Category Archives: Dr. Film’s Pocket Rants

Of Myths and Math

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.

MATH: This is wrong. It’s demonstrably wrong. It’s all about sampling. Let’s take sampling. A digital signal is sampled ( ). The sampling rate of a CD is 44.1kHz (this is 44,100 samples per second). Under the Nyquist sampling theorem (–Shannon_sampling_theorem ), this means that the highest frequency that can be reliably heard in a CD would be half of this, about 22000Hz.

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 ( )

So, they tested their system, and they discovered that they needed to run 4000 lines of resolution before you couldn’t see the jaggies. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at another source:

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.

Don’t blame me. Blame the math.

Oh, and you know how Quentin Tarantino is always complaining about digital projection being “TV in public?”

Well, what’s HDTV? Well, don’t believe me, see the specs here:

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. 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:

lincblockThis 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:

lincsoftThis 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:

ssoftYour 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:

kodak real

Now, I’ve exaggerated this to make it more obvious for you, but here’s what I see in most digital projection:

kodak fake

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.

Janitor in a Booth

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.”

“Oh,” Dad said, thinking a bit.  “I understand.”

I’m still not sure that I do.

Kongo Lessons

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.)

I restored Chapter 5 with Kickstarter funds, Chapter 10 with National Film Preservation Foundation funding, and Chapter 6 is being done now.  For all three Chapters, I owe thanks and funding support to Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc. (There’s a lot of drama about how Silent Cinema saved my bacon in previous blog installments.)  I may go back and restore the the picture for the rest of the episodes and drop in the sound for those parts that survive.  The complete chapters that survive have been archived to film.

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?

A: No.

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?

Yes, some.

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.

An Open Letter to Google: You’re Killing Us

The motto of Google is, “Don’t be evil.”  Well, I’ve got a message for you, guys.  You’re being evil.  I don’t think it’s intentional, but you’re killing us.  By “us” I mean the small group of independent film preservationists who try to make a living my preserving and presenting films.  And there’s one thing that’s killing us more than anything else.


YouTube (which is owned by Google), has morphed into a Frankenstein-like creature that’s made up of cat videos, people’s reviews of other media, music, and bootlegged movies.  It’s become the global repository for everything that is cinema.  People never seem to ask me whether something is available on video, on film, whether they can see it with an audience, nothing but this: “Can I see it on YouTube?”

But there’s a problem.  Google has an odd policy about YouTube, which is that anyone can post anything for any reason at any time and it’s up to the original copyright owners to file a complaint to take it down.  The amount of Google patrolling that happens there is pretty thin.  Disney does it of course, but you have to be on it all the time.  New videos pop up every moment.  And I’ve done some complaining… they often ask me if I’m really affiliated with the project.

Google seems to have the idea that the whole world will be better if everything that ever existed in the history of the world is suddenly indexed and available for download.  A few years ago, Google was scanning books, copyright notwithstanding, and posting them for searching in Google Books.  When some of the authors complained, there was a strange reaction that this was somehow stupid.  After all, if the books are up and searchable, isn’t that an advertisement for you to buy it?

No, it isn’t.  And it’s even worse for people restoring films.  You see, the restoration of a film isn’t copyrightable.  Please don’t email me and tell me otherwise.  I’ve researched it.  If I add something to it, then I can copyright the changes, but only that.

So if I restore an uncopyrighted film, spend hours doing it, release it on video to recover my costs, then it’s perfectly legal for someone to rip the DVD and throw it on YouTube.  A lot of people think this is great.  It’s cool.  It’s sharing a movie with the world, opening up the audience.  And, to a certain degree, that’s true.  It is giving publicity to the work.

But it’s free.  And it encourages people not to buy the work, which means that sales go down, and suddenly you’re not making it on the razor-thin margin of sales, but you’re still reaching the same number or more people than you reached before.  They’re just not paying for it.

Sure, I hear you say, there are people who will find out about your work on YouTube and buy it just to show support.  But I’m finding that that’s about 1 person in 10 to 1 in 20.  Five to ten percent.  90%-95% just look at it and say, “WHEE!  IT’S FREE.”

So I’m just a bitter whiner punk, right?  Well, don’t believe me.  Ask people like Paul Gierucki, David Shepard, Kevin Brownlow or Dave Stevenson.  They’ve all had to curtail or stop their releases because of YouTube.

And Google is generous enough to let us share ad revenues with people who post films.  That’s wonderful. We can post our own stuff and hope we can make money that way.  Except no.

The most popular person on YouTube has some six billion views, with an annual income of $4 million.  This equates to about $ .0006 per view.  That’s for dude-boy video games and YouTube Poops that are amazingly popular.  Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that we apply that to a bootlegged version of Seven Chances that appears on YouTube.  It’s got 40,500 views at this point.  I’m not supplying the link because I fear that some of you will watch it.

I spent about 80 hours just fixing the color sequence for this film, and Kino paid me about $250 for my trouble. (They apologized for this, and they were very nice, but they said they couldn’t afford any more.)  The bootlegger has taken this film, which I’ve got to say is probably among the most popular silent Blu-Rays, and he’s earned a whopping–get this–$24.68.

And let’s assume that maybe one in ten would otherwise have bought the film if they couldn’t get it for free… that’s 4050 copies sold.  I’m sure Kino would LOVE to have sold that many of this disc set.  I’ll bet it didn’t sell anywhere near that.

