In the summer of 1966, a film crew from National Geographic was in Alaska working on a wildlife documentary when they learned that a quarry of a different sort had been spotted at the Anchorage airport.
It was the Beatles, on their way to Japan for a concert tour and momentarily marooned in Alaska as they waited out a typhoon. The National Geographic crew shot footage of John, Paul, George and Ringo getting off their plane and into a waiting bus, crowds of rabid fans craning for a view.
“It was just another reminder that no matter where the Beatles went back then, cameras would follow,” said Matt White, the Silver Spring-based film and video archivist who 13 years ago had the idea to gather as much undiscovered film of the Fab Four as possible.
The result is the stunning new documentary directed by Ron Howard, “The Beatles: Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.” (It’s playing in area theaters and is available on Hulu.)
The film was born right here and then nurtured at the University of Maryland’s McKeldin Library, where Matt established an office to solicit and collate amateur footage of the Beatles from around the world. He started the project in 2003, certain there had to be movies and photos of the band hidden in the world’s attics and archives. He approached Apple, the company founded by the Beatles, and got the go-ahead to embark on his quest.
Matt, 60, has spent his career working to find moving images. For a 1987 documentary, he gathered cigarette commercials from when tobacco was considered healthy. He also headed a project to preserve the nation’s public broadcasting archives, including hours of civil rights footage sitting on the shelves of PBS affiliates.
Some of the footage for the Beatles documentary came from the oddest places. Everyone knew that Japanese television had filmed the band’s Tokyo show in color, but Matt’s crew unearthed black-and-white film in the police department archives. It had been shot to aid in teaching officers about crowd control.
“No one knew it was there,” Matt said.
Matt’s team also reached out to film transfer facilities, those places that will scan your home movies onto digital media.
“We asked if anyone had brought in Beatles things,” he said. That’s how they found a Massachusetts man who was 10 or 11 in 1966 when the Beatles played Suffolk Downs, a venue outside Boston. Said Matt: “His mother told him he couldn’t go, he was too young. He could go the next year. The Beatles never toured again. He’s been spending his entire life recreating the entire concert.”
In 2012, Matt went to London for three days of meetings with Apple executives. They were delighted with what he had found. A year later, Oscar-winning director Ron Howard was brought on board. The production team screened 100 hours of material before whittling it down to 90 minutes.
The movie emerged from the material, which Matt said is the reverse of how documentaries are typically made, where a script is written and footage is sought to fit it. The film is the story of four friends, their music, the reactions their performances caused and how the stress of touring grew until they decided to stop touring altogether.
The documentary is especially fun for Washingtonians, as it includes tastefully colorized scenes from the Beatles’ Feb. 11, 1964, debut at the Washington Coliseum.
“They were so pumped up,” Matt said of the band. “You can hear the music. It was a different crowd than it would become. It’s not all screaming girls. . . That concert in particular, of all the things they do, is their best live performance. I’m not alone in thinking that. It is a D.C. treasure.”
Lately, Matt has been traveling to Havana to help sort through Cuban film archives, much of it threatened by poor storage amid high temperatures and humidity. And he’s working with a Maryland artist named O.F. Makarah on the Prince George’s Memory Project, seeking old home movies from the county.
“We’ve gotten film of amusement parks that no longer exist, local baseball teams, Cub Scout groups, a rich assortment of pictures,” Matt said. (For information, visit PrinceGeorgesMemoryProject.org.)
Matt’s hope is that the Beatles film will do more than entertain fans. He wants it to spur investment in exploring archives and digitizing film.
“YouTube has created a lot of problems,” Matt said. “People think you can find anything there. It’s kind of an illusion.”
He pointed to a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization estimate that of the 200 million hours of analog film and video in U.S. and European archives, only about 10 percent has been digitized.
“Twenty million is a lot of hours, but it means 180 million hours hasn’t been digitized,” Matt said. “It is a demonstration of how there are things that are hidden from sight. If you don’t take care of it, it’s going to go away.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.