When I decided to do a preservation of Little Orphant Annie, I also decided to start my own video label. It was a calculated risk, and it remains to be seen if it pays off. I’ve done much work for major labels, including Shout! Factory, Kino, Flicker Alley, etc, and I’ve helped smaller labels including Cartoons On Film, Undercrank, and Thunderbean. But Annie was different. It was my baby. I’d gotten it through numerous hurdles, and I really didn’t want it to be announced as NEW RELEASE FROM XXX VIDEO! PRODUCED BY ZZZ and with restoration by some dude named Eric.
Besides, none of the other labels wanted to release it anyway. Well, some of the smaller labels would have been willing, but then it would have been the same thing, and I didn’t want to do that. Now, many of you will be out there saying, “That Eric is just a credit hog and wants to get his name out there. What a ham.” Well, in a way that’s true, but overall it isn’t.
You see, I do a lot of film work, and preservation especially, but no one knows who I am. Well, some of you do, particularly if you read this blog, but in general, I’m an unknown quantity. That works out very well for me in some ways, because I’m the guy who likes to stand in the corner at parties and eat black olives until everything is over, but it doesn’t work out for me in other ways. By staying unknown, it reduces my chances to do other, more interesting work. There has to be a compromise between me standing silently in a corner and me being a ham who just has to be in front of an audience all the time. It’s a tough balance to find.
So Annie was my first shot at this. If you’ve been following me on Facebook, then you’ll know that it was the first of two giant preservation projects that I did starting in 2016 that have only recently reached fruition. The other one was the Milan Miracle Basketball films, which are the original game films of the David-vs.-Goliath basketball championship in Milan, Indiana that inspired the movie Hoosiers (1986). In both cases, the films needed preservation, and no one else had the immediate capacity to do it. If I hadn’t done them then, it would be too late for at least some of the elements by now.
I had to do a bunch of research on the DVD and Blu-ray formats. This is why I sometimes put polls up on my Dr. Film Facebook page. Some people do on-demand DVD publishing, which is easiest to do, and takes the least up-front money. But you can’t do Blu-ray discs on demand through Amazon, so that put the kibosh on everyone who said, “WE WANT BLU-RAY, NOT DVD!” Of course, then there were the other folks who told me that they didn’t want to buy a Blu-ray player, because their old TV works just fine, thank you, so could you put it out on DVD?
Thunderbean and Cartoons On Film have a good answer for this. They make combination packs of DVDs AND Blu-rays, both of which are functionally identical. That way, if you buy the package, there’s a disc for whatever your use is, and it saves the publisher from having to do separate art for the Blu-ray and the DVD boxes, because they are different sizes. That said, I guarantee that at shows I’ll still get people that tell me that they want one or the other and that this disc won’t play in their system.
Then there was the next problem. Everyone told me they want commentary tracks. Well, OK, the DVD software I’ve used for years doesn’t support commentary tracks, and it also doesn’t support Blu-rays at all. So that meant I had to learn a new software package, which I thought was OK.
Except it wasn’t. In order to get a software package that would do DVDs, Blu-rays, and support commentary tracks, I had to use a piece of software that is so horrid I shall not name it. Versatile it may be, but user-friendly it is NOT. I also learned the Blu-ray is a Sony monopoly, so every disc professionally pressed has to go through a Sony employee for approval. This is why Blu-rays cost so much. High-demand ones are fairly cheap, but the first run of them is expensive because you have to pay for the Sony guy. This is why Harry Potter Vs. Spider-Man’s Avengers is only $3 while Little Orphant Annie is expensive.
I thought that on-demand would be a lot cheaper for raising seed money, and if it didn’t work out, then I wasn’t out the minimum Blu-ray order of 1000. Many people told me, “It’s a boring old silent film! It isn’t even that good! You’ll never sell 1000!” Others said I would probably sell them, but it might take a while.
