Saturday, July 23, 2011

Kevin Brownlow profiled in the Guardian UK

"Kevin Brownlow: a life in the movies" is the title of a new article in the Guardian (UK) newspaper which asks the question, "Kevin Brownlow has won a lifetime-achievement Oscar and made superb films. So why isn't he better known?" Find out more at

And for a bit more about Brownlow and his remarkable achievements as a film historian, check out this article on on More about Brownlow's "complete restoration" of Abel Gance's Napoleon can be found here.  Below is a snapshot of Brownlow signing books at last weeks San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Post festival coverage

The reviews are in, and by most all accounts, the thousands who attended the recently concluded 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival had a great time. 

"Silent Films Soar In San Francisco" is the way Leonard Maltin put it in his recent post on IndieWire. The film historian concluded his extensive commentary with a feeling of "... joy for the celebration of silent cinema which continues to flourish, thanks to events such as this."Be sure and check out piece, which features a handful of snapshots from the event taken by Maltin. One of Kevin Brownlow addressing the crowd at the historic Castro Theater while his much younger self is shown on the screen  is remarkable.

Elsewhere, posted a summation (all the way from Mumbai?) about the event at "Rare films mark Silent Film Festival." As did Jonathan Farrell writing for Digital Journal. His article is accompanied by a slide show. And lastly but not leastly, Sean Martinfield posted an interview with composer and musician Matti Bye, who accompanied three films at the Festival including the closing film, HE Who Gets Slapped. Martinfield's piece can be found on

Additional comments and links can also be found at the SFSFF's Facebook page at

Monday, July 18, 2011

Don't be disappointed like Marat! And don't forget to purchase your tickets to the 2012 screening of Kevin Brownlow's restoration of Napoleon at the Paramount Theater in Oakland. Tickets are selling briskly. More info on our previous blog post and at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Antonin Artaud plays Marat in Abel Gance's silent film masterpiece, Napoleon (1927).

Friday, July 15, 2011

Silent Film Festival to present "Napoleon"

MARCH 24, 25, 31 & APRIL 1



(July 14, 2011—Bastille Day) The San Francisco Silent Film Festival announces today that it will present the U.S. premiere of Abel Gance’s legendary NAPOLEON in its complete restoration by Academy Award®-winning historian, documentarian and archivist Kevin Brownlow, in four special screenings at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on March 24, 25, 31 and April 1, 2012.

Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon
The Brownlow restoration, produced with his partner Patrick Stanbury at Photoplay Productions in association with the BFI, is the most complete version of Gance’s masterpiece since its 1927 premiere at the Paris Opéra.

The SFSFF screenings also mark the U.S. premiere of the renowned orchestral score, written over 30 years ago (and twice expanded since), by Carl Davis, who will conduct the Oakland East Bay Symphony.

The spectacular presentation at the 3,000-seat, Art Deco Oakland Paramount will be climaxed by its finale in “Polyvision”—an enormous triptych, employing three speciallyinstalled synchronized projectors, that will dramatically expand the screen to triple its width. The logistics and expense of screening Napoleon properly with full orchestra and special equipment have made it nearly impossible to mount. Gance’s Napoleon hasn’t been screened theatrically in the U.S. with live orchestra for nearly 30 years and there are no plans to repeat the SFSFF event in any other American city.

Says Stacey Wisnia, Executive Director of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, “This will be ‘the cinema event of a lifetime’ and for once that’s not just hype, considering that we may never have another chance to see Napoleon presented on this scale, and with Carl Davis’ magnificent score. But we’re also referring to the lifetime of passion that Kevin Brownlow has devoted to bringing Abel Gance’s original vision back to life.” 

Mr. Brownlow, who last year became the first film historian ever honored with a special Academy Award, became fascinated with Gance’s film when, as a schoolboy in the 1950s, he ran two 9.5mm reels he had stumbled upon at a street market.

“I was stunned by the cinematic flair,” says Brownlow. “I was exhilarated by the rapid cutting and the swirling camera movement. What daring! I had never seen anything comparable—and I set out to find more of it.” That determination led to a lifelong quest. The first major Brownlow/BFI restoration culminated in a screening at the Telluride Film Festival in 1979, with 89-year-old Gance watching from a nearby hotel window. Under the auspices of Francis Ford Coppola and Robert A. Harris, a version of this restoration, accompanied by a score composed by Mr. Coppola’s father Carmine, was presented to great acclaim at Radio City Music Hall and other venues in the U.S. and around the world in the early 1980s. Mr. Brownlow and the BFI did additional restoration work in 1983.

