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Confessions of an A/V Geek: An Interview with Skip Elsheimer

Monty Cantsin

Rick Prelinger, an expert on ephemeral cinema, was once asked to estimate how many educational and industrial films were made between 1930 and 1980, just in Canada, the UK and the USA. He gave a long answer but his ballpark figure was around 500,000. The true number may never be known, but it is safe to say that no single archive or university film library has collected them all. And in fact the trend in the last twenty years has been for institutions to get rid of their 16MM collections, given that the cost of storing and digitizing the material is so great. Many works have become “orphans,” having fallen through the cracks of official and commercial preservation programs, and having been abandoned by their copyright holders. Some such films suffer from having been poorly conceived and produced in the first place. Some have lost their educational value due to containing outdated information or out-of-fashion attitudes and imagery. But many are still worth watching (for various reasons) and nearly all can tell us something about an “other” history of cinema, and about the world and ideologies of the 20th Century.

Some 20 years ago, Skip Elsheimer stumbled upon a lot of 500 old films which he managed to purchase for a mere $50. And thus A/V Geeks, his Raleigh-based archiving club, was born. By now the A/V Geeks 16MM stash is among the most impressive collections in America–containing about as many titles as the George Eastman House (though not as many as Stephen Parr’s Oddball Films in San Francisco). Elsheimer now provides digitization services to clients such as Duke University and North Carolina State University, and has traveled around the country sharing gems (and stinkers) from his stacks. Earlier this month Elsheimer corresponded with Montgomery Cantsin (a fledgling archivist currently wanting to digitize 20,000 feet of 16MM) to discuss his experiences and knowledge in this area.

MONTGOMERY CANTSIN: So, you guys have 22,000 films?

SKIP ELSHEIMER: More than 24,000 now. I just got 400 films a couple of weeks ago and I’ve not updated the count.

MC: Which means what you have is among the largest collections of 16MM orphans in the U.S.A?

SE: Yes at some point, though, it’s less about how many you have and more about what you are doing with them.

MC: How long would it take a person to watch all of these films?

SE: I recently tried to figure that out–very unscientifically. I estimated that each film averaged roughly 15 minutes. It’s about 6000 hours. So 250 days of watching films straight through. If you devoted 40 hours a week to it, it would take you 2 years to watch them all.

MC: How many of these films do you watch in an average week?

SE: I watch maybe five or six new films. Unfortunately, I’m getting, on average, two new films a day.

MC: Did you study A/V preservation?

SE: Nope. They weren’t really teaching this stuff when I was in college in the mid to late 1980s.

MC: Have you found yourself to be eligible for grants to do what you do?

SE: I’ve not really pursued any but I think some are out there. I’m lousy at filling out paperwork.

MC: Any advice for emerging amateur 16MM archivists like myself?

SE: Well, my biggest recommendation is: don’t take on too much. It’s better to have a small well-curated collection than a giant collection where you’ve not seen most of the films. This is what I’m coping with. I basically bought a boarding house to house the collection and have to work to support it–this means that I don’t have time to watch those very films. It’s a little counterproductive.

MC: You raised almost $20,000 on Indiegogo. What makes for a successful crowdfunding campaign in your experience?

SE: Yes. Essentially, the crowdfunding project was a way to bring in money so we could block off time to watch and digitize the films in the collection that we hadn’t seen. It was very successful among the friends, family and fans of A/V Geeks but we really didn’t get word out as well as we could have.

MC: Alongside the well-established discourse surrounding “orphan” films, you seem to have initiated a study of the “bastard film.” Can you talk a bit about this?

SE: Well, I had always wanted to host a little symposium. Something were folks could show films and then talk about them afterwards. The first Orphans Symposium was like this and I learned so much then. So, as a joke, I said to some friends that we should have a Bastard film symposium–not really thinking about it as a genre. But after we announced the symposium, a genre started to appear.

MC: Was anything extraordinary unearthed at your recent conference?

SE: There was some amazing stuff. The schedule is still online. I liked the fact that we gave a loose definition of “bastard film” and folks ran with it. Everybody had a film that they’ve always wanted to show an audience but not their average audience–they wanted to be able to show the film to an audience of seasoned film archivists (collectors and academics who would get why the film was a bastard). Also, we made the seminar very screening-centric. We limited introductions to only five minutes (and had an official egg timer to time it) and encouraged discussion at the end.

