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Incredible Movies -- Free!

by Richard Koman
05/30/2003

Ginny thinks she has the clue to popularity: parking in cars with the boys at night. When, Gerry brags that he took Ginny out, he learns that she dates all the boys--and he feels less important. What about Ginny? Does that make her really popular? Do boys and girls like her? Is she welcome to join this group? No! Girls who park in cars are not really popular, not even with the boys they park with. Not when they meet in school or elsewhere...

So goes the social engineering in a little piece of 1950s filmmaking called "Are You Popular?"--one of some 48,000 films collected by Rick Prelinger over the past 30 years or so. About 1,200 of those films are available for free download or streaming from the Internet Archive, a number Prelinger expects to rise to over 2,000 by the end of the year. Besides "mental hygiene" films like "Are You Popular?", the online collection includes racist war propaganda, square-dancing cigarettes in a Lucky Strike commercial, the story of food processing, a TV show called "Science in Action," and the story of the extraction of Saudi oil to power the American "nation on wheels."

Prelinger started collecting ephemeral films--industrial, educational, and advertising--back in the 1970s, when his friend Pierce Rafferty, one of the directors of "Atomic Cafe" invited him to work as director of research on a new film, "Heavy Petting," which was to be the "Atomic Cafe" of sexuality and romance.

I reached Prelinger by phone and talked about the collection itself, and the impact of putting so much of it online.

Richard Koman: So you were looking for ephemeral films about sexuality, in the tradition of "Atomic Cafe"?

Rick Prelinger: You know, if you're trying to find footage of a disaster or an assassination, that's easy; that's an event that has a fixed place and time. But what I was trying to do was trace social history and culture, and that was really difficult. I started realizing that the gold was going to be found in industrial films, advertising, and educational films. Educational films because they were about training boys to be men and girls to be women and about training us to be consumers and husbands and wives. I mean, just way beyond dating and sex. They explained what the official visions of the culture were. I found that interesting.

Koman: We associate that stuff strongly with the 1950s...

Prelinger: We do because we've seen the '50s material, but actually, social guidance films--what my friend Ken Smith calls "mental hygiene" films--really go back to the early 1900s and they're still doing them now. It's just that we're a little too familiar with some of the means by which those messages are spread. And those films, because of time and cultural distance, they're really in your face now. They seem outrageous and they use outdated styles and representational styles, and they're a goof.

Koman: My sense also is that since the 1960s, you don't see those things anymore, but you think we're still doing those?

Prelinger: Not true. In fact, the various social revolutions of the '60s influenced filmmaking tremendously. Films that used to be made in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles suddenly started to be made in Cambridge, Berkeley, and Ann Arbor, and the films started to look very different, and they said very different things. That's when you started to see films about self-esteem and about multiculturalism and about positive roles for girls. In the mainstream this was happening too. That's when Marlo Thomas was doing "Free to Be You and Me" and there was very much a sense of actualizing yourself no matter who you were, and everybody's important and everybody should respect other people's experience. Rather than in the old days, a kind of more monolithic sense of who we were and who we were supposed to be.

Koman: Right, and you see that as all part of the same continuum of training people on how we're supposed to think, and what we're supposed to be, whether that's to "be a dedicated worker" or "celebrate diversity"?

Prelinger: Totally, and that's still happening now. Kids are still seeing these videos in schools. And there's a still a huge industry dedicated to socializing not just kids but adults. Etiquette and self-help books are different branches of the same tree. But you know, the United States has always been extremely big on moral and social education. We've never been focused on the three R's. There has always been this overhead and this sense that the society picks up where the family doesn't.

Koman: So, where did you find these films; where did they live?

Prelinger: It was hard. I went to the library and looked up a bunch of very outdated reference books and I came up with a hit list of about 1,400 titles that I wanted to find for this movie ["Heavy Petting"]. Now, at that time, 1982, 1983, film was going out of style. And schools were doing wholesale dumping of their film collections and bringing in video. So there was just a tremendous amount of stuff up for grabs. Colleges and universities would give me stuff when they were closing their film libraries. A lot of people, like A/V librarians, had saved things that they gave to me.

