Along with Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary), Lassie Lou Ahern is the last living silent film star. Let that soak in. We have only two left. It’s also why we were so excited to find another of her films in France (Little Mickey Grogan.)
For those of you motivated now, have a look at Jeff Crouse’s GoFundMe project to restore Little Mickey Grogan ( https://www.gofundme.com/2fpwc9w ). Lassie Lou has seen a quick copy of it, still very rough with French titles, and she’s helping Jeff restore it. (Full disclosure: yours truly is involved in this project! I’ll be helping with the restoration, and I’ve researched Meehan and the Stratton-Porter films for years!)
There are still enduring mysteries in the study of film history. One of them is this: When Gene Stratton-Porter died, her son-in-law, James Leo Meehan, continued making movies based on Stratton-Porter’s books. She had been a pioneering woman in cinema.
But Stratton-Porter’s daughter, Jeannette (also Meehan’s wife), was instrumental in keeping her mother’s legacy alive. She worked on all of the films, either as an advisor or scenarist. When Little Mickey Grogan was made, it was a departure: Meehan made the film, released through the FBO exchanges, just like Stratton-Porter’s films had been, but it was not based on one of her books.
So the question arises, “Was Jeannette a part of Little Mickey Grogan?” There’s no evidence she was, but there’s no evidence that she wasn’t either. We’re not even completely sure that Meehan just didn’t make this film as a one-off on for his contract with FBO. There’s some evidence that Meehan signed a separate contract at FBO, but then he also continued directing films for Stratton-Porter’s company after this.
We also know that a lot of the technical people, including scenarist Dorothy Yost, worked on both Little Mickey Grogan and the Gene Stratton-Porter films. It’s Meehan’s only extant silent!
Why is this so important? Well, it’s part of the history of women producers in film, and it’s a part of FBO history, which we just don’t know a lot about (FBO’s film survival rate is less than stellar… probably the worst studio of them all.)
So when I got a chance to interview (through courtesy of Jeff Crouse) Lassie Lou Ahern, you can bet what my first question was…
But Lassie Lou also worked with Charley Chase on one of his most beloved shorts, and with legendary schlock-meister JP McGowan, all people we read about but have no first-hand accounts to discuss.
I didn’t want to bug her for the customary 10 questions (after all, she is 96!) but we did do five…
1) Did you ever meet Jeannette Porter Meehan, the wife of director James Leo Meehan? Do you have any memories of her? There’s an open question about whether she worked at all on Little Mickey Grogan.
No, unfortunately, I don’t recall her. I was too busy palling around a lot with Frankie [Darro] on the set with us enjoying [walking] stilts made by the crew!
2) On Webs of Steel, you worked with serial and western king J. P. McGowan. He made hundreds of pictures, very cheaply. Do you remember anything about him?
My biggest conversation with McGowan happened when he explained to me the scene in Webs of Steel where I’m on the railroad tracks and how men on the front of the cowcatcher would rescue me before the train ran me over! When I asked how he knew it would stop in time, I could see him repress a smile while assuring me that everything would be fine. We really talked about this scene. I remember him being a nice man. I worked with another director named McGowan, but his first name was Robert. Robert McGowan directed most of the Our Gang films of the 1920s and was a fixture at Hal Roach.
3) Little Mickey Grogan was your last movie until the 40s, and even then you were hardly 20. Was there a reason you retired and then came back?
I retired after Little Mickey Grogan because my father thought that with the coming of sound, movies were becoming more violent. He wanted my sister Peggy and I out. I had studied dance under Ernest Belcher, the father of Marge Champion. My dad opened his own dance studio and in time Peggy and I toured the country and the world with our dance and acrobatic shows. By the end of the 1930s, we both got married. Yet once Peggy married, she was no longer interested in performing. However I married a musician, Johnny Brent, who, after our being married in New Orleans, went back to California and joined the hard-to-get-into Los Angeles Musicians Union. There he played in the big studio orchestras. Meanwhile, I had our two small boys. I told Johnny that I wanted to return to performing, and after my boys were born, I went on to work in early Donald 0’Connor musicals at MGM like Mister Big (1943) and Top Man (1945). He was my favorite co-star of them all. I also had a small scene with Joseph Cotton in Gaslight (1944) where I was a stand in. Decades later, in the 1970s, I met a wonderful casting director from Paramount whom I met while working at a health spa outside of San Diego. She adored me. From her I got several TV roles, including small parts in Love, American Style, The Odd Couple, and other shows.
4) Have you seen His Wooden Wedding recently? It’s now considered one of Charley Chase’s better films. What did you think of it?
I have a copy of the film. I remember going to the set feeling rather ashamed because I didn’t have any lines. Instead it was a brief walk-on. I remember wardrobe lifting my dress to strap my lower leg to the back of my upper leg, above the knee, while affixing the wooden peg, all to give the impression that I had a wooden leg. Because they weren’t able to take the artificial leg off and on so easily, I had to wear it all day. (Laughing) Not fun!
5) I know you’ve seen Little Mickey Grogan recently. You worked at a lot of small studios that didn’t save their films. Is there a particular film you’ve not seen that you’re still hoping to find?
There are two films I’m hoping to find. The first is The Forbidden Woman (1927). In it I play an Arab girl, and it starred Jetta Goudal and Joseph Schildkraut. I remember there’s a scene of me laying on a couch, but I could have had more [scenes] in it — I don’t recall. The biggest memory I have of The Forbidden Woman, however, is the wrap-up party — which, because of the drinking, I usually didn’t attend. (I was only six or seven years old.) But Schildkraut approached my dad on the last day of filming to ask if I’d especially attend. He said yes. After I got there, Schildkraut got the room quiet and made an announcement. I remember him first giving me a loving look, and then saying aloud to me and everyone, “Here’s to Lassie Lou, the loveliest actress I ever worked with.” I thought that was so sweet. It makes me really wonder if I only had a single scene in that film to get that kind of response!! Thinking about that reaction makes me curious to find out.The other film I want to see is the Ronald Colman film, The Dark Angel (1925), where I played a flower girl.
Editor’s note: (Thanks to Jeff Crouse) Lassie also appeared in John Ford’s 1925 lost film, Thank You, a Norma Shearer comedy, Excuse Me (1925), and a Leatrice Joy film, Hell’s Highroad (1925).
I can’t remember when I first met Nick and Toni. It was in the far dim days of the past. I was aware of them for a long time before they actually spoke much with me. Film conventions aren’t the most social of gatherings, and the people who attend them are often not particularly social themselves. We’re not there to talk and schmooze. We’re there to see as many rare films as we can.
But Nick and Toni were always at these conventions, bubbly with enthusiasm. Eventually they told me about their documentary project. Several people told me that they were reluctant to talk to me because I seemed unapproachable! (I have to admit that this was partly the genesis of the Dr. Film character, because it was at that time I realized that I just come across as pompous and condescending, regardless of my intent, so I wrote the Dr. Film character knowing full well that I could play that!)
Their energy and enthusiasm for this project has continued unabated for years. They always have had some sense that it will be finished and it will get the word out. It’s a quality I admire in them, because it’s easy in this business to be told that your pet projects are worthless and to give up on them. They never have.
(I must also add, parenthetically, that I have seen their poster with me in it I was never that buff ever, so it is rather embarrassing. I have been known to get stuff out of the trash on occasion, though, so it is fair, I guess…)
Now, after a zillion years of working on this, they’re out of time and money, so they are turning to crowdfunding for cash to finish this. I completely support this (yeah, like why wouldn’t I?), so this is my contribution to the cause: getting the word out.
Q1: You two are not going to be familiar to a lot of readers here. Can you each give me a brief bio of who you are and what you do?
Wow Eric, first of all, thanks for having us on your blog!
T: I’m Toni Carey (Antonia G. Carey).
N: And I’m Nick Palazzo.
T: We go by TONICK (long O sound) because Nick noticed when we were dating that our names fit together and that’s just sort of a quick shorthand name for us so we’ve used it ever since. Like most of your readers, we’ve been classic film fans since we were kids. (This was, of course, when Fred Flintstone was young and people hadn’t even heard of videotape. You watched what was on one of the 5 or 6 television channels and that was your world.)
N: As kids we’d wait for the Sunday paper to grab the TV guide so we could plan our lives for the week around watching films on tv. As we got older, we both developed a love for foreign films as well. Toni’s mom worked nights but would let her stay home from school to watch classics like Black Orpheus or The Red Shoes on tv (as long as she maintained a B average in school). Her dad would let her stay up nights and watch classic film and taught her the difference between Ward Bond and James Bond.
T: Yeah, it would be decades before I’d realize that Dad’s home life was pretty rough and that he was actually raised by Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry because his parents would send him to the movies on Saturday mornings. Could you imagine sending your kids to the movies today and letting them be raised by the characters on screen now?
N: I’m first generation Italian-American so I was immediately drawn to films by Fellini, and Pasolini before branching out into Italian Neo-Realism.
When we were in our early 20s, (and single), we’d go to Facets Multimedia’s, a 60 seat theater in Chicago during the Christmas holidays where they’d screen Marcel Carne’s Children of Paradise annually. And after we met, and shared our love of movies, we discovered that we were going alone and sitting in that little theater together, but didn’t know it!
Toni: Coming from working class families, our folks couldn’t really afford college much less film school so we both worked office jobs during the day and once we got together and talked about our dreams of making films, decided to do whatever we could to learn how to make film.
Nick: Toni had done some acting over the years and got cast in a student film at Columbia College here in Chicago. She explained she was really interested in working behind the camera. They said they needed her to act and she bartered a deal where we would trade our skills (acting and being a set Production Assistant) in exchange for second hand film lessons from the students. We worked on a lot of student films!
