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tv   American Artifacts Early Motion Pictures  CSPAN  December 19, 2020 9:51am-10:23am EST

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♪ [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] ♪ >> you are watching american history tv, all weekend, every
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weekend, on c-span 3. packardary of congress preservation in culpeper, virginia and talked about the "paper print -- preserves and provides access to the library's vast collection of films, television, radio broadcasts, and sound recordings. american history tv visited the facility to learn about the paper print collection. films from the earliest era of motion pictures produced between 1894 and 1912. over 3,000 paper prints were created for copyright purposes but cannot be projected. they must be scanned one frame at a time in order to be copied. mike: my name is mike mashon. i am head of the moving image section here at the library congress, the home of the largest collection of film and video in the world. within this building, they have not only the film, video, and sound recording collections of the library, but we also have preservation laboratories that are dedicated to making sure that all of this material is available for future
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generations. the story of the packard campus actually begins in the late 1990's. our benefactor, david packard, was interested in creating a facility for the library that would house the collections and the preservation laboratories. there was a facility here in culpeper that had gone up for sale. it used to belong to the federal reserve bank of richmond, virginia. and, at its height in the late 1960's until it closed in 1993, it stored $3 billion in coin and currency that was going to be used to pump up the u.s. economy east of the mississippi in the event of a nuclear catastrophe. the building was for sale. the packard humanities institute purchased it in 1997. and controlled the construction for over the next several years, next 10 years. and over time, we worked with people from the packard humanities institute into what
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the facility is today. the vision expanded over time. now the facility that is almost -- now the facility, that is almost half a million square feet, not only houses the collections and the preservation laboratories, but it also houses our data infrastructure. our cataloging teams are here. everything that we need to describe, preserve, and make available to the american public our audiovisual collections. our collections previously had been held in four states plus the district of columbia. our nitrate film, for example, was stored at wright patterson air force base in dayton, ohio. that's where our film preservation laboratory was. the video and audio preservation laboratories were in the madison building up on capitol hill. we had storage in pennsylvania, storage in maryland, virginia, district of columbia. it is nice to have it all in one
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place. our collection begins with the beginning of cinema. the earliest film that we have in our collection comes from 1891. this is a camera test that was produced by the thomas edison company. the film is called "newark athlete." it just shows a young man swinging some indian clubs. it is only a few frames long. it was part of a series of experiments that edison and his engineers engaged in in the early 1890's. where our collection really begins, though, is in 1893, with the first films that were registered for copyright. it was in the fall of 1893 that thomas edison first started registering films for copyright. the earliest surviving registered film that we have came to the library in january of 1894. it is called an "edison kinetoscopic record of a sneeze."
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colloquially, it is known as "fred ott's sneeze." again, very short film. only a few few frames long. it shows one of the edison engineers, fred ott, who is known for his comical sneezes. you see ott put a little bit of snuff in his nose, then he has a very violent sneeze. this did not come to the library on film. there was no provision in the copyright law in 1894 to allow for celluloid film to be registered for copyright, because, really, celluloid roll film just being in the process of being invented. so what edison did is he exposed the negative for "kinetoscopic record of a sneeze" on strips of photographic contact paper, affixed them to a cardboard backing, and sent it in to the library to be registered as a photograph. now, you have to think about
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this for a moment, as we do all the time. the paper print collection, as it came to be known, in that sense, really was an historical accident. the name has been lost to the midst of time, but we are grateful for whatever bureaucrat -- whatever library bureaucrat decided that it would be ok to register this as a photograph. it is not one photograph. it is a series of photographs. but yet, they allowed it to be registered. so once that happened, then the floodgates kind of opened. so edison started registering more films on paper with the library, starting in 1894. and edison was a very prolific film producer. up until 1900, he produced nearly 800 films. so there started to be more and more films come in for copyright on paper. and then, other producers
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started following along behind edison. the biograph company, which was started by edison's former engineer, william dickson, and then many, many others through the first decade of the 20th century. and they -- all of these people were registering their films with us as paper prints, and that continued up until 1912, when the copyright law was changed to allow for the submission of motion picture film. so now people, which were registering celluloid film, the type of filming that we know today, but the library did not have any storage, really, for the celluloid film. it was printed on ni tro-cellulous film stock, which was highly flammable. and so, the library did not keep any of the film that came registered as film. we did not do that until the late 1940's, when we acquired
