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Kemp Niver; Film Historian Who Won Special Oscar

October 28, 1996|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kemp R. Niver, cinematographer and film historian who won a special Academy Award for restoring the world's earliest motion pictures, has died. He was 84.

Niver, who described himself as a craftsman and archivist, died Oct. 15 at the Country Villa Nursing Center in Los Angeles.

He was a veteran cameraman but was working as a private detective in the early 1950s when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences hired him to do the impossible: turn frame-by-frame paper photographs of 3,600 movies made between 1894 and 1912 back into film.

The paper prints of some 5,000 early films were made and housed in the Library of Congress as a flimsy protection against duplication before motion pictures came under protection of copyright laws.

Niver cobbled together a machine out of an enlarging stand, the insides of an 1898 motion picture camera, a lens adapter, non-distortion glass and gears and axles from a military surplus bombsight, and set to work. Converting the photographs from the 3,600 salvageable movies into 16-millimeter film using what he called his Renovare Process took some 15 years.

A grateful academy gave him a special Oscar for the project in 1954.

"I didn't do anything anybody else couldn't have done," Niver told The Times in 1975. "My contribution is the fact that I realized that all this was the beginnings of the film industry, and that, if we didn't have it, we wouldn't know what happened."

Nevertheless, the archivist with the colorful resume was very proud of his gold statuette. A few actors have arrogantly refused to accept an Academy Award, he said, but "no craftsman would ever refuse an Oscar."

During the project, Niver wrote 11 books, including a meticulous index and cross-reference for the early movies and the book titled "The First Twenty Years: A Segment of Film History." Another book profiled pioneer filmmaker D.W. Griffith whom Niver considered "the patron saint of the film industry."

Niver was also asked to restore early motion pictures on perishable nitrate film owned by Mary Pickford. The actress had deposited them with Eastman-Kodak, but the photo equipment company lacked a proper camera to convert them to safety film.

The machine he used to convert paper photographs back to film was later donated to the UCLA film archives. His collection of reference books, periodicals and rare documents about films went to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library.

In later years, Niver taught film history at Loyola Marymount University, which received some of the treasured reference materials he discovered. The most enticing was a 17th century book written in Latin by a Jesuit priest, "Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae," the first recorded description of the magic lantern forerunner of today's movie and slide projectors.

A Los Angeles native, Niver was a teenage Navy aviator, commander of a Navy destroyer during World War II, a homicide detective in the Los Angeles Police Department, an investigator for the Los Angeles County district attorney, an actors' bodyguard and a traveling photographer for President Dwight D. Eisenhower before he settled into becoming a film historian.

Married and divorced in his youth, Niver is survived by a granddaughter, Tara Candoli of Los Angeles.

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