I thought I’d also try to do some on-demand to see how that went, too. Toward that end, I remastered the Dr. Film TV pilot we made in 2008. If you’ve followed the blog, then you know that we tried to sell this to TV for years and no one cared, and the blog and Facebook page were made to promote the show. The irony is that we tried to sell a show that no network wanted to buy, but we succeeded in selling the blog and Facebook pages, so we’re still marketing Dr. Film, even though there isn’t a show in the works…
There was no reason to release Dr. Film as a Blu-ray, since we shot it in standard-definition. Glory-June Greiff and I sat down and recorded a commentary track in which we discuss what went in to making the pilot and how we really didn’t understand how to market it. If you decide to buy the DVD, then make sure to listen to the commentary track, because it’s probably even more fun than the show.
My strategy is starting to work! I have been approaching archives to see if they’ll work with me on my next restoration project. Instead of hearing the phone click in my ear, I’m now hearing, “Oh, yeah! You’re the guy who did Little Orphant Annie! That was cool!” So those doors are opening. That means I can start to do more things now.
My last task, after the restoration was done and the Kickstarter thank-yous sent out, was to pick a name for my label. I sweated over this. Dr. Film is a bit silly, but some people know it. Others know me only by my own name, which is important too. I ultimately decided that I’d be Eric Grayson (Dr. Film) to cover both bases. Yeah, it’s kinda lame.
Maybe you have a better idea for a name. I’m always willing to listen. You’ll find me at the next film restoration gathering. I’ll be the guy standing in the corner eating black olives. Come and say hi.
Many of you know that James Cozart passed away on March 25. I can’t say that I knew him well. I can say that I knew him, and that he was one of the most fascinating people I have ever come across. James knew more about film than anyone I ever met. He knew more in his little finger about film than I know in my whole body. And he was wonderful in putting it together into a whole picture. He knew different film stocks, different color processes, different sound recording techniques, even the way different studios sounded internally.
But James wasn’t wired the same way most of us are. If you want the classic absent-minded professor, it was James. Not that he was senile or anything, far from that. But he was focused so much on his work that he sometimes would miss the big picture. He would tell me things that I found hilarious, and I would laugh, and he would look at me, not understanding what was funny. If you had a problem with a film that he could help with, then he was so dedicated, so giving, that he would sometimes work on things to the detriment of his personal life. I know this because I caused some of these to happen, so I became careful when I asked him questions.
I can’t really spin a good narrative about James. I miss him a lot, and was saving some questions for him for Columbus Cinevent. What I can do is give you some of my favorite Cozart stories in a non-linear fashion. It’s not the best way to do this, but it’s the only way I can.
For those of you who don’t know, James was a fixture at the Library of Congress since at least the mid-70s. I don’t really know when he started. (Update: Cynthia tells me that he started in 1984. Shows what I know.) He was always in charge of quality control at the labs, making sure that what came out looked good, and he was picky about it. We all have him to thank for that. He worked on literally hundreds of films, but because he worked at an archive, he didn’t take credit for his work. It’s very possible that no other person ever worked on restoring as many films as James has. Let that sink in for a moment.
I was at the Cinecon in 1995 sitting next to Ted Larson (now also sadly deceased), and we were listening to Sylvia Sidney have an attitude attack about her career. She’d written off the whole group, because someone who made up the program book listed her as Silvia Sydney, prompting her response “I’m not even here!” She was further upset that they wouldn’t let her smoke in the theater at UCLA, because it was a nitrate screening. “Nitrate, schmitrate,” she yelled, as they started her film, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936).
Years later, I was discussing with James the change in carbon arc projection that occurred in 1940 or so, and how Technicolor changed the balance of the colors to accommodate the change in the color of the carbon arc. James said that the early prints would look yellowish today to balance the older bluer arcs. I mentioned the screening of Lonesome Pine (I hadn’t even been aware that Cozart was there, but he was.) I said that this print didn’t look yellow to me, at which point James politely interrupted me.
“That wasn’t a 1936 print. That had a Realart logo on the front of it, which would have made it a 1948 reissue print. Still nitrate, but balanced for the newer arcs.”
“James, you remember a screening from 15 years ago with a logo that couldn’t have been on screen for more than 5 seconds.”