Toni: They were good kids and taught us how to read light meters, change film and some basic lighting. When we got into writing screenplays, Nick’s background as a creative writer and an award-winning poet really helped. Eventually we sold our first screenplay.
Nick: We tried learning wherever we could. We took classes from different places including Chicago Filmmakers where we had a teacher, an Editor for Lucasfilm named Kate MacDonald, who saw how hard-core we were and offered us a gig apprenticing on a film she was working on. It was called Amerikan Passport directed by Reed Padget, a kid who had taken his film school money and traveled the world doing a documentary with it. It actually won best Documentary at Slamdance in 1999.
Toni: Of course at the same time we were shooting little films and entering them in different festivals. Always trying to emulate great filmmakers like Jean Cocteau or even the silent films.
Q2: Tell us about the documentary you’re making.
It’s called Reel Heroes. But once upon a time, it was called Great Lovers of the Silver Screen. We thought that title was too flowery. (“Actually Nick did,” says Toni) And we didn’t want people in line at the film box office to say that long title.
We called it that because it’s about a group of underground film collectors and preservationists working outside the system, to save and share whatever films they can get their hands on. We’re trying to show how heroic they are, especially considering that they’re supporting themselves with day jobs, or whatever funding they can acquire.
Having become a video collector back in its infancy (paying $80, I remember for a really terrible video copy of Jean Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bette), we discovered a publication called “Big Reel,” which at the time, was a sort of swap meet on paper for film collectors. I remember calling about a festival in New York and talking to a really sweet guy about how we could attend. The man was Phil Serling and he was one of the founders of the Syracuse New York Cinefest.
Turned out we couldn’t go so we tried a festival that was closer called Cinesation. It was held in Saginaw, Michigan at the time in a 2000 seat theater called the Temple. We were so entranced by the whole experience of being in a movie palace-type theater, and seeing all the incredible films we’d never be able to see on TV or DVD, we were hooked!
Somewhere during this time, Toni was able to land a gig as apprentice editor in Chicago working for Academy-Award winning editor Gerry Greenberg (French Connection, Apocalypse Now, etc.) on a John Hughes (Breakfast Club, etc.) production and got in the Editor’s union.
Once we learned that conventions like this were being held in other parts of the country, like Columbus, Ohio, Syracuse, New York and even Los Angeles, we were like, “Oh, we’ve GOT to go to as many of these as possible!” We then devoted our vacation time to traveling to these conventions and seeing as many of these films, and meeting all these great people. Something dawned on us after going to a few of these conventions, which was: “Hey, no one’s ever done a film about these guys. We should do one.”
So we brought a camera, lights and plenty of enthusiasm and spent the last 12 years traveling all over the country (including trips to London and Paris) to interview as many film collectors as possible, and capturing the activities at these various conventions.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Q3: What inspired you to do this?
At first we thought it was going to be a kind of “look how quirky and sweet these people are” type documentary.
But the more people we interviewed, we were uncovering some serious stuff; for example, that the FBI staged a series of investigations and raids into people’s homes who were film collectors in the 1970s. The most famous person busted for this was British actor Roddy McDowall. (P.S. anyone who knew Roddy or was involved with the film collector witch hunt of the 1970s that’s willing to be interviewed, please contact us! We’d love to tell more of this story.) Then we learned that even though our favorite films were made in 1927 and 1928 and should have been out of copyright by the early 1970s, we still couldn’t see or share them with friends due to the fact that copyright laws had been unfairly renewed and extended so that they wouldn’t be available until something like 2025. It’s really hard to get people interested in these early works when they are being unfairly kept from the public domain. We realize we’re preaching to the choir mentioning this to you, Eric, as you have MANY good stories about this yourself but then people will have to see the film to hear some of them 😉
So our intention then changed to, “let’s shine a light on what’s happening to film and our film history” before it’s too late.
Q4: I know that I’m in this (it started way back when my beard was still dark.) Who else do you profile?
Hey, there’s always Grecian Formula for Men, so it’s still not too late, ha.
We profile collectors from pretty much all walks of life, from kids who are collecting their first super 8 silent comedy films like AJ Boggs, to people working in the industry like Gremlins director Joe Dante, and Hollywood VFX Professionals like Linda and Miller Drake.
But I guess the subject we’re most proud (and lucky) to have is Kevin Brownlow. He’s always been one of our personal heroes because his work has had such an impact on our lives, ranging from the Hollywood series to of course the monumental restoration of Napoleon. It was so wonderful that the Academy finally recognized him for all of his amazing work with an Honorary Oscar for Film Preservation – the first ever given.
We also had the amazing opportunity to interview Bruce Lawton & Ben Model of the Silent Clowns Film Series out of New York which eventually led to a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Bruce’s legendary grandfather, Karl Malkames. Karl actually takes us through his collection of historic film cameras, like one of those that captured the Hindenburg Zeppelin disaster and another that accompanied Admiral Byrd to the North Pole. Really incredible stuff! He also gives us a glimpse on camera of his famous souped up Biograph printer, which he motorized in order to put over a million feet of film thru for various archives in order to reprint copies from original Biograph negatives. Unfortunately, Mr. Malkames passed away in 2010 but we were so lucky to get the footage because his collection is not open to the public.
And in case you didn’t realize when we made YOU the focus of one of our film poster designs, (you do cut a nice figure leaping triumphantly out of a studio dumpster!) you are certainly one of our most important subjects as well. We’re excited to allow people see you at your best up against some staggering odds as you bring film to new audiences. It’s amazing all the films you’ve introduced us to over the years at these various conventions and the work you’ve accomplished so far with the restoration of Keaton’s Seven Chances color sequence and the King of the Kongo serial! Now, if only we could trim your beard…ha!
And you’re doing this all by yourself! If that’s not heroic, then we don’t know what is.
We’re trying to obviously get the word out to the crowd funding world and raise enough money to cover the costs of post-production, legal work, accounting, perk fulfillment and a host of other things. I guess the thing worth mentioning is that ultimately, we aren’t making any money on the campaign, even if it gets fully funded. We’ve put too much of our own money into the film already. At this point, we’re just trying to get it finished and in a way that brings honor to everyone involved.
A really cool perk we’re offering for the holiday season is the “Credit for Christmas” perk that allows a funder to buy a loved one screen credit for a present. Once they purchase the perk and give us the to and from names, we create and email them a neat certificate they can print out and package up as a present to open (suitable for framing of course).
One disadvantage we’re finding is that because we’re known in collector circles but not generally, we don’t have any social media following. We only joined Facebook and Twitter a few weeks ago, so we have some catching up to do in terms of getting the word out there, but our page is already getting some traction. If any your readers can help spread the word, that would really be appreciated.
Q6: I know you’ve recorded a ton of footage. How much footage do you have, and what’s your goal to end up with?
Gosh, we have over 80 hours of footage and that’s before we ask for some clips we really need in order to tell the story. We have the last known on-camera interviews not only with Karl Malkames but also Sam Rubin, the founder of Classic Images and co-founder of the original classic film conventions and Steven Haynes, the co-founder of the Columbus, Ohio Cinevent film convention before his untimely death earlier this year.
While we definitely have enough footage to do a mini-series, we are trying to get the film down to a run time of somewhere under two hours.
Q7: What’s the message you’d like your audience to get when they see your film? Do you want them to be inspired to watch older films, or go into preservation, or just to know what some of the film preservationists do?
Yes! All of the above. Years ago there were a lot of documentaries about preservation and restoration but these days, we’re concerned people aren’t really even familiar with the importance of film. To be fair, they don’t really have many places where they can get access to it. Even the multiplexes are going digital. We think the story of the fight all of our guys and gals are waging against great odds in trying to keep film alive is an heroic one. And also, it’s a great chance to meet a lot of loving, funny, brilliant folks that should inspire all of us to go after what we want, despite the odds.
Ultimately, the message is about Love and we love movies!
Q8: What did you learn about the world of film and preservation while making this film? Were there unexpected things that you discovered?
Well, we always considered archives as places where everything was kept. We certainly didn’t realize that there isn’t room for every film ever made to be stored as film in their vaults or that people couldn’t necessarily get access to them if they wanted to without special permissions. We didn’t realize that studios don’t even always know what film copyrights they hold and that there is actually such a thing as an orphan film where no one owns the rights so no one can ever see it.
Then there’s all the “woo woo” stuff: As you can imagine over the past 12 years, everyone including us has evolved a bit into other interests and areas of study. For us, it’s been an interest in let’s call it, the occulted rules of wave and particle theory of quantum physics that make life so interesting. In pursuing those fields of study, Nick and I became certified Infinite Possibilities trainers by Mike Dooley and we have certifications in Solar Spectrum Sound Therapy healing modalities and systems including Sound Therapy, and Brainwave Entrainment. We’re also studying with Dr. Joe Dispenza whose work involves neurology and its effect on the quantum field.
Who cares and what does all that mean? It means, we took a step back and noticed that part of what we’ve managed to capture on film is people making their dreams come true. We realized that many of them are unconsciously using elements of these teachings to change their lives. And as we studied these concepts, we noticed that there was something else afoot involving film; studies that showed film’s curative powers and how because of the way our brains are built how seeing certain films is, to the brain, the same as having the experience first-hand. That led us to the question, “if seeing is experiencing to our brains, and all that is available to watch are computer graphic war, violence and dysfunctional behavior films, then is there possibly a larger reason why the classic films of the past aren’t accessible to modern audiences?”
Boy we bet you didn’t expect that answer! Ha! But that is one of the things we’ll be touching on in the film.
Q9: Once this film is finished, what are your plans for it? Are you going on the road, etc?
