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Archiving Oscar

By Brian Segna

Feb. 19, 2007 9:03 p.m.

The granddaughter of Michael Curtiz was unsuccessful in her search for footage of her grandfather winning the Best Director Oscar in 1944 for “Casablanca.”

But, interested in any memento of the grandfather she never knew, she was happy when UCLA alumna, and now curator of the Academy Awards show footage, Heather Sabin was able to scrounge up a radio broadcast of Curtiz’s voice.

For Sabin, it was sad she couldn’t help Curtiz’s granddaughter more, but the Academy didn’t shoot full film footage coverage of the Oscars until the 21st show in 1949, five years after Curtiz’s win. And until just a few years ago, even the footage from after 1949 wasn’t being properly kept.

But Sabin’s work is changing that now and, hopefully, forever.

“It feels good to take film out of a rusty can … and store it in a nice cold vault,” said Sabin. “I really like my collection.”

Back in 2001, in her final year of the UCLA master’s program in critical studies, Sabin had taken an internship working for the Academy Awards. Wanting a more well-rounded education in film archiving, she decided to attend the University of Rochester’s certificate program in film preservation before returning to the Academy, adding to a long and growing list of UCLA alumni employees.

Now in her fifth year of employment, Sabin has had her plate full tracking down and inventorying footage from the recent Oscar shows, as well as old footage that was never archived. That footage includes anything and everything related to the awards shows, including coverage of the governor’s ball, the foreign language film symposium, the nominees luncheon and the actual ceremony.

“Basically, I get sent all of these tapes after the show is over and throughout the year, when people clean out their offices,” Sabin said. “I take the tape through the whole process, seeing what it is, seeing if we already have something like it in our system and, if not, then making a new title in our databasing, cataloging it, describing it, putting all of our stickers and bar codes on it, and actually putting it on the shelf in the section we have for it in the vault.”

And despite the more than 50-year history of recorded Academy Awards footage, the work Sabin does is quite new.

“The Academy didn’t have a staff, really, until the 1990s, so they didn’t even have a person just strictly in charge of keeping all the awards shows stuff straight until maybe three years before I started doing it,” Sabin said. “So I spent a lot of my time actually trying to fix old mistakes as well as work to inventory new stuff.”

But the progress she has made has been very gratifying.

“It’s really rewarding to feel like what you are doing is helping preserve something and make it accessible for the future,” she said. “Whenever someone might want to look at it again I know that it’s there and people can actually find it.”

And people do want to look at the material all the time.

“The main reason to keep it all is just for public access purposes. Basically, if a researcher or someone is writing a book on someone specific, and wants to see the times they appeared on the show, they will come and watch it with us,” Sabin said.

Sabin gets calls from professors, show production people interested in getting ideas from previous Oscar shows, curious fans, and even the stars themselves.

“Yeah, I get calls all the time (from actors and filmmakers looking for footage of them winning),” Sabin said. “It’s so funny because I’m like, “˜Did they not have someone tape it?’ It seems really, really weird.”

A variety of people are very happy that Sabin does what she does.

“She keeps every material that deals with the Academy Awards, all the way from the early years of the awards to today,” said Brian Drischell, the Academy’s traffic manager. “She keeps them properly inventoried and stored, and, obviously for the current awards shows, we always need materials from past shows. That’s one of the reasons that it’s so crucial that we have ready access to those materials, because they’re constantly used year after year.”

Drischell, a graduate of the moving image archive studies master’s program at UCLA, very much understands the importance of a working archive, like the one at the Academy.

“An archive is important because it is part of our historical record and I think, traditionally, film has not been well kept,” said Drischell. “But it’s a cultural record of our arts and entertainment heritage.”

And thanks to Sabin, a piece of that heritage is being properly preserved, ready to be used and enjoyed for generations to come.

“The cool thing is that I think it will get more interesting as time goes on,” Sabin said. “To have so much coverage, like 50 to 100 years down the line, is so cool, because I wish it were the case for 50 years ago.”

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