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The Fine Art of Keeping the World's Weird Films Alive: An Interview with Archivist Rick Prelinger

Rick Prelinger is an archivist rockstar. In the DIY spirit, he created his acclaimed Prelinger Library from scratch -- by touring the world in search of its rare and beautiful advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films. In 2002, after...
July 31, 2012, 3:30pm

Rick Prelinger is an archivist rockstar. In the DIY spirit, he created his acclaimed Prelinger Archives from scratch — by touring the world in search of its rare and beautiful advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films. In 2002, after twenty years in the making, the library reached 60,000 films and was acquired by the Library of Congress. In 2000, he made a revolutionary decision to partner with the Internet Archive to make over 3,200 of his films available online for free viewing, download, and reuse.

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As well as his prolific archival work, Prelinger is also a writer, speaker, professor, board member of the Internet Archive, and filmmaker. His 2004 archival feature film Panorama Ephemera was shown in venues all around the world, and his Lost Landscapes series has played to thousands in San Francisco and Detroit. Recently, he was awarded a Creative Capital grant for his forthcoming film No More Roadtrips?

I spoke with Prelinger about the beauty and importance of physical film reels, but also the invaluable opportunities that arise for sharing and accessing these films when they’re put on the internet.

Hey Rick! I know you live in San Francisco, is that where the Prelinger Archive is?

When you talk about physical location of materials, we were in New York for a long time, 18 years. I came of age there and built a collection, then moved out here in ‘99 and left the archive in New York in the Meatpacking District when the rent was still still manageable. That’s where most of the archive was, and then in ‘02 everything we had acquired until then went to the Library of Congress. And that was a fairly large acquisition, about 200,000 cans. Since then we’ve started collecting again out here, mostly home movies. I switched over to being an archivist of personal films and home movies.

And a lot of the people that we now recognize as major artists and filmmakers started out making industrial films.

Back before you gave your collection to the Library of Congress, you used to collect industrial films and advertising films as well?

I collected old advertising films. So what is the ancestor to web pages? It’s kind of industrial and organizational films. So every organization that now has a webpage to promote itself used to make movies. So if you had been working at Rolling Stone or Newsweek or Life back in the ‘60s or earlier, those magazines would have made films to promote themselves to buyers. And sometimes those films are just incredible. Like there’s this one film that Redbook made in the ’50s to promote itself as the magazine for young adults, and it turns out to be the most amazing view of suburbia in the ’50s.

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And some of the companies hired actual filmographers and artist to make the films. We just did a piece about a film Jim Henson directed for AT&T in the ’60s (check it out here).

Yes. So if you were an artist, you couldn’t make art all the time. And a lot of the people that we now recognize as major artists and filmmakers started out making industrial films.

Oh, like Stan Brakhage.

Stan Brakhage, sure. He made industrial films in Pittsburgh. People like Ed Emshwiller, who’s a very famous science-fiction author an artist as well as filmmaker made some amazing stuff. It also goes the other way — John Cleese from Monty Python, after he was famous he made a whole slew of business-training films in the Monty Python style, which are still being sold. Matt Groening’s dad Homer made a bunch of films about water. There’s just a huge tradition of it. Sometimes companies just want to do something special. I got most of my industrial films by contacting production companies that were going out of business and saying, “Hey, I want to save your stuff.” And it’s amazing what people will give you if you ask for it.

This is the Prelinger Archives, Rick Prelinger, 2001 (via)

I guess they didn’t know what they were giving away.

I solved a problem for them, because here they were sitting in cities with expensive real estate, and they didn’t want to hire day labor to dispose of materials, so they would give it to me. Throughout the '80s and '90s I would scoot up and down in rental trucks along the East Coast, and especially the Midwest because there were a lot of amazing producers in the Midwest, and I would max out my credit cards just renting out trucks and storage. It was kind of frenzied. Archives when established usually don’t acquire very aggressively — most just wait for people to come to them — but I was super-fascinated with this and I wanted to save it while I could, and I was hungry, so I just collected as aggressively as I could.