And then at a certain point, I really got seriously into this. I started talking to collectors who were interested in feature films and TV and sports, but not this stuff, so it was really cheap then--it isn't anymore. And then I started going to the producers who made these films and the people who'd actually worked in the industry and there were huge collections there, and what was wonderful is that it wasn't just release prints made to run through the projector but also the negatives and the original master materials, so it was possible to preserve much better quality, which was really exciting. And then production companies, labs ... I mean it got out of hand very quickly. From 400 films at the end of 1983 to 8,000 at the end of 1984. When the collection went to the Library of Congress at the end of 2002 it was 48,000, plus a lot of unedited material as well.

Koman: Are you obsessed with this material?

Prelinger: No. I'm not really an obsessive person. I'm not really even temperamentally a collector. What happened was just that at a certain point it was important not to stop--because this collection reached the point of being maybe 10 to 15 percent of the total output of ephemeral films. And it was important that this resource be managed and grown in as careful a way as I could. So I couldn't stop doing it because nobody else was doing it in the same way. I wouldn't call it obsession. It was more that it became my vocation.

And then the other thing that happened was that about three years after I started collecting, I met Bob Stein, who was the cofounder of Voyager Company. Voyager was known for doing very smart laserdisc releases with all sorts of collateral material--and we made a couple of discs together. I began to realize largely out of that experience that I was practicing history without a degree, that these films were immensely valuable in understanding the present in which we live and showing the past, which was much more vivid than a book.

You could sit people down and show them a few films and suddenly they'd engage in a spirited dialog about past and present and about our heritage. It was amazing. There were these tools for public education and they were also funny. It became my preoccupation after a few years to use them to make historical interventions into the present.

Koman: So did or do you have a thriving business in licensing commercial uses of these films?

Prelinger: We started selling footage in 1984 and it was very informal. We incorporated in 1985 and were in business for about ten years. Then we signed with a large company that is now Getty Images to represent us. And they're very big and for a long time they enabled the collection to exist and grow. But yes, that is my primary source of income. It is not quite enough to live on.

Koman: So, now let's talk about getting them online and making them available to the world.

Prelinger: I moved to San Francisco in 1999. Two people, Danny Hillis and Howard Besser, kept telling me, you have to talk to Brewster Kahle. When he called me back, he said, "Oh! Last night at dinner we were just talking about where to find a historical film archive to put online, and how would you like to put your archive online for free?" And I was like Ralph Kramden, I started going "Ba-ba-ba-ba." I said, "Well, you know, that's my income--charging for access to footage. I don't know if we can put this online." But we started to talk and a few months later, I just had an epiphany. I realized he was actually right and that the gift economy actually made a lot of sense, and there was a way, by giving things away, that a lot of concurrent interests could be served kind of elegantly.

So we began to put some stuff online in the beginning of 2001. We spent about a year figuring out a bunch of strategies for digitizing and transferring a whole bunch of stuff to video tape, and we did it very simply. It was very bootstrap thinking. But it was a big hit. A couple of months later, we got slashdotted and it broke, and we fixed some things, and we got slashdotted again and it broke again. But it's been building up slowly.

But we did take a big risk. I mean, it is a big risk--a lot of this content is public domain and classically, people who own physical copies of public domain material do their best to safeguard it in a very guarded way. We always used to send out timecoded cassettes with big fat numbers obscuring the image and "PROPERTY OF PRELINGER ARCHIVE. DO NOT USE" and all this kind of stuff.

It's kind of interesting. We were always very friendly to people who wanted to use our footage but couldn't pay license fees, which were expensive. Students, people doing social-issue or community filmmaking, a lot of independent filmmakers, a lot of film and video and new media artists, we almost never said no. And these are people who would never be able to pay $30 a second for material. Those people are pretty well served now by the IA site. We're talking a million and a half films that have been downloaded and accessed since the beginning.

Koman: So how has your income fared?

Prelinger: My income's up. If you compare what we did in 2002 and the start of 2003 compared to 1999 and 2000, we're up about 15 to 20 percent. I can't attribute this to the economy because the stock footage business is really down. I attribute a lot of it to increased visibility and notoriety because people can preview our stuff on the site.

