Behind the Scenes at the Academy
Crowds roar and cheer as celebrities walk the red carpet outside Dolby Theatre in Hollywood. Cameras click staccato style and flashbulbs dazzle as reporters wrangle movie stars for live interviews at the annual Academy Awards ceremony.
On a separate leg of the red carpet, film archivists Brian Drischell BA ’93, Andrew Bradburn BA ’85, and Tessa Idlewine BA ’09 arrive to glimpse the media glare, pass through a security tent, and head to their seats high up above the catwalk and out of TV viewing range.
“It feels satisfying to know that, in a small way, I’ve contributed to the production of the awards ceremonies,” says Drischell, traffic manager in the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Drischell is responsible for the flow of materials coming and going from the archive. For several weeks leading up to the ceremonies, he’s charged with tracking and protecting high-definition videotapes containing nominated features, short films, documentaries,
and foreign language films used in the show.
“These tapes are essential for the success of the show,” says Drischell. “When they arrive, I drop everything, get them cataloged, and move them into a special locker in the vault. They need to be in our possession at all times.”
The Academy Film Archive is located in the heart of Hollywood at the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study. The building was named in honor of legendary silent film actress Mary Pickford, a founding member of the Academy. Home to an extensive and diverse motion pictures collection, it contains Academy Award–nominated films, annual Oscar telecasts, documentaries, silent movies, experimental films, industry-related interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, home movies, and a wide range of international cinema.
Drischell meandered a bit on the path he took to Hollywood.
An avid film buff who majored in history at Lewis & Clark, he moved to Minneapolis after graduation and eventually found his way to management positions in several movie theaters. Ten years later, he enrolled in a new interdisciplinary master’s program at UCLA that combined library science with film studies. An internship at the Film Archive landed him a full-time position.
Drischell is responsible for tracking more than 140,000 film and video assets that relate to some 70,000 titles.
“We identify titles, credits, and copyright,” he says. “We also log the film’s condition, including scratches, splices, tears, perforation damage, as well as identify the aspect ratio, picture and sound format, and type and date of the film base. We note why the collection came to us and from whom—collectors, filmmakers, studios, and even people’s home movies.”
Once cataloged, the films are stored in one of four vaults—converted from huge television studios—that are temperature and humidity controlled.
Bradburn, one of six inventory archivists at the Academy, had known he wanted to work in the film industry since his days at Lewis & Clark.
“I found myself in Watzek Library reading Film Comment magazine when I should have been writing papers. I knew I was hooked,” says Bradburn, who majored in German and religious studies.
Serendipity led him to a movie set in Chicago after graduation. He advanced from volunteer to second assistant director in one week on the film Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. He also discovered the job’s inherent downside—the long, grueling hours spent in production. That job led him to Sinnott & Associates. As assistant editor on an animated film, he learned about special effects, animation, and 35-mm-film projection.
Eventually, he made his way to Los Angeles and spent 15 years working in film labs. A temporary stint at the Academy Film Archive led to his current position.
“I’ve become the de facto special-formats archivist, especially large-format film,” says Bradburn. He routinely checks films for consistency and damage before they enter storage.
Though he earns less at the Academy than working at a lab, Bradburn enjoys the camaraderie of other diehard film enthusiasts and frequently attends free film screenings offered by the Academy. At a recent viewing of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, Bradburn and other audience members were treated to a question-and-answer period with the film’s star, Daniel Day-Lewis, and others associated with the film.
Coworker Tessa Idlewine is the newest member of the Academy’s archive team. A history enthusiast in college, she was drawn to preserving the social aspect of days gone by—protecting old letters, manuscripts, and photos.
“One night I had a mini panic attack about my future,” she says. “I Googled graduate programs in library science and stumbled across moving-image archiving options.”
Intrigued, Idlewine wrote her undergraduate thesis on vigilantism and urban crises depicted in film and opted for a one-year master’s program in England.
Networking landed her a paid internship at the Academy, where she cataloged a home-movie project donated by a man who’d found it in his rental home. Spanning the years 1929 through 1935, the collection featured a well-to-do family vacationing in California, Atlantic City, and Europe. Dabbling in research, Idlewine was delighted to discover a tidbit of historical data— the woman in the movies was the daughter of the Sauerkraut King of America.
Soon after, Drischell hired Idlewine to work on a special project funded exclusively by the Packard Humanities Institute. She inspects and catalogs film trailers, including movie trailers, cartoons, and public service announcements from the 1950s through 2007.
Though the digital age has arrived, film is the mainstay at the archive.
“If a print breaks or has a tear, we can tape it back together. If a DVD gets scratched, the whole film is ruined,” says Idlewine. “While most people would never ask an art museum why they’re saving the Mona Lisa, they don’t fully understand why we need to preserve original camera images from films like the Wizard of Oz.”
While public awareness about the importance of preservation grows, Idlewine goes quietly about her work, content in her own purpose.
“Having a job that I love, especially in today’s economy, makes me feel very successful,” she says.
—by Pattie Pace