Photo caption: Richard Fauss, audio/visual archivist at the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture, and History, scans through the media archives as he searches for a single reel, on Wednesday August 23, 2023, at the West Virginia Archives and History Library, located within the Culture Center, in Charleston, West Virginia. Fauss and the archives team work to preserve decades of West Virginia history on a wide variety of formats. (Lexi Browning | West Virginia Watch)
BY: ZACK HAROLD – MONDAY SEPTEMBER 4, 2023 6:00 AM
About 30 minutes into director Elaine Sheldon’s new film “King Coal,” the sides of the frame suddenly begin to creep inward.
It happens on a wide shot of two young girls, sitting on a bench, crafting friendship bracelets. A small West Virginia town unfolds behind them. But as the black bars encroach on the corners of that bench, the film cuts and different children appear.
One little girl bounces on her grandmother’s knee in a wicker lawn chair. Another girl stands in her mother’s flower garden, looking warily at the camera. Another strums a guitar on her front porch. A young boy sits under a tree with his mom and dad. A Black family, evidently a mother and father with their 10 smiling children, pose against a whitewashed fence. A group of four white children, their neighbors, do the same.
The images come as a shock in a film that primarily reckons with life in a post-coal Appalachia. But these are snapshots of the good times, when the industry was booming, employment was high and coalfield communities were full of life.
Perhaps most shocking of all, these images are not presented in grainy black-and-white. They come onto the screen in full, vibrant color.
“It looks like it could’ve been shot yesterday,” said Richard Fauss, audiovisual archivist at the West Virginia State Archives. “They’re kind of the gems of the collection.”
Fauss has managed the state archives’ massive collection of film and sound for the last 40 years. He’s the one who found the footage for Sheldon and her team.
Though now a compact man with short white hair and a neatly trimmed beard to match, in 1982 he was a West Virginia University student working on a Ph.D. in history. He got a call from the state archives director, asking if he wanted a job. Fauss has worked in the basement of the West Virginia Culture Center ever since.
His workshop is a living museum of 20th century recording technology. The shelves are full to bursting with reel-to-reel tapes, cassettes, microcassettes, CDs, VHS tapes and DVDs, cans of 8-millimeter and 16-millimeter film as well as less-remembered formats like U-matic, BetaSP and MiniDV.
The bulk of the collection came from West Virginia television stations. Beginning in the 1950s until the early 2010s, television news operations sent footage their reporters collected in the field to the archives for safe-keeping.
There’s also a sizable collection of donated home movies. One features a few seconds of President Richard Nixon’s visit to Elkins in 1971. The same film then switches to men passing a football, some fragments of a family camping trip and a minute of eerily dark footage — Fauss thinks it’s a baby bouncing in a swing.
Another home movie shows a family road trip to the Bob Evans Farm in Rio Grande, Ohio. It’s an unremarkable viewing experience — except the final minutes feature a drive across the Silver Bridge in Point Pleasant, which would collapse in 1967 and kill 46 people.
“Not too long ago a school group visited here, and I told them ‘If the old saying is true, a picture’s worth a thousand words … how much more does it add, if you add motion?” Fauss said. “How much more if you add sound?”
Sheldon discovered Fauss’ archive in 2009 when she was working on her first feature documentary, “The Lincoln County Massacre.” The film chronicles the brutal 1980 beating of motorcycle club members at hands of the West Virginia State Police and the ensuing federal lawsuit. Sheldon wanted footage of the court proceedings. Fauss found it for her.
She returned to the archive for other projects, including “Coal’s Deadly Dust” and “Timberline.” When she started making the film that would become “King Coal,” Sheldon found herself with lots of archival footage of coal miners and coal mining — but not much that showed life in the coal camps.
She dispatched producer Molly Born to dig through the archives with Fauss.
“I asked him specifically, ‘Is there anything with kids? Because kids were becoming a theme in the film,” Sheldon said. “We never expected to see color footage.”
The footage came from the New River Coal Company. It was filmed in a coal camp in Mount Hope, Fayette County, somewhere around 1940. Black and white was still the standard at the time, but for customers with deep pockets — like a successful coal company — color images were an option. Kodak had released its iconic color film, Kodachrome, five years earlier.
Fauss discovered the name of the photographer, Amos R. Moore, on one of the reels. He assumed the man worked in public relations. But after looking him up in U.S. Census records, it appears Moore was a clerk. Fauss suspects the man had some knowledge of moving pictures, though, because the images are largely in-focus and properly exposed and the reels were cut and spliced so solidly they still hold together over 80 years later.