But what happens is there's this two-tier system. People who are willing to take something from the online archives and convert it to work with whatever kind of editing system they're using and people who are content to use something without any paperwork who can get it for free. If you want us to pick out the material for you, if you want us to give you a written license agreement and if you want access to a high-quality physical element, you have to pay. And in a big way, so much interesting work is being done, and these moving images, which were totally unknown and impossible to get your hands on, are coming back into the culture.

The other thing is that as these archival images have increased visibility in our media and in our culture, there are a whole lot of people around who are trendspotters who look to see what kind of imagery is being used in art and student films and so on. And so we get noticed, and there winds up being increased interest in this kind of material, and maybe those orders come to us, maybe they don't, but in general, the archival field benefits from this visibility.

We have about 1,175 titles up now and I'm doing metadata on the next bunch, and a little after the middle of the year we'll have about 2,000 up. So it's a generous collection.

Koman: So, speaking of metadata, can you speak somewhat technically about how the films are catalogged and so on?

Prelinger: The metadata's really idiosyncratic. We've done our best to edit the metadata that goes into the Internet Archive for consistency. But there are these freeform fields that may provide a synopsis description, shot list, it could have script, commentary, it's really open. For the moment, it's going to have to stay that way unless somebody really rolls up his or her sleeves to bring it into consistency with mainstream cataloging practice.

The other issue that's really complicated is that there's no sense of what the standard practice would be when you begin to break a film up into segments. Filmographic stuff: title, release date, director, and so on; there's a great deal of consensus about this, but how do you start listing shots? What's your reference point? Timecode of the original tape, which doesn't mean anything after you digitize it? Running time reference from the beginning of the digital file, which is going to be different in each format and isn't necessarily passed along with an MPEG-2 program stream? I'm not the person to solve those problems, I'm a content guy. But I think this might actually be a fertile testbed for people to work on these issues.

Koman: What are some of the interesting works people have created with your films online?

Prelinger: Both on and off actually. One piece I really liked was a movie called "Fed Up," which was a feature-length documentary about the food business in the United States, sustainable agriculture, and what is happening to the food supply. This could be a very difficult film to make in a way that would hold someone's attention. What the filmmaker did was intersperse talking head material with footage he downloaded from our collection. On the one hand, that material explains the background of agribusiness and genetic engineering, but on the other hand it's very funny.

There's an artist whose name is Vicki Bennett who records under the name People Like Us. She's made two films now almost exclusively with material from the online collection. These are sort of visionary collage films. "We Edit Life" is about the history of electronic music and the coming obsolescence of humans. The one she's working on now, "Remote Controller," is about the remote control of things, objects, processes, and people. It's a film that has a very subtle and unique political point of view. And then she also performs live out of the films she makes out of this stuff. She's actually going to do the music for my movie.

Koman: Oh, cool. Do you have a name for your movie?

Prelinger: I don't. It will come to me but it hasn't yet. One thing that's neat is that museums and galleries and even a few festivals are doing shows and they're just downloading the material and playing it. I don't have to get involved. The documentary festival at Duke University did a retrospective of stuff they downloaded. Oakland University in Michigan did a symposium on the life of J.M. Handy, who was a pioneer advertising and industrial filmmaker... a very important man in the history of American public relations whom nobody knows anything about. And they just got everything they needed off the site.

Koman: I want to go back to the idea that by virtue of collecting these films you are practicing history without a degree. I wonder what some of your historical insights are as a result of having worked with these films?

Prelinger: My mind is always in a state of flux but one of the things that these films made very clear to me is that throughout the 20th century, there had been a consistent effort to use the media--all modes of media--to construct and to sustain a sense of consensus among the American people. And there were different elements to that consensus, but some of the more obvious ones are: to behave predictably; not to let your ideas get in the way of your functions as a worker, as a consumer; to lay down certain behavior norms that would result in a harmonious and productive society.

I don't think this is unique to the United States; I don't think this is necessarily all bad, but if you want to see the process by which it happened and understand how conditioning and education and consensus work, these films are a wonderful way to do it. I did a series of CD-ROMs on that subject called Our Secret Century. And here and there, I think we've found a few smoking guns, but it was more about, here is how social processes work, if you understand the past, maybe the present, which goes by so quickly and is too familiar and sometimes bewildering, maybe the present will be a little clearer to you.

