” or “Childhood”, this film is unlikely to be at all relevant. (This is one of the problems with keyword indices, which is what most web browsers — and many databases — use.) Even “Bug” and “Insect” are dubious; the film is about a bug (kind of), but it is not really about bugs. A more appropriate subject heading might be something like: “The logic of thought”, or “Irrational fixation”. Unfortunately, neither of these is available in the CFA vocabulary; furthermore, both are so specific that they are unlikely to apply to other films. The closest I could get was: “Imagination”.

This brings us to the matter of a controlled vocabulary. The fields into which subject headings are entered are not free-form text fields; they are “multiple choice” fields that restrict you to a limited set of terms. While the CFA vocabulary is quite specific, the Library of Congress vocabulary is so extensive as to sometimes be unwieldy. (Some issues that came up while I was applying Library of Congress Subject Headings: After tagging several works with “Fairy tale”, I realized that there was a separate heading for “Folk tale”. What was the difference between a fairy tale and a folk tale? (Had to look it up.) (Then, there was: “Fable”.) Should Briar Rose be tagged “Brother’s Grimm”, if it was far from the version that appeared in that original collection?)

This may seem like hair splitting, but tagging films by subject (and genre, decade, form, etc.) is in many cases what allows people to discover them. The difference between tagging a film as “Fairy tale” and “Folk tale” — or not tagging it at all — could be the difference between that film being used in screenings, exhibitions, research papers, and academic texts in the future — or simply being enjoyed by generations to come — and not.

Creating entity records

The database builds on its relational capabilities in other ways. Beyond works, there are entity records that must be created and linked to the collection. Normally, these entities include the filmmakers and production company(ies).

One reason to create entity records in addition to work records is that doing so allows you to build a more robust network. A filmmaker who donates her collection to CFA might also have acted in or produced films in other collections; because of the way that relationships are created in the database, all of these films can be linked to that individual. This allows you to see relationships across films and collections — across Chicago, the Midwest, and the twentieth century — more plainly. (It also allows you to search the database by individual, and ensures that you have the most complete filmography.)

I started by creating entities for Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter (Entity>Organization), Lillian, and JP (Entity>Individual). Eventually, I also created ones for Michael and Pajon Arts — a name that appeared mysteriously at the beginning of their more experimental films, and which turned out to be the original corporate name under which JP and Lillian worked.

Writing descriptions

By the time I began describing works and entities, I had already watched all the films (several times); read synopses of selected works provided by the filmmakers; read reviews of works (when I could find them) published in journals and newspapers; studied a list of awards, festivals, etc.; and read several articles about the filmmakers and production company.

The Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter collection was unusual, insofar as the filmmakers provided CFA with a great deal of biographical information when they donated the films. (I would not have known, otherwise, that Lillian was born Patricia Hewlitt and JP was born John Sauer; this became useful when filling in their entity records, which includes a field for “Alternative name” — allowing you to locate individuals even if you are searching with a maiden name, alias, etc.)

The more I learned about the filmmakers, the better oriented I became when looking at their works. (For instance: I learned that JP studied creative writing, and Lillian studied painting; after college, she worked as an apprentice to a muralist. Knowing this, I went back and watched the films again, paying attention to the credits. I began to be able to identify when JP had written a film, when they had co-written it, when Lillian had drawn the animations, when they had collaborated, and when the animations had been drawn by JP.)

Once I had read through all of this information, I felt like I could finally begin describing the individuals, organizations, works, and the collection itself. I could link all of the works and entities to one another as appropriate, by creating relationships within the database; and I could do all this only because I had spent a certain amount of time becoming immersed in their world, trying to understand how everything held together.


Work record for Yo-Yo the Clone, Too and various items, people, organization, and collection records as it is linked to through the relational database, seen from backend of Collective Access.

With all of these record elements completed, I clicked “Publish” — making the Somersaulter-Moats and Somersaulter finding aid accessible on CFA’s website. You can see it for yourself (and learn more about JP Somersaulter, Lillian Somersaulter Moats, and Michael Moats) here.