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some storage that allowed us to keep nitrate film. but, up until 1912, we have this glorious collection of films on paper print. roughly 3,300 titles, all of which are available to view. the paper prints are the crown jewel of our collection. they form the basis of everything that we have collected since then, and we have put more effort into paper prints than any other single collection. we continue to work on them today. beginning of cinema, the vast majority of films that were produced were not what we would think of as fictional films. they were called actualities, documentaries, showing everyday life, people at work, people at
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leisure, current events. so there was a tremendous amount of that. and one of the examples that i have actually comes from 1904. this is a series of films that was shot by the american mutoscope and biograph company. part of a series called the westinghouse works. this was shot for the 1904 world's fair in st. louis. there were roughly 29 films that were produced for this series, of which 21 survived in the paper print collection. so this chronicles several factories that were owned by westinghouse. this one is called the panorama, the machine company aisle. a beautiful, beautiful film that was taken from an overhead crane that was moving along a track there in the factory and showing people below on the factory floor doing their work. a wonderful, amazing record of
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what american industry looked like at this particular time, and so, these films were incredibly popular when they were shown in 1904 in st. louis. they had special screenings for the westinghouse employees in pittsburgh. and so you will see these films used a lot in documentaries. these films were commissioned by westinghouse, but they were paid for, and american mutoscope and biograph actually shot them. the cameraman for these films, a man named billy bitzer, and becomes much more well-known in film history because he was the chief cameraman for d.w. griffith later on. but these are very important and beautiful films that mr. dickson itzer shot for westinghouse. the intent of these films was to show the work as it was
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progressing. not to have anything set up. not being staged. certainly, when you look at the films, you are going to see people that are looking up at the camera. this is not something you will see every day, but by and large, there is far too much activity going on on the floor for it to be staged. so it is just, you know, it is fascinating to watch as a document of american industry at the time. in 1904, a film like this, an actuality like this, would not really have been novel at all, because there were a lot of films that were made like that, but the way in which these were shot, the sort of chronicling of a lot of activity in a particular aspect of american industry, that was very unique. and certainly, a shot like this one, the panorama of the machine company aisle, is very unique just because of the camera angle
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bitzer was able to get. the vast expanse of the factory floor, to this day, it remains an astonishing film to watch. some of the actuality films that we have in the collection are particularly fascinating, and we see researchers coming back to them again and again. one is a new york city ghetto fishmarket. there are whole series of films that are shot in new york because that is where the center of nonproduction, a lot of it was in new york at the time. this was an edison film, which again, you are seeing a camera placed above a street scene and seeing a lot of the vendors below. and just to see the costumes and the faces of people looking up
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at the camera, it is a fascinating film that a lot of people have gone back to again and again. [whirring] there were several films that were taken of immigrants arriving at ellis island. shots of people getting off the boat at ellis island, which is a wonderful film. [whirring] we have a whole series of films that were shot both before and after the san francisco earthquake. so we have got some that were made literally in the weeks before the san francisco earthquake. one of them is particularly popular called "a trip down market street," in which a
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camera was mounted on the front of a streetcar and follows the streetcar path all the way down market street in san francisco. that was taken a few weeks before the san francisco earthquake in april 1906. and then, of course, cameramen rushed out to chronicle the fire and destruction that happened in san francisco in the wake of the earthquake. we have other little, interesting oddities in the collection, like, for example, we have advertisements. the very earliest ad we have in our collection was from 1898, an ad called "admiral cigarettes." [whirring] another that is interesting, this is from 1903. this is for gold dust scouring
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powder. ok, now, you will notice the unique format of this. this is from a biograph camera in 1903. the paper is whiter. it has this unique center perforation. that was the way that their camera was manufactured, and this is an ad for gold dust scouring powdering featuring the gold dust twins, who were on the packaging for gold dust powder. there's so much information you can learn about american culture. the paper prints just serve as an endless resource for the study of manufacturing, popular culture, and lived experience at the beginning of the 20th century. there's really nothing else like it. so actuality of these documentary films were very
