BYU’s film archivist finds life in old celluloid

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Visitors who enter Jim Dearden’s workspace are greeted with hundreds of old film reels piled throughout the room, peeking out from boxes, bags and a leather suitcase. This has been Dearden’s life for over 40 years.

Dearden works in the motion picture archive of the L. Tom Perry Special Collections at BYU. He looks over reels of film, judges their quality and works to keep them preserved. Many reels are old and fragile, requiring special care and knowledge that comes only from years of experience.

Jim Dearden works on a cinematic film at his home. Dearden continues to make his own films. (Ben Wallace)

“My interest in film began when I was working at my Uncle’s movie theater as a teenager,” said Dearden, “I never thought I was going to be the one making those films.”

Dearden’s interest in film grew during his mission to New Zealand. Soon after returning, he enrolled into the Brooks Film Institute in California.

After only six months of studying, Dearden started his film career working for an advertising agency in Salt Lake City. From there, Dearden was hired by the BYU Motion Picture Studio in the early 1970s as a film editor. The job required him to go through and edit up to 800 feet of film at a time by hand.

“It was literally cut and paste,” said Dearden, “You cut the film and use tape to put them together again.” 

Working as a film editor for 20 years gave Dearden the experience to learn about film quality and how to handle it correctly — knowledge that would become vital to him in the future. During his time in the industry, Dearden saw the technological transformation from using film to today’s digital recording.

“Today’s digital filming is about instant results. Back then you had to take time and think about what you were going to do,” Dearden said. “It was a very labor-(intensive) and time consuming process.”

Dearden eventually became a unit production manager for the studio which allowed him to travel the world with film. During this time, Dearden also taught as a BYU professor. Because film was so expensive back then, many professors didn’t allow students to practice with it; however, Dearden was a hands-on teacher and gave his students the opportunity to use film in their studies.

Jim Dearden explains how he creates a film and the work involved. Dearden keeps almost one thousand films in working order. (Ben Wallace)

Dearden retired from the film industry in 2001 but never stopped working with film. Soon after his retirement, Dearden began working part-time for the motion picture archive at the special collections where his years of experience in film handling became vital.

“He preforms an invaluable work here,” said James D’Arc, the curator over the motion picture archive. “We couldn’t have functioned without his skill set.”

Dearden works on keeping the almost 1,000 films in the collection in working order.

“His skills and knowledge in film are unsurpassed,” said Tom Wells a photo archivist in Special Collections.

Many of the films that Dearden has worked on have ended up being used in the Motion Picture Archive Film Series put on by Special Collections at the Harold B. Lee Library. The film series allows hundreds of BYU students to enjoy classic movies in their original film state.

“He really cares about the film and its history,” said Mary-Celeste Ricks, a manuscripts processor for the film archive, “he loves to recommend films.”

Even though Dearden takes care of the archived films, he worries about the future of the film and its continual preservation. With most modern films being done digitally, there are only a few people who understand how to properly care for and archive film.

“One day, my great knowledge will be gone and no students will be able to pick up what I’m doing,” Dearden said. “There won’t be people around who understand multimedia film.”

Despite his worries, Dearden continues to take care of the films in the collection to ensure that they will be available for future generations.

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