Abel Gance and Kevon Brownlow in the late 1960s
The current restoration, completed in 2000 but not previously seen outside Europe, reclaims more than 30 minutes of additional footage discovered since the 1979 screening and visually upgrades much of the film. This unique 35mm print, made at the laboratory of the BFI’s National Archive, uses traditional dye-bath techniques to recreate the color tints and tones that enhanced the film on its original release, giving a vividness to the image as never before experienced in this country. Each screening of the 5 1/2-hour epic will begin in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break. Tickets will be available online through the  SFSFF website,, beginning July 18.

Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON is being presented by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the BFI. Technical services will be provided by Boston Light & Sound.

Founded in 1994, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has showcased the finest films of the silent era as they were meant to be seen: on the big screen with live music composed and performed by accomplished artists. While its annual July festival remains its flagship event, the SFSFF now  produces special events throughout the year.

Says Robert Byrne, SFSFF board president, “This extraordinary presentation of Gance’s masterpiece is a major cultural coup, not just for our festival, but for the whole Bay Area.”

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Silent Film Festival starts tonight: local coverage

Both local newspapers here in the City by the Bay, the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner, have run articles about the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. The excitement builds....

In today's Chronicle, G. Allen Johnson focused on Marlene Dietrich and the Festival's much anticipated screening of The Woman Men Yearn For. "S.F. Silent Film Festival: early Marlene Dietrich" also notes the excitement building over the Festival's opening and closing films, Upstream and He Who Gets Slapped.

And over at the Examiner, Lauren Gallagher profiled the larger experience of going to the annual Summer event. In "San Francisco Silent Film Festival reels in the years", Gallagher notes, "There are few places where a silent film can be viewed as it was originally intended. Watching Buster Keaton with your Netflix subscription on your laptop can’t compete with the Mighty Wurlitzer organ of the Castro Theatre, which will get a significant workout during the 16th San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which runs from Thursday to July 17."

Well put.

Other major coverage of the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival has shown up online on  SanFranciscoSentinel.comTwitch and

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Late breaking news from the SF Silent Film Festival

Alexander PayneOur Visiting Director has made his selection! 
Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) will be presenting our Closing Night Film HE WHO GETS SLAPPED. We are thrilled that Payne is taking time to be with us for the entire festival between wrapping The Descendants, starring George Clooney, and scouting locations for his next film, to begin shooting in late summer!
Leonard Maltin
Author, film critic, and long-time festival favorite Leonard Maltin 
will present DISNEY'S LAUGH-O-GRAMS with film historian J.B. Kaufman (they'll also be signing books after the program). 

Maltin will return to the stage on Closing Night to introduce Alexander Payne.

Check out some other Festival highlights at CityBrights on SFGate. The line-up of films and programs, including special guests and musicians for the 16th annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival can be found at The Festival runs July 14 through July 17 at the Castro Theater.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Line-up of signings at the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Here is the line-up of signings at the 2011 San Francisco Silent Film Festival. All signings will take place after the noted film. The schedule will be printed in the Festival program with approximate  times. Admittance to individual signings is by Festival ticket.

Thursday, July 14
7:00 pm   Upstream
9:15 pm   Sunrise

Friday, July 15
11:00 am  Amazing Tales from the Archives I
2:00 pm   Huckleberry Finn

-- William Wellman Jr., signs "The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture"
 -- Donald Sosin signs his CDs and DVDs
4:15 pm  I Was Born, But…
-- Richie Meyer signs "Ruan Ling-yu: The Goddess of Shanghai" (DVD)
7:00 pm  The Great White Silence
-- William Wellman Jr. signs "The Man and His Wings: William A. Wellman and the Making of the First Best Picture"
9:30 pm Il Fuoco

Saturday, July 16
10:00 am Disney’s Laugh-O-Grams
-- Leonard Maltin signs his books
-- JB Kaufman & Russell Merritt sign their Disney-related books
12:00 noon Variations on a Theme
-- Festival musicians sign their CDs and DVDs
2:00 pm  The Blizzard
--  Thomas Gladysz signs "The Diary of a Lost Girl (Louise Brooks edition)"
4:00 pm  The Goose Woman
-- Mary Mallory signs "Hollywoodland"
-- Karie Bible signs "Location Filming in Los Angeles"
6:30 pm   Mr. Fix-It
8:30 pm   The Woman Men Yearn For

Sunday, July 17
10:00 am  Amazing Tales from the Archives II
-- Kevin Brownlow signs "The Parade's Gone By"
12 noon  Shoes
-- John Bengtson signs "Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd"
2:00 pm   Wild and Weird
-- David Shepard, Jeffrey Masino, and the Alloy Orchestra sign "Wild and Weird" (DVD)
4:30 pm  The Nail in the Boot
-- Julie Lindow signs "Left in the Dark: Portraits of San Francisco Theaters"
7:30 pm   He Who Gets Slapped 