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important, very popular up until the turn-of-the-century. but in 1902, things start to change, and we know this because of the paper prints. we start to see more fiction film, more films with actors or acting out a scene. this is not real life. this is a constructed reality. and edison hired a director in 1902, a man named edwin s. porter, who becomes very important for the history of film, made a few early, narrative films in which he is playing around some of the editing techniques. and it culminates in 1903 with a film called "the great train robbery." now, this is a very important film in history as well. we think of this as the first feature-length, narrative film. so it tells the story of a train
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robbery. the action is inter-cut, where you see the mail train being robbed. you see the outlaws, the action taking place in different locations, and it is cut together in such a way that you can easily understand the story, but it is radical editing at the time. this is our original paper print deposit of "the great train robbery," including the very famous scene at the end in which the outlaw george barnes fires his gun directly into the camera. so this is a very iconic shot here at the end of our paper print. this was registered for copyright on december 1, 1903. we actually have two copies. this is copy one. and it's interesting, too, that we also have some original
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prints and negatives from the paper print era. not a lot, but we do have some. we also have in our collection the original camera negative for "the great train robbery," in addition to having two copies of the paper print. but this is an important film in the history of cinema as we are tracing the narrative evolution of what cinema would become. now, of course, over more years, cinema starts to evolve at a faster pace. there are new films, filmmakers coming along, people starting to play with techniques of film. where in the early 1900's, we are also starting to see copyrighted films by the celebrated french trick filmmaker georges melies. we have several melies films in
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our collection. the next big leap occurs in 1907 when a young man named d.w. griffith was hired by the american mutoscope and biograph company to both star in and later direct films for them. griffith as we now know is considered to be the father of narrative cinema, the giant who developed a lot of the narrative techniques, of course, that we take completely for granted today when we are watching a film, but it had to start somewhere, and by and large, we think it started with griffith. i say we think it started with griffith, because there is a reason why we know so much about griffith is because biograph, the company he worked for, was really good about registering their films. but when you think about the hundreds or thousands of films that were not registered for copyright and all that was lost, there were other filmmakers out
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there who may have been doing similarly interesting things, but because we have so much griffith material available to us, we can study him. you can follow griffith's career literally on a weekly basis through the paper print collection. so, for example, this is a griffith film registered for copyright 1909. this film is called "the lonely villa." and this is one of his very best examples of crosscutting against action. so you have sisters who are trapped in their house. there are burglars trying to get at them. and there are people on the way to rescue them. so griffith cuts back and forth between all this competing action. you see the girls. you see the burglars. you see the people coming to the rescue, all culminating in a wonderful rescue at the end. i'm sorry if i spoiled the
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ending for anybody. but this is just one of the most prominent examples of the d.w. griffith film that we have in the collection. ♪ griffith actually started in the theater, was like a lot of people from the theater in those days, was reluctant to get into motion picture films, because he thought it was beneath him. but he went to work for biograph and started as an actor, saw some promise in the films, was also going to get paid a little bit of money for being a director, and eventually discovered that this was something that he was quite good at. he's responsible for bringing us
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mary pickford, another stage actor, who came to work in the films. she worked for biograph for several years. we have a lot of the pickford. we have a lot of mary pickford films in our collection. they come not only from the paper prints, but also mary pickford's personal collection, which we donated to the library in the 1940's. but griffith was a true visionary, and we are very, very fortunate to have so many of his films represented in our various collections. so we have in the collection the original camera negative for "birth of a nation." this is, in 1915, this is the apex of cinema. everything that d.w. griffith has learned about cinematic grammar he throws into this film.
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it is an astonishing work. it's full of amazing storytelling techniques, terrific acting, beautiful editing. it is truly one of the most important films in the history of the evolution of narrative cinema. unfortunately, it is also one of the vilest racial tracks in the history of american cinema. so griffith was an unreconstructed racist who had very, to be kind, paternalistic attitude towards african-americans. so "birth of a nation" is the story of the civil war and reconstruction based on a novel by a man called thomas dixon called "the clansman." it tells the story of families torn asunder by the civil war.
