This spring, the curatorial team at Thunderbird Lake Tahoe started working on the Whittell Film Project.
The first thing that had to happen was to transfer the 16-millimeter movies from the original reels to digital files. This was completed by Grace McKay at Electric Pictures. The process was not as simple as just moving the images from the reels to a DVD by any means. Rather, we literally had to clean (wash) the films many times. They were just dirty.
Here we can see the dirt being removed from a film.
The first cleaning used a Lispner-Smith 1100 pro-film cleaner, followed by a process that included wet-gate dirt and scratch removal. After cleaning, we went to work on the actual images themselves! This meant reformatting some frames and correcting the color in each and every scene.
You can see an image from the film real to the right and on the left the monitors showing the color variances.
The films range in date from the 1930s to 1950s. Due to this range, there were several different film and color techniques found on each reel which made the process considerably more tedious than originally planned. Additionally, one reel was spliced with several others, meaning the film varied in type, speed, and quality all on one reel. This made for an interesting mix of content and makes one wonder if Mr. Whittell assembled this compilation to capture his favorite moments?
One reel was so badly damaged that the color was gone and there was a great deal of scratching. However, Grace was still able to retrieve the images from that reel.
A scene from the earliest reel. This is actually a color reel; however, over time the color was lost. To the far right in white is Elia Whittell. Reel 15, TLPS Collection.
Today, we have stored the original reels in archival canisters for future safekeeping. The digital copies are captured using the latest digital technology and are ready for the next step of the project: creating an introductory film for tours here at Thunderbird Lake Tahoe.
Currently, we are taking screen shots like what you see here and using them not only for reference, but to aid us in better understanding the history of Thunderbird Lodge, Thunderbird yacht, George Whittell Jr., and key players in his life. We now know what Whittell’s voice sounds like. We know what a heavy accent his cook brought with her from Lithuania. We discovered the original Whittell burgee on the Thunderbird yacht, along with the solarium on the Lodge that is long gone. The films give us so many clues about what life was like here in the glory days of the Castle. However, along with these helpful bits of history, the films capture personal moments that would have otherwise been lost forever otherwise. Of note is hearing snippets of conversation between Mae Mollhagen and George Whittell.
Mae and the Captain walking down the path at the Lodge. Reel 2, TLPS Collection
The conversation, while short and interrupted, gives us a great deal of insight into their relationship. It is very clear she was the one in charge and he deferred to her; one can immediately tell that Mae was a strong character. Of course this is only a tiny moment in a long relationship, but it still provides insight about what once was.
These movies are wonderful primary sources that will provide us a great deal of content for all sorts of future programming. We are sincerely grateful to Nancy Binz for making this project possible!