Monday, August 6, 2007

Universal Newsreels on DVD: a first impression

I have just received one of the DVDs containing moving images from the National Archives (NARA) and published by CustomFlix (which has just changed its name to CreateSpace), a subsidiary of Here are my first impressions.

The DVD, which arrived by mail on the 4th working day after my Amazon order, is a DVD-R bearing an orange printed National Archives/Universal Newsreel logo, thematically similar to the green cover DVD label insert. The disc contains Universal Newsreels from November and December 1960 (200 UN 33, 89-96) and runs exactly 61 minutes.

Neither the disc nor the packaging contain any restrictive wording or copyright notice, nor do they indicate that the material is in the public domain. The compilation of stories seems to follow the structure of NARA's reference videotapes, with which archival researchers will be familiar. This would indicate that no copyrightable authorship exists in the compilation and arrangement, and that the DVD is fair game for duplication and reuse.

The disc runs straight through from start to finish, with no menu or chapters. It begins with the characteristic NARA character-generated title indicating volume, release and story numbers for each issue. As with the NARA reference tapes, this contains just the newsreel stories themselves, lacking the main and end titles contained in the theatrically released newsreels. This is not a deficiency of the disc, but reflects newsreel company practice: individual stories (segments) were filed and cataloged as units, and complete newsreels were typically not kept.

This particular DVD appears to have been made from one of NARA's older (early 1980s?) film-to-videotape transfers. Though others may have more precise information, I'd speculate that the master tape matches the reference tapes that NARA holds in its motion picture research room. These tapes were made in an earlier era of telecine technology and resemble what NARA now calls "non-broadcast video copies." There is a visible flicker, and I saw perceptible dropouts in one story that resemble those caused by physical tape damage, such as when a videotape is ejected without being rewound. At least one story lacks sound, likely because Universal junked many of its tracks before donating the collection to NARA. The quality is certainly adequate for research, some teaching, and personal viewing (in fact, the reference tapes are very often used as a stock footage source for low-budget cable TV documentaries). It is, however, fair to say that this particular DVD will not put many stock footage companies out of business, nor will it delight Blu-Ray and Criterion DVD collectors.

In fairness, the image quality of the "intermediate" videotapes that NARA is furnishing CreateSpace do differ, and this particular tape just happens to reflect the lower end of the quality spectrum. I look forward to seeing DVDs of films transferred more recently, which I know will reflect the level of quality to which we have become accustomed in recent years.

$20 is a great deal for one hour of public domain material that's until now been unavailable through retail channels, and I expect that quite a number of individuals, educational media centers, stock footage companies and production units will begin to "collect 'em all." I also expect that these DVDs will very soon start to show up online.

I look forward to hearing further impressions from others on these products.

Barbara Quint wrote up the NARA/CreateSpace partnership this morning, here.


Skip Elsheimer said...

How does the quality compare to what is up on the Internet Archive? It sounds like the same tapes were used.

blackoystercatcher said...

They may very well have been the same tapes, or possibly a 1" copy corresponding to the 3/4" reference tapes from which the IA source material was made.

Unknown said...

Hi Rick: Have you ever come across any paperwork in the NARA archives relating to the Variety View shorts produced by Thomas Mead out of the Universal NY Newsreel offices? Chris

blackoystercatcher said...

I haven't, but I bet more experienced researchers (who may be reading this) have.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why they decided to debut using poor quality material from 1". More recent transfers are of much better quality and are on Digibeta.

Its also telling that they are not retransferring from film. The impression I got from the press release was that they were going to do that in at least some cases. Maybe I misread or read too much into what was there.

Still, its exciting.

Nancy C. said...

This information is extremely useful. Thanks so much, Rick.

Looking forward to hearing more...

- Nancy Crumley

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