Our dream is to premiere the film at the Telluride Film Festival in 2016. Telluride holds a very special place in our hearts as the people who used to program Facets Multimedia’s Children of Paradise showing now run that festival. And that is where we first met Kevin Brownlow face to face. It’s a place where film (not commerce) matters most and we’d like the opportunity for our film to premiere there. Of course it’s all predicated on the film being good enough and being done in time for their deadline (July 2016) which is why we’re running the Indiegogo campaign. Without the funding, we can’t make the deadline.
Q10: I always get interviewed myself by people who don’t quite understand what I’m doing, so I’m sensitive to the fact I may miss the point. Tell me what question I should have asked you and answer that, please.
Well, there’s no way you’d know to ask us this, Eric but you might ask about the newly surfaced controversy involving our film. We had two subjects pull out based on a 1 minute and 5 second sneak peek trailer that dealt with the FBI witch-hunt portion of the film. The trailer’s been taken down and of course is no longer available to be seen since we had to recut it to omit those folks but it actually opened the way to an exciting new possibility!
We have the opportunity to interview collector extraordinare, Stu Shostak and young blood cartoon preservationist Tommy Jose Stathes! Stu’s big heart and wonderful personality would be a fantastic addition to our lineup of heroes and Tommy is just such an incredible younger generation preservationist/collector/sharer that he would really show our audience that there is hope for the future of access to rare film and cartoons. Again, it will be up to the Indiegogo campaign if we can make these interviews happen but we are excited these guys exist and hope to tell their stories as well.
Several people have asked me to expound a bit on digital projection and use math to refute the claims others are making. I have been reluctant do to it because:
a) everyone hates math in blogs and
b) I already think I go on about digital too much.
But that said, I’m going to do what was requested (now several months ago). And now, I’ll get the inevitable hate mail that “you hate digital! You’re a luddite, we hate you, move with the times.” And once again, I point out that I don’t hate digital at all. I don’t like cheap digital that’s passed off as perfection. And the new projectors are cheap digital. We were so enamored of the idea that we could save money that we jumped in head-first before the technology was ready. (I point out, to those newbies, that I did the restoration of King of the Kongo in digital, and then it went out to film.)
Now, I always encourage you to disbelieve me. After all, people call me stupid and wrong all the time, especially on Facebook. (Facebook is the great open pasture where everyone is wrong and no one is convinced about anything.) I carefully referenced everything here, so you can look things up. Even though I may be stupid and wrong, do you really thing all these links are stupid and wrong, too? Well, judging by some political polls, a lot of you do. But I digress.
Let’s hit the biggest myth first:
MYTH: Digital projection is really better than film already (or at least almost as good) and the only people who don’t like it are elitist whiner punks, the same ones who didn’t like CDs over vinyl.
The highest human hearing, for an unimpaired individual, measures in at about 20,000Hz.
THIS MEANS THAT IF THERE IS SAMPLING DISTORTION IN A CD, THEN YOU CAN’T HEAR IT. If your dog complains that he doesn’t like the sound of a CD, then you should listen to him. And if he does that, then you must be Dr. Doolittle. (Please, no singing.)
At least this is true for the time-based (temporal) sampling. There are good arguments about the dynamic range causing problems with things like hall ambience etc, but these arguments are often for elitist whiner punks. (I’m kidding, but not a lot… the CD technology is mathematically pretty sound.)
Now for digital imaging, let’s talk the same thing. Let’s not even bother about the limits of human sight, which is what we did in the case of audio. Let’s just make it as good as film. How’s that for fair? Have we ever measured the resolution of film?
Well, sure we have. And I’ll even be extra fair. I’ll go back to the 1980s when we first did this, back when film had lower resolution than it has now. How much nicer can I be?
Back in the 1980s, there was a groundbreaking movie made called Tron. It was the first film that made extensive use of computer graphics. The makers of Tron wanted to make sure that they generated images didn’t show “jaggies,” also known as stair-stepping. This is where you can see the pixels in the output device, which in this case is film ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaggies )
I’ve actually seen the machine they used to do this. It’s at Blue Sky Studios now. Here is a picture of it:
Now, 4000 lines are needed for a native digital image, or an image that started life as a digitally, not something you are scanning from an outside source. If you’re sampling an analog world, like with a camera or a scanner, you’d need to follow Nyquist’s rule and use 8000 lines. You wanna know why they’re scanning Gone With the Wind at 8K? Now you know.
So you’d expect today’s digital projectors to be about 4000 lines if they’re as good as film, right? Let’s see what the specs are. This is the list for the Digital Cinema Package (DCP), which is the standard for motion picture digital projection.
There are two formats used in DCPs. 2K and 4K. 2000 lines and 4000 lines, right?
DCP 2K = 2048×1080
DCP 4K = 4096×2160
That’s 2048 pixels wide (columns) by 1080 pixels high (lines) and 4096 pixels wide (columns) by 2160 pixels high (lines).
OK, so wait, that means 2048 pixels WIDE by 1080 LINES, right? So the Tron 4K rule says we should be seeing 4000 lines and we’re seeing 1080? Or the 4K top-end projectors, that not many theaters use, they’re using 2160????
So 2K is a big lie. It’s 2K horizontal, not vertical. It’s really 1K.
That’s about half the resolution that they should be running.
Wikipedia says it’s 1920 X 1080. But wait a second: 2K DCP, used in theaters all over the world, is 2048 X 1080. That’s almost identical to 2K theatrical projection.
Quentin Tarantino is right: Digital film presentation is TV in public, almost literally. Sure the screen is bigger, but that only makes the pixels show up more. (We can argue about a lot of other things Tarantino says, but the math is behind him on this one.)
MYTH: Even though you just showed it isn’t as sharp, it looks better in my theater than the 35mm did, so you’re still wrong.
MATH: The digital projectors look nicer because the 35mm projectors in your old theater were junky, maladjusted, and old. They were run by projectionists and technicians who didn’t care about adjusting things correctly. Sometimes there hadn’t been a technician in the theater in decades. No, that isn’t a joke.
Further, for the last many years, Hollywood has been churning out prints that are made from something called DIs. Digital Intermediates. These are film prints made from digital masters. Almost all of these are made at 2K (1080 lines). Is it any wonder that you project a soft print through an 80-year-old projector with greasy lenses and it doesn’t look as good as a new digital projector showing the same thing? (Digital intermediates started in 2000 or so, the first major film using them being O Brother Where Art Thou? )
Try projecting a REAL 35mm print, made from good materials, especially an old print or a first-rate digital one. Then compare that to digital projection. It’s not even close.
I projected a 35mm print of Samsara a few years ago and I thought there was something wrong with it. Why was it so sharp? It looked like an old Technicolor print. Why was it sharp? Digital imaging at 6K and originated on 65mm film. Worth seeing.
MYTH: There’s nothing to misadjust on digital projectors, so they’re going to be more reliable than the 35mm projectors.
MATH: I know projector repairmen, and they tell me the digital projectors break down more often. I don’t have a lot of measurable math, because it’s early yet, but I’ve seen the sensitive projectors break down very often, and the lamps often turn green before they fail. Since there’s no projectionist in the booth most of the time, then there’s no one to report arc misfires, dirty lenses, etc.
Oh, and the projector is a server on the internet, with a hard drive in it. Computer users will tell you that the internet never crashes, and further, hard drives are 100% reliable. I was working in a theater once where the movie stopped running because someone in Los Angeles accidentally turned off the lamp. (Since the projector was on the internet, some schmo accidentally shut off the wrong projector. Nothing we could do about it.)
Digital projectors can be out of focus, they are sensitive to popcorn oil, they have reflectors that are sensitive and need replaced. Don’t think that digital means reliable.
MYTH: 35mm prints just inherently get beaten up, so they don’t look good even after a few days.
MATH: Dirty projectors and careless projectionists cause most of the print damage you will ever see. Hollywood has had a war on projectionists for about 50 years, and now they’ve killed them off. For the last 35 years, most projectionists have been minimum-wage workers with little-to-no training. They do double-duty on the film and in the snack bar.
These are known in the trade as popcorn monkeys. Please blame them for most print abuse.
MYTH: The credits on digital films look sharper than they do on film, so that means that digital is sharper, no matter what you say.
MATH: Digital imaging favors something called aliasing. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aliasing. Aliasing means just what you think it might. Due to sampling problems, the signal you end up with is different than the one you started with. It goes under an alias. This gets really technical, but you remember the old days, when they used to have big pixels in video games? (Hipsters, you won’t remember this, but if you’re the typical hipster who doesn’t think anything worth knowing happened before your birth then you won’t be reading this anyway.) Remember this kind of blocky image:
This image is undersampled (meaning that we should have more pixels in it than we do). The blockiness is called temporal aliasing, which means that we are getting a different signal out than we put in! Normally, we should filter this until the blocks go away, because in the math world this is high-frequency information that is bogus and not part of the signal (remember Nyquist?).
If we do the recommended filtering, it should look more like this:
This picture more accurately represents the input signal, although it’s blurry, and that’s OK, because the undersampling lost us the high frequency (sharp details) in the image.
Now, I’ve already shown you that the digital image is undersampled, but let’s take a look at credits. Instead of Lincoln, let’s take a look at an undersampled F:
Now, wait, that looks a lot better than Lincoln, right? If we filter it so we get the actual image we should have been sampling, it should look something like this:
But, wait, I hear you cry: the blocky undersampled Lincoln looked bad, and the blocky undersampled F looks better than the properly filtered F. WHY IS THAT?
That’s because the blockiness of the undersampling just happens to favor the correct look of the F. In other words, we’re getting a distorted signal out, but the distortion gives us a more pleasing image! Credits will look sharper on digital projection, because they don’t do the proper edge filtering. This is why a lot of people complain they can see the pixels in the projection. (You can see the pixels in Lincoln, too, before the filtering.) If you did the proper filtering, you wouldn’t see the pixels, but then the credits would look softer again.