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How did you start the process of collecting?

I started in the '80s collecting educational and industrial films, which was peculiar for the time. I tried to collect everything. And at that point we were in kind of a transition from physical to digital, kind of like how we are now, but those days it was a transition from film to video. So the first place I went were schools that were dumping their 16mm media collections. Then I started realizing that there would never be any money to preserve this film, to make next-generation film copies, and because there wasn’t any money to make copies, I wanted to collect the first generation. I wanted to collect original material, what we archivists call pre-print. It could be master or original materials, like the film that went through the camera on the day of the shoot, or it could be a negative that was used to make prints for projection, something better than a print.

I bet that takes up a ton of space having all those films.

It takes up so much space. We had at one point 13 storage rooms, then I fit it out to this place in the Meat Market District on 13th Street, and it was about 30,000 cubic feet, and I had shelves going up to the ceiling. In that room, we had over 120,000 cans. It was incredible. You know, archivists are amazing people. Many of them are like Renaissance people, they labor in obscurity and can be very fascinating. But usually the institutions are not very open, for a lot of reasons, some of which are good reasons. You can’t go into a movie image archive and say, “I want to see this” or “I want to see that” because sometimes it’s fragile, it hasn’t been preserved, so you can’t really look at things. But what I could do in this space was just pull a film off a shelf and look at it, and if it was out of copyright, I could just go ahead and duplicate it. And it was such an incredible sense of privilege.

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I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen an original film reel. I bet it was incredibly exciting handling all that rare original footage.

It really spoiled me, because you know what it’s like when you see an old film it might have shifted to violet or lavender, it might be all scratched up. It shows like a person that’s been around the world; it shows the signs of deterioration and all the signs of its life. When you go back to the original it’s like you’re looking at material from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s, literally like it was yesterday. So I got kind of spoiled, because I was collecting first generation Kodachrome, or black and white nitrate material that looks gorgeous.

I’m jealous!

In the digital age, the value of physical objects is kind of depreciated. It’s important that they’re there, and if they have a trophy quality people will fight over them. Occasionally they get fetishized and people fight over them. Once somebody found some tape of the first Super Bowl, which was thought to have been lost, but most of the time people don’t really care.

You can’t separate past and present in the media anymore.

It’s unfortunate that you don’t really hear about original film anymore, or know about its whereabouts. I suppose that’s what you try to publicize as an archivist.

Yes. And what I think a lot of people don’t realize is that as our viewing and as our delivering methods change, we still will have to go back to the original. People say, “Well, if you digitize your collection you can get rid of the film and save space,” what they don’t realize is that you can never do that because we will always be able to digitize better. And down the road we’ll also be able to do amazing things, like convincing 3-D conversions of footage that’s just flat in two dimensions, and we’ll be able to use historical material as simulations, both as a template and a window in simulations … anyway, physical material is really interesting.

The stacks of the Prelinger Library

Do you think that sort of stuff is harder to come by now because, like you said, people are just putting films on the internet and destroying the originals? Was it easier to be an archivist twenty or thirty years ago?

A couple things are happening. That’s a provocative question because it points in several different directions. On the one hand, yes, there’s much more interest and awareness, and certain things get fought over on eBay, for instance. But we’re the most media rich country ever. We throw away more media than most countries ever produce, and as a result there’s still so much stuff to collect. I thought in the ‘90s that I was going to peak, that there would never be anything more, but I have so many opportunities to collect materials, and I’m much more selective now. Have you heard of the Internet Archive?

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Yes, I was actually going to ask you about that. You’re an archivist who is putting his material online via the Internet Archive, which, I’m assuming, isn’t a move most archivists would make.

