Friday, April 8, 2016

The Academy’s Pickford Center, Where Movies Get the Red Carpet Treatment

Of course we all know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences annually stages the Oscar ceremony. But the organization, founded in 1927, does far more than roll out the red carpet for celebrities in fancy dress. Last night I was invited for a tour of the Pickford Center for Motion Picture Study, which since 1991 has been the Academy’s headquarters for  preserving and protecting motion picture history.

The Pickford Center, named after cinema pioneer Mary Pickford, is located on Vine Street in Hollywood. Back in 1948 this building was a television studio. Today it is a temple dedicated to the cinematic arts. Its walls are lined with rare photographs, some of them historic and others quite new. The Pickford Center has just received -- and now proudly displays – a series of candid shots snapped by Jeff Bridges, who has chronicled his career by way of behind-the-scenes images of fellow actors, crew members, and stunt performers. They’re well worth a gander.

 Near the entrance to the Pickford Center stands a priceless artifact, an American Fotoplayer from 1907. The Fotoplayer was designed to provide accompaniment for silent films in smaller theatres that couldn’t afford a live orchestra. Imagine a sort of extreme player-piano, with attached wings that supply a full set of percussion instruments, along with such extras as an auto horn, a whoopee whistle, a siren, and a baby’s cry. Only twelve of these beauties are left in the world, and the Academy’s is the only one not in private hands. We were lucky to be given an impromptu concert, with the Fotoplayer (nimbly manipulated by a member of the Academy staff)  adding music and sound effects to a 1904 Georges Méliès short, “Tchin-Chao The Chinese Conjuror.” I’m  not sure what was most fascinating: the conjuror’s hokey magic tricks, the casual racism of the “Chinese” performers, or the way Méliès used the film medium to enhance the magician’s stage trickery. But listening to the Fotoplayer was, in any case, delightful.

Because the Pickford Center is a film archive, we were also ushered through the high-ceiling vaults in which movies from all over the world are stored. The first vault, in which the temperature is set at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, contains unprocessed films that will wait years (or sometimes decades) to be sorted by the center’s archivists. A second vault, ten degrees cooler, holds stacks of processed films. (I spotted reels from such diverse flicks as Shaft, Patton, and Anna and the King.) We were not escorted through the chilliest vault (45 degrees Fahrenheit), the one holding camera negatives. But we learned that the scent of vinegar in the air is a telltale sign of a film beginning to deteriorate. In all, the Pickford vaults contain 2000 items, or over 500 tons of film materials. Another tidbit: in case of fire (heaven forbid!), the Pickford has a special gas-based fire suppression system. Conventional sprinklers are avoided, because water can destroy film stock as quickly as fire can.

The Pickford is not just about film storage. The center collects artifacts, like a full array of Harpo Marx’s comic props (a rubber chicken among them), donated by his son. And a separate department contributes to the science of filmmaking by, among other things, working to create new standards for digitally-shot movies. We all gasped at the results of the new ACES imaging system that greatly increases the dynamic range of today’s color photography. Then there’s the Pickford’s much-admired restoration work, which enables even classics from Cuba to get the red carpet treatment.

But you ain’t read nothing yet. More to come!

Georges Melies as Tchin-Chao, the Chinese Conjuror


  1. Beveryly, I was thoroughly amused by your description of the Fotoplayer - "an extreme player-piano with attached wings" - because that's exactly what it is. The Fotoplayer at the Academy was restored by, and has been played for the Academy by, my best friend of over 50 years, Joe Rinaudo. (I was asked by Joe if I'd be interested in restoring and re-creating lost titles for his silent films, and that has allowed me to bring back my joy of lettering and design the way it used to be done - pen, ink and brush - before computers.) I think you will enjoy Joe's website, on which I will place a link to yours:

  2. Thanks so much, Chaz. I'm delighted you found this post. I will definitely check out Joe's site. And I hope you'll return to Movieland again soon!