Saul Bass B-Rolls: Anatomy of an Archive

by Roger Leatherwood

A large, lavishly illustrated book on Saul Bass, the famous Hollywood designer with numerous famous posters, logos and commercials to his credit, was published late last year, the 492-page Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design by Jan-Christopher Horak. Horak is the head of the UCLA Film and Television Archive and spent decades researching Bass and his influences and design aesthetic, mostly through thousands of remnants in various archives and private collections.

AnatomyofFilmDsignCoverThe book isn’t about Bass’s personal life. That information isn’t properly reflected in the collections, and is of less interest to most film historians. They prefer the record that’s been left on celluloid.

After a decades-long career in theatres and exhibition, 10 years ago I shifted my professional focus to film archiving, studying what survives in the cultural record and how it moves and continues to influence new generations. Not all films are shown on late-night TV or in movie theatres nowadays. One of my part-time jobs along the way was a temporary archiving position at the Academy Film Archive (the Oscar® people), the place where Hollywood officially preserves its own history. Their mission includes preserving every film nominated for an Oscar®, though they also seek to find prints and negatives of other historically important films related to their membership (almost anyone who ever worked at the majors). It’s the one-stop history of the studios from high culture to lowbrow: the bold and the beautiful, the sacred and the profane. Directors, actors, and producers are represented, as well as prop men and credit sequence designers.

They’ve never had enough space for all the artifacts they preserve. It’s not just films. A warehouse of posters, masks, and private papers is still looking for a home, and donations from the members often include tapes of television shows, outtakes, scripts, Polaroids, newspapers and costumes.

Pickford Center 10th Anniversary

Archives have different policies about what they keep. Much of what gets donated is outside their mission, but when unwanted items are in the truck with the rest of some famous producer’s papers and old prints, they just accept the lot. The Academy is the first place called when the relative of a famous star passes and family members are cleaning out that back garage. The boxes are filled with surprises, treasure and junk in equal measure.

Roger Corman outtakes might be donated with Peter Lorre’s estate. Rare home movies of the stars at play are uncovered—just as often the donation includes dozens of old VHS recordings of films shown on late-night TV.

And it seemed every actor used to have 16mm prints of Tom & Jerry cartoons along with their old screen tests—after 15 duplicates of Million Dollar Cat (1944), you’re putting them in the “Who cares?” room. Dom DeLuise produced a film with his son that no one’s heard of (2003’s Between The Sheets ); they have every outtake in addition to the negative and six prints. (One of these days someone may pay to restore and release it.) Vincent Price collected Laurel & Hardy films—a list of his favorites (two copies of 1930’s Blotto but none of 1933’s The Music Box?) may be relevant to a future biographer. Not so to the Archive.

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Occasionally film vaults go out of business and suddenly have to be emptied, creating a larger archival challenge. In 2014, the Academy acquired the entire archive of the famous documentarian Robert Drew (1960’s Primary, 1963’s Crisis); the collection including endless footage of JFK, Duke Ellington and other important political and cultural figures of the ’60s through the ’90s.

For the 52 minutes of Crisis, Drew shot hundreds of hours of film. He worked on dozens of films over 50 years, and the Drew collection is upward of 180 3-by-3-by-3-foot cardboard boxes, stacked on ten-foot-square palettes, all full of smaller film boxes holding still smaller reels. Many of the reels are outtakes or “B-roll,” background and filler, and labeled only with the topic and reel # (ex: “War plane CR 40”). No one will go through all this to see what footage is worth saving (or more expensive, preserving) until there lurks in the background some generous grant or well-funded Hollywood project, accompanied by a cadre of knowledgeable interns.

Don’t get me wrong—everyone’s absolutely convinced there’s some fantastic footage in there—but these are the outtakes. One hundred and eighty boxes of them. The collection of Maysles Brothers footage the Academy holds is equally daunting (40-plus documentaries over 60 years).

AnatomyofaMurderWhich brings me back to Saul Bass. One of my assignments while at the Academy was to go through more than 50 boxes of Saul Bass material (a mere three palettes). All 3-by-3-by-3-foot boxes from his home studio and office, collected over the last 30 years of his professional career as a world-famous advertising, logo, poster and commercial designer/producer. He’s mainly known now as the creator of credit sequences for films such as The Man With The Golden Arm (1955), Vertigo (1958), It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Casino (1995), etc. Bass only directed seven films in his lifetime, including 1964’s The Searching Eye (for the 1964 New York World’s Fair), 1968’s Why Man Creates (which won the Documentary Short Subject Oscar), 1974’s Phase IV , and 1979’s The Solar Film – except for Phase IV , all shorts. He also created and/or designed logos and hundreds of commercials for such clients as Lawry’s Foods, Alcoa, AT&T, Continental Airlines, Geffen Records, Der Wienerschnitzel, and on and on.