Now, I picked the ideal case with the F, where every part of it was a vertical or horizontal line. The worst case scenario is a S.
An undersampled S of the same scale as the F looks like this:
But with proper filtering, it looks like this:
Your brain filters this out when you’re watching credits and you tend to see the vertical and horizontal edges like in an F, which is what we read for cues with our brain. This is also why filmmakers are now favoring sans-serif fonts, because they render better at low resolution.
So the credits aren’t sharper. It’s an illusion caused by undersampling and your brain. And I showed you with a minimum of math. YAY!
Fun with signal processing!!!
MYTH: OK, Mr. Boring Math guy, I still think that the digital stuff looks better. Can you show me a combination of what you see in digital projection vs. what it should look like?
MATH: Why yes! Thank you for asking!!!
What I notice most about digital projection is that they have boosted the apparent sharpness with something called a Hough transform, which make edges look more pronounced. This also causes edging artifacts (called ringing) that I find obnoxious.
Further, the green response is compromised rather a lot. Most digital projection I see today represents all grass as an annoying neon green. It can’t seem to represent a range of colors. We’re also getting an overly red look to compensate for the strange greens. Let’s take an ideal case: this is a Kodak color sample:
Now, I’ve exaggerated this to make it more obvious for you, but here’s what I see in most digital projection:
Notice we’re seeing almost no green in the avocado, the grapes look dead, the flesh tones are too red, the whites are AAAAALMOST blown out, and we’re seeing edge artifacts from over-sharpening.
This, folks, is why I miss film. We could do digital and do it well, but we’re not.
And, you ask, why is it that we just don’t use more pixels, use better color projection, so we don’t have to do this? It’s because more pixels = more hard drive space = bigger computer needed = more cost. Since Hollywood is in love with cheap, they’re not going to do it right until right is cheap.
People are also asking me where I am. I’m on Facebook and on the Dr. Film Facebook page, but no blogs. Why would that be? Well, frankly, I’ve been underwater with work and I’m only now coming up for air. Writing a blog like this takes concentration, and I’ve been saving that for paying work.
Let me answer the questions I have been receiving:
Q1: Is King of the Kongo coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray soon?
A: No. There are extenuating circumstances and I can’t go into them here. A Kickstarter campaign would not help. YouTube won’t help. There are some problems. That’s all I can say.
Q2: Have you found any more sound discs for Kongo?
Q3: Are you working on any more preservation projects?
A: Yes. I’m hoping to raise money for some. I’m hoping that I can get Little Orphant Annie, the basketball films from Milan Indiana, and a film called Little Mickey Grogan restored. At the current time, all are having some problems.
Q4: Are you doing crowdfunding for these?
A: Maybe. Some of the issues involved are deeper than just funding; again, I can’t go into them here.
Q5: You keep talking about a video streaming project? Have you given up on that?
A: No. We’re moving forward on it and it’s being developed. I’m hoping to get a federal grant for it. I listened to what you guys said and I’m going to try to fund a 501(c)(3) broadcast and streaming station that will be aimed at promoting literacy about older films and film preservation. If I can get it off the ground, it will be called VintFlix. We have the page reserved already. It will take more funding to get going than I can get on Kickstarter. I’ve been in contact with the National Endowment for the Humanities and they are saying encouraging things.
Q6: Is the Dr. Film show dead?
A: It’s not a bit well, but I wouldn’t say dead. We are still talking about a podcast, but I haven’t had time to do one. If VintFlix gets off the ground, then the Dr. Film show will be on it.
Q7: You promised to write a blog on digital vs. film on the Facebook page, but you haven’t. Where is it?
A: I’m working on it.
Q8: You say you’re busy. Does that mean you’re making a lot of money?
A: No, I’m fulfilling obligations and doing publicity for other things. I would never recommend doing what I do unless you’re unbalanced like I am and just need to do it for some reason.
Q9: You’re doing shows and personal appearances?
A: Yes, a great number of them and in several cities this year.
Q10: Are you appearing as Dr. Film?
A: No, as myself. If you’re interested in booking me, then you have my contact information in the Dr. Film main page or the email link at the upper right of this page.
Q11: I saw your King of the Kongo presentation at (wherever you saw it). Can you bring that to my theater?
A: Yes. Contact me. The episodes are available on film or DCP.
A: No, but I know them. My presentation is entirely different from theirs, although theirs is quite good. I’ve seen it more than once. (They discuss the history of the Technicolor company, whereas I show examples of many of the different processes, including Technicolor. They go more in-depth than I do.)
Q14: I think your work is very cool. How can I support you?
A: Buy some t-shirts or send me PayPal. I’ll send you the address if you’re so motivated.
Q15: We’re not interested in stuff you’re trying to do. We’re only interested in what you’ve done.
A: Thanks for that. Would you rather me just wait and post a boatload of stuff when things get resolved? Part of what this blog is about is the ongoing saga of film preservation and how I’m trying to do it. It’s a drama. Have fun with it. Really. There may even be a book about it someday…
I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that makes me jump up, cheer, and cry all at the same time for many years. Julia Marchese’s film Out of Print made me do just that.
There have been a lot of films lamenting the loss of 35mm film projection, which is a loss I feel pretty deeply. I am not a huge fan of the digital projectors that have replaced 35mm, and I’ll be tackling just why that is in an upcoming blog, by popular request.
But there’s no question that digital is here to stay. It’s easier and cheaper, so it’s going to stick around. It does have certain advantages, but it has a lot of disadvantages too. Alas, the 35mm projectors in most theaters have been unceremoniously ripped out like a rotten molar, to sit languishing in theater lobbies or (sometimes) street corners.
And what’s sad about that is that there are zillions of films (and I don’t have a precise number, so zillions will suffice) that will never be available for digital projectors. It’s a miracle that some of them are available on 35mm, but they still are.
Marchese’s film makes the elegant point that this is a real tragedy, because it’s going to mean that many less-known films that still exist are going to be unseen, because it will be too expensive to remaster them digitally. If you don’t have 35mm, then you can’t play them. Yet the studios in many cases have insisted that the 35mm projectors be removed as a condition of financing the change-over to digital.
This is partly why I champion saving old formats. I believe in this quite passionately. A lot of readers here dislike 16mm (they call it the “children’s format”) but there are a ton of things I can get in 16mm that were never in 35mm. There are films on VHS that were never on DVD, films on DVD that will never be on Blu-Ray, etc. And you can argue that the good stuff will make the grade of the marketplace and be on all the new formats. It’s an argument I’ve heard before.
But there’s so much stuff that hasn’t been seen for so long… how do we know that the marketplace has gotten to choose all of the good stuff?
And Marchese expertly weaves this conundrum in with her film, which I love. The problem is that film is an art form that’s intended to be seen with an audience. Film requires a community and those communities are dying out. It’s becoming harder and harder to see a film on a big screen in a theater.
More and more, we’re seeing films on NetFlix, with our stinky feet on our coffee table, which isn’t the way these films were designed to be seen. Marchese uses examples of the New Beverly theater in LA to show how this community functioned, and some of the audience members there.
(As a side note, I remember running Young Frankenstein this past October for a local theater. It was a brutal pain, and I had to lug heavy 35mm projectors in to do it. BUT… when the film got going, we had a wonderful audience. And as I watched it, I realized that the film is carefully timed to match audience laughter and reactions. It’s cut to the jokes. And if you’re just one guy sitting there, the movie can seem a little slow, because you’re not laughing at everything. With an audience, it’s perfect… that’s what I’m talking about here!)
Marchese talks to audience members and New Beverly staff members about the culture of film and what it means to them. It’s just an absolutely wonderful, electrifying experience. It’s all of the things I always want to say but can’t… because people have me shut up after a few minutes.
The movie has an odd coda that deserves to be mentioned. After the film was completed, Quentin Tarantino took over the New Beverly and tore out the digital projector. Tarantino is a staunch 35mm advocate. Marchese lost her job there (not due to Tarantino). The New Beverly is still there, and yet it’s not. Tarantino is doing all of the programming, using mostly films from his own collection.
I asked Julia Marchese for a brief bio, which I normally would try to weave into my rambling narrative, but in this case I’m just going to reproduce it:
Julia Marchese is a filmmaker living in Hollywood. She is originally from Las Vegas, and has lived in California for over 15 years. She is an actress, writer and director, and Out of Print is her first feature film. It is currently touring internationally on 35mm, including the Film Archival Museums in Frankfurt and Vienna.
I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. It’s a must-see. If it comes to your area, please come see it. I’m going to try to get her bookings where I can.
Trailer for Out of Print
Q1) Can you give me some background on who you are and your history with film?
I’m just a film geek who made a flick about something I’m passionate about.
Q2) I saw your film and I noticed that you are like me in that you’re not trying to trash digital projection, but rather trying to say we need to live with film and digital together. I love this idea. So many people are firmly in one camp or the other, and I think they both have advantages and disadvantages. Tell us a little more about your take on this.
My dream is that digital and 35mm can live together harmoniously forevermore. There is absolutely no reason why that can’t happen, except that the studios want digital only to be the future. There are so many little theaters around the world who want to show 35mm prints and either are denied access or hampered by the studios’ rising rental costs.
Q3) Your film has a lot of great bumpers and ads from the 1950s and later. Where did you find all that stuff?
Thank you! Everything came from the Internet Archive, an amazing website with a gigantic selection of public domain clips! It’s an amazing resource for filmmakers.
Q4) The idea of film and theaters as a community and a shared experience is something I’m afraid may be dying. Your film celebrates this like nothing I’ve ever seen. It’s just right along my own views on this. Why is this so important to you?
Because the most important thing in the world is human connection and our society is running away from it as fast as possible. Watching a film in a sold out theater, on the big screen with an enthusiastic audience vs. watching at home by myself on my computer? There’s no contest.