While I’m on the topic of Seven Chances, let me take this opportunity to rant a bit more.  Not only does Kino make no money off this, but the print on YouTube is horrible.  The uploaders used a compression technique that makes the film really dark, so that you can barely see the color in the sequence I restored, and a lot of detail is missing in the rest of the film.

I think this really does Seven Chances and silent film in general a great disservice.  By featuring inferior copies on YouTube, we’re perpetuating the idea that silent films, and old films in general, look bad.  People almost invariably feel that it’s due to bad old technology and not bad new compression techniques.  This perpetuates the idea that old films are inherently boring and not worth seeing.


Not only is Google depriving us of income that we might otherwise get, the are also poisoning the well for new people giving these films a chance.  The vast majority of the bootlegged features are exceptionally dark and blurry, and this is often noted in reviews that we see on IMDb.  Sometimes for good movies.

Let me clarify that Seven Chances IS copyrighted, and that one of the bootlegged versions has been up for two years from the time of this posting.  It’s got the copyrighted score on it.  Imagine how much easier it would be to bootleg someone’s restoration of a public domain film.  That’s not even against Google’s rules.

Look, I appreciate free as much as the next guy, but the market here is dying.  At one time, you could try to sell films to TCM, but they’re becoming increasingly insular due to costs, and they still have zillions of films from the RKO, MGM, and Warner library that they’ve never aired.  Why should they license films from outside?

That leaves Google.  I’d love to see Google spend some of its dripping billions on putting non-junk on YouTube.  If YouTube is suddenly the cultural repository of all video not on NetFlix, then can it at least look good?  Can you find collectors, historians, archives, and preservationists who will get you good prints instead of stuff that’s reviewed as “bad, and I couldn’t read most of the titles”?  Throw those people or organizations a check.  After all, they saved good copies of the films in the first place.

I suppose we can consider, but their stuff, with a few exceptions, looks even worse than YouTube.  It’s even more lax in rules than YouTube, with blatant violations like an uncut Dracula and the Metropolis restorations with complete Kino titles.

I know that a lot of people seem to think that restorations happen like magic and are pretty cheap to do.  I used to be in the computer animation business and we’d have a similar problem: guys would come in and request substantial changes, then come back in 5 minutes and ask to see them.  Hence our motto: “All computer rendering takes place in zero time.”

Since I do this professionally, I’ll outline what I’ve done on my NFPF restoration of King of the Kongo.  I get a couple of requests a month to put this on YouTube, and about two per week asking for the Dr. Film episodes.  Then they don’t understand why I answer, “I can’t afford to put them on YouTube.  Once they’re on YouTube, they’re valueless.

I don’t have another job to fall back on for the money I lose on this.  And if I did have another job, I wouldn’t be able to do a lot of the work I do now.  Here’s what went into King of the Kongo, Chapter 10:

  1. About $6500 of lab work, including scanning and archival film recording.
  2. Breaking the film down on a shot-by-shot basis to fix contrast and brightness issues (about two days of work plus about two days of computer rendering time.)
  3. Stabilizing the film on shot-by-shot basis to make the image stable enough to do lip sync.  (about 4 days of work plus a couple of days of rendering.)
  4. Synchronizing the sound.  This is a technical disaster that I could go on about for hours, but let’s just say it was about a week.
  5. Getting everything moved.  The sound discs moved from Michigan to Indianapolis, to Virginia, to New Jersey, back to Virginia, and back to New Jersey.  This was all hand-carried to avoid damage in shipment. The film went from NY to Indianapolis, then hard drives went back and forth.  The logistics are a nightmare, with about 5-6 people involved in it.
  6. Restoring the credits.  Again, a long, long explanation, but a lot of math and about 4 days of work for 45 seconds of footage.
  7. De-noising the picture.  Using a special statistical analysis program, all 30,000+ frames of the film are analyzed to remove suspected dust.  About half of these are false positives and must be cancelled by hand.  This takes about two weeks.

Now, I did get an NFPF grant to cover this.  They covered the lab expenses.  Everything else I did myself.

So am I going to put this all on YouTube for free?

Am I going to produce more episodes of the Dr. Film show and post them for free?  (Maybe even one with the Kongo restorations.)

I’d love to.  I’ll do it when Google sends me a big check to cover my heating bills for last winter.  I’m sure not going to make it back in Blu-Ray sales.

The Artrepreneur in the Lon Chaney Economy

Legend has it that Lon Chaney, Sr. sought a raise at Universal in 1918 and was refused. The studio head, William Sistrom, told him, “I know a good actor when I see one, but looking at you, I see only a wash-out.” Chaney left the studio that day determined to make more money and do more of the work he wanted to do.

Chaney had a problem. He wanted to be a leading or top supporting actor and specialize in odd character parts. No one thought it was possible. They all wanted handsome leading men, actors like Henry B. Walthall or Wallace Reid. Chaney not that kind of actor, and he knew it. He was without work for some time and finally got a break in a William S. Hart western.

Lon Chaney during the shooting of The Miracle Man, his breakout film

In 1918, Chaney was a single father with a 12-year-old son. This was when there almost were no single fathers, unless the mother had passed on. He had been in nearly 150 films at Universal, and he worked steadily, but he sought something else. He was an artist who wanted to control his own destiny, and he was willing to do what was necessary to make it happen.

Silent film accompanist Ben Model has a word for people like this. It’s a guy who is an artist and also runs his own business. It’s artrepreneur. Part artist, part entrepreneur. Chaney was definitely one, and, really, a lot of artists are, particularly in show business.

