Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Man Behind the Film: An Interview with Accidentally Preserved's Ben Model

Recently, silent film accompanist/film historian Ben Model released the second installment of his “Accidentally Preserved” series. The DVD features nine more restored versions of previously thought lost and rare silent films, all with brand new musical accompaniment courtesy of Model himself. In honor of the release, I spoke with Model about the new DVD and the experience of restoring these previously lost treasures.

Scene from "Why Wild Men Go Wild"

The dates and print quality on these films ranged quite a bit. What film(s) posed the greatest difficult to transfer/restore? 

Well, most of the prints themselves are from the 1930s, and surprisingly were not huge challenges to transfer. The films that were dupes of an original 16mm from the ‘30s, like the Lloyd Hamilton short or the Bobby Vernon, needed a little more goosing in terms of adjusting things like gamma, etc. than the others. The most time-consuming part of the process is usually the creation of new main titles and credits. I try to find a film from a similar year, studio or series, and do as close a match to that title as I can.

Like the previous volume, this volume presents films from a wide variety of genres (cartoons, comedies, ads, instructional safety films), and they feature a wide variety of notable silent stars. Even though they’re all very different, do you have a favorite film among those listed on this installment? 

I find that my favorites almost never line up with other peoples’ on these DVDs. While it’s not the greatest comedy ever – and what Bobby Vernon short is? – there are things I like about  “Why Wild Men Go Wild.” It’s a film whose plot point has fingers on various pulses of American culture in 1920: the start of prohibition, the novelty of middle-class men going to college and partying too much, and especially the woman wanting a “cave man” for a mate. Plus, Steve Massa is pretty sure it’s Vera Steadman’s first short for Christie, and the film has a very nice bookend device with her swimming in a pool. That aspect of a cultural/social context appeals to me. I like the blasting cap film for the same reason. On the other hand, I’d have to say the Hamilton short and the Telephone Girls short are favorites purely for entertainment reasons.

Still from "House of Wonders," from "Accidentally Preserved Vol. 1" 

The previous volume of “Accidentally Preserved” featured an industrial film that offered a behind- the-scenes look at the Elgin National Watch Company. You mentioned in a Kickstarter update that you received a response from someone with ties to the company. Tell me a little about that experience. 

That falls under the heading of “you just never know who’s going to find something interesting.” Here you have this completely lost film that watch historians knew nothing about all about the Elgin Watch company’s factory. The print came from an eBay seller in Canada (as did the print itself), and it’s a really nice sharp old original. When I released the films from volume one on YouTube a few months after the DVD came out I sent a link to it to the Elgin, Illinois Historical Society, and they absolutely flipped. Then a couple months later, a woman wrote me who is the educator at the planetarium in the building where the Elgin observatory and telescope was housed. She sees 18,000 students every year, and said “I can't believe that there is footage of Frank Urie at the telescope that was used to measure time for the factory,” and would it be okay if she showed a portion of the film to visiting groups. A lot of people I know couldn’t hit the “next chapter” button on their remote fast enough on this one, but I’ve also made a lot of peoples’ days by making this available. What’s satisfying for me is that now here’s this historic film record of probably the main industry in Elgin that people in that city – or anyone else on the planet who’s interested in antique watches – can now view for study or entertainment.

With Kickstarter, you’ve been able to fund the production of “Accidentally Preserved” and the upcoming “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer.” Do you think you’ll continue using the crowdfunding method to fund the production of these volumes of rare silents? Do you think this will soon become the go-to route for others looking to transfer, preserve and share rare and lost films? 

It’s the most viable way to go on a production that’s really a niche-within-a-niche like this is. Over the past few years I’d been paying attention to on-demand publishing platforms like CreateSpace as well as crowd-funding sites like Kickstarter. While I had the formula of Kickstarter funding a DVD project that I could release on Amazon through CreateSpace, it was Louis C.K.’s end-run around the standard distribution model in 2012 – where he sold downloads of his Beacon Theatre concert show on his own website – that showed me that this was a viable business model. The big thing to be aware of is that with crowd-funding, you have to have a crowd… a crowd who digs what you already do or have done, as well as what your project is. It’s not just a matter of having a great idea. The Accidentally Preserved Kickstarter ended in December of 2012, and I’m still sending out project updates and inside info to backers. In terms of economics, I think it’s the ideal formula for this kind of a project. The big labels need to know they’re going to move 2,000 units or something like that if they’re going to spend money up front on a project so they’ll make their money back. Rob Stone of the Library of Congress was talking to me about this and asked, “So, how many units do you have to sell to break even?” And I said, “Zero.” And that’s why I was able to fund volume 2 without having to go to Kickstarter…royalties from volume 1 covered the expenses for volume 2.

“Accidentally Preserved Vol. 2” is now available, “The Mishaps of Musty Suffer” will probably be released in March… Do you have any immediate plans for other crowdfunded film projects? 

I have a number of ideas for DVD projects, but I think it’s best not to say anything publicly about projects when they’re only in the “great idea” stage. But I can tell you that in working with the Library of Congress in getting the films for the Musty Suffer project, talks have begun about finding a way to in some way collaborate so that more of LoC’s preserved silent films can get released.

Purchase your own copy of “Accidentally Preserved Vol. 2” here and learn more about the Accidentally Preserved series here. Or, check out my review here.