An archive is a place dedicated to storing and preserving historical objects — in the case of CFA, films. At the same time, an archive is equally dedicated to preserving the stories surrounding those objects: who made them, when they were made, where, how, and why. It’s a side of archival work that doesn’t get talked about very often; it’s mostly done on a computer, and involves creating records, writing descriptions, and organizing information. To me, it feels a lot like detective work; you have evidence (films), which you identify, record, and analyze, and from which you begin piecing together a picture — adding new people, seeing new relationships, and sometimes being led in unexpected directions. In the end, you present your findings as an account of what happened: an interconnected story — a finding aid — that holds the pieces together.




June 27, 2016

CFA Media Mixer 2016 (in review)

We had a lot of fun on June 9th at the 5th annual Media Mixer and are extremely thrilled with the videos produced by this year’s line-up! Thanks to all who came and participated, but if you couldn’t make it (or if you just want to watch them again), we now have two of the videos available to stream below.

And if you’re new to the Media Mixer in general, the premise of the annual event is simple: three filmmakers, paired with three audio artists, have the full run of CFA’s vault to create new video art with the archival footage.

2016′s talented lineup included (filmmakers listed first):

Melika Bass AND Coppice
Jon Cates AND Jeff Kolar
Andrew Mausert-Mooney AND Bobby Conn

(more on this year’s artists here)

Turn the Garden
Filmmaker: Melika Bass
Composer: Coppice


The Engine’s Near is Unconstructed
Filmmaker: jonCates
Composer: Jeff Kolar


What’s the Matter with Kids Today?
Filmmaker: Andrew Mausert-Mooney
Composer: Bobby Conn

June 7, 2016

CFA Media Mixer 2015 (in review)

A couple of weeks ago we shared the video collaborations from 2014′s MEDIA MIXER event on the blog, and now we’re excited to bring you some of 2015′s videos, available to stream for the first time! Check ‘em out below and also see 2012, 2013, and 2014 for more MEDIA MIXER greatness. And don’t forget to come to the Hideout on June 9 for this year’s event!

2015′s talented lineup included (filmmakers listed first):

Amir George AND The O’My’s
Jesse Malmed AND ONO 
Fern Silva AND Phil Cohran 

(more on that year’s artists here)


Filmmaker: Jesse Malmed
Composer: ONO

Scales in the Spectrum of Space
Filmmaker: Fern Silva
Composer: Phil Cohran

Thanks to all of the artists who participated in the 2015 Media Mixer! We’re very impressed with the work that was produced with our footage and glad to finally have the space to showcase them all together.

The CFA MEDIA MIXER returns this year on June 9 at the Hideout with a new lineup of incredible filmmakers, musicians, video premieres, raffle prizes, and more. For more information, check out this year’s event page and learn about this year’s artists here.

May 19, 2016

CFA Media Mixer 2014 (in review)

We’re getting so excited about the upcoming CFA MEDIA MIXER that we started looking back at past years’ projects and realized there are TWO years of amazing collaborations that we never assembled in one place to stream. In this post we’re proud to present the videos produced by our 2014 Media Mixer participants (you can view 2012 and 2013 here and here, respectively).

2014′s talented lineup included (filmmakers listed first):

Lori Felker AND Cheer-Accident
Deborah Stratman AND Olivia Block 
Latham Zearfoss AND Bastardgeist 

(more on that year’s artists here)

Filmmaker: Lori Felker
Composer: Cheer-Accident

Filmmaker: Deborah Stratman
Composer: Olivia Block

Filmmaker: Latham Zearfoss
Composer: Bastardgeist

Thanks to all of the artists who participated in the 2014 Media Mixer! We are very impressed with the work that was produced with our footage and glad to finally have the space to showcase them all together.

The CFA MEDIA MIXER returns this year on June 9 at the Hideout with a new lineup of incredible filmmakers, musicians, video premieres, raffle prizes, and more. For more information, check out this year’s event page and learn about this year’s artists here.

May 3, 2016

CFA Out of the Office at Midwest Archives Conference & Nitrate Picture Show

Amy here. I have recently returned to the CFA office after attending the 2016 Midwest Archives Conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Midwest Archives Conference, or MAC, is a regional professional association with over 800 individual and institutional members that represent all types of archives in the 13 heartland states and beyond. The association’s annual conference rotates its location yearly, and as Milwaukee is a quick train ride north, I took the opportunity to attend. I was looking to get an idea of the current state of archives in the region that CFA represents, it would allow CFA to be represented at the conference, and it would also be my first trip to Milwaukee!