And of course, Books Inc and the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum gift shop will be on hand selling books and DVDs including many new releases. Further details along with the complete line-up of films (and accompanying musicians) can be found at 

Friday, July 8, 2011

Film Preservation Fridays #7: the New Zealand Project Films – An Interview with Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham

Tropical Nights, 1924 - One of the New Zealand Project Films preserved at the George Eastman House
On Thursday, July 17, 2011 the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival will open up with John Ford’s Upstream, one of the many American films believed to be lost that were recently “repatriated” and preserved thanks to the generous cooperation of the New Zealand Film Archive (NZFA). In preparation for this very special event, we will be joined by two of the individuals that were instrumental in making the entire New Zealand Project possible: Audio Visual Archive Specialist and Project Coordinator Leslie Anne Lewis, and Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Short Film Preservationist Brian Meacham.

In a massive international collaboration overseen by the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF), five major American Film archives have participated in the preservation of the films: the Academy Film Archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The success of the project has been due to the assistance of dozens of different archives, studios, laboratories and individuals. Upstream alone involved four organizations in addition to the Academy Film Archive: 20th Century Fox funded the project, the New Zealand Film Archive performed film mending and cleaning, the Park Road Post Production in Wellington, New Zealand completed the actual preservation work (read about the technical side of the preservation here), and the NFPF initiated and managed the entire collaboration. The five organizations share a joint award from the National Society of Film Critics for their work. The NFPF has raised money for shipping, project management and most of the preservation work. They also secured funding for Leslie and Brian to go to New Zealand through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

It also needs mentioned that without the stewardship of a several New Zealand film collectors, there would be no films to preserve in the first place. Projectionist Jack Murtagh, for example, safeguarded the print of Upstream and a number of other nitrate films involved in the project and passed them along to the NZFA for archiving. Today's audiences applaud their stewardship.

The interview with Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham follows below, with the individual respondent indicated at the beginning of each answer:

1. Could you talk a little bit about how the New Zealand Project has its roots in an earlier repatriation effort with the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia? How are the two projects similar and different?

Leslie: The Australia repatriation project (“Film Connection: Australia-America”) was a chance to test the waters on this type of project – an extremely focused effort to identify and select titles that would be of the most cultural, artistic, scholarly and historic significance to an American audience, and then preserve them through a collaboration between the National Film and Sound Archive (NFSA) and five American archives: George Eastman House, The Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.

The Australia project was a success for all involved and everyone was enthusiastic about the possibility of future collaborations – I remember discussing it with New Zealand Film Archive curator Jamie Lean at the 2008 SEAPAVAA conference in Manila, and Meg Labrum (Chief Curator at the NFSA) frequently championed the effort, talking it up to her New Zealand counterparts. When Brian Meacham traveled to New Zealand in 2009 the pump was primed and his visit provided the perfect opportunity to get the project off the ground.

The main differences between the two projects are in terms of scale and the preservation path we’re taking. In Australia I inspected 42 titles and 8 were selected for preservation. The work was done at Haghefilm Laboratory in the Netherlands, preservation negatives and prints were deposited in the U.S. archives and the nitrate was returned to the NFSA’s custody. In New Zealand we’ve looked at over 300 titles and so far 75 have returned to the United States. With a couple of exceptions (such as Upstream, which was preserved at Park Road Post in Wellington, NZ) the preservation work on the New Zealand films is being done in the United States at Colorlab in Rockville, Maryland and Film Technology in Hollywood. Due to the condition of the nitrate prints, many of the titles are being scanned and worked on digitally before being output to 35mm polyester film for preservation purposes. In both projects, the end results for many of the titles are (or will be) available to view on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website.

2. Can you describe your initial visit to the New Zealand Film Archive? Did you have any idea that films such as Upstream, otherwise considered lost, would be enjoying the custody of the NZFA as part of New Zealand’s cultural and viewing heritage?

The Better Man, 1912 - George Eastman House
Brian: My wife and I had planned a trip to New Zealand in the summer of 2009, and in preparing for the trip, I looked up the New Zealand Film Archive in order to see if I could arrange for a tour while we were there. At the same time, I’d been helping work on a repatriation project with the National Film Preservation Foundation and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and it occurred to me that New Zealand might be home to some American film treasures, just as Australia had proven to be. I asked Annette Melville of the NFPF if I might suggest a collaboration with the NZFA when I was there, and she agreed that it would be a good idea. During my tour of the archive, I asked about the NZFA’s holdings of American silent films, and was told that indeed, they had quite a collection, and would be able to get me a list of the titles after I returned home. I didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed likely that they might have some films that would be of historical and cultural interest, especially the types of mostly forgotten newsreels, animated shorts, and one-reelers that would be of interest to film archivists. I wasn’t holding out hope that we would find a film like Upstream, which proved to be more significant and interesting to a much wider circle of people, but it was certainly a pleasant surprise when we did.