Eventually, Chaney found his niche and was able to do exactly what he wanted to do. He even got the sweetest revenge by being hired back to work at Universal, something he always demanded a premium to do. (This is partly why I have always thought that Chaney would never have done Dracula for Universal. He was in a long-term contract with MGM, a bigger, more prestigious studio that loved his work. Why would he slum at Universal?)

As a successful star, Chaney bumped into another struggling actor in about 1925. His name was Boris Karloff. Karloff was walking home from a job and Chaney gave him a ride home. He gave Karloff a bit of advice that he never forgot: “The secret of success in movies lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do–and they’ll begin to take notice of you.”

And, right there is the inherent disconnect in it that faces everyone in the arts: Chaney said you have to be different from anyone else, and yet he couldn’t find work because Sistrom didn’t think he was enough like everyone else. Chaney would have gotten hired, fired, and been forgotten like Reid and Walthall if he’d been as handsome as they were. He had his own idea about his own art.

The artrepeneur has a key task. The world wants to put you in a shoebox so they know how to deal with you. For an actor it’s handsome, ugly, foreign, suave, funny, something. The artist who doesn’t fit into the shoebox (and the most successful ones don’t…just like Chaney said) needs to convince people that his art is worthwhile, even though they might not understand it.

“Gee, I want to play disabled guys, people missing one limb or multiple limbs. I want to play foreigners and villains. I want the audience to be so sad for me that they root for me, even though I will almost always die in the last reel without getting the girl.”


And, in a very real sense, Chaney was crazy. He’d have been much smarter to go off and get a “real” job, like most people did at the time. He wanted his son to stay out of acting and stick with his job at the General Water Heater Company. Really. I’m not making that up.

In the 1920s and 30s, that was a good idea. The chances of making it in acting are incredibly low and you could usually count on a company taking care of its workers (that is assuming that you didn’t lose your job during the Depression of the 1930s.)

But these days, that’s all out of the window. We now live in what I call the Lon Chaney economy. Everyone is in show business. The old model, the one where you got a job, put up with the garbage they fed you for 20 or 30 years, and then retired on a good pension… well, that’s seeming more and more like science fiction.

The new model is this: “I don’t care what your education is, I don’t care what your background is. I care what you can do for me that I can’t find someone else to do cheaper. If you can’t find something, then you’re out.”

Faced with a job market in which one is basically forced to repeatedly audition to stay employed, many workers are electing to chuck the whole thing and become artrepreneurs. Hey, if the world is like that, with no security, then why not work for yourself?

Well, I can’t claim to be as successful as Lon Chaney. I’m hoping to work up to Doug McClure. However, having done this for a while, I have some suggestions:

1) Be versatile. Don’t say, “I’m an artist… I do ONLY THIS.” Your goal is to do your work and eat, so remember that doing things that encourage that goal helps you. If you need to design a web site for yourself, go to stupid parties to meet clients, or figure out how to do your own accounting, then do it. Don’t let it eat up all of your time, but do it. Budget time accordingly, like money.

2) Be prepared for indifference and hostility. You’ll have to answer the questions. “Is this your day job?” “Hey, I know a guy who does what you do, but he works for free!” “This isn’t work if it’s fun. You’re not doing real work.” I assure you, even if you love what you do, there will be a lot of unpleasant stuff around it. Your job, and you must accept it, is to enthusiastically tell them that, yes, you’re crazy, but you think the world needs what you do because….” and really work on that last part.

3) Learn how to recruit help when you need it. The artrepreneur can’t do everything, but he must learn to do some things. You’ll have to do a lot of different things, and do them fairly well, because you’ll start out having no money and people won’t believe in you. One may be good at marketing, another may be good at technical stuff. It’s a good place to start your one key marketing bit, the one only you can do. If you can’t convince another fellow traveler that your work is worth his time, then you haven’t got the spiel down yet.

I’m not going to claim I know all the answers. I’m not what you’d call a great success, and I still struggle with that key thing. People still think what I do should be for free.

What I do know is that more and more people are going to be in my shoes, because the nice thing about the artrepreneur is that he can never be downsized or outsourced. He never works for that passive-aggressive boss like the one in Office Space.

Now I just have to convince people that the Dr. Film show is cool and shouldn’t be free on YouTube. Argh. It’s an ongoing battle.

One Year Later and the Dust Settles

Last year,  on this very night, I was writing a really cool gag post on London After Midnight.  I knew it would be a perfect thing to post for April Fools Day.  This is also Lon Chaney’s Birthday…

I cooked up an  elaborate fraud and posted it, neither the first nor the last of such things,  and I made it really sound believable.  That was the problem, I guess.

It wasn’t the first one of these I’d done.  I always posted something cool on the old alt.movies.silent newsgroup, but that’s now been overtaken with spam and endless posts about whether Irving Thalberg was the spawn of satan (I kid you not on that last piece… I gave up on it after about 20 of those.)

I’d never done London After Midnight because it’s so obviously bogus,  but I had a couple of nice pictures and a good lie cooked up, and what fun it is for April 1st.

To add to the fun, and make it clear that this was a joke,  I added a news item  about the Dr. Film show being picked up by TCM.  If you follow the blog and the site at all, then  you know that this is something that is likely never going to happen, and that was the whole joke of it.