CFA’s offical MAC credentials

During the conference I attended panels led by a variety of different archival professionals, all sharing perspectives on both their triumphs and failures in their workplaces. A few themes surfaced for me, the first of which was diversity and inclusion. A panel on promoting women in archival collections, a panel of archiving Midwestern immigration history, and the conference’s plenary session (with keynote speech from current Society of American Archivists President Dennis Meissner!) were amongst the settings where diversity and inclusion were explored. I appreciated the opportunity to hear attendees discuss this theme, as women and social justice are very present subjects in CFA’s collections.

Another theme that came through in the conference’s panels, an extremely relevant theme to all, was access. In listening to archival practitioners from organizations big and small, it was clear that all recognized the need for putting significant effort into making their collections relevant and available to their patrons. Also recognized were the challenges that came along with providing proper access. One panel titled “Playing Outside: Opportunities for Community Engagement Beyond the Archives” discussed the obstacles of rights, institutional permissions, and even rainy weather, in relation to getting patrons interacting with archival collections. A panel on oral history collections discussed making digitized and born-digital interviews searchable and accessible online with the very cool Oral History Metadata Synchronizer tool. As community events and online access are two crucial elements of CFA’s current operations, I was also grateful to get a perspective on access in the context of other workplaces and in the context of non-film collections.

The final theme I saw is a theme that has taken over the archives and film world: digital. A panel titled “I Jumped In, Now What? Keeping your Head about Water with Born-Digital Materials” discussed working through the discomfort of acclimating to a digital workflow for the first time. Another panel broke itself into discussion groups where the discussion leaders encouraged attendees to share their concerns, questions, and personal discoveries regarding digital initiatives and their archival work environment. CFA could definitely relate to this topic, especially in the wake of acclimating to the Kinetta Archival Film Scanner.

Plenty of other topics were covered in panels and happy hours over the course of the few days at the conference. Attendees also took advantage of museum visits, Milwaukee tourist sights, and meeting new friends in the archival community. It was exciting to learn about other collections, and it was invaluable to be able to share professional experiences with other Midwestern archivists.

Taking advantage of Milwaukee’s sights



While Amy was in Milwaukee, I (Brian) traveled to the land of our photographic founding father, Rochester, NY, to attend the George Eastman Museum’s Nitrate Picture Show film festival. The weekend-long event was a celebration of films produced on cellulose nitrate stock (the highly flammable material that was industry standard until about 1951), complete with ten screenings of original nitrate prints culled from archives around the world.

I stayed with former CFA staffer Lauren Alberque, whose cat Callie immediately took a liking to my NPS things.

One thing unique about the Nitrate Picture Show is that they don’t advertise the films they’re going to screen in advance. You don’t know what you’re going to see until you check in the first morning and get handed the program book with the schedule. This means you have to place a lot of trust in the programmers and archivists to pick films and prints that are worth traveling for and committing to. Now, the whole schedule is online, and you can see the impressive array of films, including Laura, Bicycle Thieves, The Tales of Hoffman, Road House, and more. The last screening, known as “Blind Date with Nitrate,” was kept secret until the curtain rose to gasps in response to Ramona, a gorgeous tinted silent film on loan from the Gosfilmofond of Russia.

Of course, the main draw of the festival is just how rare it is to see nitrate prints projected at all. The Dryden Theatre at the Eastman Museum is one of three theaters in the country still licensed to project nitrate, meaning they comply with safety requirements to contain any bursts of flame that might occur. Nitrate prints have to be shipped and stored in very particular ways, and the staff at the Museum spends days working on a single print to make sure it can be projected safely, testing everything from splices to edge damage to shrinkage (since every screening was clearly going to be 35mm, the print information in the program book instead focused on shrinkage percentage). During the screening of Brighton Rock, the projectionists stopped the film mid-reel just because they felt something was wrong and wanted to change the threading, even though everything seemed fine from the audience. When The Verge ran a feature on last year’s Nitrate Picture Show, their headline called it “the world’s most dangerous film festival.”

So why nitrate, if it’s so dangerous? This was the issue facing archives in the switch to “safety” film stocks, and for most, the solution was to copy the nitrate prints onto safety prints and then destroy the nitrate. As a result, most original nitrate films are lost, and many of the screenings this weekend were introduced with stories of how the prints being screened were only saved due to mishandling or flat-out lying about their destruction.

