Matt White is the Managing Partner of Sutton Hoo Studios, a production company specializing in the development of historical documentaries from distressed analog archival artifacts. He founded the WPA Film Library in 1986, and has held senior management positions at National Geographic TV & Film and The Corporation of Public Broadcasting, where he was responsible for The American Archive initiative. He was a founder and the first President of ACSIL, a global association of leading film & video archives, and also a founding committee member of the United Nation’s initiative “Archives at Risk”, which advocates for the preservation of distressed audio-visual archives throughout the world. A prolific archive producer himself, White recently led the massive 10-year-long, worldwide archive research effort for the 2016 documentary “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” directed by Ron Howard – an innovative project driven by rare footage sourced from all over the world.
How did you first become interested in the field of archives?
I produced a program in 1987 called Smoke That Cigarette! about the smoking culture of the 60s and 70s, and that was my first introduction to the archive field. I spent a good deal of time at the Nationals Archives in DC: once I threaded 35mm historical film reels on their flatbed and started watching and manipulating old footage, I was hooked…my career path was altered in an instant. By 1989, I had purchased a Hollywood stock footage company called ColorStock, changed its name to The WPA Film Library (White Production Archives), and put it on a train to Chicago. I ran that business until 2000.
This year’s edition of Sunny Side of the Doc, themed ‘Historic’ will spotlight the flourishing archive and stock footage industry. You’ve been involved in the industry for decades.
When did you first recognize the commercial viability of film and video archives? What is the relationship between the archive business and preservation?
In the 1980s, when the emerging cable channels such as A&E and Discovery started to produce their own programs, they turned to film and video archives to generate hundreds and ultimately thousands of hours of programming for their audiences. That’s when I entered the archive world, and it was buzzing with opportunities. Hollywood, too, started to restructure their organizations as “Library” entities exploiting the wholly new revenue streams suddenly available from cable and home video rental/sales. And that drove restoration and preservation efforts, as the archives were suddenly rethought as a commercial asset of media companies. That was most true in the entertainment sector. The great majority of historical archives—newsreels, educational films, documentaries, home movies, sponsored films, art films—were left out of that first wave of restoration and preservation. UNESCO and other organizations sounded the alarm as these film & video materials aged and molded and sat and died. The most consistent, and today the most active preservation initiatives are going through filmmakers who put archival restoration and digitization into their programming budgets. Major efforts like OJ: Made in America or Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution; or Amy; or 13th, or What Happened, Miss Simone? have discovered important archival materials that are not on YouTube as they aren’t digital but are now safe because of the filmmaker’s activity. Non-profits have supported this preservation work but without audiences—without the continued use of archival material in contemporary projects—there will never be enough resources to deal with the preservation needs.
Preserving the world’s audiovisual heritage is a cause that you’ve championed through your work with the United Nations on the Archives at Risk initiative.
What are some of the actions you encourage to ensure that this heritage will be saved for future generations?
Digital archiving technology resources and activities, which are so essential to ensuring that our audio-visual legacy endures, has been re-directed over the past few years to the building of digital repositories and global infrastructures that allow good access and protection to the EXISTING or BORN DIGITAL video files. I ran the American Archive initiative at the Corporation of Public Broadcasting where we conducted a massive inventory that identified 2.5 million individual films or tapes in the system: around 1 million hours of content. We digitized a core collection of 40,000 hours, but our Congressional funding was eliminated before we could move beyond the core collection. So nearly one million hours are still in analog form and I can’t see much activity that will put a dent in that number. Thus, the value of producers to dig into those archives and use their production budgets to do the necessary preservation work to get materials in front of audiences again. The Library of Congress has an unbelievably wonderful, specially designed campus to protect the USA footage and sound in its care, whether or not it is digital. But I’ve spend a lot of time recently working in Cuban archives, and they can’t get air conditioning for their historically essential record of revolutionary Cuba. So I would encourage efforts to aid in the preservation of distressed analog archives with minimal resources, such as INA did so well with the Cuban newsreels.
The Beatles project is an innovative project in terms of connecting archives with contemporary audiences, and took you over 13 years to complete.
How did it all start? How did you plan and orchestrate the worldwide detective work and research talent required?
