Video project: completing a lost gem – 60 years later

For the better part of the last year, I’ve been working with my friend Erna Maurer (of Wise Owl Multimedia) on some old 16mm films her husband Ken shot from the 50’s through the mid 70’s. I arranged to have them digitized, and since then I’ve been working my way through each 3-minute reel in iMovie, whittling them down to a snappy pace and more watchable length while preserving its essence – and, most critically, adding music to the completely silent footage. It’s been a series of fun challenges, and I’ve often ended up with something quite entertaining. But the one I’ve just completed is something really special. It documents a project at the Rosemont Avenue School in Los Angeles that Ken – a teacher in LA for many years – was involved in. There’s no date given but it seems to be from the very early fifties. The project was a study of the people and culture of Mexico. And it’s delightful.

The footage is vividly colourful, beautifully shot and makes a charming time capsule not only of the project, but of teaching methods of the era, and mostly of the wonderful (and quite impressive) efforts of the kids involved. Their hands-on studies included painting, pottery-making, music, and dance (a young flamenco dancer is a standout).

The finale contains a delightful surprise. Titled “The Culmination”, it’s an outdoor Mexican street bazaar and festive dance. And then one of the kids is seen daydreaming that he’s a great bulllfighter, complete with a soft-focus “dream sequence” transition to his imagined face-off with the mighty bull before a crowd of cheering fans!

When I first watched this footage, I knew I had something special on my hands – and that with careful attention I could make it into something truly wonderful. It cried out for just the right soundtrack – rich, melodic music to bring each scene to life – and some judiciously applied sound effects.

In the end, although the piece as I found it was the most polished in terms of its construction and careful sequence of shots, it took me the longest of all the 16mm reels to complete. Mostly this was due to my search for just the right music. I ended up using selections from the soundtrack to “The Milagro Beanfield War” and tracks from a 50’s album of Mexican songs by the 101 Strings (I found the latter in my thrift-store vinyl collection, but was pleased to discover scratch-free versions in iTunes!). Alas, because I used commercial music, YouTube adds a pop-up ad on top of the video. Just click the ‘X’ to get it out of the way.

There was a lot of trial and error, matching different songs or parts of songs to different parts of the film, carefully editing the music itself in many cases to make it fit. The visuals, well-executed as they were, needed fine-tuning as well, with many shots able to be trimmed quite short. And the final dance at the “fiesta” cried out for some lively cross-cutting.

The final result is something I’m extremely proud of. To have “completed” a film that lay dormant for six decades, and brought it fully to life with the music and sounds it should have had, is incredibly satisfying. And who could have imagined when the film was made that it could be shared so easily with the entire world? Being able to do that is most rewarding of all – especially if, as is my hope, some of the kids in the film are able to see their youthful selves again after all these years.

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