RTPI Awarded Grant To Digitize Four Documentary Films

Film stills from Flamingos on Four Continents, a film by Roger Tory Peterson, are pictured. The Roger Tory Peterson Institute has received a grant to digitize Wild Europe, a 1959 film by Peterson.

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute has received a grant to digitize Wild Europe, a film by Roger Tory Peterson made in 1959.

The Roger Tory Peterson Institute currently houses more than 200,000 linear feet of 16mm film Peterson produced in the 1950s and 1960s during his travels. Through grants from the National Film Preservation Foundation, RTPI has been able to create digital copies of Roger Tory Peterson’s documentary films Wild America (1953), Wild Africa (1972), Wild Eden (1967), and Flamingos on Four Continents (1958). The newest grant will allow digitization for Wild Europe (1959).

The documentaries, filmed almost three quarters of a century ago, look incredibly soft, filled with feathery light. The objects on film are vibrantly colored and often lost to dark shadows. Grain fizzles and pops across the screen and the image is often shaky — not enough to cause nausea, but to know it was made on a camera held by a human hand. When ornithologists like Peterson or his British counterpart, James Fisher, wander across the screen with their binoculars, they are wearing fashions that scream midcentury. It is very clear that the images were filmed more than sixty years ago, according to RTPI officials.

He doesn’t speak in all of the films. Flamingos on Four Continents (1958) is silent, as many of them are, because Peterson used them for his Audubon Lecture Series. He would travel to various cities and give a lecture while the film played, so he himself served as the audio track.

In one of the films where he does narrate, Wild America (1953), Peterson sounds like he’s catching up with a friend in casual conversation, voice soft and relaxed with little pauses as he searches for the right word from time to time. Little jokes crop up between thoughts on geographical formations and the importance of protecting all plants and living creatures, whether viewers think they are pleasant or not. The film matches pace with his words, illustrating snaking rivers out West, stone cliff dwellings in Arizona, lizards and deer and birds and boar, and cacti that loom high overhead and dwarf the ornithologists on screen. Even today, these are things most people have heard about but never seen in person.

The Wild films– Wild Europe, Wild America, Wild Eden, and Wild Africa–display Peterson’s status as a leading conservationist. Peterson was able to visit some of the most endangered habitats in the world; his films from the 1950s and 1960s may in some cases represent the only existing documentation of these areas and the unique species that inhabit them.

Digitizing Wild Europe (1959) will allow researchers to compare bird species of 40 and 50 years ago to modern day sightings, identify species of wildlife that are extinct or near extinction, and investigate environmental setbacks or improvements in the specific wildlife areas that were visited.

RTPI will soon be able to use the films for educational purposes and share them with countless audiences, in public viewings and even possibly on public television, or as DVDs for libraries to loan. No copies of the films other than the preservation copies of Wild America, Wild Africa, Wild Eden, and Flamingos on Four Continents exist.

Wild Europe is one of 60 films to be chosen for preservation through the National Film Preservation Foundation’s 2023 Grants.


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