Some say there’s a special quality to watching a nitrate print projected, that the material itself elevates the images beyond other film prints—and certainly beyond digital. Whether this is really true or not was a discussion of some debate over the weekend, but there is no denying that screening nitrate is special in that it’s the way these films were designed to be seen. Filmmakers creating them were shooting on nitrate, processing on nitrate, and then projecting nitrate to audiences whose only experience was nitrate. To see films at the Nitrate Picture Show was to walk back in time and become a filmgoer in 1950, seeing the bright Technicolor of Annie Get Your Gun, or in 1947, entering the tough black-and-white world of Brighton Rock. There’s no other way to get as pure a cinematic experience when it comes to these films.

Myself, I was particularly taken with the swirling cigarette smoke in Laura and Road House, which took on a ghostly quality I hadn’t quite seen before, and immediately understood why the effect became such a staple in the noir genre. Other highlights included Enamorada, a Mexican film with stunning close-ups, and two animated shorts by Oskar Fischinger—An Optical Poem and Allegretto—with beautiful color. And I don’t think I’ll ever forget the theater singing along to the end of The Golden State, an animated short about the glory of California (also my home state).

In a weekend already jammed with screenings, the Eastman Museum also set up a variety of events and workshops designed to inform and spread the word about nitrate film conservation. I signed up for the festival too late for most of the workshops, including tours of the Museum’s nitrate vaults and a demonstration of how to produce nitrate. However, I did still get to look at a few nitrate prints that were on display, including footage of President McKinley’s inauguration, and there were plenty of people from around the country to meet and talk about film with.

Matchbook given to all attendees



March 28, 2016

CFA Media Mixer 2016: Meet this Year’s Artists

Our annual video remix benefit is BACK this year with yet another amazing lineup of artists working together to create new video works out of digitized items in our vault. Right now, three extraordinary filmmakers are loading up with massive amounts of footage culled from the deepest corners of our collections – including some rare, little-seen gems and a few staff favorites – which they’ll edit, re-interpret, transform, and kick over to three of Chicago’s most imaginative musicians to score. Then, come June 9, you’re all invited to the Hideout to celebrate the world premiere of their collaborations, along with raffle prizes, auctions, and more. It’s CFA’s Media Mixer 2016!

This year’s artists (filmmakers listed first, followed by musician(s)) include:

Melika Bass + Coppice
jonCates + Jeff Kolar
Andrew Mausert-Mooney + Bobby Conn

More on this year’s artists…



Melika Bass is a filmmaker and installation artist currently living in Chicago. Bass is the recipient of an Artadia Award, two Media Arts Fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council, the Kodak/Filmcraft Imaging Award from the Ann Arbor Film Festival, and an Experimental Film Prize from the Athens International Film Festival. In 2013, Bass was appointed the Pick-Laudati Artist in Residence at the Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities, at Northwestern University. Screenings and exhibitions include the Film Society of Lincoln Center, New York; Kino der Kunst, Munich; Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (solo exhibition, February 2011); Torino Film Festival, Italy; Anthology Film Archives, New York; Ann Arbor Film Festival; Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit; BFI London Film Festival; Athens International Film Festival; Segal Center for the Performing Arts, Montreal; Hamburg International Film Festival, Germany; and the Split Festival of New Film, Croatia. Her work has been profiled and reviewed in Filmmaker Magazine, Time Out Chicago, Bad at Sports, Art Daily, Rolling Stone Italy, Chicago Tribune, Chicago Reader, Pitchfork, and the Chicago Sun-Times


jonCates works at the intersections of Noise and New Media. His projects are presented internationally in cities such as Aix-en-Provence, Austin, Berlin, Beijing, Boston, Cairo, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Linz, Los Angeles, Madrid, Mexico City, New York, Singapore, Vienna, Warsaw, Zagreb and widely available online via the Internet. His research and writings appear online in digital forms and physically in print publications from MIT Press, Gestalten, The Penn State University Press, Intellect and Unsorted Books. In 2005 he created the concept of Dirty New Media and is widely recognized as developing concepts, communities and discourses of the unstable arts now known as Glitch Art.

Andrew Mausert-Mooney

Andrew Mausert-Mooney is a Chicago-based artist working with 16mm film, video, performance and television. Andrew’s work has showed in festivals, galleries and exhibition series around the world including the American Film Institute, CineVegas, Chicago Underground, Gallery 400, Pleasure Dome and Other Cinema. He received his MFA from the University of Illinois-Chicago in the Spring of 2012. Currently Andrew is a co-director and station manager of ACRE TV, an artist-run livestream tele-vision network.