3. What sort of work did you initially perform on assignment in New Zealand? What did you learn about the initial batch of films in the inspection process, and how did this ultimately inform the selection of 75 titles for preservation and repatriation?

Brian: The first order of business was to wind through every reel of nitrate that had been pulled from the NZFA’s offsite nitrate storage area and determine the condition of the film and any information about title, director, cast, studio, and date that wasn’t already in the NZFA’s database. For the most part, the films were in surprisingly good condition, with nitrate decomposition present, but not as widespread or as extensive as we might have feared. We gathered as much information about the films as we could, in terms of both condition and cataloging, so we when we returned to the U.S., all of the participating archives could make informed decisions about what should be returned for preservation. The more we knew about each title, the easier it was to make a case for or against spending the time, effort, and money to return it, house it, and preserve it.

Idle Wives -1916
Leslie: We started by closely examining each of the 145 titles identified by the archives and scholars as being of potential interest. In many cases we were confirming that the title on the inventory actually matched the title of the film in front of us. I remember pulling out the first reel labeled Upstream and putting it on the inspection bench – one of the scholars had looked at the inventory list and said “You know, there’s a lost John Ford film with this title…”, but until we actually looked at the film itself there was always the chance that it was going to be a documentary on the migration of Alaskan salmon or something. I know I breathed a sigh of relief when it turned out to be about actors in a boarding house, not fish in a river! Upstream has gotten the most attention, but frankly there was something interesting in nearly every fireproof-box we brought into the inspection room – the archives and scholars had a difficult task narrowing down which would be brought back to the U.S. for preservation.

Each of the films was examined for completeness, and evaluated for physical condition and optical quality. We determined not only which films would be of the greatest interest, but also which were in most dire need of preservation due to damage and decay. We took well over 1200 pictures of individual frames to aid in the identification and selection processes. Though some had been well-used in their former lives on the exhibition circuit, we learned that the films were in generally good condition – thanks in large part to the New Zealanders whose care and commitment to the films in their custody has been nothing short of exemplary.

4. The list of titles for preservation and repatriation was circulated to the five major silent film archives in the United States for participation in the project. How did the Academy Film Archive decide which films to choose from this list?

Brian: The list was circulated among preservationists and archivists on staff who all added their suggestions and comments. We put the films in order of preference, based on a few criteria (though of course, it would be hard to turn down any of the titles up for grabs). First, we chose films that would add to our existing strengths, in subject areas that we specialize in. Second, we chose films that would add to an existing body of work by a filmmaker or actor in our collection. And finally, we chose films that would fill in holes in the history of filmmaking, where our collection lacked material from important filmmakers or studios.

5. What does your role as project coordinator entail?

Mary of the Movies, 1923 - Sony/UCLA
Leslie: Basically what I do is shepherd each of the films through the preservation process, from the time they reach U.S. shores until the nitrate and preservation elements are deposited in the receiving archive’s vaults and a new print of the original film is returned to New Zealand. I act as a liaison between the five U.S. archives, the various laboratories and the NFPF, keeping track of what stage each title is in, making sure they’re completed in a timely manner, etc. The first 75 films – which includes 11 features – will be preserved by the beginning of 2013, so we need to keep to a relatively strict schedule; at the moment we have about a dozen films in the preservation pipeline, with new ones starting every month. I also provide background research and notes for some of the titles.

What I’ve found particularly helpful is that because I inspected many of the films and provided the archives and scholars with the initial reports, I come to each title’s preservation knowing what is going to be needed, the amount of time it’s going to take and can coordinate with each archive’s preservationists on the best approach for that particular title. Each of the archives have a different approach towards preservation (such as the amount and type of reconstruction they will do if a title is incomplete or damaged, or differing philosophies towards restoring color or removing scratches) – its been interesting experiencing all of these at one time!

Dodge Motor Cars, ca. 1917 - the Academy
6. Other than Upstream, which has been preserved in collaboration with Twentieth Century Fox, could you mention one or two other films of special significance that the Academy preserved though the New Zealand Project?

