Preserving the “Stuff Dreams Are Made Of”

Imagine movie classics like Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life being erased from history because the film upon which they were recorded—what one writer described as “the stuff dreams are made of”—has disintegrated into nothing but a pile of dust. Prior to 1950, the nitrate cellulose film used to record these timeless moving images was both chemically unstable and extremely flammable. The next generation of material to replace it however—acetate “safety” film —has been found to also deteriorate over time. Today, polyester film stock and digital processes are being utilized to safeguard both image and sound quality, but in the meantime an estimated 50 percent of pre-1950 American sound films have been lost or compromised.

In the arena of film preservation, one must be part scientist, part researcher, part movie buff, part historian, part technician, part puzzle solver, part artist and part audiophile. It is a painstaking labor of love that has been described as both “labor intensive and an extremely costly endeavor.” Enter from the wings a non-profit foundation established in 1987 dedicated to such historically-significant endeavors as archeology, music, film preservation and historic conservation. Serving as a hands-on operating foundation, the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) has already taken on long-term film preservation projects involving the nation’s two largest moving-image archives—the Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Collaborative Partnership Creating Customized Approach

In its latest endeavor, PHI selected Morley Builders to deliver the $140-million Film Archive and Preservation Center in Santa Clarita, CA, which is overseen and operated by PHI. In a highly-collaborative partnership, Bergelectric developed innovative customized installation solutions for the unique complex that is home to offices, state-of-the-art film preservation laboratories, a high-tech digital moving-image and audio-preservation laboratory, meticulously-kept film video and paper storage archives, specialized underground nitrate-storage vaults that are all environmentally-controlled to protect and stabilize the extremely combustible material and screening rooms to show the finished footage.

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In an effort to achieve architectural and environmental goals, both the building structure and challenging layout take advantage of natural contours of the hillside site.  Preserving the mature-growth oak trees dotting the landscape, the bulk of the Collection Storage area of the 180,000-sf LEED Silver facility was constructed underground. Strictly-controlled temperature and humidity are powered by a new central plant that Bergelectric professionals worked diligently to seamlessly bring on line.

From the outset, the entire Morley/Berg team strived to carefully coordinate with end-users who are already involved in their own film preservation activities at the existing UCLA Film and Television Archive, which is co-located with the newly constructed PHI facility. The spotlight was on a well-choreographed switchover that eliminated lapses in critical service throughout construction, as well as during the sensitive transition from the old utility service to the new 4000A service.

Bergelectric crews responsible for the installation provided the much-needed peace-of-mind that currently ongoing vulnerable preservation operations will be completely protected. “We planned a smooth and seamless conversion of emergency generator power by bringing online a new 600kW bi-fuel (diesel and natural gas) generator system to serve both the existing UCLA facility and PHI’s new Film Archive and Preservation Center,” stated Bergelectric’s Regional Manager.

Size
165,358-square feet

Electrical Construction Cost
$10 Million

Duration
February 2011 – December 2014

Delivery Method
Design-Bid-Build

LEED
Silver

Other Team Members
Morley Construction
The Packard Humanities Institute
Bar Architects

Berg Regional Office
Ventura

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