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and the portrayal of southerners in the film is very, very sympathetic, including the fact that the rescue at the end of the film is effected by the ku klux klan. so this is a film that is very difficult to watch out of context. people who see it today, people who come to it fresh without knowing the background, without knowing the era, find it a very difficult film to deal with. but it's part of our job to provide the context for the film. i'm not excusing the inherent and grotesque racism of the film. i can look at it -- you know, as a social historian, you can look at it one way, as very much a piece of his time. but as a cinema historian, you
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can still admire the technique that d.w. griffith brought to this film. as a film, it is astonishing. as a cultural document, it is still astonishing, just in a different way. [classical music playing] after the library decided that paper prints were ok to register for film, the next then that we have to be grateful for is the fact that nobody threw them away. they were all stored in the basement of the library's jefferson building for many years. now, people knew that these artifacts were in the basement, but nobody ever really did anything about it until a man named howard walls in the 1940's took it upon himself to create an inventory of the paper prints. and they were just stacked all over the place and sometimes not in very good condition, but, by and large, they survived quite nicely in the basement of the
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jefferson building. so the library began a process of trying to get some sort of intellectual control over the paper prints. they were talking with other people about ways in which they could get film copies of the paper prints, because, let's not forget, you could not project the paper. you could not view it on a flatbed viewer. they were just -- they were on paper. so they applied for grants. they worked with other organizations, the academy of motion picture arts and sciences, for example, in california, to talk about ways in which the paper prints could eventually be transferred to wasn named kempton nyberg hired to transfer the paper prints to film. he actually started a company that allowed him to do this. he built a printer that allowed
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him to -- he did what we refer to now as "optical printing." he was taking a photograph of each frame, and then had a printer that would keep moving the paper print, one frame at a time, would take a photograph of it, and he was creating a new film from it. he transferred all the paper prints to 16 millimeter film stock, creating a negative and a positive that could be viewed, and those prints are still in use in our reading room on capitol hill today. of the roughly 3,300 paper prints that are extant, about 500 of them are available online via the library's website today. for all of the others you , actually have to come to washington, d.c., to see them. but we are going to be changing that very soon.
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now, this wasn't the end of the paper print story. so we have kemp niver, who is creating the 16mm elements. ucla got involved in reprinting some of the paper prints in the 1960's. they were creating 35mm elements. and then, later on, when the library established its own film preservation laboratory, our lab went back to the original paper prints and started transferring them to 35mm. roughly 500 or so titles are ones you can now see online. so the reason why the paper prints are so important is we do not really have an accurate figure of how many films were produced from, say, 1894 to 1912. certainly, not every film from that era survives. the survival rate is quite low. the paper prints represent the
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survivors. those are the ones where a studio, a producer took care to actually register it for copyright. now, the first decade of the 20th century was a time of great tumult in the film industry. there were a lot of competing companies, and they were competing mostly in terms of patents. they were patenting their equipment, their cameras, their projectors, splicers. anything that could be patented, they were patenting it, and that is the reason why the copyright registration became so important, because the studios wanted, the film producers wanted, some legal standing for copyright violation. so we are very fortunate that that was all happening at the same time. there's really no better insight, at least in terms of moving images, to what life was like at the beginning of the 20th century than the paper
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prints. there is practically no documentary that you will watch today that has moving images from the turn of the 20th century that do not reference the paper prints, that don't have something from the paper print collection in them. you cannot write a meaningful history of film without referring to the films in the paper print collection, because it traces the evolution of cinema from a cinema of attractions and actuality through the development of the narrative form. it's such a wonderful resource to students and scholars of cinema. [classical music] ♪ announcer: you can view some of the earliest films in the library of congress by visiting [captioning performed by the national captioning institute, which is responsible for its caption content and accuracy. visit] [captions copyright national cable satellite corp. 2020] american history tv is on
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