MacMillan Arctic lecture film restored, to premiere Saturday
When Donald B. MacMillan, Class of 1898, embarked on his Arctic expeditions, he always took a movie camera.
This Saturday in Smith Auditorium, the Bowdoin Film Society, in conjunction with the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, presents the premiere of a restored Donald B. MacMillan lecture film. The Far North: A Donald B. MacMillan Film Lecture includes newly discovered historical footage and soundtracks to MacMillan's original lectures. The restoration is the result of the efforts of the Arctic Museum and its supporters to protect the amazing collection of film MacMillan amassed over his years of Arctic exploration.
The MacMillan film collection is one of the richest and least-exhibited of the museum's holdings. Because film stock decomposes over time, the museum has had to undertake a preservation program, closing the collection to the public. The MacMillan footage dates back to the explorer's expeditions into Greenland and Labrador in the 1920s, up through his last Arctic trip in 1954, when the explorer was 80 years old.
MacMillan used much of the footage to educate the public about the Arctic region, creating short films and an enormously popular lecture program. The lecture consisted of projected silent film with MacMillan's live narration drawing upon his own knowledge and numerous anecdotes.
The restoration project began with the digitization of the lecture reels in the museum's collection. MacMillan constantly copied and re-edited the film for different audiences and to incorporate new footage. There are now 18 different 1000-foot reels of 16mm color film identified as part of the lecture collection. The task of re-assembling the film went to Audrey Amidon '03, whose work as a curatorial assistant was funded by a Gibbons Fellowship.
Over the course of the summer months, Amidon logged the details of each reel and matched shots to a transcript from a lecture MacMillan gave in 1958. The museum's extensive photo collection helped her identify people and places in the film. Using the digitized reels and Final Cut Pro, a digital software program, Amidon re-edited the film, choosing the best quality footage when there were similar shots.
"I was really overwhelmed when I first started the project because I had no idea how to approach it. But as I got into it, it became one giant puzzle and when everything started to fit together it was so exciting," said Amidon of the process.
The resulting film followed the 1958 transcript as closely as possible, but without a voice to narrate, the project was not complete. After months of work, Amidon knew the film better than anyone, but could not possibly play the part of MacMillan. The lecture film was shelved for several months while museum staff opened a new exhibit and considered how to choose a narrator.
According to Amidon, the most exciting breakthrough came when she realized that the boxes of unpreserved sound recordings in the museum's collection contained a reel-to-reel tape of MacMillan presenting the film lecture in 1959 to an audience in Boothbay Harbor. The museum sent the tape to a sound restoration expert who could cope with the fragility of the 45-year-old recording. Amidon re-edited the film to match the narration. She considers the resulting film to bring the viewer as close as possible to experiencing one of MacMillan's lectures firsthand.
Amidon still considers the project a work in progress. She hopes that people who saw MacMillan's lectures in the 1940s or 1950s will attend the premiere and provide feedback on the film. By gathering information about their reactions, she wants to make the film more authentic and provide proper context for future viewers. Above all, she is excited that the footage will once again be shared with the public after a 40-year dormancy.
"MacMillan's film was intended to teach people about the Arctic, and I think MacMillan would be really happy to know that people are learning from it today," said Amidon.
The Far North will premiere this Saturday at 7:00 p.m. in Smith Auditorium, Sills Hall, and is free and open to the public.
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