Q5) We all know Mike Schlesinger here and we love to make fun of him. I note that he is one of your interview subjects. Is there something silly that you can share so we can make more fun of him?
I got nothing, except to say that he is incredibly knowledgeable and passionate. Sorry!
Q6) You’re actually making film prints available! Bravo! How much does a print cost you? Lab prints are fierce these days. I ought to know.
Deluxe/Fotokem were so incredibly helpful and generous in helping me make a film print of Out of Print. I won’t tell you how much they charged me for the print, but I will say that you should get in contact with them if you’re interested in making a print of your film. The worst they can say is no, and possibly they’ll say yes!
Q7) If we see your movie, then we miss out on the fact that you were axed from the New Beverly after it was finished. How has that affected you and what are you doing now?
Yeah, that kind of adds a melancholy air to the movie that was never intended. Honestly, losing my favorite place in the world broke my heart. I’ve spent the last few months in a dark place, but I’m trying to look to the future and find another job that I will love as passionately.
Q8) If someone wants to see and book your movie, how do they do it, and are you available to make personal appearances with it?
Q9) After your film was completed, I know that Quentin Tarantino took over the New Beverly, ripped out the digital projector and is programming everything himself. Some have applauded this, and some say it’s killing the community at the New Beverly. Do you have any comment?
I think Quentin Tarantino is an incredible person who saved the New Bev with his own money and is dedicated to keeping 35mm alive – he will forever have my respect for that.
Q10) I get interviewed all the time and people never quite seem to understand my work. If there’s something that I didn’t ask you that I should have, please let me know, and answer that question here!
Why is the music in Out of Print so crazy awesome?
Because it was composed by my brother, Peter Marchese – the lead singer of Tokyoidaho!
I’m not much of a social butterfly and I have no innate “sense” of how these things work. I do know one odd thing: if you’re a projectionist, then you’re considered the lowest of low in society. I’m not sure why this is. It may be the plethora of underpaid teenagers who were relegated to projection booths, most of whom screwed up prints and caused the presentations to look bad. I suspect that it’s something deep-seated in the heart of a lot of arts organizations, and I’ll write more about that in a bit.
As most of you know, I make a “living” doing film presentations and preservations, and I prefer the look of projected film. I’ve worked in scores of venues, from Lincoln Center to a dilapidated opera house in Delphi Indiana that rained plaster from a leaky ceiling. Some places have their own projectors and a staff projectionist, but often, if I’m going to run film, then I need to bring my own projectors.
In order to make ends meet, I also act as a projectionist-for-hire, which is one of the jobs I hate most. That’s when I get treated the worst. I’ve had amateur filmmakers yell at me for running their film with not enough “pink” in it, and I had another guy who had me change the volume on his movie 200 times. (That’s neither a typo nor an exaggeration.) Sadly, a lot of people shoot things on their phone and then, when it looks different on a 30-foot screen, they panic.
And then the worst one: I was working at a museum once who had Peter Bogdanovich come in to introduce Touch of Evil. That’s great, because he’s an expert on Orson Welles… in fact Welles lived in his house for a while. But Bogdanovich is also a director who’s made some cool pictures, and I’m a big fan. I spliced together a best-of trailer reel of several of my favorites, and I also got the reissue trailer for Touch of Evil touting all the restoration techniques that went into it. It was all 35mm and all ready to get to the projector.
But they wouldn’t let me run it. And I was never allowed even to speak with Bogdanovich. I could look over and see him, and I wanted to ask him about Noises Off and The Cat’s Meow. He had interviewed heroes of mine like director Allan Dwan. Couldn’t ask him anything about it. Whatever for? Were they afraid I was going to give him projectionist cooties? Sprocketosis? What’s the deal?
My guess is that this is something of an arts caste system. Put simply, I think there’s this idea of there’s them what does the art, and there’s them what supports the artist. These “non-artists” are somehow less valuable people than the “artists.” And they shouldn’t mix company. That would be bad. Apparently, you don’t want to besmirch yourself with contacting someone who is in the support mode. That includes the sound guy, the janitor, the security people, and the projectionist. They’re like the untouchables in the caste system. Neither to be seen nor heard.
Now, the problem is that I’ve got my feet in both worlds. I have to. If I have the only print of a film, then you know who’s going to project it? I AM. I’ll insist. The fact that I’m a historian/collector makes me an artist, but the projectionist is support only, and contaminated.
So the arts communities, particularly my local one, don’t know what to do with me. I’m not the only one who encounters this. Just last night, a friend of mine from Boston, who knows more film history than most professors, was told, “You know, most projectionists don’t get to pick films like you do.”
What? So this guy has been demoted from a valuable commodity to the being the equivalent of a janitor in the projection booth. (Not that I’m trashing janitors, mind you… they provide a tremendously valuable service.)
Oh, and it’s not isolated. There’s been a huge stink in LA about underpaid projectionists, which is odd, given that there are fewer and fewer of them anyway. You’d think that the ones left working are the good ones that are really needed.
I seem to get more film historian jobs outside my local area, and I find that I seem to get more respect (and hence pay) the farther I am from home. This is why I love to hang out at film conventions where they run oddball films (sometimes mine). It’s great to be around folks who understand film and respect it as an art form, but I still struggle with carrying that idea back to my local area, where I’m apparently contaminated with projectionist ptomaine.
And that’s really sad, because it means that, instead of consulting me, programs are created by “arts people” who are completely and utterly ignorant of film. And it means that everyone programs the same five films all the time. I know of three different showings of Wizard of Oz in my area just this year, and it’s only February. OK, it’s a great film, but haven’t they made anything else? Oh, yeah, I guess Casablanca.
Again, I don’t quite understand this, but I’ve responded to it. I have taken to avoiding projection-only jobs. I don’t ever promote myself as a projectionist. I promote myself as a film historian/collector/presenter.
This has even affected my choice in vehicles. A while back, my dad was noticing that I was constantly loading film and equipment in and out of my car. He said that I should buy a van, so I could leave stuff in there all the time. I told him that I couldn’t, and I told him why.
“Dad,” I said. “It’s a perception thing. The projectionist owns a van. The film historian has a car. I have to have a car.”
Restoration Demo for King of the Kongo (it looks even cooler in HD!)
Some of you may not be aware that I’m in the midst of restoring The King of the Kongo (1929), which is the first sound serial ever made. You’d think that people would be happy that I’m doing it, but I get frequent complaints about it, and a lot of questions. I’m going to answer some of these today.
Q1: Why are you restoring a serial that’s bad and the prints aren’t great?
A: Because it’s bad and the prints aren’t great. The archives weren’t interested in this one. I tried. They didn’t care. They probably shouldn’t care, either, because part of their job is triage. I think it’s important—it is important—it’s just that there are a lot of films in worse shape that are in line ahead of it, so I’m doing this myself.
The bottom line is that I knew that if I didn’t restore it, then no one would, and I knew where all the elements were, so I wanted to get it done while we could.
Q2: Is the whole serial sound?
A: The serial is part silent and part talkie. The trade papers are a little confused about this, so I can’t prove this theory. The trades at the time announced The King of the Kongo as being available in silent and sound versions. There’s even an announcement that the silent version is finished and they’re starting on the talkie version. But there’s no mention that I can find anywhere of the serial being played without sound. I suspect that there was only a sound version released, and that is part silent (with synchronized music and effects) with one scene per reel with synchronized dialogue.
Q3: What survives on the serial? Are you restoring the whole thing?
A: The entire picture exists. There were 21 reels initially and we have 10 reels of the sound. That’s a little less than half of the original sound that survives. Of those, Chapters 5, 6 and 10 exist with complete sound. Three other chapters have one reel of sound with the other still being lost (each chapter is two reels and hence two discs of sound.)
Q4: This is the digital age. Why waste money on film?
A: The restorations were done digitally and archived on film because film never crashes and goes beep when you turn it on. Film is archival.
Q5: Are you going to put this on YouTube?
Q6: Will it be available on Blu-Ray?
A: I hope so.
Q7: A friend of mine told me that UCLA has 35mm prints of this serial and so you’re wasting your time on this bad print you’re restoring.
A: I hear this rumor all the time. You know what I did about it? I contacted UCLA. You know what they told me? They have a 16mm print, just like mine and it’s under a donor restriction, so I couldn’t access it anyway. There is one more print in the US that I’ve heard about in private hands, and I couldn’t access that. There’s another 16mm print in France that’s not better than mine. There’s a partial 35mm in an unnamed US archive that’s also under donor restriction, meaning we can’t get to it. So that’s it, folks. I contacted the donors for permission and they said no.
You want footwork to find the best materials? I did it.
Q8: It’s frustrating to watch a serial a chapter at a time and then out of sequence. Why don’t you wait until you find all the sound and restore it then?
A: Because we may never find all of the sound. And right now, we’re at a point where I can sync the sound and picture with the help of some people I know. Later on that might not happen.
Q9: Why did you restore Chapter 10 and then Chapter 6?
A: Because we found the complete sound for Chapter 6 after Chapter 10 was already underway.
Q10: There’s a whole group of people who do serial restorations who are spreading bad rumors about you. Do you hate them?
A: No. I can’t hate people who do restorations. I contacted those people some time ago, offered to pool resources, and was told to go away. So I went away. They were convinced that they could do a better restoration than I could do, and that they knew where all the sound discs were. To date, they have not done a restoration. I would still be happy to pool resources with them. I feel that films should be restored from the best elements. If they know where better materials are (and they might exist in private hands), then I’m willing to help. I suspect that the elements they thought were complete were the same incomplete ones that I found in private hands, and I bought them so I could do my restoration. But I would still help them if they asked.
Q11: I heard that Library of Congress has all the sound discs.
A: I heard that too. I asked them, and I contacted the film people and the audio people. Do you know what they told me? They don’t have them.
