November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 18, 2011
Several major film preservation projects have been in the news recently. Back in September, I posted about A Trip to the Moon, restored from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. (Its director, Georges Méliès, plays an important role in the new Martin Scorsese film Hugo.) Dave Kehr just wrote about a $100 Laurel and Hardy collection from Vivendi. And film buffs are eagerly awaiting the January 24, 2012 release of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD, one of the more difficult of the Best Picture Oscars winners to view. (I’ll be writing more about its restoration in the future.)
These are big-budget items that deserve media coverage, but I’d like to draw attention to another set of films that recently received preservation funding. On October 26, the National Film Preservation Foundation announced its latest grant winners. The NFPF targets movies it aptly describes as “under the radar of commercial preservation programs.” Silents, documentaries, independent films, home movies, avant garde pieces—in other words, works that generally wouldn’t stand a chance in the commercial marketplace. (Full disclosure: working through the Adirondack Forty-Sixers, I helped secure financing through the NFPF to restore mountaineering footage shot in the Adirondacks in the late 1940s.) You can read the full list of films here, but some highlights are described below.
H. Lee Waters in Burlington (1939–40): Waters was an itinerant filmmaker based in Lexington, North Carolina. Armed with a Kodak Cine Special 16mm camera, he traveled to small towns throughout Virginia, Tennessee and the Carolinas, filmed the inhabitants, then screened his work in local theaters. Waters was a fine photographer but an even better interviewer who managed to meet and film total strangers, putting them so at ease that they came across as warm and comfortable on screen. His films from Kannapolis, NC have been selected to the National Film Registry.
Also on the Registry is Uksuum Cauyai: The Drums of Winter, a 1988 documentary about the Yup’ik people of Alaska. Made by Sarah Elder and Leonard Kamerling, it captures the beliefs and traditions of a passing generation, as well as the beautiful but harsh environment in which the Yup’ik live. The dozen or so dances included in the film have the effect of erasing time, as one observer put it. Just as important, the filmmakers find ways to explain a remote culture, to turn the exotic into something we can understand and appreciate.
An earlier generation knew Lowell Thomas as a globetrotter and journalist on radio and television. (He was also an early supporter of the Cinerama process, and narrated the opening reel to This Is Cinerama.) Thomas’s 1924 book With Lawrence in Arabia helped turn T.E. Lawrence into a celebrity. Six years earlier, Thomas and cinematographer Harry Chase filmed Lawrence and other figures significant in the Palestine campaign of the Arab Revolt. Lawrence toured the world with a show about the Middle East, complete with slides, film clips, dancers and a live orchestra. In 1919, he released With Allenby in Palestine and Lawrence in Arabia, a silent film version of his very popular extravaganza. Thomas’s descendants donated 35mm acetate print to Marist College, which, thanks to the NFPF grant, is now being restored.
Halloween fans should be delighted about Captain Voyeur, John Carpenter’s first student film at the University of Southern California. Written and directed by Carpenter in 1969 for an introductory film class at the USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, the eight-minute, black-and-white short was rediscovered by archivist Dino Everett. He sees connections between the protagonist in this film and Michael Myers in Halloween, as well as an early use of Carpenter’s signature strategy of shooting from the attacker’s point of view. What Everett actually found were A/B negative rolls and the sound track, not a positive print. The NFPF grant will help ensure that a viewing print is struck.
In a phone call, Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The American Bank Note Company, a 1924 reprint of a 1915 film documenting the Bronx plant responsible for printing paper money and stamps for the United States and other countries. The company was formed in 1858, and its operations were consolidated in the Bronx in 1911. An early example of an industrial film, the movie examined the plant’s facilities and explained printing processes. It also described the employees’ pension plan, an unusual benefit at the time. This print was discovered in 1923 in a decommissioned plant in West Philadelphia and transferred to the Smithsonian.
The NFPF grants help finance film preservation masters and two access copies of each work. The public can view these films on-site; many also become available through screenings, DVDs, and the Internet. Without the grants, a significant number of these films—most of them one-of-a-kind—might be lost forever. To date the NFPF has saved more than 1,850 films and collections through grants and collaborative projects.
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.