He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Well, yeah!”
I was discussing with him the ways he’d spliced zillions of films over the years. Jokingly, I told him, “James Cozart is the kind of guy who doesn’t know where his own shoes are, but if you asked him where he spliced a film 20 years ago, he could tell you within 10 feet.” He looked at me seriously, and said, “No, I think within 5 feet.”
Later on, when one of his co-workers found me alone, she laughed and told me confidentially that James occasionally came in with mismatched shoes. I’d had no idea that was true.
Back in the early 90s, one of my first encounters with James was when he put out an APB for flickery old silent films. He described the special kind of flicker, saying it was Kinemacolor. I remembered that I had some of it in an old Castle newsreel. I sent it to him so that the Library could copy it.
He wrote me back, saying that this was Kinemacolor, but he remembered seeing the footage before. He thought it was in an old Warners newsreel.
After months, he found the newsreel and printed that instead. He restored the color to it and showed it at the next Cinesation.
I asked him if I could get a print of the material. He told me it was impossible. I reminded him that I’d helped, and that I’d be happy to pay for the print. He then went on to explain archive procedure, and I learned a lesson then: too much red tape for me. That’s why I don’t work at an archive.
But remember this. It will come back again…
A few years ago in Rome, NY, I was discussing with James some of the films he’d brought. He then started to describe this rare nitrate that the library had been given, which he was inspecting.
He had, just a couple of nights before, been locked into the building in Culpeper, VA. The Library of Congress has a strict security procedure and they close the doors, shut out the lights, and turn off the elevators at a certain time.
James had been in his office inspecting this print, which he’d gotten at 2pm, and then at 8pm (which was at least 2 hours after closing), they’d shut off all the lights.
He had to call security and tell them that he was still there, so he could get out.
I laughed, and he looked at me again, with one of those looks that meant he didn’t understand why this was funny.
“You didn’t eat, drink, go to the bathroom, call anyone, or even look out into the hall for six hours, because you were looking at that film,” I said.
“And you don’t understand why that’s funny?”
We were in Osgood Indiana seeing a theater called the Damm Theater, which was really its name. This was a treasure trove of wonderful stuff, and it was when the Library archives were still in Dayton Ohio. The family that owned the theater, the Damms, had never thrown anything away, and so the place was full of antiques.
I contacted James and said that he needed to see this place. Osgood isn’t that far from Dayton, so he agreed to come and spend the day.
James identified pieces of projectors, Vitaphone disc players, and glass slides, all stuff that even I didn’t recognize. We had dinner with the Damms and we all seemed to enjoy ourselves.
The owner, Bob Damm, had some health issues, and he died a few years later. It was after the Library had moved to Culpeper. I spoke with his widow, and by happenstance, the next day, we met James in New York.
We’d just attended a screening of a print of Starevitch’s The Mascot and I’d noticed that the Library of Congress print had some footage in it that my print didn’t have… but my print had some footage in it that theirs didn’t have, too!
I mentioned this to James, and he started to ask me some questions about the film.
Before I got started, I told him about Bob Damm. Yes, he remembered, and there was a cursory, oh, sorry.
“But tell me about the soundtrack of your print… is it English or French?”
That would have offended a lot of people. They would consider it mean and inconsiderate. But I smiled. It was just James. That’s just how he was. He was seeking out material for a restoration! James couldn’t be mean if he tried. It just wasn’t in him.
We were in the parking lot with James’ wife Cynthia a couple of years ago and she told us that it was their 40th anniversary. James was a few feet ahead enthusiastically carrying a DVD player he’d found.
I scooted up and congratulated James.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “But did I tell you about this DVD player? It plays all the regions, and breaks out the copy guard, and you can directly access the MPEG layers on it.”
If I’d been Cynthia, I’d have smacked him. But she understood better than I did. I looked at her and smiled. She shrugged knowingly.
James was a supporter of a television museum in Ohio. I’ve never been to it, and I’m not even sure which one it is, but he would restore TVs and donate them to the museum. One year at the Columbus Cinevent (it was the last year they had it in this hotel, so it would have been 2014), someone broke into James‘ car. By this time, the hotel was getting to be in a rather poor neighborhood and several people had cars that were vandalized.