Brian: So far, preservation has been completed on The Sergeant, a 1910 short film from the Selig Company that was one of the first films to be shot on location in Yosemite. A clip from the film is available for viewing ( and the complete film will be found on the NFPF’s upcoming DVD set “Treasures from American Film Archives Vol. 5: The West” ( We’ve also completed the preservation of The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies—Episode 5, the Chinese Fan, a 1914 Edison serial about a young woman reporter who finds a kidnapped girl (and naturally, doesn’t inform her family until her paper gets to report the scoop). Just this week, work was completed on two industrial films from the New Zealand collection. One is called Dodge Motor Cars, ca. 1917, and shows in great detail the massive and complex production facilities that produced Dodge’s coupes, roadsters, and sedans. From forging the drive shaft to stuffing the seats with “curled hair,” we see each step of the production, and then watch as they cars are road tested on treacherous test tracks in the winter. Fordson Tractors (1918), a short produced by Ford Motors’ tractor division, demonstrates how easy it is to learn to drive a Fordson tractor, and how useful a tractor is in plowing large quantities of land quicker than a team of horses, a necessity in helping out with the war effort at that time.

7. What is the next stage of the New Zealand Project?

Leslie: Right now we’re in the midst of returning another group of films selected from over 160 titles I inspected in a second trip to New Zealand at the end of 2010. In terms of preservation, we have plenty to keep us busy! As we finish preserving films you can look for them to be shown at various festivals and venues (in both the U.S. and New Zealand, as well as internationally), and video copies of many of the titles will be available to view on the NFPF website.

8. What are the benefits of collaboration for the various parties involved?

Leslie: I think everyone would agree that this collaboration has been a good deal all around – for the archives, scholars, historians and fans alike: The U.S. archives are adding significant artifacts to their collections (and in some cases completing incomplete titles they already held), the NZFA will have screenable prints of many previously inaccessible titles in their collection, and a number of fascinating items have come to light that otherwise might not have had the chance to reach a modern audience.

(End of Interview)

I would like to thank Leslie Anne Lewis and Brian Meacham for taking time out of their schedules to answer questions and share images. Annette Melville of the National Film Preservation Foundation provided suggestions and Kyle Westphal of the George Eastman House brought the importance of collectors to the table by pointing me towards an article by Jane Paul and Steve Russell in Newsreel: the New Zealand Film Archive Journal.

Tropical Nights
Our final Film Preservation Friday will be put on hold so that another end-of-the-week preservation event can take center stage. At 11 am on Friday, July 15, as part of the 16th Annual San Francisco Silent Film Festival, Amazing Tales from the Archives I will feature presentations from archivists at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House and UCLA Film and Television Archive, not to mention Ken Fox’s presentation on Mr. Fix-It intertitle creation. This event is free and open to the public, and anybody in attendance will have a truly unique experience learning how film archives work with materials that resist identification and readily available historical context. Once the excitement of the Festival has receded, please check back for my final Film Preservation Friday posting. We will be looking at a very special project that has been years in the making, and is now in its final stages of completion. Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Frederica Sagor Maas turns 111 years old

Frederica Sagor Maas, one of the last surviving personalities from the silent film era and a special guest at the 1999 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, has turned 111 years old today. 

Sagor worked with von Stroheim, wrote a handful of Clara Bow and Norma Shearer films, contributed to other films starring Greta Garbo and Louise Brooks, and knew just about everybody - including a young Joan Crawford. Sagor was assigned by studio executives to greet the then new arrival at the train station when Crawford, then Lucille LeSeur, first arrived in Hollywood. Read more here.

Maas is considered the second oldest person in California, and the 18th oldest in the United States.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Giovanni Spinelli

There is no such thing as a silent film at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Each feature and short is accompanied by musicians who in many instances will be performing an original score. One of the musicians set to perform at the upcoming Festival is Giovanni Spinelli.

Spinelli will accompany Sunrise (1927) on opening night, Thursday, July 14th. Below is a short excerpt from a documentary by director Brian Dilg on the making of Spinelli's score.

Sunrise: Scoring A Classic from Brian Dilg on Vimeo.

"Rock and roll meets the 1927 silent film masterpiece Sunrise when film composer Giovanni Spinelli is commissioned by renowned archivist and director Paolo Cherchi Usai to write and perform a modern wall-to-wall rock score - with only one electric guitar." More about this acclaimed composer and musician can be found on his website at

Musicians at the Silent Film Festival

Music is an integral part of the annual San Francisco Silent Film. Every film - whether a feature or a short - is accompanied by live music, just as films were during the silent film era. Here are the musicians who will be participating in this year's Festival.

