Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Films: Preserving ‘Everyday People’ History

• April 23, 2008 • 6:38 PM

Celluloid archaeologists are striving to preserve a fast-decaying historical resource and, at the same time, show the world what they’ve got.

A treasure trove of cultural history is deteriorating at this very moment. All across the world, in attics, basements, warehouses and abandoned storerooms, the clock against celluloid is ticking — for the dust-covered boxes and rusting cans of 8mm, Super 8 and 16mm film.

Countless films are languishing forgotten and untended; their very existence often unknown, yet these “orphan films” are valuable documentary and historical evidence of our society and culture. Championing their discovery, preservation and access for the past decade is Dan Streible, film historian and associate professor of cinema studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

Video: Watch 10 “orphan films”

Streible describes these neglected artifacts as “any film that doesn’t have any commercial value.”

“At one time, archivists informally used the term orphan film to describe any film that had been abandoned, or for which the identity of the filmmaker was unknown,” he said. However, since the 1993 congressional hearings on film preservation, which led to both the National Film Preservation Board and National Film Preservation Foundation, the term is used more often and broadly.

“These are films that can be anything from newsreels to short films, home movies, industrials, independent documentaries, silent movies, surveillance film, outtakes — anything you can imagine,” Streible explained. The problem, he says, is that while we know that film can and does last at least a century, when stored under proper conditions, most orphan films are forgotten or abandoned and can deteriorate quickly.

But that’s just film.

While materials science research affirms the longevity of film, Streible said research on magnetic videotape media is just beginning, and there is still less understood about the life span of digital copies. As our images become increasingly miniaturized, the effect of dirt specks and small scratches become magnified and easily render a DVD unplayable.

Technology’s evolution reinforces the need for ongoing preservation of all, even recent, moving images to insure public access. As an example, the events of the Olympics captured on 2-inch videotape that was state-of-the-art in the 1970s are today virtually unwatchable — trapped on a medium for which there is essentially no technology to view them.

While many orphan films might not have commercial value — i.e., they are not a theatrical film for public distribution — Streible said many have tremendous historical value. As “orphans” are discovered, he and his colleagues’ mission is to preserve the images and make the information known to others.

He has a slogan that “most of the films ever made no longer exist” (because of deterioration). Of those that do, the majority are not preserved, and those that have been preserved are often known only to a handful of archivists or researchers.

Video: Inside the Prelinger Archive

Preservation versus Restoration
Streible, who founded the Orphan Film Symposium in 1999, said the film preservation movement has grown considerably after it became increasingly evident that film, and video especially, is constantly decaying.

He says most people understand the term “film preservation” as it is described by Hollywood — a commercial film that is restored and then shown to audiences. This is very different preservation from the work of Streible and other film-archive historians who are faced with a race against time to preserve orphan works.

Preservation, he explained, is copying the film onto today’s newer, more stable film stock, then storing the original negatives or prints under temperature- and humidity-controlled conditions.

Restoration, on the other hand, is a far more expensive process involving chemical treatment to remove scratches or imperfections, and may also require taking several copies of the same film and making one best copy by replacing missing frames or footage in one copy with material from another.

But preservation also means increasing access, which also includes transferring the film to DVD, for example.
While DVDs provide easy access and a digital copy, Streible noted that watching a film as it was meant to be seen, projected on a screen through a lens, while not always practical, is the ideal.

Streible said he has heard many horror stories about people copying their film onto VHS tapes in the 1980s and then throwing out the original film. Two decades later, it is not only becoming more difficult to find tape players, the image quality is substantially reduced.

“What you see on film, you will not see on video,” he said. “In the case of digitizing and transferring a film to DVD, for example, the transfer technology isn’t reproducing the original image at a level comparable in quality to film, with its grains of silver embedded in the emulsion.”

A 35mm film transferred to VHS loses about 40 percent of its visual information. Although DVDs offer improved reproduction, a movie’s resolution is still limited by the television monitor and TV viewers became accustomed to watching less-detailed pictures. “You forget how good film projection can look,” Streible said.

Providing History on Demand
The realization that tape was not a suitable transfer medium was one factor that helped galvanize the film preservation movement. Rick Prelinger, the owner and historian/archivist of Prelinger Archives, offers another contributing angle.

