Yale Film Archive has new home at the heart of campus

Person in a projection booth examining a strip of film.
The Yale Film Archive, formerly the Yale Film Study Center, has moved into new headquarters on the seventh floor of Sterling Memorial Library. The newly renovated space features a screening room equipped to show 16 mm film as well as 3D movies. (Photos by Dan Renzetti)

The lights dim in the screening room on Sterling Memorial Library’s seventh floor, the new home of the Yale Film Archive. A projector whirs. Eight undergraduates watch five short, animated films in their original 16 mm format. Then they don plastic glasses and watch a 3D film on Blu-ray. The archive is the only place on campus equipped to screen 3D movies.

The class, “Principles of Animation,” was the first to visit the archive’s freshly renovated 3,200 square-foot space, which once housed Yale’s map collection. The six films, drawn from the archive’s collections, were created decades ago by avant-garde filmmakers, such as Len Lye and Norman McLaren.

A still from the 1936 film “Rainbow Dance” projected onto a screen.
“Principles of Animation,” the first class to visit the archive, watched a series of short animated films in their original 16 mm format, including “Rainbow Dance,” a 1936 film by artist Len Lye.

These films were created by hand, meaning the artists thought about the film in a painterly way,” said artist Ben Hagari, the class’s instructor, before the screening. “They worked directly on the film. Painting it and thinking about how to bring their painting into motion.”

Brian Meacham with undergraduates in the screening room.
Managing Archivist Brian Meacham welcomes undergraduates to the screening room.

The opportunity to view the films in their original format, as opposed to on DVD or on YouTube, is meaningful, Hagari said.

It gives a sense of the life and history of the films,” he said. “The celluloid is a physical material that was scratched by these artists for mark-making, but also scratched by the projector over time. Those markings are an important part of the experience of watching the films.”

A student watching a film.
The class watched five films on 16 mm and a sixth film in 3D. The archive’s screening room is the only campus facility equipped to screen 3D movies.

New name, new home

Founded in 1982 as the Yale Film Study Center, the Yale Film Archive seeks to support teaching, learning, and research while fostering a robust film culture at the university. It became part of the Yale Library in 2017 and was renamed to better reflect its full range of activities, membership in the International Federation of Film Archives, and commitment to upholding the standards for preserving and studying film at Yale.

This fall the archive moved from the basement of 53 Wall Street, the former home of the Whitney Humanities Center, to its new headquarters in the library. The move makes the archive and its collection more accessible to the Yale community, said Michael Kerbel, the archive’s director.

Our mission is unchanged but our ability to pursue it is greatly enhanced,” Kerbel said. “Being at the heart of campus — at the top of one of the world’s greatest libraries — provides visibility and prestige. We encourage students, faculty, and staff to explore our collection and take advantage of our resources.”

The archive houses more than 7,000 titles on 16 mm and 35 mm film spanning all genres and 120 years of cinema history. The collection also features about 40,000 DVDs, 5,000 Blu-ray discs, and 6,000 VHS tapes.

Yale faculty can arrange screenings from the film print collection for their classes. Materials from the video collection are available for loan to anyone with a Yale ID. The new headquarters includes 10 viewing booths for those who lack a DVD or Blu-ray player as well as undergraduates who’ve never even encountered a VCR.

The archive’s location just across York Street from the recently opened Humanities Quadrangle — the new home of 15 humanities departments and programs, including the Film & Media Studies Program, and the Whitney Humanities Center — will create opportunities for collaborations with faculty on classes and public programming, Kerbel said.

The quadrangle features a 183-seat lecture hall and an adjacent film screening room that are both equipped with top-quality projection equipment, including dual 35/16 mm projectors needed to screen films to archival standards. (Dual projectors are needed to screen a film seamlessly without splicing reels together.)

Screening room at the Humanities Quadrangle.
The recently opened Humanities Quadrangle features a screening studio with dual 35/16 mm projectors. Yale boasts three facilities outfitted to show film on screen.

One of our goals is to have as much public film programming as possible,” Kerbel said. “Including the auditorium at 53 Wall Street, Yale has three facilities equipped to show movies on 35 mm film. That’s unique and we hope to take advantage of it to share our collection with the community.”

The archive’s 23-seat screening room features theater-style raked seating so that nobody needs to crane their neck to see over the person in front of them. The projection room is equipped with dual Kodak Pageant 16 mm film projectors and a state-of-art digital projector.

A group of people dimly lit by the screening room’s leaded glass windows.
Heavy curtains in the archive’s screening room usually conceal a bank of leaded glass windows. The archive’s seventh-floor space offers several nice views of campus and New Haven.

The archive’s conservation suite features a cold storage vault for housing film, which is best preserved at 15 to 20 degrees below room temperature. The day Hagari’s class visited, the vault contained a recently acquired copy of Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” on 35 mm film.

Managing Archivist Brian Meacham uses two Steenbeck flatbed editing machines arranged side-by-side in the suite to assess films’ condition and examine them for filmographic information.

We have very little information for some films — occasionally just the title,” Meacham said. “The film stock and edge code can tell us a lot about its history.”

Animators

After their screening, the animation class moved into the conservation suite where Meacham had set up light boxes for the students. He handed each of them two film strips, both three feet in length. One was clear plastic. The other was darkened on one side by a chemical emulsion typically needed to capture images.

Student working with a light box.
After the screening, the students created animations by coloring or scratching film. The class ended with a screening of their work. (Photo by Ben Hagari)

The students spent the next half hour hunched over the light boxes making animations. They drew on the clear strips with colored markers. They scratched pictures into the emulsion on the dark strips with tools resembling dental picks. Each strip provided about five seconds of animation at 24 frames per second. The students hunched over the lightboxes working their markers and scrapers. Scratching sounds filled the room.

I spend a lot my time in this room trying not to scratch film and now everyone here is doing it on purpose,” Meacham quipped.

Meacham spliced the completed strips together to form a reel. The class returned to the screening room. The lights went dark. The projector whirred and the screen came alive with about minute’s worth of squiggly lines, rolling eyeballs, bursting fireworks, and colorful chaos. (Watch the full reel online.)

Xavier Ruiz, a senior majoring in computing and the arts, said he appreciated the opportunity to learn about handmade techniques given that he focuses on computer animation.

It was really cool to get a sense of more analog techniques for creating animation,” said Ruiz, who created the bursting fireworks using the scratching method.

The class was his first experience watching film on film.

We’d seen the digital copies of the Len Lye films, but it was very different to see them on film,” Ruiz said. “It’s so textural, and it adds a lot to the experience.”

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Bess Connolly : elizabeth.connolly@yale.edu,