It started with a conversation in London with Neil Aspinall, who at the time ran The Beatles’ company, Apple Corps Ltd. He was intrigued by the idea of a feature film using home movies and amateur media captured by fans during the Beatles touring years. We conducted a number of low-profile searches to prove out the model (that such footage existed and could be licensed) and then kicked into high gear in 2012 with a team of 30 individuals working different functions globally. This was our archive expedition. We drew up an “event list” of every live performance of The Beatles and had people on the ground in every continent where the Beatles performed looking for film and photos. We had an in-house staff at the University of Maryland devoted to the crowd sourcing operation, using newly developed technologies that helped us solicit, gather, and organize our findings into a central database. Apple Corps sent out a “call to action” to 40 million Facebook fans asking if they attended the concerts and, if so, did they take photographs or movies. And we had a team developing relationships with Beatles media collectors globally. We even had a “media monitoring” program running for a while that allowed us to peek into conversations about The Beatles on Facebook, Twitter, and so forth. It was a six-month project, ending just before the New Year in 2012.
Your Sunny Side master class on Tuesday 20 June, alongside Apple Corps’s Jonathan Clyde, will demonstrate the value of using crowd sourcing platforms to unearth amateur archive material in successful historical programming. What kind of departure does this represent from traditional archival research methods? Could you speak to how this amazing collection of footage you gathered together helped determine the narrative direction of the film?
It is not so much a departure from traditional research methods, but a departure from the structure of producing an archive-intensive documentary. While most such programs start with a story and then go to the archives to illustrate that story, our approach was to start with the research and let the story emerge from the archival media…to let the archives “speak.” Our assumption going in was that people with Super 8mm cameras brought their cameras to Beatles concerts. We built an operation to find those materials, organize them in a central database, and open that newly assembled archive to the creative teams who would then find the story in the archives. Fortunately, our assumption held and we unearthed wonderful, visceral media from amateur and from unexpected sources: police departments, audio from recordings that plugged directly into the concert soundboards, tourist promotions from cities that captured The Beatles fans at local events, and so forth. By mixing these personal, off-beat archival sources with archival materials in Apple Corps’ remarkable vaults, we had a rich repository of media artifacts that demanded attention– that helped get to the heart of the story that was playing out at the time.
What were some of the most memorable or remarkable images you uncovered?
There are so many answers to this. The first 8mm footage that demonstrated to me that we would succeed at this effort was an amateur film shot by a fan attending a TV performance for Ready Steady Go: very rich color and nice close-ups of each band member. The most important footage, I think, was shot by British Pathe cameramen in Manchester in 1963, before The Beatles came to the US: 35mm technicolor original camera elements that were shot for a ten-minute newsreel, The Beatles Come to Town. All of the original film materials from three cameras were available, including full performances of songs– editor Paul Crowder was able to conduct his own mix of that performance. We found the only footage ever shot of their performance in Madrid (in a bull ring!), a really nice aerial shot is 70mm by National Film Board of Canada crews working on a tourist film for Toronto, films shot by the Tokyo police department of the Budokan concerts, and collector’s footage from Detroit, Kansas City, Rome, Melbourne, Paris, Stockholm, and dozens of concert sights.
What are your next projects/experiments in archive research? What will you be looking for at Sunny Side of the Doc this year ?
My company, Sutton Hoo Studios, builds narratives from distressed analog media archives…all of the neglected and slowly deteriorating footage that holds such significant records of world history. The great majority of this material is not digitized and invisible. None, of course, is on YouTube. But where else can you find the “never before seen,” “lost,” or “rare footage” that is so attractive to audiences? We have set up an office at the Library of Congress’ Kluge Center to provide a deep research discipline to our work, and have been identifying often shocking footage in our development work: “the shock of the old.” We will be bringing a number of projects to Sunny Side, including a series of programs that dig deep into “revolutionary” archives globally, many of which are so vulnerable right now, and more crowd sourced music stories. We have been working in Cuban archives for two years now and expect that to generate really important work. To produce such programming requires the deep research, but also restoration and digitization efforts that go beyond the traditional routines of an archive-inspired film, but the results are so satisfying and compelling, as seen very well in Eight Days a Week. We are looking forward to exploring this documentary approach with the delegates at Sunny Side.
Sunny Side of the Doc will feature a special screening of “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week” on Monday 19 June, at 9pm, in CGR Dragon, La Rochelle. Click here for more info.