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.
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."