Q12: Does this look better than the DVD that I bought of this?
A: You bet it does.
Q13: The DVD I bought is silent with music, but has long stretches with no titles. Is your music the same?
A: You have the sound version missing the dialogue track. About half of each episode was silent with intertitles. The remaining half had dialogue. The music on your DVD is patched in later to go with the action. The original score by Lee Zahler is on the discs, plus dialogue in all those long stretches with no titles.
Q14: I heard a rumor that you may start a Kickstarter program to release a Blu-Ray. That seems kind of crooked to me, since you got grant money to do the restorations.
A: I got grant money to do the lab work for the restorations. The lab work (scanning, track re-recording, and digital film out) was covered. All the by-hand work (sync, image restoration, etc.) was free. And we’d need to do that work on the 7 chapters that still need their picture restored.
Q15: Did you learn anything of historical significance while you were restoring the serial?
Ben Model’s undercranking theories are borne out here. The silent sequences are shot at about 21-22 fps and then played back at 24. The actors haven’t adjusted to this yet, so they’re still playing slower for 21-22 which makes the dialogue deadly slow. Once again, we see that audiences in the silent days were used to seeing films played back slightly faster than they were shot.
This film has some very interesting set design and some interesting lighting, almost expressionistic. It’s mostly lost in the prints we see today.
Despite the fact that the film has that deadly 1929 slow pacing, I note that director Richard Thorpe has put some interesting touches in it. There’s a long shot in which Robert Frazier is tailed by Lafe McKee and William Burt. It’s staged to show off the set and so that we get a sense of distance between McKee and Frazier, but it’s all done in one shot with no cutting. There’s not a second where nothing is happening onscreen, but it’s done very economically.
Mascot used black slugs (pieces of leader) to resynchronize shots that had drifted out of sync. I’ve seen this in The Devil Horse (1931), The Whispering Shadow (1933) and The Phantom Empire (1935). I could have taken them out, but it’s part of the Mascot “feel” and “history,” so I left them in. There are several in Chapter 10.
There’s a little throwaway line in which Lafe McKee refers to Robert Frazier as “black boy.” It’s 1929 racism. I left it in (you probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d cut it.)
Q16: You were talking about donor restrictions. Do you mean that the donor of the film restricted access to the films after donating them?
That’s exactly what I mean.
Q17: You mean that we spend taxpayer money housing and cooling films that the donors won’t let us see?
I do mean that, yes. And that’s the topic of another blog post. Remember, I don’t make the rules. I just live with them.
The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.” Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys. You’re being evil. I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us. By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films. And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.
YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies. It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema. People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”
But there’s a problem. Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down. The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin. Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time. New videos pop up every moment. And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.
Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download. A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books. When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid. After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?
No, it isn’t. And it’s even worse for people restoring films. You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable. Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise. I’ve researched it. If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.
So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube. A lot of people think this is great. It’s cool. It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience. And, to a certain degree, that’s true. It is giving publicity to the work.
But it’s free. And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before. They’re just not paying for it.
Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support. But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20. Five to ten percent. 90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE! IT’S FREE.”
So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right? Well, don’t believe me. Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson. They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.
And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films. That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way. Except no.
The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million. This equates to about $ .0006 per view. That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube. It’s got 40,500 views at this point. I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.
I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.) The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.
And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold. I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set. I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.
While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more. Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible. The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.
I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice. By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad. People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques. This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.
AND THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT WE PRESERVATIONISTS ARE FIGHTING AGAINST.
Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance. The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb. Sometimes for good movies.
Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting. It’s got the copyrighted score on it. Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film. That’s not even against Google’s rules.
Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying. At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired. Why should they license films from outside?
That leaves Google. I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube. If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good? Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”? Throw those people or organizations a check. After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.
I suppose we can consider archive.org, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube. It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.
I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do. I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them. Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”
Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo. I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes. Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube. Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.”
I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this. And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now. Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:
About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync. (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
Synchronizing the sound. This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
Getting everything moved. The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey. This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth. The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
Restoring the credits. Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
De-noising the picture. Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust. About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand. This takes about two weeks.
Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this. They covered the lab expenses. Everything else I did myself.
So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?
Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free? (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)
I’d love to. I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter. I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.
I’ve known Tommy Stathes (rhymes with Mathis) for a few years, and his relentless drive to pick up cartoons is fascinating. Not only does he have original 1920s Kodascopes, but he collects old film prints of cartoons discarded in the 50s. He knows all about the different versions and cuts available. I hate to use the word obsessive (which might apply), but he certainly tries to get things right and tries to spread the word (and joy) about cartoons.
Like me, Tommy goes out on the road and does shows with live film projection. I particularly like the answer to his last question in which he talks about the need to promote, promote, promote… even though it might be a little embarrassing. But we’re both promoting stuff that few people know about and fewer people care about, so getting the word out is critical.
Those of you who follow this blog know that there’s a running thread about the fact that TCM has never even acknowledged my existence despite my efforts otherwise. It therefore, galls me to no end that TCM is now presenting the second special with Tommy’s efforts, and that they found him on the web because of his work. But NOOOOOO, they never found my site.
This leads to another topic: Tommy and I are constantly ribbing each other. Most film historians take themselves pretty seriously, but I don’t especially and neither does Tommy. If you don’t follow either of us on Facebook, then you may not know that he loves to poke fun at my hatred of Disco. He finds the most horrid Disco songs, sometimes bordering on unlistenable, and posts them on my page. He’s also fond of something called YouTube Poops, which I have to admit I don’t understand at all. (Mr. Stathes has asked me to clarify that he personally does not like YouTube Poops, and he doesn’t particularly understand them either, but he does enjoy posting them on my Facebook page to annoy me.)
In retaliation, I have posted things on his page playing up his resemblance to Senator Al Franken, and accusing him of running nothing but dupes. Dupes are inferior copy prints made on film. It’s considered a prank to wait until a collector’s pride-and-joy print hits the screen in a darkened theater and then yell DUPE.
Now, just because we have a Facebook war doesn’t mean we hate each other. Some people have actually taken our jokes seriously. I have to admit I have a grudging respect for the punk. I tried to let the air out of his tires, but he doesn’t drive.
Q1. You’re going to be on TCM with your own time slot in October. Please give this a plugola for the readers so we know what to expect. Keep in mind that I’m insanely jealous because it’s been a running tale here that TCM doesn’t even open my mail, much less give me a WHOLE TIME SLOT (you evil….)
That is correct! On the night of Monday, October 6th, TCM is dedicating the evening to rare, early and classic animation programming. I’ve provided an hour’s worth of rarely seen cartoons produced by the Bray Studios from 1913 to 1926. Bray was the first successful cartoon studio and many of animation history’s notable animators and studio heads got their start at Bray. The films come from my early animation archives and TCM asked me to co-host the program with Robert Osborne, which was a surreal task for me. Maybe you’ll see my stage fright showing through.
Q2. I’ve often said that film is the least-respected art form. But cartoons are the least-respected films. You save black and white silent cartoons, which most people would never even bother to watch. Why is it that you save them when almost no one else even cares about them?
I can’t tell just how sarcastic you’re being, because I know you like and collect some of them too, though, as you know, there are actual film historians and archivists who openly dump on cartoons. [Ed note: I wasn’t being sarcastic at all.] I care about these films and save them firstly through a personal interest in animation and in film history, and secondly because there have been no long-term, grand scale archiving efforts outside of a small handful of private collectors who have helped carry the torch in recent decades. I think every vein of pop culture history is inherently of value for several reasons, and it’s the niche I decided to research and preserve. You’d be surprised, though. For every seasoned film buff and historian who might turn their noses up at old cartoons, there are two dozen or more bright-eyed and fascinated ‘civilian’ attendees at my film screenings who are completely charmed by these films. At the end of the day, they ARE fun and charming films, whether you understand their history and value or not.
Q3. You’re particularly excited about John Randolph Bray. Please tell us a little about him and what makes him special.
As I began to hint at earlier, Bray is an extremely important figure in animation history. Without him, there would have been no bona fide animation industry, or its birth would have been delayed or played out in some other way. Bray was born in Michigan to a minister’s family in 1879, and though a creative and industrious person, he had an unsuccessful stint at college. Bray then got into journalism and finally cartooning once he moved to New York City in the early 1900s. By 1912, Bray had seen some of the earliest cartoons that were made, such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) and he began thinking of ways to translate his own comic characters to the screen. There’s an old rumor that he posed as a reporter to gain access to McCay’s studio, learned about animation techniques that way, and proceeded to run back home to start animating..and eventually patented those techniques as his own. Bray had a reputation for being unscrupulous that way, but these and other moves he made led to the founding of his studio upon securing a distribution contract with Pathe. Bray is often called the Henry Ford of animation–unlike no animators before him, he kept up with regular release schedules by applying the assembly line method of production in his studio, which, coupled with the animation techniques and shortcuts he developed himself and ‘borrowed’ from others, sped up the process and allowed theatergoers to begin seeing cartoons regularly. What many people don’t realize is that all this happened years before Disney became famous.
Q4. Tell us about the master want list. How often do you recover a cartoon that’s on it?
The infamous 16mm Silent Cartoon Want List! It’s a semi-complete list of silent-era cartoons that were known to be available in 16mm. Sometimes I go for a few months not finding anything on it, and sometimes I’ll find a dozen things in one month. You can never really know when stuff like this will turn up, or where. In the three or four years since I started the list, I estimate I’ve found and taken over two hundred titles off of it.
Q5. I am on record for hating cutesy Spielberg films, but you have a special love for …batteries not included. Why do you love this film so much? Doesn’t it have to do with a different type of preservation?