Coppice is nexus. Since its foundation in 2009, Coppice has departed from bellows and electronics to create compositions, installations, discography, instruments, arrangements for performance, software, and sculptural objects. Drawing from its expanding glossary of study, they’re currently focused on expansions and emulations of their sonic foundations (in bellows and electronics) using a newly designed musical infrastructure that departs from physical modeled instruments and modular synthesis. Coppice is currently transitioning onto a new world of finer sonic illusions of digitally-seeded air, binary clocks, and impossible musical objects. Recordings of Coppice music have been made available by the following artist-run labels: Agxivatein (GR), caduc. (CA), Category of manifestation: (US), Close/Far (US), Consumer Waste (UK), Hideous Replica (UK), Notice Recordings (US), Pilgrim Talk (US), Quakebasket (US), Rhizome•s (FR), Senufo Editions (IT), and Triple Bath (GR).


Jeff Kolar is a sound artist, radio producer, and curator working in Chicago, USA. His work, described as “speaker-shredding” (Half Letter Press), “wonderfully strange” (John Corbett), and “characteristically curious” (Marc Weidenbaum), includes cross-platform collaboration, low-powered radio, and live performance. His work activates sound in unconventional, temporary, and ephemeral ways using appropriation and remix as a critical practice. His solo and collaborative projects, installations, and public performances often investigate the mundane sonic nuances of everyday electronic devices. Jeff is a free103point9 Transmission Artist and the Founder and Artistic Director of Radius, an experimental radio broadcast platform. His work has been comissioned by the Propeller Fund, a re-granting agency of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and free103point9, a re-granting agency of the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Arts Council. He has given lectures, performed, and exhibited widely across the United States, and at international venues and festivals.


Bobby Conn is an avant-garde, pop-rock musician and longtime staple of the Chicago scene. Since beginning his career in the late 1980s, Bobby has a developed a reputation for outlandish and exciting performances that emphasize the theatricality of musical art. Not content to work alone, he is also known for his extensive collaborations on stage and record that draw in musicians across all genres and stylings. (Another fun fact: Bobby played live at our second Media Mixer event in 2013, though this is the first time he’s created a piece for us!)

More on Bobby Conn via AllMusic:

The once self-proclaimed antichrist Bobby Conn is in a league all his own when it comes to performing live as well as creating his tongue-in-cheek chameleon-like pop that genre-hops with a decadent flair. Conn got his start playing guitar in the Chicago prog rock trio Conducent in 1989; by 1994 the group called it quits and Conn went solo. Conn received attention quickly in the Windy City’s live circuit for his outlandish live shows that verged on performance art and theater. Whether dressed as a priest, wearing mud on his face, or just dishing out hugs and kisses to unsuspecting fans, Conn defiantly didn’t go unnoticed. His first lineup consisted of ex-Conducent member DJ Le Deuce on turntables, as well as Julie Pomerleau (aka Monica BouBou) on electric violin.

In 1995 and 1996 Conn released two EPs, then in 1997 he released his self-titled debut album on the Truck Stop label, but it was 1998′s Rise Up! LP that extended Conn’s musical palette and got music fans outside of Chicago to take notice. Then in 1999, Conn released the Llovessonngs EP (on Chicago independent label Thrill Jockey), which showcased the hilarious French disco tune “Virginia.” Into the millennium, Conn released The Golden Age and toured with the support of the Glass Gypsies, featuring Pomerleau/BouBou on organ as well as guitarist Sledd, keyboardist Pearly Sweets, bassist Nick Macri, and drummer Colby Starck. Released in 2004, Homeland cast a satirical gaze at America and the war in Iraq, while 2007′s King for a Day tackled fantasy, celebrity, and the media. Rise Up! was reissued just in time for Conn’s 2011 tour playing the album in its entirety. For his 2012 full length Macaroni, Conn formed backing band The Burglars from some of Chicago’s leading players. The Burglars included long time drummer Josh Johannpeter (also active in Lazer Crystal and Mahjongg) as well as keyboardist Jon Steinmeier and bassist Jim Cooper of The Detholz. 

Again, we hope to see you on Thursday, June 9 at the Hideout! Head on over to the event page for more information!

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