MC: Was it you that curated the collection called Cartoon Propaganda? What can you tell me about that?

SE: Yes, it was one of my first compilation shows. I’ve since revised it–calling it Anxious Animated Agendas.

MC: Do you know of any evidence demonstrating that CIA fronts produced educational films during the cold war era?

SE: Well, there were a lot of conservative organizations that were making educational films in the United States–because there was a big conservative swing after WW2 and anti-communist slant. The United States Information Agency–our propaganda wing–made lots of films that were distributed around the world.

MC: Yes, since the CIA covertly funded much of that anti-communist “cultural” and intellectual activity, [as outlined by Frances Stonor Saunders in her book Cultural Cold War], I would think they would have had front companies devoted to film production.

SE: It’s possible but really probably wasn’t necessary! The status quo was so conservative and anti-Communist after WW2.

MC: How well-versed are you in copyright law and fair use? How much does it matter that you be well-versed in the laws to do the work that you do?

SE: I’m pretty well-versed–although I’m always learning something. To exploit the films for stock footage use, I have to know something. Also, it’s useful when YouTube issues a take-down of a clip. I have at times been successful in getting things put back up.

MC: Can you talk about one or more of these take-down cases? Did you cite Fair Use? Have they ever wrongly taken something down that was Public Domain?

SE: Yes, they have. The most recent one was where I posted a Sid Davis film called “The Bottle and the Throttle.” It was taken down within 24 hours because it supposedly had content from a Neil Young video in it. I looked at the Neil Young video and realized that it was a bunch of edited Public Domain films–and it even stated so in the video’s description. I appealed to YouTube and it took them about a month to respond. In the meantime, the video was down and I wasn’t allowed to upload anything over 10 minutes–as a punishment. Anyway, in this case, I didn’t have to cite Fair Use. The material in question was in the public domain.

MC: Isn’t your main purpose educational? Isn’t any educational re-use, even of copyrighted material, protected by Fair Use?

SE: There are a number of considerations before you can claim Fair Use. This includes the “purpose and character of the use;” the “nature of the copyrighted work;” the “amount and substantiality of the portion used;” and the “effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.” Posting educational films in their entirety on the internet knocks out three of the considerations. I’ve been very careful (I’m on my 4th YouTube account) to only post Public Domain stuff.

MC: Do you make ad money on Youtube?

SE: I make a little bit. Like, pennies per a video per a month.

MC: Have you been to Europe to show films?

SE: I’ve not. It would be a challenge to me as a lot of my programming deals with American culture and irony.

MC: Have you met any producers or directors of old educational films? I know Katharine and Bruce Cornwell just passed away recently here in Brooklyn. (I’ve been showing their 1979 film “Dragonfold” to audiences lately.) I know AFANA in San Jose, CA has profiled various makers on their website, such as the Cornwells and Bert Van Bork.

SE: Yes I’ve talked with a couple of producers and lots of people who appeared in the films. That’s one of the benefits of putting these films online–the filmmakers and crew come out of the woodwork and rediscover their work.

MC: Can you describe some special films of yours that are near to your heart?

SE: Depends on the day, but, right now, my most special is the A & B roll from my favorite music video of all time, Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Songs for Swinging Larvae.” Also, I like “Pride on Parade”–an Oscar Meyer film about high school marching bands and making lunchmeat. And, “Tire Rigging Demo”–a promotional piece to show off a new camera rigging that films automobile tires on the road.

MC: Take us through the mental process of determining what films go on to your digitization priority list.

SE: That also depends. With last year’s digitizing campaign, I let those that donated pick from a list of 2000 films. Then I would sometimes pick other films that fit with their lists. Now, its based on projects. If I am working on a project that requires digitizing some film, I’ll upload all the films that are in public domain. Also, sometime there’s a holiday or current event that will have me dig in the collection and try and find appropriate Public Domain films.

MC: Thanks for your time.

SE: Good luck!


Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States by Dan Streible.

The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman