As the filmmakers were putting the finishing touches on their documentary Our Nixon, something very unexpected happened.
Cheering crowds greet President Nixon on the 1972 campaign trail in California.
The film, which will air on CNN in August, has already won festival accolades for the unusual perspective it offers of the 37th president and his administration based on staffers’ Super 8 home movies of one another and of their boss. These short snippets of state visits, weddings and such present a fresh, first-person view of this already well documented period. Our Nixon’s creators—including directorPenny Lane, co-producer/creative partner Brian L. Frye and editor Francisco Bello—present these home movies intercut with archival recordings and footage for historical context.
During the process of shaping Our Nixon, the filmmakers had made use of the third and fourth generation dupes of dupes they’d acquired from the National Archives. These fuzzy, overly contrasty photochemical copies were believed to be the best extant versions of the hundreds of reels of Super 8 the staffers had shot, and this imagery was centerpiece of their film.
But then, while the tired documentarians were already preparing festival submission forms, reels of original Kodachrome surfaced—the actual film that had travelled through little cameras owned by John Ehrlichman, H.R. Haldeman, Dwight Chapin and other White House aides. The Super 8 material had been gifted by the families to the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif. and it was a sure bet they’d have significantly more picture information than the National Archives’ versions.
A choral group greets President Nixon on the 1972 campaign trail.
“We saw some preliminary footage and the colors were incredible and the images were filled with details you couldn’t begin see in the versions we’d used,” Frye recalls. “It was great. But it was also awful!”
The existence of this pristine footage wasn’t something the filmmakers could ignore. To the extent possible, they’d have to get these versions of the home movies and cut them into Our Nixon. They made a deal with the Nixon Library that they would cover the costs of scanning these original reels. The library could make use of the scans and so could the filmmakers. The library agreed.
Enter filmmaker and inventor Jeff Kreines of Kinetta Archival. Kreines’ prototype Kinetta camera caused quite a stir nearly a decade ago with its promising specs and user-friendly ergonomics, but it was a bit ahead of the available technology and never made it to market. But his Kinetta Archival Scanner, with its unusual specs for a film scanner—a portable, 4K scanner with continuous film movement capable of transporting torn and shrunken film of any gauge through its mechanism—was already in use at many film archives when Frye approached him about this job.
“I’ve known Jeff for years,” Frye says. “I knew he’d been working on this scanner. We saw test materials and they looked great. This was perfect for what we needed, especially because it was portable. The Nixon Library didn’t want these Super 8 originals to ever leave the site. Jeff could [scan] everything there.”
Kinetta film scanner in the reference room at the Nixon Library
It took Kreines a week and a half to capture all 35 hours of material in 4K (in the 12-bit Cineform raw codec). While 4K might seem like overkill for Super 8 material, Frye recalls, “Jeff’s thinking is that the smaller the gauge, the more important high resolution is. The perception of sharp film grain is much more important when the grain itself is so much larger in relation to the overall image than it is in 35mm film. If you capture the detail of the grain, you can really feel that, especially when you’re starting with Super 8.” The Kinetta scanner captures the full dynamic range of the most contrasty film without compromise, which Frye notes “capture[s] all the detail that’s in that Kodachrome image so we have a lot of room to fine-tune in post.”
While it was a time-consuming ordeal to replace all the old footage with the newly scanned originals, Frye explains it added immeasurable depth to Our Nixon. “There’s a huge difference between seeing that there’s a person in the frame and seeing all the details in their face. They feel more human and real and not like some kind of a fuzzy ghost.
“This is not particularly well shot material,” he notes. “They treat the camera like a garden hose. Everything’s on auto exposure. But they show this period from a perspective we’ve never seen before. And now, with all the details—when you can see it’s the crack of dawn, you can see subtle facial expressions—you say, ‘I get it. This is really something special.”
Chief of Staff H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, one of the amateur filmmakers whose Super 8 footage is showcased in the film, films his assistant filming him at the Great Wall of China. (February 1972)
About the Film
Throughout Richard Nixon’s presidency, three of his top White House aides obsessively documented their experiences with Super 8 home movie cameras. Young, idealistic and dedicated, they had no idea that a few years later they’d all be in prison. This unique and personal visual record, created by H.R. Haldeman, John Ehrlichman and Dwight Chapin, was seized by the FBI during the Watergate investigation, then filed away and forgotten for almost 40 years. Our Nixon is an all-archival documentary presenting those home movies for the first time, along with other rare footage, creating an intimate and complex portrait of the Nixon presidency as never seen before.
Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Chapin filmed more than 500 reels of home movies from 1969 to 1973, capturing the prosaic and the profound. They filmed big events: the Apollo moon landing, historic anti-war protests, the Republican National Convention, Tricia Nixon’s White House wedding and Nixon’s world-changing trip to China. They filmed world leaders and celebrities: Nicolae Ceausescu, Chou En-lai, Barbara Walters. But they also filmed each other and everyday life: Ehrlichman eating dinner off a tray on Air Force One, Chapin’s wife and kids meeting the Easter Bunny on the White House lawn, Haldeman riding a bicycle at Camp David.