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Tales from the Archives

A Report from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

independent film, entertainment, film festival, film events, film reviews

By Ron Merk

Each year The San Francisco Silent Film Festival presents a program at the Castro Theatre called “Tales from the Archives.” It is a free event to which the public is invited to hear about film preservation activities (and results!) from archivists and preservation enthusiasts from the USA and around the world. Recent discoveries of rare and unusual films or film-related information are presented by an esteemed group of specialists.

Bryony Dixon, Curator of Silent Film, BFI National Archive, presented some astonishing early nature films, which were among the very first films preserved by the BFI National Archive. Dixon’s presentation explores the innovative work of Britain’s nature-loving film pioneers who invented their own equipment and methodology, developed techniques and braved the elements to launch the genre that eventually led to such pinnacles of achievement as Sir David Attenborough’s Planet Earth (BBC, 2006).

The familiar snippet of film commonly known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze became an icon of the earliest cinema. Dan Streible, Founder and Director Orphan Film Symposium, takes a New Look at an Old Sneeze as he shares his discoveries about the film we thought we knew well, which had been missing almost half of the frames shot in 1894! Streible’s presentation included the new Library of Congress 35mm print of the complete kinetoscopic record.

Craig Barron (Academy Award-winning visual effects supervisor) and Ben Burtt (Academy Award-winning sound designer) shared fascinating insights into Charlie Chaplin’s significant use of technical effects such as matte shots, process shots, miniatures, and rear projection to complement real-life settings, as well as Chaplin’s selective use of sound effects and peripheral dialogue as the sound age developed. Barron and Burtt’s presentation explored how Chaplin worked and adapted new technology and developments to his process—with behind-the-scenes stills, film clips, and animations.

The theater was nearly full for this program yesterday. The audience was responsive, entertained and ultimately awed by the amazing projects that were displayed on the giant Castro Theatre screen.

What’s important about this program is that it reaches out to the audience to pull them into the (sometimes) mysterious world of film preservation. Audiences learn that so many films or fragments of films are often found by chance, and saved by yet another chance, and the vigilance of film archiving professionals around the world. A “lost” film (one for which no other copies exist anywhere in any known archive) can show up in the frozen tundra of Alaska, or an attic in Newark, New Jersey, or even a barn in Slovakia. Those of us involved in film preservation as I am never cease to be astounded at how many “hiding places” films have found, and what a wonderful event it is when something thought long lost is re-discovered.

I know first hand about this kind of excitement. Last year, I was looking on eBay, and a man in New Jersey was trying to sell some films of President John F. Kennedy photographed by his grandfather. He was asking a big price, one which he’d probably never get on eBay. I contacted him and asked him to call me, which he did the same day. We talked for nearly an hour about why such films should not be in the hands of private film collectors. I convinced him that these films should be in a proper archive, and be preserved for future generations to view, study and enjoy. The world was very luck that he agreed. Just a month later, NBC’s The Today Show did a segment about this amazing find, just one week before the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death. Synchronicity, I’d say.

You can read more about this at,

The reason I’m writing about my personal “find of a lifetime” is to point out that there are many treasures still out there, sitting in a dark place, waiting for you to find them, and get them as quickly as possible, to someone like me, or to a professionally-run film archive in your area. These films preserve the essence of our life and times. Without proper care and attention to their particular problems of deterioration or bad storage, these films will be lost forever. Everyone can become part of film preservation by supporting the work of the many archives around the world that need money to preserve our history. If everyone who reads this article gave just one dollar to film preservation, it would equal the budget of one major archive.

By everyone, I mean you, my readers, and your families and friends. Here’s a another simple thing you can do today. If you have home movies, and have transferred them to DVD or video, DON’T throw the films away. Home movies are unique documents of a place and time. They store material of cultural and historical significance in a truly unique way. Those DVDs and VHS tapes that were transferred from your original 8mm, super 8 or 16mm original films will not last forever, and your personal history will be lost. If you want to do the best thing with those films, contact a local archive and ask if they accept deposits of home movie collections. If not, write me, and I will be happy to discuss some alternatives. My e-mail address is I’m always happy to hear from my readers about any subject about which I write on Indieplex Online Magazine.

Film preservation cannot wait. There are tens of millions of feet of film waiting to be preserved. Time is running out for these films. At some point, they will deteriorate past the point of salvaging them. Everyone can help. We can all be part of saving our film history, our family stories, and all the information that illuminates the human condition.