James told me that they’d broken the front window and stolen his cell phone. But he was confused, because there was a fully restored 1949 television in the back seat worth $3000 that they just left.
I mentioned that this TV was probably 80 pounds and more than they wanted to carry.
“Yes, but the cell phone didn’t even have the charger with it. I can’t find the charger. How much good can they get out of that?”
I didn’t think much of it until the next day. He came up to me and said, “I found the charger. It was in my suitcase, inside my shoe!”
Glory burst out laughing. He didn’t understand why.
Remember that story about the Kinemacolor? Well in the ensuing years, I have become a rambling film historian, and I do a show on old color processes in films.
I decided that I was going to FINALLY get a print of that Kinemacolor footage even if I had to do it myself. So I did it myself. There’s an amazing amount of documentation online, so I ordered a scan of my old Castle newsreel and went into Photoshop to recreate this effect manually, in preparation for putting this back onto film.
But it didn’t work. It looked funny and yellow. I couldn’t understand it.
I emailed James and told him what I was doing. Probably three lines in an email, just asking what was wrong.
The next day, I got a seven-page letter back. He explained that Kinemacolor was shot with different filter than they used to play it back, so if I simply changed the filter color then it would all work out, which it did.
But it took seven pages of detailed documentation to tell me this. By the way, it was terribly interesting and very pertinent, but seven pages? That was James. He had to be complete.
I did a restoration on King of the Kongo, and I’d consulted with James a little on it. This was before the days when we had all the tools like DropBox that we have now.
I uploaded the huge file to one of my servers, but Earthlink kept slowing it down due to traffic. Eventually, it would time out and you couldn’t get to it at all.
He emailed me and said that he’d figured out their throttling algorithm, and that if he’d get up at 3am, it wouldn’t slow down until 6 and he could get it.
I told him to wait on it.
“Why?” he asked.
“James, it’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Spend some time doing something else.”
We did a screening of Kongo at Syracuse Cinefest, and I knew James would have something to say. Nothing about the film, nothing about the sound I’d worked on, only this:
“I saw that before on the computer, but when I saw it on the big screen, I noticed that the white areas had halos around them. Who did that scan for you? They didn’t use enough bit depth.”
It was the last time I used that company for scanning. He was right.
I mentioned Leni Riefenstahl to James one time, and he told me that he’d spoken with her.
“Yes, I threw out some film she made.”
“I was working at a lab and she’d had the film developed, but she never paid for it and never printed it, so we sent her a letter, and she didn’t respond, so we threw it out.”
“She called and started yelling at me in broken English, and I told her it was lab policy. I just handed the phone to my boss. I didn’t want to listen to that.”
The topic of Astoria (NY) studios came up once (I’m not sure why), and he perked up and said, “You can always tell a movie that’s shot there, because the sound is bad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the ceiling is some sort of glass vaulted dome and it reflects the sound back downward, so there’s a bad echo in it. You can always hear it when you’re watching a movie.”
“I’ve noticed the films there don’t sound that great, but I thought it was because of the early sound process.”
“No. When I was with the military in the late 50s, I helped design a sound baffle in there so we could shoot in that studio and make the sound come out right. I think they took it down later.”
James famously never knew if a film was any good. He only knew if it was rare and he knew if the print quality was good. He couldn’t identify the actors in the films by seeing them. He told me that he didn’t register faces well. If it was really a terrible movie, then he’d know how bad it was, because the actors weren’t good, but sometimes a great movie went past him.
Ultimately, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the same film the rest of us saw. He saw a collection of actors, frames, effects, gamma changes, and little flaws that may or may not have been fixed. And that was OK, because he enjoyed that. He could tell you what sort of film stock was used in the original, what lab was used, etc, etc. He knew all of it.