Well,  the TCM message boards got hold of it, and they went nuts.  I got emails from all over the world, my readership skyrocketed (only for a day, mind you), and people told me that I was the spawn of satan (and here I thought it was Irving Thalberg.)

Of course,  I didn’t post it to the TCM board, and I wasn’t even a member. I had to become a member to post a response to my lambasting.  It was generally felt that I was trying to get publicity for a weak and/or failed web site and that this was going to put me on the map.

Genius idea… wish I’d thought of it.  Didn’t work anyway.

The net result was that my blog posts have gained some traction, but only later in the year, I still get an occasional nastygram from someone on the TCM message boards (which I can’t do anything about), and Dr. Film didn’t get any more recognition than it had ever received… and that was pretty minimal from the start.

Oh,  yeah, there’s one more upshot.  There’s going to be no April Fool joke this year.  I can’t stand the noise.  I had a good one, too.

Last year’s blog:

And the firestorm from the TCM board (again from last year…  note that this is reverse chronological order from newest to oldest.)

Will the April Fool return next year? I’m not sure yet, but I wouldn’t count on it!

The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome


Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest.  It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  The film gets brittle and unusable.

The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.  I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs.  It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much.   Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.

Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people.  They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate.  There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.

I have this problem, you see.  I come from a technical background.  I’m an engineer.  I love to test things.   I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome.  If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post.  I love blogs.  You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself.  I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.

Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him.  So I’ll do the same thing here.

Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome?  I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them

Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film.  As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar.  As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.

Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration.  It affects different films in different ways.  If a film was developed poorly,  stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.

I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all.  I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.

Simplicio: Why is that?  Does that make the disease spread?  Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?

Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid.  In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.

Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them.  The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.

Is this tested?  Sure.  For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me.  In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it.  I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale.  Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear.  They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.

What did I find?  The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition.  The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition.  And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans.  I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction.  However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.

Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.

Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can.  Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film.  In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great.  It’s perfect and it will help.  Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.

Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right?  There’s nothing that can be done.  That’s what my friend told me.

Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.

Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t.  I decided to do a control study.  That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps.  Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.

There are these things that I have personally tested:

1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances.  It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff.  No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically.  I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers.  Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector.  (Take it from someone who has learned this!)

2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can.  Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable.  Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy).  However, I have successfully used this on a number of films.  It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt.  Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.

3) Camphor (solid).  Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups.  It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell.  Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list.  Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff.  Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs.  A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.

Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film.  It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.  

Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am.  I am in the business of saving and sharing filmsAn archive is in the business of saving films.  The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)

Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation.  This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film.  They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.

Now, again, I’m not in that business.  Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives.  They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me.  This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do.  It’s just not what I do.

For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use.  If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared.  These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…

However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board.  Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print?  If that’s so, then I’m still on board.

Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars.  It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor.  It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video.  I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version).  When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc.  Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.

It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this?  It looks so nice!”  I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.

If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…

On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will.  Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…

Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years.  In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it.  Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.

So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film.  We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.

Does it hurt triacetate?  I think probably not, but I don’t know that.  I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.

Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips.  These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.

I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips.  I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor.  Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.

I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale.  If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.

Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me.  My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.

Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome.  What do you think of it?

Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.

Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do.  You must hate the archives.

Dr. Film: No, I love the archives.  I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against.  However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.

And I’ve explained why I do use camphor.  A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles.  I do use film cans for camphor treatments.

Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?

Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film.  This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving.  I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs.  In no case has this damaged the film.

Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends.  You scare me.

Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot.  Don’t believe it.  Test it first.

“That should be banned!”

I remember a play I was in many years ago.  I was playing a Supreme Court Justice in First Monday in October.  One of the main questions in it concerns an obscenity case in which the justices are called upon to decide whether a particular porno movie is so obscene that it cannot be shown.  The justices all gather together and watch the movie,  except one.

The holdout justice insists he doesn’t need to see the movie.  He’s voting for it to be shown, no matter what.  He feels that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and any chipping at it lessens us all.


There’s been a lot of hubbub on one of the movie collector forums about Disney’s Song of the South (1946).  This is one of the few films Disney has never released on home video… well, one of the few popular color and sound films.  I’ve never seen it.  Its last theatrical release was a rather sparse one in 1986.


And the cries come out against it: “It’s racist.”  “It’s antiquated.”  “It would offend people.”  “We shouldn’t show it in case it does offend people.”  “It’s not a great work of art, in part because it’s offensive.”

I never understand this stuff.  It cuts across political barriers, too.  Basically, the criterion for banning something is “I don’t like it.”  Books, movies, music, you name it, someone wants to ban it.  It’s often in the name of “the children.”  We wouldn’t want to expose children to this sort of thing, would we?

Let’s look at what this is, instead of our opinions about it:
James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for the film.
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel appears, the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar.
Walt Disney considered Baskett a discovery, one of the best actors he’d found.
The work with animated characters superimposed over live action is groundbreaking, especially in a color film (this was shot with the three-color Technicolor camera.)
It’s one of the last works of legendary photographer Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

Is there racial stuff it it?  Sure.  Is it insensitive by modern standards?  I have no doubt it is.

Should parents plop their kids in front of it without explaining it to them first?  NO!  But that goes for a lot of stuff.  The television is not an electronic babysitter,  nor is the iPhone or any other device.  Sure, there’s a lot of mindless stuff out there that can just be watched, and this isn’t one of them.

I haven’t seen Song of the South.  I don’t need to.  It should be out there to be seen.  If we have to get Leonard Maltin, Whoopi Goldberg, or Bill Cosby to do an introduction, then fine.  It should be seen.

