Re-Framing the Online Video Archive: A Prototype Interface for America's Nuclear Test Films

A cameraman for the Air Force's Aerospace Audio Visual Service shoots in the studio for a feature documentary film.

A cameraman for the Air Force's Aerospace Audio Visual Service shoots in the studio for a feature documentary film.

Operating still and motion picture cameras, here the photographers of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron of the Air Force, also known as Lookout Mountain Laboratories, document one of many nuclear tests in Nevada.

Operating still and motion picture cameras, here the photographers of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron of the Air Force, also known as Lookout Mountain Laboratories, document one of many nuclear tests in Nevada.

Air Force cameramen of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron, suited for protection against radiation, stand ready to document another Nevada nuclear test.

Air Force cameramen of the 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron, suited for protection against radiation, stand ready to document another Nevada nuclear test.

The Air Force¹s 1352nd group also modified anti-aircraft gun mounts to serve as camera mounts for tracking missile tests . Here, cameramen employ second- and third- generation mounts in Florida at Cape Canaveral.

The Air Force¹s 1352nd group also modified anti-aircraft gun mounts to serve as camera mounts for tracking missile tests . Here, cameramen employ second- and third- generation mounts in Florida at Cape Canaveral.

Project Directors: Kevin Hamilton (Associate Professor of New Media) and Ned O'Gorman (Associate Professor of Communication)

Grant Program: Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants

Years: 20112013

"For the past few years, we have been examining the visual representation of nuclear weaponry as a morally acceptable tool of the State. Our interest is in learning how photographs and films of human operators at work on such systems have helped citizens address, dismiss or ignore the moral questions surrounding atomic warfare.

"For this portion of our project, we are researching the films of Lookout Mountain Laboratory, a Hollywood production studio run by the 1352nd Photographic Squadron of the United States Air Force. The facility was in operation from 1948 to 1969. The studio was responsible for the production, distribution and archiving of hundreds and probably thousands of nuclear weapons films during the height of the Cold War. Some of these were meant for lay publics, but the majority of them were produced for internal government use: briefings, training, and documentation.

"Watching these films, it is evident that the medium of film was central to America's rise to nuclear power, as an instrument of science, as a bureaucratic tool, and as a propagandistic device. It would also seem that rhetorics of Hollywood cinema played a large role in this project. Lookout Mountain collaborated with heads of the major studios as well as such figures as Walt Disney, John Ford, Jimmy Stewart and Marilyn Monroe.

"Our research problem is that the films and their record of production are widely dispersed across multiple physical and digital locations, sometimes hidden in plain sight via popular appropriation and camp, other times obscured by government secrecy, or simply lost. We're building an interactive digital archive that re-assembles their record of production while also preserving the process of dispersal itself for study. Think of it as a video markup and annotation system wherein the information architecture itself provides a critical view into the object of study.

"We began this process in an online platform developed by USC called Scalar. There we discovered the advantages of writing about fragments within a fragmentary medium. But we soon decided to start from scratch and see what we could build that properly reflected the nature of our subject. From early prototypes for a multi-framed interface that linked records via time point-specific tags, we've now proceeded through some much lower-tech mock-ups of tag structures to begin building a database of documents, photographs, and websites, each linked to specific moments in a film. Based on this amassed collection, we’re also working to construct critical arguments and commentary as yet another layer of information available to the film viewer. In our online interactive component, online visitors will be able to browse a collection of about twenty films in a faceted context that provides a new record of each film’s origins and impact in the Nuclear Age."

Kevin Hamilton & Ned O'Gorman

An Interview with NEH Grant-Recipient Kevin Hamilton

View the trailer for the 2011 screening and lecture series at the IPRH, "Atomic Light in the Public Light."

Publications resulting from this grant:

Hamilton K., N. O’Gorman, "The Diffusion of an Atomic Icon: Nuclear Hegemony & Cultural Memory Loss,” Rhetoric, Remembrance and Visual Form, Anne Demo and Brad Vivian ed. 2011. (London: Routledge).

Hamilton K., N. O’Gorman, “At the Interface: The Loaded Rhetorical Gestures of Nuclear Legitimacy and Illegitimacy,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies vol. 8, no. 1, March 2011, pp. 41-66.

This project is sponsored by the Office of the Digital Humanities (National Endowment for the Humanities), the Institute for Computing in the Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, the Program for Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security, and the Campus Research Board (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign).

The Past Five Years

Re-Framing the Online Video Archive: A Prototype Interface for America's Nuclear Test Films