Koman: How many examples of, say, racism, do you see in these films?

Prelinger: Well, there's the explicit and the implicit. The implicit is when you have 48,000 films and maybe 1,000 or 2,000 show people of color. Explicit in that a lot of it comes up in conjunction with war, when it is deemed necessary to dehumanize the enemy in order to whip up...

There's this remarkable film, My Japan. It was made right at end of WWII in 1945. It's an argument for total war. We are going to have to fight really, really hard if we're going to beat the Japanese. It's narrated by an American who's made up and speaks in a bizarre sort of false Asian-sounding accent, and he tells Americans that they don't know the real Japan but he's going to explain it to them, how hard we fight, and how Americans have no hope of winning, and how's there's going to be a trail throughout the islands paved with your blood. It's this incredibly racist and disturbing and violent film filled with images that are very shocking, telling the Americans that you better fight harder if you want to beat the Japanese. And you could argue that the people who made that film had knowledge of the A bomb; it certainly is designed to prepare Americans for total war and to make the idea of the total destruction of Japan acceptable. That is a deeply disturbing film.

Koman: A lot of what you call "mental hygiene" films seem extremely funny from this distance. I wonder what's so amusing to us about films that probably weren't especially amusing at the time, especially if you were gay or otherwise didn't fit into these tight social strictures. Yet these films seem to be just outrageously foolish and mockable-- to us.

Prelinger: I'm sure they were foolish and mockable in the '50s as well, although in different ways. Can you imagine teenagers taking anything serious that they're forced to sit down and watch? I can't. You know, it's not what they did to the children who watched them that's the issue. It's more what they reveal about the adults that made them. These movies are like windows into the brains of the people that were running the show at the time--and that's why they're valuable.

Koman: Thinking about war propaganda, I'm thinking of these films the government made after 9/11, basically trying to convince the Arab world that the U.S. was a friendly place... and there was widespread criticism of how they were naively mind-controlling. All these happy Arab Americans talking about how wonderful America is... These seem to be of a piece with some of the films you're describing.

Prelinger: The thing is, it was difficult for me to be open to everything that was happening in the news around the Second Gulf War. One of the things, however, I felt good about was that there was so much metanews. Everything that was in the news was criticized and analyzed and reported. There were tons of articles about how Fox News had become the propaganda arm of the administration. We're media savvy now. We know that. They teach media literacy in schools. And what difference does it make?

We have a society that consists of millions of very media savvy and intelligent people, whether they come from left, right, or center. And the media doesn't really change that much. Yes, it can reinforce the forces that are in power, but it seems very difficult to use the media to change minds right now. For example, the media is filled with messages about "support the troops," "we have to be patriotic," but this is becoming a country of individualists who are not influenced one way or the other by what they see. They want the freedom to do what they want. So I'm not sure what to think about media-driven persuasion anymore.

Koman: So, what about the role of the Net itself as a medium, or rather as a meta-medium? It's the place where the criticism of the media happens...

Prelinger: That's the thing. I think weblogs and individual web publishing are incredibly important. That's where I get most of my news from anywhere. I don't know, I don't have any clear thoughts on social reality in five or ten years.

Koman: Do you have any thoughts on whether videography or filmmaking online will be added to the mix of blogs and web publishing as a vibrant medium?

Prelinger: I'd like to see... one of the things Brewster and I wanted to see as part of making the movie site happen is we wanted to create like a million new moving-image authors by giving people content to work with. I still hope that's going to happen. The problem is if you want to work in moving-image media right now, it's really clunky. It's really hard to build around that rectangle. Life isn't "Bladerunner" yet. We're not seeing videoscreens the size of walls outside. It's not like radio, where you can listen and do something else at the same time. It demands a certain kind of attention. Video is always going to be kind of ghettoized. It will not be a universal means of communication. That's my opinion. I don't know how it's going to integrate itself into the stream of thought and the stream of perception as seamlessly as these other modes.

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.


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