He told me once about Victory (1918) that had a scene in it with Lon Chaney falling off a ledge. He said that in the nitrate, if you looked really closely, there was a thin wire on Chaney’s ankle that stopped his fall before he broke his neck (there’s a similar scene in Chaney’s West of Zanzibar.) James then told me that this was un-seeable on the DVD issue because they had duplicated the nitrate poorly.
The catch? He couldn’t even remember that it was Chaney in this scene, so he referred to him as “the actor.”
While we’re on the topic of Chaney pictures, he was watching The Scarlet Car (1917) and there’s a scene in it that has the headlights of a car in a key scene.
James was really interested in this since he knew that the color of headlights in those days wouldn’t register on the sort of film they had in 1917. So he watched the nitrate over and over to figure it out. Finally he noticed the lights flickered a bit. AHA, he thought! AC wiring. He looked, and you could just barely see the long extension cords being run to power the headlights so that they showed up in the film.
James usually rented a van to drive up to Capitolfest in Rome NY, so he could save shipping expenses on the films. They are in big, sturdy cans, and not a lot is going to hurt them. Anyone else would just have thrown the films in the back of the van and moved on.
Not James. I helped him pack the films in the van a few times, and he always put the films in the seats and fastened seat belts around each can.
I’d visited Bruce Lawton’s grandfather in 2004, and he had a print of Baron Munchausen that we watched. It broke in one section, and Bruce’s grandfather just took out the frames and handed them to me.
A few days later I visited Rome NY for the first time at the Capitolfest, and James was there. I handed him the frames without saying anything.
“Agfacolor from the 1940s!” he exclaimed. “But wait, this base isn’t triacetate, and it’s not nitrate either. I need to take this to the lab and examine it.”
I never did find out if he figured out what it was.
You’d think that James only understood film, but he was a technology master. He worked on lawn mowers, television sets, cobbled together computers from pieces, and understood and used digital restoration technology.
Sometimes ignorance bugs me. I just can’t help it. And I try to let it go, but I can’t do it, because it just builds up and gets worse, so I have to confront it.
Several years ago, I was at the Syracuse Cinefest (now defunct) premiering King of the Kongo, Chapter 5. There were some students in the crowd who came in late and missed my scintillating introduction, and I happened to bump into them on the way out, and I heard their conversation.
“Dude, like I don’t understand what the big deal was on that serial thing. It wasn’t even like restored.”
OK, well, I knew what the big deal was. It was the first time the soundtrack had been heard with the film for something like 80 years, which was cool, and the picture was restored. A lot. But, rather than be a whiner boy, which no one likes, I pursued his reasoning. I asked him what he meant by restored.
“You know, it didn’t look real good. Have you seen the Blu-Ray of Casablanca? They really restored that. This one didn’t look like that. He should have restored it.”
My further contacts with people have cemented the idea that most people have. To be restored, a film has to look like the Blu-Ray of Casablanca. This, apparently, is the gold standard of restoration. Anything less is sub-par.
Further, since digital restoration techniques are magic, this means that if one were willing to put in the time and money on it, all movies that are restored could look like Casablanca, and they all should. It’s simply laziness on the part of restorers who have not put in the required resources to clean up the film.
I heard this again earlier this year with some films I didn’t work on. Universal (bless them) restored several Marx Brothers films, including Cocoanuts, AnimalCrackers, and Horsefeathers. Now, Universal had been lagging the field in doing restorations, but their work for the last 5-6 years has been astounding, so I’m a huge supporter of their efforts. But apparently I’m not in good company. I started to see people dogging Universal’s efforts right out of the gate:
“Cocoanuts is not restored. There were always sections of picture that looked bad, and these sections still look bad. They lied when they said they restored it.”
And worse yet:
“How dare Universal claim they restored Horsefeathers! There is a splicy section that’s been there since the 1930s and it’s still choppy! They didn’t restore it at all!”
So let’s back up. Cocoanuts had several reels where dupe sections were made badly in the 1940s because the negative was rotting, and they had only poor copies. Those reels have not been replaced with better ones, but Universal did what they could to clean up said reels, rebalance the contrast, and match what they could.