This reminds me of an interchange I had with a friend of mine who I’ll only identify as “Chef Carl.”  I was asked to come up with a program for Black History Month.  OK, I said, let’s show how racism once rocked the movies.  Let’s really show it.  I had some good examples.  They wouldn’t let me do it.  The manager of the theater said it would be perceived as insensitive because I’m white.  OK.

So I thought about all the African-American folks I know and thought, “Who’d be the best one to introduce these pictures and explain the history of them?”  I thought of Chef Carl.  He even agreed to do it.  Then the manager came forward and wouldn’t allow Carl to do it either.  Why?  Well, they were afraid that Carl would be seen as a “token black,” which was bad, too.  I told Carl about it.  I still remember his answer:

“So you can’t introduce the movies because you’re white and I can’t introduce them because I’m black.”  BINGO.  The most accurate response I can imagine.

botnsmallThere’s a similar uproar with Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a DW Griffith film.  Birth of a Nation changed the world.  It was the first time that it was clear that a long, feature-length film could make money and keep making money.  It caused the landscape of movies to change.  Vaudeville houses switched over to movies.  Movie houses changed from flat Nickelodeons to raked, long theaters.  Theaters put in extra projectors to make smoother changeovers.  It was a big deal, and it made money in the North and South, wherever it played.  It’s a good film, it’s a landmark film, and it’s one of the key films in the history of the motion picture.

It also sparked a resurgence of the KKK in America.  There was a lot of racist content, and one of the Klansmen is a hero.  It was true to the book it was based on, which was also racist.  Without even really understanding what he did, DW Griffith made a racially polarizing film in 1915.  It was so polarizing that he got death threats and there were Klan rallies that showed the film to whip up support for a new (and very different) Klan.

Griffith (a child of Kentucky) felt so awful about the film’s reception and what it did that he made a followup called Intolerance (1916) that made the age-old plea of “Why can’t we just get along?”  Just how racist Griffith himself was is the stuff of much speculation.  I can simply state that Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) a long-lived African American actress, appeared in Birth of a Nation.  There’s also a reel of home movies shot at DW Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  She’s in that reel, too, crying and needing support from others, the only person in the whole reel who seemed to be moved at the occasion.

If DW Griffith was the evil, racist pig that many modern authors make him out to be, then why was Madame Sul-Te-Wan so moved at his funeral?  She knew him… we didn’t.

Shouldn’t we see the film for ourselves to find out?  Or, if we choose not to, shouldn’t we be free in that choice, too?  There have been protests at showings of Birth of a Nation even as recently as a few years ago, rife with cries of “It should be banned!”

No, it shouldn’t.  The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.  I’ll repeat that, and it’s key: The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.

Let me give you an example of what I’m saying.  When FW Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922, he stole it from the novel Dracula.  Let’s be honest, he stole it.  They changed all the names around, but the plot is barefaced and recognizable.  The book was very much in copyright and Murnau was sued.  The studio lost, and the film was ordered destroyed.  All prints, and the negative, too.


Nosferatu became forbidden fruit!  Film pirates the world over clamored for “the last print.”  There were a lot of “last prints” saved, duped, and bootlegged.  It got way more release in foreign countries than any of other Murnau’s films did.  He became a popular director mostly because of the fame of a movie that no one was supposed to see.

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (left, in makeup) in one of the most famous lost films
Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (center, with cape) in one of the most famous lost films

So consider Der Januskopf (1920).  This was another FW Murnau film pirated illegally from a novel and play.  In this case it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It became Janus-kopf (Janus head) and the two characters were Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.  The dual role was played by Conrad Veidt.  Veidt’s butler was played by Bela Lugosi, who was on his way from war-torn Hungary to America.  This is one of his few appearances in a German film.

Historically important?  You bet.  But no one sued over this film, and there was no clamor over its illegal piracy.  No one bootlegged the last prints or the negative, which stayed in storage until it rotted.

Two films, one director, both pirated, one forbidden fruit, and one completely legal.  The forbidden fruit survived.  Stamping out the idea perpetuated it.  Today, you can get a version of Nosferatu on any street corner, in various versions, cuts, tints, and speeds.

And is that different now?  Nope.  Song of the South is forbidden fruit.  It’s out there.  As of this writing, there are 85 copies on eBay for sale.  Those are just the ones who are brazen enough to post them.

Just 10 copies of Steamboat Willie for sale, though.  That one… it’s always been available.  It’s a landmark Disney picture, the first cartoon with sound, the first big Mickey Mouse picture, and 10 copies.

So is Song of the South a great film?  I have no idea.  I might like it, I might not.  I might be offended, and I might not.  My advice to Disney is to make it available and therefore control the dialogue about the film.  Now it’s forbidden fruit.  You can make it a “Never Forget” historical item, which it needs to be.  You can also make sure that everyone knows why it’s historically important.

By the way, I don’t want political comments in the comments section or I’ll shut it down.  “Those liberals” and “Those Republicans” are equally guilty of censorship, albeit often for different reasons.  This isn’t a political forum.  It’s a film forum.

10 Questions with Glory-June Greiff

Author-historian-performer Glory-June Greiff is just the sort of multi-hyphenated person that I need to associate with, because there isn’t a lot she can’t do, except hold still.

Glory is the author of two books, Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana and People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana State Parks. These are both available for the best prices from the author (and you can get them signed in time for Christmas!)

