AV Conservator Steven Villereal Savors the Steenbeck

Steven Says:  As Preservation Service’s point person for obsolete media materials, I frequently find myself on the hunt for the equipment needed to interact with old audiovisual formats. Working with “legacy” formats (i.e. the media production technologies of yesteryear), I require equipment that is often not the newest and shiniest. Sometimes the gear I need is used … or even disused!

Back in May 2012, I received word that New York University’s film and television production school was ridding itself of 19 Steenbeck flatbed film editors. Current motion picture technologies favor digital resources over film, so student demand for Steenbecks at NYU is increasingly minimal. And they were giving them away free, provided their new homes would be non-profit institutions.

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Steenbeck expert Dwight Cody refurbishes and cleans U.Va. Library’s Steenbeck film editing machine.

Steenbecks were an essential tool of film editors for well over 50 years. The desk-sized, flatbed film editing machine was a German innovation from the 1930s, an alternative to the American upright Moviola, that allowed you to review film footage quickly. Using a rotating prism rather than gate and shutter like a film projector, the Steenbeck lets you roll through your footage safely and slowly (forward and backward, including freezing on a frame).

The same features that make these machines appealing to editors make them ideal for archivists and researchers who work with fragile film materials. In contrast to running film through a projector—a dangerous process for at-risk material—looking at film on a Steenbeck is safe (when practiced alongside prior material inspection, condition assessment, and repair).

After driving a minivan up to New York to claim a Steenbeck, I made plans to have the machine refurbished. As the Library intended to use the machine as a viewer for archival film materials, it was obviously essential that the Steenbeck be in excellent working order. Through archival film contacts, I knew of Dwight Cody, who services Steenbecks for many universities as well as the Library of Congress in nearby Culpeper. In November, I managed to schedule a service visit with Dwight, who spent a full day refurbishing the machine, with an eye towards making it safe for archival film.

The sign on the Steenbeck's own room in Clemons Library.

The sign on the Steenbeck’s own room in Clemons Library.

I also met with my colleagues in Clemons Library, who were generous enough to make room for this machine so that students of filmmaker and instructor Kevin Everson could review the 16mm film they shoot as part of his courses in the U.Va. Studio Art program. The Steenbeck now lives in a dedicated room that students can access after receiving individual training.

I am very excited, as someone with a strong interest in the history of media production technologies, that students will be able to use a Steenbeck for their film-related projects. The tactile experience of physically handling, cutting, and reassembling film has real value, and it offers U.Va. students experience with a methodological alternative to digital processes.