Current Research

In my current position, we are lucky enough to have dedicated research time to pursue our own projects and develop them into the production phase. Below are descriptions of the four main projects I've been pursuing, all in various stages of development.

Labor & Race in Film, TV and Radio

This project is in conjunction with the Mellon-funded UMD initiative African American History, Culture and Digital Humanities (AADHum), co-directed by the College of Arts and Humanities, the Arts and Humanities Center for Synergy, and MITH. AADHum aims to make the digital humanities more inclusive of African American history and culture and enriching African American studies research with new methods, archives and tools through reading groups, incubators, and one-on-one consultations

UMD Film Professor Oliver Gaycken and I planned and led a graduate colloquium in Spring of 2017 entitled "Film Lab 2: African-American History from the UMD Collections and the Promise of Digital Humanities," which looked at four films from the George Meany Memorial AFL-CIO archive that feature the intersection of African-American history and labor. We digitized the films and uploaded them as ePub documents into Socialbook, a Live Margin project created to allow collaborative annotations/readings of texts and media objects. We annotated and analyzed the four films as a group, investigating them alongside related archival and bibliographic sources about the history of race and labor in film. 

I've been using Airtable,  a cloud-based hybrid spreadsheet/relational database platform, for this and several other projects. 

Now that the colloquium is over, I've been working on developing a more comprehensive list of all film and radio objects in the UMD collections pertaining to race and labor, and tracking them all in an Airtable base, which also serves as a project management tool to track which project participants are following up and investigating which media object(s). This will eventually culminate in a 'story map' about the history of race and labor in the U.S., focusing on how films and radio programs were created to inform, train or provide commentary on that history. More broadly, this is a collaborative media-history project posing larger questions about the lens through which media objects have functioned in the history of labor and race in the US.

Sample wireframe for the Orphan Film Symposium portal. Click here, or on the photo, to download and view the full set of wireframes.
The Orphan Film Symposium History Portal

The Orphan Film Symposium has been held biennially since 1999, with eleven full symposia and sixteen additional smaller spinoff events. The symposium is a unique convergence of different disciplines and interests – film scholars, media historians, all manner of other types of historians, archivists, and scholars outside of the humanities (science and social sciences included).  The ‘orphan film’ concept is flexible but generally refers to films that fall between the cracks, either because they have a complex provenance and/or no known copyright holder, because they are so obscure that they never enjoyed any real form of widespread distribution, or because their value was ephemeral in nature.  According to symposium organizers, this includes “public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . . ).”

Although the symposium website is served through NYU, many links to prior symposia, the symposium blog and other links connect elsewhere - to the University of South Carolina website, to an older Google Sites webpage, to a blogspot blog, etc. The irony is that a symposia which heavily features ephemeral resources, is itself ephemeral in that the documentation of its impact and activities remains in pieces. Festival founder and NYU professor Dan Streible has been working with MITH towards the creation of a web resource that aggregates information from past symposia and special Orphans events in a centralized portal.  At a very basic level the site will start as a very simple database of prior films and presenters, and could scale upwards over time to include outside resources relevant to the study of these films (either web resources or primary/second resources from archives or other historical cultural institutions) as well as a gateway for those who want to access, research or license the works.

Digital Hitchcock

The Digital Hitchcock project was conceived and implemented by one of my graduate school mentors at UCLA, Steve Mamber in the Cinema & Media Studies department. It emerged from research Mamber had been doing on narrative mapping of films, and a desire to display a visual 'map' of the film alongside select archival components such as iterations of scripts, storyboards, and outside resources about the film. Steve negotiated with the Margaret Herrick Library in LA (the library arm of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) to scan a fairly large corpus of archival materials relating to Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds. Due to copyright concerns, he had permission ONLY to publicly demonstrate the research environment, but not make it web accessible. 

Digital Hitchcock only runs on Windows XP, and used The Birds as its initial proof of concept test run. He still has all the scans he made with the permission of the Herrick Library - scripts (multiple/different iterations), storyboards, and stills from each different 'shot' of the film displayed in either a 'sandbox' environment, or a grid or mosaic. Users could make extensive analysis of particular scenes, so clicking on a thumbnail for one scene will result (in one case) up to 50 archival documents or outside sources.

MITH is working with Mamber to investigate the technical sustainability of this project, whether we can emulate and archive it in its legacy form, or rebuild it using modern digital humanities methodologies so that this research environment could be replicated for other film resources. If you're interested in contributing or collaborating on this project, please contact me!

Steve Mamber demonstrating the Digital Hitchcock interface via Skype, including the 'sandbox' interface (top right) and the mosaic interface (bottom right).