Not only does Glory write books, but she does one-woman shows as authors Gene Stratton-Porter andBeatrix Potter. She does presentations on the WPA and CCC, among other topics. She’s written countless National Register nominations, done treks across the country in search of odd history fragments, and she’s always the first to climb into the rafters of an endangered building to figure out how to save it.

Glory is what Ben Model calls an artrepreneur, someone who is in the arts and does a lot of things. This is both because she’s multi-talented and because artists need to be versatile in this challenging economy.

When I wrote the pilot for Dr. Film, I created the role of Anamorphia for Glory, because I knew she could play it, that she’d have fun with it, and most importantly, that she’d show up!

Glory has her own web page, which is under construction, but her blog is here.  It is generally a little less ranty than mine, but you’ll probably enjoy it all the same.


Q1: You’re not really a film preservationist, but you do preservation of another sort.  What is it that you do?

I’m not even sure why you want to interview me, although I certainly am a rabid proponent of preserving film!  My work and my passion of the past several decades, however, has been in historic preservation–the saving, interpretation, and appreciation of historic buildings, streetscapes, landscapes, and roadscapes.  I am a public historian by trade.

Q2: You’re also a big believer in slide film over PowerPoint.  Why?

I hate PowerPoint.  I hate most PowerPoint presentations, but that’s really a different story. (You know the ones: the speaker is up there reading the words on the screen to you.  It makes me scream.)  PowerPoint has certain advantages,  such as an interactive component, which are seldom used.  I can count on one hand the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen that could not have been done the same–or usually, better–using slides and real talk.  And then they would have looked better, too.  Nothing as stunning as Kodachrome slides!

By the way, in the old days I used to create slide/tape programs with all kinds of production elements, like variable pacing, background music, themes, mixed voices.  I used to be radio (and radio production) so I did the narration. People would come and talk to me after saying how much they liked my “movie.”  How satisfying was that!?

Q3: Weren’t you a Kodachrome die-hard?

I was. I am!  I still project my beautiful Kodachrome slides for various talks I give.  And yes, I shot several rolls of Kodachrome after Kodak ceased production (I had stocked up), and was among those who got the last Kodachrome processed at Dwayne’s in Kansas in December 2010.  Heartbreaking.  Nothing like it.

Q4: You have always been a fan of old movies.  How did you get started?

Ah, well.  It’s in the genes, I think.  My mother loved old movies–of course to her, they were the films of her youth and held memorable associations as well.  Her own mother sought escape in movies from a hard life during the Depression and World War II.  My dad liked going to the movies, too.  We’d bundle into the car with a pot full of popcorn on weeknights (cheaper!) and go to one of about eight drive-in theaters in our area–all the way from Michigan City to Mishawaka and Niles, Michigan–we were really blessed!  The one we visited most often was only about three miles from our house on the old Lincoln Highway, but it was wiped out by a tornado when I was a kid!

Of course, that was golden age of old films being shown on television, and one was usually just starting when I arrived home from school.  Mom would tell me when she first saw it and about the actors.  My father liked the westerns and war stories shown at night or on weekends, which I didn’t always enjoy as much, but the adventure movies, like the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, I very much did!  (I think I can still recite most of the dialogue of Captain Blood.)  But the films I most cherished watching with my dad were the late Saturday night Universal horror movies and 50s sci-fi.  (“They’re here!  They’re here!”)

My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up, and between my mother’s and grandmother’s subscriptions, I think I had access to three or four film magazines.  When I was in junior high, I got a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Always was a pretty weird kid.

Q5: I know that Eric really got you stuck on silent films.  Do you have some favorite films or actors to recommend?

Hmm.  Tough one.  Lon Chaney is a genius, and Eric, who has huge collection of Chaney material, really turned me on to his work–far beyond Hunchback and Phantom, which everybody knows.

I like comedian Charley Chase, who I find to be right up there with his more well known contemporaries.  “Limousine Love” is a scream!  And of course, Max Davidson, largely forgotten today, is hilarious and I never miss a chance to see his films, which are best viewed, of course, with an audience.

I’ve become a huge fan of Charley Bowers, and I had never heard of him before I met Eric.  Actually, I’m quite fond of several silent animators, none of whom I had known much (if anything) about before.  I’m astonished at the content and effects of 1920s animation shorts and cartoons, and I wonder what these guys were smoking!

More prosaically, perhaps, I like Clara Bow a lot.  And the under-appreciated Marion Davies, particularly in her non-costume roles.  To ease my eyes:  early Gary Cooper, hubba hubba.  Buddy Rogers, ditto.

And I love Douglas Fairbanks–love how he moves!  (Mind you, it was his more handsome son I noticed first, but Fairbanks, Sr. just looks like he’s having so much fun in his films!)

Q6. How do you support Eric’s film preservation work and how does he support your preservation work?

We do have a cooperative arrangement that usually works pretty well–unless we each have a gig at the same time, which happens!

And sometimes I’ve sacrificed going to events or even given up getaways; there was this time when we were going to leave for northern Michigan, and suddenly an emergency film restoration project arose.  Personally, I think I should get a credit on the restored version of  Seven Chances!

As a rule, I play the part of the “lovely assistant” and help Eric set up his film showings, run interference when necessary, act as shill occasionally, and answer secondary questions.  I hope the best thing I do is keep encouraging his work, because I think it is important and it is not always recognized.