Alloy Orchestra
Alloy Orchestra is a three man musical ensemble, writing and performing live accompaniment to classic silent films. Working with an outrageous assemblage of peculiar objects, they thrash and grind soulful music from unlikely sources. Founded 20 years ago, Alloy scored 23 feature length silent films and more than 30 shorts. The group has helped revive some of the great masterpieces of the silent era by touring extensively, commissioning new prints, and collaborating with archives, collectors and curators.

Stephen Horne
Stephen Horne has long been considered one of the leading silent film accompanists. He is based at London's BFI Southbank, but plays at all the major UK venues and numerous international festivals in Europe and North America. Although principally a pianist, he often incorporates flute, accordion and keyboards into his performances, sometimes simultaneously. In the past year, Stephen has recorded several scores for the forthcoming Treasures From American Archives 5.

Dennis James
For over forty years Dennis James has performed historically authentic silent film score accompaniments utilizing the actual published musical source materials from the silent film era while incorporating the actual period performance practices with unwavering professional commitment to stylistic integrity. He tours internationally with his Silent Film Concerts production company performing to silent films with solo organ, piano, and chamber ensemble accompaniments in addition to presentations with major symphony orchestras throughout the world.

Matti Bye Ensemble
Matti Bye has been a music score composer and live silent movie piano performer at the Swedish Film Institute since 1989. He is also a regular performer at European film festivals, including the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, the Bologna Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä, Finland. The Ensemble includes Bye, Lotta Johansson, Kristian Holmgren. Guest performers include Sarah Jo Zaharako, Alex Kelly, and Lisa Mezzacappa.

Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra
The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra is a quintet based in Colorado that revives the sound of the silent film orchestra. Using an extensive library of “photoplay music” that once belonged to movie theater orchestra leaders, Mont Alto compiles film scores by carefully selecting music to suit each scene in the film. The ensemble—cellist David Short, clarinetist Brian Collins, trumpeter Dawn Kramer, pianist Rodney Sauer, and violinist Britt Swenson is versatile enough to play music ranging from Tchaikovsky to the Charleston.

Donald Sosin
Donald Sosin scores films for major festivals, archives and for DVD. San Francisco Silent Film Festivals performances include Lady of the Pavements with his wife Joanna Seaton, Prince Achmed, and many shorts. In February the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra premiered his octet for Harold Lloyd’s Now of Never. Other commissions: Chicago Symphony Chorus, Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, MoMA, TCM. Donald is the proud father of Nick, RPI class of 2011, and baby Mollie, an emerging pianist/drummer/singer. They live in Connecticut. 

Giovanni Spinelli
Born in England and raised in London, New York, Stockholm and Florence, Spinelli lives and works in New York City. His multicultural background is reflected in his music with influences as diverse as Arvo Pärt, Astor Piazzolla, Brian Eno, Henryk Górecki, Michael Nyman, John Adams, Ryuchi Sakamoto, Dead Can Dance, Joy Division, Radiohead, Interpol and Sigur Ros. The diversity of his music, which ranges from orchestral to ambient and electronica and from rock and pop to world music and from rock and pop to world music, is reflected in his work for film and theatre.

+ + + +
Following the Saturday afternoon panel, "Variations on a Theme: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film," a number of the panelists will be upstairs on the Castro mezzanine were they will be meeting with the public and signing copies of their CDs and DVDs, which will be for sale. Its a great opportunity to say "Hello" and ask a question.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Music at the Silent Film Festival

Music is an integral part of the annual San Francisco Silent Film. Every film - whether a feature or a short - is accompanied by live music, just as films were during the silent film era.


Three of this year’s programs feature scores specially commissioned by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival in partnership with the Headlands Center for the Arts. In spring 2011, as part of a special collaboration between our two organizations, composers Matti Bye and Kristian Holmgren created new scores for The Blizzard (Gunnar Hedes Saga), He Who Gets Slapped, and The Great White Silence. In addition to working on the music, Bye and Holmgren were able to collaborate with other artists from the Headlands community, including both current residents and alumni, some of whom will accompany the Matti Bye Ensemble at this year’s festival. The two composers also appeared at a public event at the Headlands, "Sound and Silent Film in Nature," where they previewed a portion of The Great White Silence and spoke to a capacity audience about the artistic vision and creative process that guides them in composing for silent film. Major support for this residency was provided by the Barbro Osher Pro Suecia Foundation.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME: Musicians on the Craft of Composing and Performing for Silent Film

All of the musicians at the festival will participate in this very special Saturday afternoon program that aims to shine a light on the process of composing scores for silent films. Composer/musician/performer Jill Tracy will moderate the panel, leading a discussion that will illustrate the various approaches our musical artists take.