Horsefeathers was censored for reissue, and certain things were considered too risque for post-Code audiences. Paramount, who then owned the film, in its wisdom, took the censored footage out of the original negative. In order for this to be found, someone would have to find an original issue 1932 nitrate print of Horsefeathers that is in good enough shape to use. It’s not impossible, but unlikely. Universal cleaned up the footage as best they could, but the missing footage remains. (Let’s give Universal credit and admit that they found a great deal of missing footage from Frankenstein that they diligently restored from discs and alternate prints sources for years. For some time, you could pick up a new issue of Frankenstein, and they’d patch in a scene of Maria getting dumped in the water, or Frankenstein yelling in the lab, or Edward Van Sloan injecting the monster, etc.)
On the other hand, someone did find original nitrate material for AnimalCrackers. Apparently the BFI had a near-mint dupe negative of the film that contains about 4 minutes of footage that was also censored for reissue. And, to top that off, it’s about two generations better than what Universal was working with for this title, so the picture is greatly improved. There was nothing but praise for Universal on this one, which was quite deserved.
But why trash them for the other films? They did the best they could.
I know I sometimes sound like the Monty Python 4 Yorkshiremen sketch, but when I first got to be a movie fan, the prints we often had were terrible, and we felt lucky to have them. The studios didn’t care, the foreign archives didn’t care, and the only people who did care were the collectors, who were being raided all the time by the studios and the archives.
I get a little more confused when I consider that every 18 months, it seems like a new restoration of Metropolis takes place. Each time, footage is inserted that hasn’t been seen in years. The last restoration incorporated some footage from a South American 16mm dupe print that looked like a steam roller flattened it, and then sandpaper was run over it for cleaning. No one seems to complain about this, but poor Universal gets the lynch mob called on them for not finding 5-6 minutes of footage. How is this fair?
The idea that I can see AnimalCrackers with 4 extra minutes of footage is enchanting to me, but so is the idea that I can see detail in Horsefeathers and Cocoanuts that I’ve never seen before. OK, I’d like to see better material, but it just plain doesn’t exist.
Let’s hit some of the myths here:
MYTH 1: Digital restoration techniques are like magic. If you spend enough time and effort on something it can look like Casablanca.
FACT: This is completely untrue. It’s also putting an unfair burden on Casablanca as the standard-bearer for restoration. The original negative for Casablanca still exists, and backup copies of it, made carefully over the years, are stored around the world. Not to trash the people who did the restoration (which is excellent), but they had a lot more to work with than the Universal did with, say, TheCocoanuts. There was one print of that made as a backup, poorly, in the 40s. That’s it.
Digital techniques are wonderful, but they can’t bring back stuff that isn’t there. When detail is lost in a copying process, it’s gone. I can take dirt marks out, some degree of scratching, splices, and I can rebalance the contrast a little, but if the sharpness is gone, it’s gone.
MYTH 2: The original negatives of just about all the films ever made are stored safely in a salt mine in Kansas or New Jersey, and the studios are just too lazy to go get them.
FACT: There are some salt mines that do have BACKUPS in them, but not original negatives.
I’m working on a restoration of Little Orphant Annie (1918) right now, and it’s going to look worse than King of the Kongo did. With Kongo, we had a 16mm duplicate print, which was copied from a deteriorating and splicy 35mm positive.
With Annie, we have a 16mm Kodascope that’s been censored (they took out some of the scarier scenes), but is more-or-less complete. We have reel one and three of a second Kodascope, which is much darker. We have a 35mm that was about shot when it got scanned, and we have two different reference prints on video from various sources.
And you know what? I assembled a rough cut of all the footage in the film, and I had to use scenes from every one of these prints. Each one had a shot that was different or in the wrong place. I will never, ever get these to match seamlessly. It can’t happen.
On the other hand, you’d get to see some 5 minutes of footage that you’ve never seen before in any other print. Does that mean Little Orphant Annie is restored? Yes, to the best of my ability with the materials that currently exist. If you gave me a million dollar grant to fix it (which I would welcome!), there’s only so much I can do to clean it up.
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.