“He got an assignment and he carried it out. And he did it well,” Fauss said. “The New River company passed out free flower seeds. Then they sent him around and shot movies. I think they showed them in a local theater or at a company store.”
Fauss sent Sheldon a standard-definition digitalization of the film — all three hours of it. When it arrived, the director put the film on a loop in her office, sat back and watched.
“I feel like they kind of turned the company propaganda into something more authentic by being not that interested to impress the company,” Sheldon said. “I feel like the people are looking right through the cameraman. They’re not entranced by him or influenced by him. They’re just living their lives.”
After Sheldon identified which scenes she wanted to use in “King Coal,” producer Born went back to the archives to help Fauss find the corresponding reels of film.
Since the rest of “King Coal” was shot in 4K resolution, Sheldon and her team wanted to have the New River film converted to 4K as well. They found a company in Atlanta that could do the job, but didn’t have the budget to convert all three hours. They could send off only the film reels with footage Sheldon wanted to use.
An important deadline was fast approaching. “King Coal” premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, held in mid-January. The film team needed to deliver the film to the festival within the first few days of the year — and it was already nearing the end of November.
So Born and Fauss spent the days leading up to Thanksgiving tediously searching through the film reels, looking at individual frames with a jeweler’s loop. When they finally found all the scenes they needed, they faced another problem. They needed to get the reels to Atlanta quickly and safely, and couldn’t find any boxes to fit the reels.
“I think [Fauss] was very scared to let those reels go out of the basement,” Sheldon said.
Born eventually made a mad dash to a local record store. It turns out the boxes that LPs come in also fit 16-millimeter film reels. She packed the movies up, overnighted them to Georgia and went to enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with her family.
The digitized footage found Sheldon in Los Angeles, where she was finalizing edits on “King Coal.” She said when she loaded it into the computer, it was almost like seeing the footage for the first time. With the new 4K rendering, all the faces were now in focus. New details emerged in the background of the shots. The colors popped from the screen.
“We could tell it was going to be beautiful, but we couldn’t tell how colorful it was going to be,” Sheldon said.
The “King Coal” team spent more than $2,000 digitizing the footage, for what would become just over a minute of the finished film. They provided the state archives with a copy of the 4K files, to thank Fauss for his help. But those files only constitute about a third of the surviving New River film. And they are an even smaller fraction of the thousands of hours of other film and tape that live in the archives’ stacks.
Time is running out to preserve this collection. Audiovisual archives require special care and handling. Even in the best conditions, film and tape do not last forever.
Some of the archives’ film reels are already suffering from “vinegar syndrome,” a chemical breakdown of the celluloid that will eventually render the footage unplayable. The U-Matic tapes that make up most of the television news archive are becoming less reliable. Some tapes are flaking apart. Some are losing their magnetism. Fauss knows some tricks to get them working again, but sometimes those tricks don’t work.
And it won’t be long before the BetaSP, VHS and MicroDV tapes in the collection suffer the same fate.
“Their time is coming, for sure,” Fauss said.
In the meantime, Fauss is doing what he can to preserve the collection. He spent the early days of COVID lockdowns splicing tiny rolls of old news footage onto larger reels, which will make them last longer.
He is also updating the index of what’s on each tape. Much of the archive’s catalog currently lives inside Fauss’ head. While he said he’s still a few years away from retirement, he is trying to write down everything he can.
Fauss also digitizes what he can. But as a one-man shop with limited equipment, there’s only so much he can accomplish.
“There are things in bits and pieces and half processed,” he said. “To do it, you’ve really got to have somebody dedicated to it.”
Sheldon would like to see the state allocate money to the audiovisual archive, to help Fauss and digitize the entire audiovisual archive. She points to the Appalshop archive in Whitesburg, Kentucky, which nearly lost its half-century of Appalachian film and audio during a flood in 2021. About 80 percent of Appalshop’s audiovisual archive were affected by the flooding. The materials that could be recovered are now in the care of restorationists, who are keeping them in cold storage until they can be cleaned, digitized and restored — a process that will likely take many years.
“Those are our stories, those are our origins,” she said of the materials in the West Virginia State Archives collection. “There’s an incredible wealth [there]. We cannot afford to neglect our history.
“We don’t have a present or future without it.”
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