This program includes members of Matti Bye Ensemble, Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, and Alloy Orchestra, and Dennis James, Giovanni Spinelli, Stephen Horne, and Donald Sosin. Following the panel, a number of the musicians will be upstairs on the Castro mezzanine were they will be meeting with the public and signing copies of their CDs and DVDs, which will be for sale. More information about this special program can be found here. "Variations on a Theme" takes place on Saturday, July 16th at 12 noon.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Orphan films featured at festival

Every other year an international conference takes place, where scholars, archivists, curators, and media artists devoted to saving, screening, and studying neglected moving images meet to discuss and share information. Their focus is often orphan films. 

Narrowly defined, an “orphan” is a motion picture abandoned by its owner or caretaker. More generally, the term refers to all manner of films outside of the commercial mainstream: public domain materials, home movies, outtakes, unreleased films, industrial and educational movies, independent documentaries, ethnographic films, newsreels, censored material, underground works, experimental pieces, silent-era productions, stock footage, found footage, medical films, kinescopes, small- and unusual-gauge films, amateur productions, surveillance footage, test reels, government films, advertisements, sponsored films, student works, and sundry other ephemeral pieces of celluloid (or paper or glass or tape or . . . ). 

The Orphan Film Symposium’s Dan Streible has selected some fascinating orphan footage that the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will be screening before selected programs throughout this year's event. Newsreels, fragments of lost silent films, you never know what you'll see - and chances are, you won't have seen it before!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Film Preservation Fridays #6: Access to Archival Moving Images

Part 1: Modes of Access

16mm flatbed
If they are doing their job correctly, film archives should actively attempt to make their holdings available to the public. The following activities broadly suggest existing modes of access to archival collections:

  1. Theatrical Exhibition 
  2. Research Visits to the Archive 
  3.  Access to Analog or Digital Video Surrogates 

It is both likely and desirable that new paradigms of access will evolve to enhance or even supplant current methods, but that is another discussion. For now, I’d like to briefly address each of the above categories.

Theatrical Exhibition

From last week’s interview with Kyle Westphal, we have a sense of what is involved when an archive is committed to maintaining an in-house cinema for exhibition purposes. This has been the traditional interface between film archives and the public, along with print loans to other archives, repertory theatres and cinephilic bodies such as the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Here at the George Eastman House, the Motion Picture Department maintains an incomplete listing of titles, rates and compliance procedures for borrowing prints. Reciprocal arrangements exist with other institutional members of The International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) to keep the costs for all parties at a minimum. Interested exhibitors can pursue specific titles directly with the Film Loan Coordinator if they are able to meet the guidelines established around archival projection practices. Archival wisdom, at the Eastman House and elsewhere, advises the only titles which circulate are those which have been preserved, or which exist in multiple copies should something catastrophic occur during projection. “Archival elements” such as master copies are generally not projected or loaned because they will serve as the foundations for future preservation work.

Researcher Visits to the Archive

For users with some basic film handling skills, specific research goals and legitimate credentials (all of which can be controversial notions in themselves), other options have historically existed.  Because in-person visits require an intermediary within the archive to act as a contact person, and possibly a technical mentor, such opportunities are not widely understood. In fact, this form of access can be so non-intuitive that Paolo Cherci Usai devoted an entire chapter in Silent Cinema: An Introduction to demystifying it, so that potential researchers could approach an archive in possession of reasonable expectations and courtesies (see Silent Cinema, Chapter Six: Histoire de Détective).  The George Eastman House explains various tiers of research options here, and inquiries can be directed towards Jared Case, Head of Cataloguing and Access at  

People are occasionally surprised to encounter fees for the usage of 16 and 35 mm flatbed viewing devices and screening facilities, or to learn that they must give ample notice prior to arranging a visit. What they may not realize is that the associated fees will not completely offset the costs and the demands assumed by an archive, or that films need a significant amount of time to acclimatize after being in cold storage.  Nevertheless, archives do have a responsibility towards the public and lack of resources should not be a convenient excuse for a denial of services. 

Home Movie of Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade
Ultimately, working directly with a film as opposed to a video surrogate can provide additional aesthetic and technical context. One can see the splices, perforations and the presence of identifying data on the margins of the image, all of which is absent when viewed over a monitor as a video signal (of course an accompanying catalog record or embedded metadata could provide this information as well, but the film handling experience would be absent). The following example shows at least three things that could not be easily determined from a video surrogate: 1) the gauge (16mm) 2) reversal stock (indicated by black borders) 3) shot on a Bell and Howell Filmo 70-D (indicated by the triangular proprietary marking on the border of the film).