As for my work, Eric plays a similar part, assisting with my various programs and also coming along and helping with fieldwork and research.  Sometimes we are both called to the same place; this is a usually a closed or underused theater, and Eric pokes through the projection booth while I clamber all over the building!

Glory in character as Anamorphia

Q7: You’re in the Dr. Film pilot episode as Anamorphia.  What was it like to play that part?  You’ve been a fan of movie shows like this for a long time.  How did it feel to be in one?

You know, these are wonderful questions.  I had a dream since I was a teen of doing a sort of vampire woman horror-host TV show–bear in mind I had never seen Vampira or Elvira.  (I grew up in northern Indiana.)  I worked in radio for some years and never had much thought to venture into TV–unless the opportunity had arisen to do a gig like that!

So this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.  I do think my director has me go a little too over-the-top, but maybe that’s appropriate!

It’s fun; I love doing theater of any sort–and I wish someone would pick up Dr. Film so we could shoot more episodes!

Q8: You’re a big supporter of the Dr. Film show, and you want Eric to keep trying to get it out there.  You even wrote a guest blog about it.  What makes you so passionate about the show?  You seem even more gung-ho about it than Eric is.

That was a nice segue from the previous question, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have been working in field where you simply don’t always win–in fact, often do not–but you just have to pick up and keep trying because it’s the right thing to do–and you must pursue your passion.

Dr. Film is the kind of show that SHOULD be out there–more so now than ever, I think.   I grew up just knowing about a lot of movies just because they were THERE–but they aren’t there anymore.  We are losing our cultural references.   And anyway, film history is fun!  

Q9: What are some of the craziest things you’ve done to get things preserved, either in the film world or otherwise?  I hear you’re pretty dedicated sometimes.

Crazy things?  Why, what do you mean?   Well, one of my very first preservation efforts involved a beautiful early 1900s office building in downtown Indianapolis.  I set up pickets with signs and a petition campaign.  We made the newspapers, but didn’t win; the forces against preservation were too great.  But you have to keep trying.

A year or two later I spearheaded a campaign to save a beautiful abandoned New Deal-era apartment complex.  We did guerilla renovation on one apartment and brought everyone we could out there to see it to try to change the minds of the powers-that-be.  It took four months of my life, full time, but that remains one of my proudest efforts–even though we didn’t win.   Those apartments were built to last; it took the city months to tear them down at far greater cost than they thought.  Ha!

To this day I am known to run wildly into abandoned buildings and dance along abandoned stretches of old highways.  As for film, how many times have I ridden in a car full of film that smells like a salad? (That would be indicative of vinegar syndrome.)   And about that time I gave up my trip to northern Michigan. . .

10.  What question did I not ask you that I should have asked?  And answer that question, please.

Why do you dance all the time?

Why do you breathe? (Thanks to The Red Shoes.)

Why do I take the old roads and shun interstates?  Same answer.

Moving Beyond the Big Four

I was having a discussion, a polite one, with another film historian the other day.  He’s a guy I like and respect, so I won’t sully this conversation by naming him, because I disagreed with his whole premise.  That’s OK, because he disagreed with my whole premise.

To sum up, this was his position:

Comedians other than the “Big 3” are only of academic interest and should not be shown to general audiences.  General audiences are so far removed from the days of silent comedy that they can no longer relate to it in any way and shouldn’t be asked to.  The whole idea that we have the “Big 3” is because the critics have decided that these are the best and most worthwhile comedians to watch, and therefore any uninitiated audience should see them first.  The other comedians should not be run for first time audiences because they are not as good and unique as the “Big 3.”

The Big 3, of course, are Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  Some people will call it the Big 4, including Harry Langdon.

Now I’ll sit here right now and tell you that I have absolutely NOTHING against Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Langdon.  I like them, every one.

But I hate this idea to its very roots.

I have this strange and odd counter-idea.  I think comedy should be run because it’s funny.  And I have another strange and odd idea: I don’t believe that there is a Jeffersonian Meritocracy of comedians and that we’ve decided who the good ones are and who the less worthy ones are.  There are just plain too many films that we haven’t seen to judge accurately.

I’ve pointed this up before, but I have to say it again: films don’t necessarily survive and get shown because they are good.  They survive and are shown because they are available, out of copyright, and can be found in nice-looking prints.  Film history is written by the survivors, not necessarily the best films.

This whole notion got started in Walter Kerr’s book called The Silent Clowns.  Now, again, I don’t have a problem with Kerr, either.  My problem is that he wrote his book in 1975 when it was just downright impossible to see a lot of the films that we take for granted today.  In 1975, we could say that DW Griffith was the father of film, because everything we could see showed Griffith streets ahead of everyone else.

Now we see that this wasn’t true, that there were others who were doing really interesting work.  It was the fact that Griffith’s films were seen and preserved that put him in such a hallowed position.  And, again, Griffith deserves a hallowed position, just not as the only guy who made movies move forward.

In 1975, there were only a few Charley Chase films available, almost no Max Davidson around, no Charley Bowers at all, and not even all of the Keaton and Lloyd films were obtainable.  The Langdons were spotty.  Kerr had to rely on memories and prints that he could find in private collections (thank you, Bill Everson.)

Arbuckle?  Not much.  Lloyd Hamilton?  A few.  Snub Pollard?  Hit and miss.  Lupino Lane?  Never heard of him.  Larry Semon?  Yeah, there’s some stuff around.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg to me.  I don’t think we should look at Kerr’s book as the roadmap for “this is all we should watch” because he studied it and wrote the book for us.  In my opinion, he’s telling us, “Hey, I’ve studied these films, these are some of them that I like, and here’s why I like them.”

