A Cinematic Record of UCLA History

UCLA's founding in 1919 dovetails with the emergence of the Hollywood film industry, so it seems natural that much of the campus’s history is recorded on film.

With the rapid approach of the UCLA Centennial, identifying the contents of the many films in University Archives and making them accessible has become a priority at the UCLA Library. “I know from my experience how important film can be in trying to tell the story of the history of the university,” said Heather Briston, university archivist. “If pictures tell 1000 words, film usually tells 1 million.”

Chloe Patton, film preservation specialist in the Library’s preservation studios, is working closely with Briston to digitize and preserve these remarkable moving records. “So far, I’ve digitized about 150 films,” she reported. “I’ve found everything from footage of UCLA’s original campus on Vermont Avenue to a surprising amount of film of crash test dummies, evidently an active area of research at one time.”

Not surprisingly, many films capture treasured moments of student life, including homecoming floats and football games. But some also contain small mysteries.  “We have a student’s home movie of a 1928 football game against Oregon,” said Patton. “I know the name of the student whose film it was—W. M. Hammond—but I haven’t been able to find out anything else about him.

“You can see the development of the campus through footage shot from the Goodyear blimp and helicopters as well as at ground level,” Patton continued. “There’s the arroyo before it was filled in, the library building [today, Powell Library] surrounded by wood scaffolding in the midst of construction, and parking problems dating back to the campus’s founding!”

These films aren’t just curiosity items; they’re essential primary resources. “Film is the medium for much of twentieth-century history,” explained Patton, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from UC Irvine, in addition to a master’s degree in library and information science from UCLA. “Yet the film stock itself is dying faster than people realize.” Problems include a form of decay known as “vinegar syndrome” as well as color fading, in which the blue and green dyes fade, leaving mostly red.

The film scanner the Library acquired for this project is designed to work with archival film that’s brittle or fragile. It can color correct as it scans, and it’s gentle on deformed film to prevent further damage, including accidental breakage. Patton’s position and the film scanner have been made possible through contributions to the preservation and conservation endowment established by a matching grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“Prior to obtaining the new digitization equipment, any preservation of these films was assessed as cost prohibitive,” commented Briston. “We had films in critical condition, so Chloe is really bringing the films back from the brink of death.”

“We’re deeply grateful to the donors who have contributed to this fund,” added Alison Scott, associate university librarian for collection management and scholarly communication. “These donations have also enabled us to expand our audiovisual capabilities more generally, preserving recordings in all formats for use by future scholars, students, and alumni.”