This is one of those situations where I saw the film and fell in love with it at age 5 or 6. So, Spielbergy and 80s Hollywood schmaltz aside (which I think is far more endearing than the quality of Hollywood films today), I love the film for several reasons. It takes place in disappearing Old New York, showing the boarded-up and abandoned period of the East Village. I’ve always loved distressed old buildings so a film centered on them is eye candy for me, as is any film taking place in my native New York prior to the 1990s. Then there’s a great story about an elderly couple who are trying to live out their final years in relative peace. The husband is trying to hold onto his old tenement building and the cafe he’s ran for decades, and the wife is battling dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We see their and other residents’ struggles to carry out their lives while a real estate firm is trying to level their block for new luxury high-rises. For mainstream Hollywood, comedy and cheesy elements aside, I think the story is told quite beautifully. And how could you go wrong with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy? I’m not usually big on sci-fi films so the elements of the story surrounding the little flying saucer repairmen is just a novelty to me, and not the focus of the story or the film. It’s fantasy-based but the conclusion is a victory for those of us who are sensitive to the plight of average people and those of us who are architectural preservationists.
Q6. I know you hate to speak before a group about your films. How is it that you spread the word about watching these films and that they’re cool? Do you get word of mouth at your shows?
Well, I wouldn’t say I hate doing it. It’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with it, and I don’t have the gift of gab in general, so it’s always a bit of a challenge. The word about my work and shows is spread through a lot of online promotion, word of mouth, and carefully written programs given out to attendees of a screening.
Q7. Your site is called Cartoons on FILM. Why are you so into FILM when most people want blu-ray or DVD? Is there something special about film for you?
I will always feel that there’s something intrinsically charming and special about holding a reel of film and seeing the little individual frames spooled up in a roll. I was born in the VHS age, but became instantly hooked when I saw a projector up close and all the care and mechanical components that went into making the apparatus work. While the technical working of machines isn’t my immediate forte, the joy of running a projector and showing people a movie off of a DVD or digital file is galaxies apart. Physical film and projectors win, hands down. There are always people who are also fascinated with seeing the projector up close and I think that’s half the attraction of my screenings.
Q8. It’s known that I constantly make fun of you. It’s actually upset some people, so I have to mention it here. Please state for the record that I really am mean, don’t like you, and am completely dismissive of your efforts. Feel free to mention the dupe joke if you like (even though I’ve had to declare a moratorium on it.)
If you’re really truly mean, then my name is Senator Al Franken. You and others also call me Senator constantly. I can’t win! People should know that you’re only [half] kidding when joking about my spotless original prints.
Q9. I’m aware that you especially like Disco music, which is an “art form” that I really do find vile and disgusting. I’ve often said that those of us who lived through the 70s are embarrassed about Disco. We don’t want to celebrate it at all. Just because this is your time here, please pick a relatively inoffensive Disco tune and I’ll post it with your comments about it. Lawrence Welk covers of Disco tunes are not to be discussed.
Oh, no need to torture you any further with a specific disco tune or my thoughts about it. All I’ll say is something I’ve said before: Not everyone who lived through the 70s is embarrassed about Disco. Sure, there was a lot of tackiness about some of the music within the genre and some of the culture connected with the music, but that’s true for most popular genres of any media. I think the tipping point and the reason a lot of people were annoyed by it is because it went overboard and infiltrated too many corners of life, rather than remain one genre of music and culture that you just heard about once in awhile outside of being a true disco king or queen in constant immersion. Some of it is very beautifully orchestrated music with a catchy, clean beat or melody. For me there’s a sentimental aspect to it and it’s one of several kinds of music I like. Get down on it and dance, dance, dance Dr. Film!
Q10. I hate it when people interview me and don’t really understand the point of what I do. What important question did I not ask you, and how would you answer that?
I think you got everything down pretty well, since you have a practically perfect understanding of what I do. I think there are two remaining questions: A. Where are you going from here, and what else do you want to do? B. What are some challenges involved in being an independent archivist and exhibitor?
My answers: A. My basic long-term goal is the same as it’s always been. Find, reunite and preserve as much silent-era animation as possible in one location. The additional things I want to do include finding more ways to get these films out to larger audiences, which includes home video, hopefully more broadcasts, and possibly some “modern” things like streaming, while retaining some sort of control and a method for making some kind of revenue. I’m not employed by an archive or university so, as you know, guys like us need to have a sort of proprietary lordship over the films we work with, even though our mission is to share them with the public as much as possible. B. Well, I just answered part of that question already! The only other thing I’ve had to learn is how to be my own promoter. Again, being independent means I have to promote, promote, promote, almost all on my own. I hope my friends understand that I’m posting about my shows and projects on social media all the time because that’s the only way I can keep it going and stay afloat, not simply because I’m obsessed with the medium. In my non-film walk of life, I barely even get into discussions about my work or film with the general population. I may be a showman and put on public events but if you ran into me in the street and had a chat with me, you would never know I do this sort of thing.
I know I’ll get some complaints here. “Hey, you just did a blog about that Blamire guy! Do something else!” Well, I haven’t sold my soul to Larry Blamire or to Paul Bunnell. I promise that I’ll write blogs about other topics at some point. Right now, I’m deep into the National Film Preservation Foundation restoration of King of the Kongo, so when someone tells me that I can get a new article, that I don’t have to do anything, and that it has to do with film and history, well I have topost it.
And besides, Paul and Larry are making films that I particularly enjoy, and Paul even sees the light about real film. (Larry, not so much, but we’ll work on him!)
Paul’s film The Ghastly Love of Johnny Xis one of those independents that was shot with love as a tribute to the films of the past. I particularly enjoy Paul’s description of Kevin McCarthy. The more I hear about Kevin, the more I regret that I never got the chance to meet him. He sounds like a really amazing guy.
And, while I’m on the topic, Larry Blamire’s Kickstarter project to fund The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us is winding down.
So, while I’m on enforced hiatus from the Dr. Film blog, here is an interview with filmmaker Paul Bunnell by filmmaker Larry Blamire. Can you get any cooler?
LARRY: Paul, The Ghastly Love of Johnny X is such a refreshing blast of entertaining individuality. Can you recall a singular moment in time when the idea for it was born? Or was it a gradual birth, like a kind of slow mental ooze that happened while you slept?
PAUL: There was not a singular moment in time the idea was born, although that would have been wonderful! It wasn’t a slow mental ooze, either, and to be honest, thinking about it probably disrupted my sleep. It was more like a caterpillar, in that the basic idea came to me, not fully formed, but inspiring enough that I started filming. Then, as you know, production went into a sort of stasis, or cocoon, to follow my metaphor, during which changes were made to the style and the story. Finally, quite a bit later, the finished film emerged as a beautiful, wacky, black and white butterfly, still bearing a resemblance to its beginnings, but quite different from the original concept!
LARRY: Are you concerned about the current glut of Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances?
PAUL: Actually, I’d be thrilled to see many, many more Dark Comic Sci-fi Musical Romances. The world could always use more entertainment, and GLJX, of course, is ready, willing and able to lead the way!
LARRY: The film seems to take place in an alternate reality 50s, yet it’s very consistent that way. How did you describe its world to your cast, designers, etc., without them doubting your sanity?
PAUL: There was never any question; my sanity was doubted since day one. I had very specific ideas for sets and props and wanted to give the film an artificial studio look without being condescending or cheesy. One of the things I wanted to replicate were the craggy exterior sets from Bride of Frankenstein. I told my production designer: “You can mess up the other sets, but no matter what, get this one right!” It was a challenge to achieve the desired effect for the money we had to work with, but Lawrence Kim figured it out and my hat will forever be off to him. By the way, where is my hat?
LARRY: Talk about your casting process; any cattle calls? Mostly folks you already knew? [Ed. Note: In show business parlance, a cattle call is “a theatrical audition at which many performers are seen only briefly, often in groups.” Just in case you didn’t know.]
PAUL: Some I knew, some I didn’t. I discovered one of the gang girls working at a coffee shop. She was this striking beauty with classic features. I told her about my upcoming movie AND that I was married. I didn’t get a date, but she did happen to call me about a year later when I was casting and I gave her the role of “Annette.” I discovered another Ghastly One at a nightclub in Los Angeles; Morris Everett was the real rockabilly deal, complete with tattoos and a zany personality, so he got the part. Finally there was a very good friend of mine, David Slaughter, a fellow film aficionado who was rather critical of my movie That Little Monster. I put him in GLJX so he would have a birds-eye view of the struggles it took to make a movie. To this day he has never negatively criticized GLJX. Everyone else auditioned for their roles through the casting call process, except for Mr. Projector (Aaron Ball), who will always be invited to appear in every movie I make.
LARRY: Creed Bratton is particularly terrific–how did he become involved?
PAUL: It’s a funny thing to admit, but I had no idea who Creed Bratton was before I cast him. I was trying to get my friend George Chakiris (yes THAT George Chakiris from West Side Story) to play Mickey O’Flynn. He was on the fence about it. I then met Paul (Phantom of the Paradise) Williams and decided he would be absolutely perfect to play Mickey – and after a couple of meetings he said YES! Four years later when I finally got the money to finish shooting, I contacted Paul but couldn’t get his schedule to correlate with ours. I went to my casting director for ideas. She put out a notice and received hundreds of submissions, one of which kept finding its way to my attention. That “one” was Creed Bratton. His agent mentioned The Grass Roots and that he was the real deal from the sixties and so on. I decided to meet with him to discuss the role. During the meeting I mentioned I didn’t own a cell phone. Creed immediately took his phone out of his pocket and threw it into a nearby tree. I knew at that moment he was going to play Mickey O’Flynn. Happily, Paul Williams was able to give us one day and agreed to play the talk show host. His scene was shot on the first day, which also happened to be Creed’s first day. At the end of the day Paul took me aside and complimented me for casting Creed, saying how perfect he was for the part. I had to admit he was right.