That’s valuable, and that’s why the book is great.  But if we limit ourselves only to what he covered, it’s a sad thing.  It’s like eating only Big Macs at a Smorgasbord.  Hey, Big Macs are popular, some of the most popular food in the world, nothing wrong with them.  But you can find those anywhere, and there’s so much other stuff you could try… even just to nibble on!

I would also make an argument that limiting ourselves to these guys is sad on another level.  Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon all had an interesting commonality: they had almost complete control of their pictures and basically unlimited budgets.  Chaplin even had almost unlimited time.

Is it really fair to compare Chaplin, who made one movie in 1925, to Charley Chase, who made 19 movies in 1925?  I’d wager that all of Chase’s movies together cost less than Chaplin’s one.  Does that make Chase a lesser comedian, or Chaplin a better one?

WHO CARES?  Chaplin is funny and so is Chase, and there’s not a fair benchmark to compare them.  Want some laughs?  Watch Chase in His Wooden Wedding.  Chaplin?  Well, you know about him already.  At least I hope you do.  Otherwise, watch The Gold Rush.

The guy that I’d like to see analyzed by the academic types is Larry Semon.  This guy was insanely popular in the 1920s, his movies made money, he had a great following, and his own studio.  And his movies are interesting but not very good when seen today.  It is fair to pit Semon against those other guys, but for some reason, no one does.

And we do other odd things.  The Big 4 are to be revered because they came up with individual comic characters, when no one else did.  Seriously?

chaseChase had a unique character, and we can now see him build into it.  Then, when talkies came in, he became too old for the man-about-town-misunderstood-husband, and he changed the character.  Max Davidson had a unique character, quite unlike anyone who has come before or since.

Oh, but Max had help, you cry.  Leo McCarey and George Stevens worked on his films.  Yeah?  You think those other guys didn’t have brilliant writers?  Clyde Bruckman worked with almost all of them at one point.

Apparently, Arbuckle, who invented a lot of things that got ripped off later, isn’t a genius because he didn’t last long enough into the 1920s, even though he did a lot of directing after the scandal that unfairly sidelined him.

Lupino Lane was too British and was willing to use special effects in conjunction with his amazing acrobatic abilities, so that negates him.

Charley Bowers doesn’t count either because he used extensive special effects, and didn’t have a unique comic character.  It was just a ripoff of Keaton, according to those who are “in the know.”


I have two criteria for judging comic performers:

  1. is it funny?  Does it make me laugh?
  2. is it stale?  If I’ve seen it before done by someone else, then I’m not too impressed, and even less so if you don’t do it a lot better than I saw it the first time.

By this yardstick, I officially love Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lupino Lane, Max Davidson, Charley Chase, and Charley Bowers.  And a lot of other comedians, too.

Let me make a slight sidelight for two of them.  As many of you know, I’m a sucker for something different, something I’ve never seen before.  I really hate boring predictable movies, especially if they’re comedies.

This is why I especially love the silent comedies of Max Davidson and Charley Bowers.  Lupino Lane is great too… but he’s an acrobat with a great sense of timing and danger.  It’s familiar stuff done fantastically well.

bowersBut Bowers.  Wow.  I disagree completely with the dismissal that he’s part Chaplin and part Keaton. (He actually looks a little like Keaton, which isn’t his fault, but it’s led to his being dismissed as an imitator.)  Bowers is all Bowers.  He is a reality-challenged go-getter (actually rather more like Lloyd than the other two) who solves problems in ways that no one ever thinks of.  There It Is (1928), which is probably his finest surviving silent film, is so bizarre as to be beyond description.  Now You Tell One (1926) has some of the most haunting ideas I’ve ever seen in a film: Bowers marches elephants into the Capitol Building, and has invented a grafting potion that allows any item to grow from a stem: cats grow from cattails, eggplants sprout eggs, etc.  The sheer volume of ideas that strike Bowers is enough for me to love him.

And there’s nothing like him again in all Cinema.

maxAnd Max Davidson.  Oh, Max.  I’ve come to really love Max as an actor because he pops up in movies all the time.  A shock of hair, a beard, but an amazingly flexible face that can even portray policemen if necessary.  As a cheap Jewish character, Max got his own series along Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the late 20s.  I love Max’s reaction shots.  Max’s reaction to the chaos that often surrounds him is priceless.  He’s every bit as good (and different) as Babe Hardy was at portraying frustration or just plain bewilderment.  Pass the Gravy (1928) hinges on him not understanding a key element of the plot for 15 minutes, and he absolutely sells the idea that he doesn’t follow it.  The guy sells a one-joke comedy for 15 minutes, and it’s one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

And there’s nothing like Max again in all Cinema.

I suppose I should sum up by saying that there’s nothing wrong with watching only the big 4 comedians.  I like them all.  But there’s so much more out there today, stuff that’s funny, stuff that does stand up to the test of time, and if only watch the big 4 you’ll be missing it, along with a lot of laughs.

You can still get a Big Mac at the Smorgasbord, but there’s a McDonald’s on every street corner all around the globe.  Wouldn’t it be fun just to taste a spanakopita from Greece?  I love them, too.  Think what you might be missing.

Don’t take my word for it.  Your tastes may vary.  Find out for yourself, and get back to me.