Selznick school leads preservation effort

Graduates land top jobs, work on rare footage

For decades, the estate of Kodak founder George Eastman has housed a museum dedicated to photography and movies.

Yet it took a second legacy, that of L. Jeffrey Selznick, to launch North America’s first film preservation school.

Selznick, son of producers David O. Selznick and Irene Mayer Selznick, wanted to establish twin movie preservation schools, one on each coast. In 1996, with then-Eastman House curator Paolo Cherchi Usai, he was able to fulfill the East Coast part of that dream, with the birth of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation.

Selznick was never able to start the West Coast school, but UCLA independently launched its own film preservation program after his death.

Today, more than 130 grads are working in 19 countries to preserve endangered movies.

At the Eastman House itself, all of the staff who worked on the recent three-year restoration of the silent “Huckleberry Finn” were Selznick grads, including preservation officer Anthony L’Abbate, who oversaw the project.

Many Selznick grads arrive with a passion for movie history but little training in handling physical elements.

Anna Sperone, now in charge of new donations for Italy’s National Film Museum in Turin, says, “When I arrived there, I had never even touched a piece of film. I came out with a good basic knowledge of the fundamentals of everything pertaining to working with preserving film stock.”

Selznick students work with the same preservation technology as the Eastman House’s Motion Picture Department and spend time at the GEH’s main HQ — student lockers abut the stills/photos section of the archive — as well as offsite at vaults that hold volatile nitrate prints.

Students inspect films, do significant hands-on repair work, and, perhaps most importantly, conduct significant research on the different elements associated with particular film titles, says Caroline Fricke Page, curator of motion pictures for the Eastman House.

“We strive to create opportunities for students to apply their studies and training on real-world projects with which they are well-prepared to jump into positions fearlessly.”

Students do individual restoration projects in their second year. Though the more experienced restorers handle the highest-profile projects, notable student projects include restoration of screen tests for “Gone With the Wind” and Mary Pickford’s 1926 screen test for “The Black Pirate.” Ken Fox, still a student at the Selznick School, has nabbed a fellowship with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and is restoring “Mr. Fix-It,” a Douglas Fairbanks title, from the sole known surviving print.

The Motion Picture Academy Archive in Los Angeles has numerous Selznick grads. Heather Linville, a film preservationist there, arrived at Selznick with a degree in library and information science — the main alternative to having a film studies degree for aspiring preservationists — then graduated from Selznick in 2003.

Linville has been working on Satyajit Ray films at the Academy. That has been a joyful and heartbreaking experience at the same time, she says, because safety film can deteriorate when stored at high humidity.

Students come to Selznick from around the world, and grads are scattered just as widely. In Italy, alumna Sabrina Negri works freelance, splicing and putting leaders on negatives and soundtracks of Italian pics from the 1960s through the 1980s.

Another Selznick grad, Kae Ishihara, created the Film Preservation Society of Tokyo.

“For me, one of the most exciting areas of development in the last decade has been the rise in entrepreneurial archiving by graduates — those that see the need for new kinds of media collection and preservation and create new opportunities for both themselves and an array of communities,” says Page.” In the same way that we now understand that American film history is more than Hollywood history, our students reflect this shift in the positions that they occupy across the country, the globe and in their own professional ambitions.”

Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.

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