“History is everybody’s interest now,” he said. “It’s not just for specialists anymore. In the
last 20 years, history has gone retail, and people interested in film aren’t only in Hollywood. They’re everybody and everywhere.”

Prelinger said finding, preserving and making the message of orphan works available benefits everyone. Researchers, genealogists or anyone seeking the history and details of a particular time period, a specific town, event, a family or even one person can harvest a lot of detail in watching these films.

Both Streible and Prelinger believe that these moving images of what might be considered “unimportant” — backyard picnics, a family holiday dinner or vacation footage, high school education films, location film shot by anthropologists — all provide a perspective, a social value and an “aliveness” that is far more compelling and revealing of our culture than microfiche clippings of old newspapers.

Sometimes, the film becomes history itself, as did the silent, color 8mm Abraham Zapruder home movie that recorded the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

If private owners are not interested in projecting or preserving their film with copying to DVD, Streible recommends people look for the nearest archive and donate the film to public collections. He cautions that while many have proper film storage facilities, many do not. “A university with a film school, a state historical society or film organization may be able to help find a home for these artifacts.”

The current challenge, however, beyond preservation, is making the vast number of moving images — those found and yet to be found — known and accessible to everyone. Streible says a number of collaborations and initiatives are under way at the Library of Congress’ Packard Campus, the Rutgers University Library’s Moving Image Collection, the National Film Preservation Foundation, the International Federation of Film Archives, the Association of Moving Image Archivists and others, whose mission is to identify, catalogue, preserve and make available the products of moving image format.

Long-Term Social Value
However, public access is complicated by copyright issues, and with reduced university and government budgets moving slower than film archivists hope for, many look to private resources and sponsors for project support.

Prelinger said that in the long run “we all need to figure out how to relate to the new technology.” Increasing access to information will require modifying or rewriting current copyright laws, which were built in an era of non-electronic communications, while continuing to protect the rights of artists and creators. While the majority of orphan films are truly orphans, there is always concern that an owner may come forward to identify and claim ownership of the images.
Streible emphasized the tremendous social value of orphan preservation.

“These orphan films can rewrite what we know because they are not part of our conventional set of images,” he said. “This is a rediscovery of all kinds of knowledge, and these films are — in every case — documentary evidence of something.”

The social history of orphan films, Prelinger said, is “history as experienced by everyday people,” and is very exciting, but “we need to create a solution to access that benefits everyone (because) amazing things happen when ordinary people get access to fabulous materials.”

Barbara Hesselgrave
Barbara Hesselgrave is a freelance writer in Virginia specializing in issues of community medicine, science and international health.

More From Barbara Hesselgrave

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 26 • 4:00 PM

Turmoil at JPMorgan

Examiners are reportedly blocked from doing their job as “London Whale” trades blow up.


November 26 • 2:00 PM

Rich Kids Are More Likely to Be Working for Dad

Nepotism is alive and well, especially for the well-off.


November 26 • 12:00 PM

How Do You Make a Living, Taxidermist?

Taxidermist Katie Innamorato talks to Noah Davis about learning her craft, seeing it become trendy, and the going-rate for a “Moss Fox.”


November 26 • 10:28 AM

Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals’ actions pile up quickly.


November 26 • 10:13 AM

Honeybees Touring America


November 26 • 10:00 AM

Understanding Money

In How to Speak Money, John Lanchester explains how the monied people talk about their mountains of cash.


November 26 • 8:00 AM

The Exponential Benefits of Eating Less

Eating less food—whole food and junk food, meat and plants, organic and conventional, GMO and non-GMO—would do a lot more than just better our personal health.


November 26 • 6:00 AM

The Incorruptible Bodies of Saints

Their figures were helped along by embalming, but, somehow, everyone forgot that part.


November 26 • 4:00 AM

The Geography of Real Estate Markets Is Shifting Under Our Feet

Policies aimed at unleashing supply in order to make housing more affordable are relying on outdated models.



November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


Follow us


Attitudes About Race Affect Actions, Even When They Don’t

Tiny effects of attitudes on individuals' actions pile up quickly.

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.