Rick Prelinger is the Founder of the Prelinger Archives. He has lived in San Francisco since 1999 and spends much of his time working on ways to make archives more accessible. In the following interview, we talk about his unique Panorama Ephemera Film project and the future of Prelinger Archives.
ephemera: Tell me about the Panorama Ephemera Film project. How did it begin?
Prelinger: I started to collect advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur films--also known as home movies--in the early 1980s. Soon realizing that these were the cinematic equivalents of print ephemera, I started calling them ephemeral films, a name that's stuck. Though there were a handful of collectors and businesses interested in this material, no one was collecting it in a systematic way, and my collection quickly grew from a few cans stored around my bed, to rooms and rooms of material.
Because it's ephemeral, most of this material is in the public domain--little of it was considered valuable after it was used for its intended purpose. And since the U.S. is such a media-rich country, there are literally hundreds of thousands of ephemeral films waiting for people to make new works from them. I'd wanted to do this for a long time, and in 2004, I finally sat down in front of Final Cut Pro and started viewing archival material with an eye to selecting material I wanted to work with. I didn't start with a story and try to fill in the blanks with clips--I started with images and sound and picked segments that spoke loudly to me, then arranged them into a narrative, making a paper edit--kind of a simplified framework and outline--and then a rough cut on video. Though you can start with an idea and build images around it, I'm more interested in using the document itself as a starting point. Original documents speak louder than anything I can cook up myself.
I showed it once and got a bit of feedback and then went back to my laptop and reedited it. About five months after I started, I realized the film was finished. The first thing I did was to put it online at the Internet Archive, where anyone can download a high-quality version for free. This got the word out without spending any money--typically, filmmakers have to spend a lot of time and money publicizing their work, but having it online did wonders to get the word out. It has played at half a dozen festivals, including Rotterdam, screened all over the map, and been reviewed in the New York Times; I think putting it online made almost all of these possible.
I've been transferring a lot of film in our collection to video, and it's pretty hard to resist thinking about my next film. I've got other projects to finish first, though.
ephemera: What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in creating this film?
Prelinger: There were many. I've worked with archival footage for over 20 years, but still found it really, really hard to edit at times. My spouse heard me ranting that I never wanted to work with archival film again.
The big problem working with ephemeral films has to do with one of the qualities that makes them so alluring--style. When you watch old industrial and educational films, you see the magnificent and un-faded colors of Kodachrome, hear the stentorian voices of the narrators, drink in the details of lost landscapes and demolished diners, and marvel at the speech and body language of our ancestors. All of this is very cool, but it can be very distracting--it's hard to dive below style to see what the material really means, what the films are really about. I didn't want to make something campy or kitschy, but rather explore some of the ideas and mythologies that have influenced our history. So sometimes the clips just didn't work the way I wanted them to work, or say what I hoped they would say. You put a film like this together with tweezers, it is very fine and detailed work, and you need to be very patient.
Otherwise, it is technically very easy to make a film nowadays, if you can handle doing it in video. I used Final Cut Pro and cut the whole thing on my laptop.
ephemera: What are your favorite images in the film? What discoveries did you make?
Prelinger: This is kind of a cop-out, but every sequence in the film is there because it spoke to me in some way. But I like the enigmatic images, which are like a piece of paper you find that you can't quite trace back to its origins. I like the old Esso station footage; I like TUESDAY IN NOVEMBER, the film on the 1944 presidential election; I like IN THE SUBURBS, one of the greatest films on 1950s suburbia.
ephemera: What does the film tell us about America's landscape and history?
Prelinger: The final film is made up of 64 sequences that together--kinda sorta--tell the story of American history from the early Puritan immigrants to the present day. It is not literal, but it's pretty obvious what the sequences are saying. It's about deciding what kind of political system we wanted in our country, about westward moving, about the birth and death of industry, about the relationship between humans and animals, about World War II and its aftermath, about fear and danger in America, and more. It's like a record album, where each song is separate, but together they make up a narrative that goes from A to B.
ephemera: The film project is amazing, Rick. Let's take moment to talk about your Prelinger Archive and the paper in your collection.
Prelinger: Prelinger Archives was the film collection, which is now mostly at the Library of Congress. It totals about 200,000 cans, which means about 60,000 films and a whole slew of unedited and raw footage. Prelinger Library is my spouse Megan's and my private library in downtown San Francisco. It's open to the public at regular hours, which we post on the library website every week. It's a collection of about 50,000 books, bound and loose periodicals, maps and paper ephemera items. Anyone is welcome to come and read or use the collection as a source of image and text for their own projects. The collection focuses on American history and geography, media and technology, industry and labor, and social and political issues. We have a really large periodical collection--about 600 runs, and a large collection of recently published zines. The library doesn't have a catalog, and isn't arranged like other libraries you may know. Rather, Megan designed a unique system of organization and classification, and the topics (which begin with San Francisco and end in space) blend into one another. It is designed for the browser and the person who values serendipity and surprise. Come and visit!
ephemera: What future ephemera-related projects do you plan? What is the future of the Archive?
Prelinger: We've put 2000 films online at the Internet Archive for free downloading and reuse, and are right now working on the next 500 to upload. The library continues to grow--we've had about 3000 visitors since we opened in summer 2004, and we have between 5 and 25 more every week, not counting college and art school classes. We are also scanning our materials; almost 3000 books and bound periodical volumes are online at the Internet Archive for everyone to use.
ephemera: Thanks, Rick. I know a lot of readers will find this to be a fascinating topic. I appreciate your time in talking with the ephemera blog. And thanks for the invite to the library--it'll be my first stop, if I'm ever back in San Francisco.