And when I met Brewster Kahle, who founded the Internet Archive, he said “why don’t you put your collection online?” And I thought, “this is crazy”, because I’m from New York, where information wants to be expensive, but then I realized he was right, and that we could sort of share the archival privilege with the public. At this point over 3,000 of our films are up for viewing on the archive. It’s not quite the same thing to look at a thing on the computer screen, but when it’s digital you can go ahead and use it in your own work, and so that was a way of diluting this archival privilege and making it possible for anybody with an internet connection to see and work with this amazing stuff. So it was life-changing for me, the idea that you could be a public person as an archivist. It was like being a producer or a publisher. It wasn’t just hoarding things, it was about being aggressive about providing this to people, and that was what was life-changing.

I can imagine. So is Internet Archive the only internet archive?

It was the first. It started in ‘96 and became extremely active in ’99. I’m a board member there now and I work on some projects, but it collects web pages for itself and also by contract for national libraries, government agencies, universities, about 300 clients. And all of that material is saved in a public collection. You know, the average life of a web page is like 100 days, I’m sure you’ve had the experience of looking for something and finding it’s not there anymore. So it is not just a museum and a library, but it’s also a means by which people who make webpages, like governments, can be accountable for what they do.

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You know the White House, for example, is constantly changing webpages to change their sense of history. And this way they’re recorded. There are a bunch of other internet archives now because the software to crawl the internet and collect web pages … many people have written software, and there are a lot of open source tools to do that. Of course Google is a huge archive, and they don’t make the archival material available.

Interesting, I’ve never thought of Google as an “archive,” but I suppose it is. I’m going to go back a little — when you chose to put the films on the Internet, it obviously changed the way that you worked and made the films available to millions of people, but I’m assuming a lot of things got lost in translation as well, trying to put tangible objects such as film reels onto the intangible platform of the internet. You spoke about that a little bit before, but what do you think are some of the most important things that get lost?

You know, I don’t so much like to talk about loss, because I think it’s so easy now to talk about a discourse of loss. It makes good copy, but this culture is really focused on loss, and we should really focus on change change accomplishes things. For example, if you something like NPR, or you read the The New York Times, it’s filled with ageist rhetoric about how we’ve lost the ability to read. And this is completely ridiculous, we have not lost the ability to read. More people read and write than ever, but what we’re seeing is new forms of reading and writing. And the same way with films — we’re seeing new forms of distribution and spectatorship, so we see a lot less of the grand theatrical experience where people get together in a big room and watch films by the hundreds or the thousands, but we see lots more social viewing, where you can put something online and suddenly, if it’s very hot, hundreds of thousands of people will be watching it at once, reading and chatting about it. Take Mad Men, and all the people that get together to chat about Mad Men.

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Definitely, that’s a great way to look at it.

And I’m really active on Twitter. I gave up Facebook about a year ago because it was too much noise, but the dialogue that arises around Twitter, that’s a whole new form of group viewing and group criticism and group knowledge that gets created, so I think it’s changing. Purist archivists and complain and moan and groan about how we’re losing the big screen, and how we can’t watch Napoleon on an iPod. People’s computers are driving their big screen TVs. I think in the future people are always going to get together to do things, we need to do that, in different ways and different places over time.

What I like about archival media is that we’ve moved into a time where past and present wrap around each other, like the DNA double-helix. You can’t separate past and present in the media anymore. If you look at a collage film, or you look at a music video, you will see this intermingling of old and new imagery. It’s human freedom over time. It’s a language that’s incredibly rich. You can complain about this or that, but peoples’ toolboxes of language has definitely taken a huge leap forward. Does that make sense?

Do you interact with other archivists?

Yes, I’m professionally really active with archivists. I’m really focused on expanding public access to archival materials, and I have to say that I take it a little too personally. It really bothers me when great collections are not available to the public. Access isn’t just being able to look at something, it’s about being able to work with it to remix it and edit it and make it your own. I have the real bug that collections that are acquired and maintained with public money should be accessible to the public 100 percent; there should be no barriers. It’s expensive, but we have to find the money to do that because communication is a human right. Everybody, especially in the USA, needs to be available to recontextualize American heritage in our own way.

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