LARRY: We’ve each had the pleasure of directing the wonderful Kevin McCarthy. Was he just as quiet and reserved on your set?
PAUL: No. He was actually quite feisty… in a good way.
LARRY: Okay, I was kidding right. He was wonderfully insane on our set.
PAUL: That’s true .. and I had the pleasure to witness the insanity when you filmed his cameo in Trail of the Screaming Forehead. What a fun day that was! When Kevin came to film his role in GLJX I was a bundle of nerves. I just wanted to please him, but everything seemed to go wrong that day. The 35mm camera stopped working and we had to send out for a replacement; this shut us down for a few hours. Kevin kept suggesting changes in the script. One thing he didn’t like was revealing the resurrection suit at the beginning of the movie. He also re-wrote some of his dialogue, which I happily approved. Oh, and that wonderful hat! Kevin thought it would be a good idea for his character to have some kind of a hat and I agreed. A week later I received a magazine clipping in the mail. It was a caricature of the rock band DEVO wearing their signature hats. Kevin drew an arrow to the hats and wrote: “These look interesting.” I thought it was very funny since I was sure he had no idea who DEVO was. The idea was so inspired that our costume designer (Kristina West) created a modified DEVO hat for his character. All thanks to Kevin!
LARRY: Kate Maberly’s delightfully wacky in this. Can I say “delightfully wacky”?
PAUL: You bet! Any actress from the UK who can play an American valley girl is the mutt’s nuts — that’s British slang for “delightfully wacky.”
LARRY: How tight were you to the script? Any improv?
PAUL: Occasionally I would call out “Start Acting” instead of “Action”.. but for the most part we stuck to the script. The only time we veered was when Creed Bratton or Paul Williams was on set. They came up with quite a few zingers, most of which made it into the final cut.
LARRY: Paul Bunnell: fun to work with? Or Fritz Langian nightmare?
PAUL: I always try to keep my sets fun and positive. There was only one “incident” where I lost it with a pushy Assistant Director. I guess he didn’t understand my Langian working method.
LARRY: Did your concept of the film shift at all over the period of making it?
PAUL: Somewhat. The script was heavily revised and re-written during our six year “hiatus”. In the original story there were two concerts and Mickey O’Flynn was the villain. This changed and Mickey became more fun loving and cartoon-like. I then added the delightfully wacky Dandi Conners character and the big set piece at the end. A major change was the musical aspect itself. Originally GLJX was NOT a musical – not until I brought Scott Martin on board to write some songs for Mickey O’Flynn. I liked them so much that I decided to add a full blown musical number in the diner. That one turned out so well that I decided to add more songs while waiting for our money. If it wasn’t for the six year break there would only be a couple of songs in the movie – and if it took any longer we might have had more songs (or no movie at all).
LARRY: I know you’re passionate about shooting on film–and it looks gorgeous–can you see any circumstance where you would try HD? (come to the dark side, Paul… come to the dark side…)
PAUL: I believe that film is still the best way to capture the image. I finished GLJX without using a digital intermediate and made a few 35mm release prints from the original camera negative. I also made a beautiful 2K DCP (Digital Cinema Package) version of the movie. Both versions are beautiful to watch. If you don’t have a skilled 35mm projectionist there is always a chance something could go wrong with the presentation (missed changeover cues, focus issues, etc.). But with digital projection there is a controlled presentation every time which reduces the odds of something going wrong. So for today’s modern audiences I would prefer to have it seen digitally in a theatre, but for myself, I prefer the look of the 35mm print.
LARRY: How did you get the last of the Eastman Plus-X Negative Film? Burglary?
PAUL: I started filming 2nd unit stuff for GLJX in November 2002 on Kodak 35mm Plus-X black-and-white film stock and continued with it in 2004 when the actors came on board. Then there was the long break between filming and a lot was changing in the industry during that time. When we finally got the money to finish in 2010 I heard that Kodak had just discontinued their Plus-X stock. Luckily there was a small amount of Plus-X in various Kodak facilities, but it was going fast. It seemed that every filmmaker was buying up whatever they could get their hands on. My sales agent pulled some strings and got us just enough to finish the movie with some rolls coming as far away as France. So that’s how GLJX became the last 35mm feature film shot entirely on Plus-X.
LARRY: Were you a monsterkid? Come on, ‘fess.
PAUL: I used to watch all the classic monster movies every weekend on “Fright Night with Seymour” .. so I guess you could call me a bonafide monsterkid.
LARRY: What was the first movie monster that ever scared you?
PAUL: For some reason I remember being creeped out by War of the Gargantuas. By the time I got a color TV set I was over it .. but that wasn’t until I was 40.
LARRY: Off the top of your head, give me five films that influenced or affected you greatly, but not in alphabetical order?
PAUL: How about in year of release order: Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931); James Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935); Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937); Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958); and Stanley Kramer’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).
LARRY: Who’s your favorite painter?
PAUL: Earl Scheib (he painted cars when I was a kid).
LARRY: Did you make home movies as a kid?
PAUL: Yes. I made my first one in 1974 on super 8mm film with no sound. My first “talkie” was a year later in which I played the role of “Count Dracula”. I followed it up with “Bite of the Werewolf” featuring a classic Don Post mask. I made a total of 22 films during the 1970s-1990s
LARRY: Loved the talk show scene; a good example of the film’s High Strangeness. Is surreality a goal of yours? Or do I just see what I want to see?
PAUL: I love the surreal. The sound designer had all this canned laughter and applause that sounded like it was coming from a huge studio audience. I decided it was way too much and dialed it back to almost nothing. I wanted to give the scene a feeling of awkwardness. I wanted the sound of the actual audience watching GLJX to be the laugh track. It was probably a risky choice, but I think it works and helps give the scene a High Strangeness feel.
LARRY: The score is fantastic. Nice to see the Moon-Rays involved. Tell us about Ego Plum and Scott Martin.
PAUL: Ego Plum and Scott Martin are a couple of multi-talented musicians whose work compliments each other nicely. Scott is a classically trained composer who writes his score on paper, like Amadeus did back in the day. He rehearsed the singing parts at his house and was present for all the recording sessions. He really is quite brilliant. Ego Plum is one of those self-taught musicians with a great ear for arranging and composing music, although I’m not sure about his other ear. He orchestrated and performed the music for Scott’s songs, which gave them a unique sound. He also composed the film score which took several months to complete. I was usually there for the sessions and helped out with bongos, phone books and bicycle tires. The Moon-Rays title track is a delight and pretty much encompasses all things musically ghastly, but in a good way.
LARRY: The production numbers are ambitious and very nicely done. Nightmare to stage or Fun Time; you decide!
PAUL: I usually had a vague idea for staging but wasn’t completely sure until I surveyed the set. I would walk around the sound stage with headphones and listen to the songs before filming. The choreography was worked out well in advance with ample rehearsal time. For the numbers I worked with choreographer Carolanne Marano and let her co-direct with me. This method worked really well and I think the quality shows on the screen.
LARRY: I remember seeing That Little Monster first listed in the Sinister Cinema catalogue and being intrigued. Talk a little about how that film came about.
PAUL: I wrote a script for the television show Monsters with high hopes of getting my directing career started. I met with producers but there was little interest so I decided to make it myself. TLM turned out to be more of an experimental art film with an appearance by Forrest J Ackerman at the beginning and a cameo (his very last) by Bob Hope at the end. I never got directing work based on its odd nature but the Sinister Cinema and Elite Entertainment releases did get me some much needed press. It was then I decided to make GLJX. Like TLM I decided to shoot mostly on weekends. This went on for five months until the money ran out. I was just about to give up after trying unsuccessfully for six years to raise finishing funds when in the eleventh hour a former grip on TLM (and good friend) Mark Willoughby came to my rescue! He financed GLJX and was quite pleased with his promotion to Executive Producer. Who would have thunk it?
LARRY: Radiator girl from Eraserhead? True or false?
PAUL: False. She is actually known as “Lady in the Radiator”.. but if you’re referring to De Anna Joy Brooks’ expanded cheeks makeup in GLJX, this was not inspired by Radiator girl.
LARRY: What are distribution plans?
PAUL: We had a small theatrical release and quickly became known as the lowest grossing film of 2012. Strand Releasing became our official distributor in 2013 and released a beautiful DVD edition, chock full of exclusive bonus features. Also, GLJX is currently available to stream on Netflix.
LARRY: Can you give us any clues about what’s next for you? Already working on other projects?
PAUL: My next movie is called Rocket Girl; about a young girl’s adventure on Earth in the futuristic year of 1967. There’s also a bio-pic about 1960’s pop icon Tiny Tim. But the one I’m really itchin’ to do is a reimagining of Victor Hugo’s The Man Who Laughs.
[Ed. Note: It’s interesting to hear these guys gush on about The Man Who Laughs. I was a contributor to the Kino DVD of that film.]
LARRY: Okay, that is way cool. One of the first movie monster paintings I ever did was one of (yeah, I know he’s not really a monster) Conrad Veidt’s startling images from the 1928 film. Not to give too much away, but would it be a period piece?
PAUL: My version of The Man Who Laughs will be reimagined to take place in a 1930s mythological setting; more of a fantasy driven fairy tale than an authentic period piece.
LARRY: Sounds like another piece of unique entertainment from the mysterious mind of Paul Bunnell! Thank you very much for the interview, Paul. This has been perfectly ghastly, but – as you say – in a good way!
Just in case you missed all the hyperlinks, you can read more about Paul Bunnell’s Ghastly Love of Johnny Xhere.
Larry Blamire is trying to fund his next movie, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Ushere.
And, if you’re a first time reader, this blog is promoting a classic film TV show that I’ve been trying to launch for years. It’s here.