Those pictures and words are currently boxed away in a corner office at the studios of television station KGMB. For the past two years, this office just to the edge of downtown Honolulu has been the temporary lab of ‘Ulu‘ulu’s head archivist Janel Quirante, its cataloger Jacob Rosen and its media specialist Robbie Omura. Here, more than ten thousand tapes sit waiting to be transported to their permanent home in West O‘ahu—and it is this trio of archivists who are most familiar with their content.
On the day I visit I take a seat before the lab’s desktop with Omura and Rosen, and they play me a few examples of tapes that have made the journey from analog to digital. We start with some of the newer transfers: a 1987 performance by the Makaha Sons; footage of a Hawaiian man shouting in pain as he’s evicted from his Sand Island home in 1980; footage from the 1978 Hawai‘i State Constitutional Convention; footage from the 1976 return of the Hokule‘a from its first voyage to Tahiti; a 1968 Christmas special featuring Don Ho decked out in silky Hugh Hefnerish pajamas; JFK and first lady Jackie Kennedy being welcomed at Honolulu Airport in 1963. Further back, the dates of some of the archives’ oldest treasures can only be estimated: irrigation workers digging a ditch in Maui’s sugar cane fields (likely circa the 1940s); a woman in a dazzling flapper dress debarking from an Inter-Island Airways plane. Each of these pieces opens up another window onto our ever-changing Islands.
Rosen, who was clad in faded blue coveralls the day I met him, actually looks the part of a gold miner, though he pans with his eyes instead of his hands, scavenging through thousands of hours of raw tape, cataloging and coding as he goes. To completely execute the migration from analog to digital, Rosen hands these materials to Omura who converts them on a SAMMAsolo, a machine that translates analog content to digital files in real time. The only machine of its kind in the state, it saves ‘Ulu‘ulu’s staff from having to send any materials to a Mainland lab. It also allows the conversion to happen with a minimal amount of physical stress on the actual tapes and film reels. To date the trio has digitized 350 hours of footage; their goal post-move is to digitize an additional five hours every week.
Quirante oversees the entire operation while also managing copyright issues and building partnerships with private film collections. A strong foundation for that work was created in 2010 when ‘Ulu‘ulu undertook a pilot project and approached sixteen differing organizations such as the Hula Preservation Society, the television station KGMB, UH’s Sinclair Library and prominent local filmmakers like Victoria Keith and Gene Kois.
“What we did was say, ‘Give us your most broken films that you don’t have the ability to transfer, and we’ll pay for that,’” says Giugni of the project. It was a success and showed the model could work; as an example of the treasures saved, Giugni cites 1960 footage of a volcanic eruption in Puna that was uncovered by Hilo’s Lyman Museum; the film on which the eruption had originally been shot was old and wearing out. “I’m telling you the truth: They would’ve never digitized that film; that stuff would’ve disintegrated,” says Giugni. “It was just on the edge.” Instead there was a much happier ending: After the footage was digitized, it “turned into a whole new exhibit for them,” says Giugni. “Those films gave them new life on different levels, you know?”