Those familiar with his films know he favored abstract and montage techniques, often created in a decoupage of various apparent random footage cut together with animated sequences, evocative music and narration. (The Solar Film is made up almost entirely by footage of the sun, a young boy walking on a beach or through a forest, gardens, and microphotography; Phase IV , a science-fiction film about ants, completely depends on its amazing ant footage.) A constructionist rather than a practitioner of mise-en-scène , most adept at creating effects with discrete pieces, he’s credited with the shower sequence in Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

Prints of all his films are extant. What came from his office was a different kind of “archive.” All the footage he had shot, predominantly 16mm, was stock footage he had kept in cans in pieces ranging from 5 frames to 1000 feet long, saved for possible use for some subsequent project or commercial. Original footage of the sun setting, or beaches, or ants. Flowers. A ball bouncing. He didn’t buy stock from other sources—he shot it all himself.

Thirty boxes filled with smaller boxes filled with pieces of film, outs, and short ends marked variously “Boy walking,” “Water,” “Beach,” “Quest,” etc. Even more boxes of the sun, of flowers, of bees on flowers. Of flowers in the sun. You get the idea.

There were also dupes of his dozens of commercials, reference copies without sound: “Dixie Cup teaser A,” “Bell Tel vs. A, B, C.D, E.” In some instances a dozen copies. Small boxes with a single piece of film, large boxes of many pieces of film each with #s, codes, reference names. A couple of prints of Phase IV . There were also old design and advertising trade magazines, diagrams, and lists of film stocks and edge code. A couple of awards, things you might find in an office or storage closet. Nothing of value and nothing surprising.

PhaseIVAs a “junior archivist” it was my job to catalog the contents, not item by item but rather a general listing of what was written on the outer boxes. I didn’t roll through each reel to identify “important” footage, just simply listed the supposed contents: “Box 8: reels of Sun, Sunflowers, Flowers, Boy in sun, Sky, Sun #3”. If anyone was looking for Bass’s unused sun footage, they’d know there was some in Box 8.

The other thing was, all this was 16mm Eastmancolor. As is the tendency of 16mm Eastmancolor, it had all faded. I checked at least one reel per box and every one had lost their cyan and yellow dyes and gone completely to pink. While the breadth and amount of Bass’s B-roll might be of interest to someone researching his working process, its practical usefulness was zero.

One might wonder why such apparent junk would continue to be kept in a world-class archive (and take up so much space and resources). Well, as you might imagine there’s always politics involved, even in the small and insulated world of film archives. Obviously a family member, curator or other interested party had donated the collection to the esteemed Academy sometime after Bass’s death in good faith (and possibly for a tax write-off) as they’re the official custodians of all major Hollywood-oriented collections after all. It’s not their purview to declare it junk or discard it out of hand. (And to be caught throwing Saul Bass material into the Dumpster out the back door of the Academy would raise its own PR problem). And there was no telling when Bass’s widow or grandson might come in and ask to see the boxes—“I haven’t been able to find my mom’s engagement ring and I’m pretty sure it was in with his office stuff. Can I look through it real quick?” “Sorry, we threw those boxes away last year. Nothing of interest there.”

Who wants to be the guy who threw away Saul Bass’s widow’s engagement ring?

So resources are spent to keep them in as stable an environment as possible until such time a researcher or well-heeled institution pays to open it up and actually, truly catalog the material. Collections are kept for that eventuality, however far in the future it may be. (When Scorsese asked for all Howard Hughes footage in UCLA’s Hearst Metrotone News archive to research his The Aviator (2004), it led to thousands of feet of film from that collection being properly identified, saved and preserved.) I know the Academy would love to have someone triage the boxes of Drew footage and reduce the 200 3-by-3-by-3-foot boxes to half a dozen of the really good stuff.

But an archive finds it impossible to be choosy about what they collect and preserve. It’s practically impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff. You never know what will be culturally valuable in the future, and the presumed uniqueness of any material seems to suggest it’s that much riper for preservation. The thousands of pieces of Saul Bass’s B-roll, all pink and unused and deteriorating, are by definition unique and absolutely irreplaceable if lost or discarded, and therefore technically “priceless.”

But future generations can rest easy. For now it’s all safe.

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 Read Gary Meyer’s “Movies Lost and Maybe Found” from EDF 43 here.

Check out the Academy Film Archive web site.

Read about a visit to the Academy Archive here.

Horizontal RuleRogerLeatherwoodRoger Leatherwood worked in all levels of show business over the last 20 years, from managing the world-famous Grand Lake Theatre in Oakland to projecting midnight movies to directing a feature about a killer, Usher (2004), that won numerous awards on the independent festival circuit. He currently works at UCLA managing the instructional media collections, which is its own kind of show business. His film writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Bright Lights Film Journal, European Trash Cinema magazine, and his mondo-cine.blogspot.com. His review of Shawn Levy’s Robert De Niro: A Life appeared in EatDrinkFilms Issue #39.

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