Access to Analog or Digital Video Surrogates

As we all know, depending upon user needs, it not always possible or even desirable to see films theatrically or to contact archives to view materials on a flatbed.  Video transfers of films provide a number of enhanced access possibilities: they can be sent to out of town researchers for a nominal charge, they can be sold in popular consumer formats such as DVD and Blu-Ray, they can be loaned out at local libraries, they can be mounted online through various portals, and they can be exhibited in curated museum environments – just to name a few obvious options.  

Not every film in a given archive has the luxury of existing simultaneously as a video. Pre-existing video “access copies” may be available for recent preservations or for heavily requested titles, but in other cases they need to be created on demand. Film is transferred to a video signal with the assistance of a telecine or data scanner. Depending upon the device and intended uses, the output can be standard or high definition video. 

Archival institutions are becoming increasingly active creating infrastructure around putting content online. The George Eastman House has recently partnered with Kodak on a project known as Watch Rare Films from Our Vaults. This project showcases a number of recent preservations and restorations, including material done as student fellowship projects. Silent film fans will not be disappointed with the range of materials available, and the good news is that much more is to come. Filmographic and preservation details are loaded into a window after an individual title is selected for viewing.  There are many similar initiatives worth mentioning, but for reasons of time and space I will stick to several relevant examples. The Library of Congress American Memory Project includes a wide range of moving image material including an entire collection around early San Francisco. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s Panorama of Beach and Cliff House is a personal favorite.  The UCLA Film and Television Archive has a page presenting examples of Preserved Silent Animation that is well worth a look. And finally, this will not be the first or last time that I mention the National Film Preservation Foundation, but for anybody not familiar with their online Screening Room, I suggest spending a bit of time there. 

From Panorama of Beach and Cliff House

Part 2: Obstacles to Access

Generally speaking, archives (including manuscript based archives) can do much more to improve access to their holdings. Succeeding on these terms is intrinsic to the ethical underpinnings of the profession. It is also essential to the survival of archives at a time when funding has been radically curtailed, many jobs have been lost and the very role of archives and other cultural institutions has been repeatedly challenged in public discourse.

So, what barriers exist around providing access to archival holdings? Historically speaking, copyright issues have been extremely problematic. While an archive may have physical ownership of a given film, it may not enjoy the completely separate rights around disseminating or exhibiting that film. Real and imagined caution around this issue has impeded access in a number of significant ways, but it is not the final word: archivists continue to work within the constraints of copyright to provide access to a wide range of motion pictures. The Orphan Films movement is just one example of a creative response to copyright. Archives can also focus on creating access around the many materials which are in the public domain or which they do clearly hold the rights to. 

Occasionally, providing access to archival materials can threaten the preservation of these very same materials. Objects may be so fragile that they can only be handled one last time, and ideally this would be for reformatting or transfer purposes. The Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) addresses this dilemma in its code of ethics, charging custodians to: “balance the priority of protecting the physical integrity of objects/artifacts with facilitating safe and non-discriminatory access to them.” Often, and perhaps usually, preservation and access are complementary goals rather than competing ones. The master copy of film that is preserved (film to film) and simultaneously digitized for access purposes will receive far more attention (and far less handling) than a film that remains in a vault unpreserved. 

Other obstacles exist, such as the nature of archival materials and their previously mentioned tendency to require a mediated experience with a reference archivist or other contact person. Institutional inertia can also negatively impact the potential user community - it certainly has in the past - but to be fair to archives, what is often perceived as complacency has more to do with lack of funding and staff.  Making materials accessible requires establishing intellectual and physical control over those objects and collections. This is achieved though cataloging, and/or arranging and describing the materials, all of which takes significant time and staff resources.  But it is time well spent: without accurate and informed description, the materials become difficult to retrieve and access. 

I asked Jared Case, Head of Cataloging and Access at the George Eastman House the following question: “What work goes into creating a detailed catalog record, and how does cataloguing enhance the value of a film or archival document?” He replied:

Catalog record for Nitrate Print of Dudley Murphy's Danse Macabre
“A good catalog should reflect the organization it’s designed for, so fields will change depending on how the catalog is to be used. But the ultimate goal is to identify, select and locate the item you need. For us, a minimum amount of information is location (where to find the object), a unique identifying code, and a title, even if we have to give it one. Then we go from there, adding what we know about its physical aspects, filmographic information, content and condition.”

I hope that this entry has helped people to understand access issues at film archives a bit better. Jared Case answered a number of questions about cataloguing and explained Eastman House procedure and should be heartily thanked.  Also appreciated is Maria Sharifutinova of the Selznick School who shared her picture of a flatbed machine in operation. And if you have managed to made it this far, I would like to extend a special thank you to anybody reading!

Next week we will be joined by several special guests to talk about the New Zealand Project.