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Rick Prelinger

Open Culture

Dateline: 1980. New York-based typesetter Rick Prelinger was trying to “make it in the movies” and writing a reference book on two-way radio frequencies on an IBM Selectric typewriter. Two years later, he became the Research Director for “Heavy Petting,” the Norman Lear-funded Atomic Café-like documentary about sexuality in the 20th Century. Armed with photocopies of old educational film reference books and Library of Congress copyright catalogs, he began a project of surveying, cataloging, archiving, and cross-referencing educational, industrial and advertising films produced in the United States between 1903 and the early 1980s.

Over the past twenty years, Rick has collected more than 48,000 complete films and roughly 30,000 cans of raw footage. The Internet Archive currently hosts 1,125 titles online, with plans to have 1,500 uploaded by the end of 2003.

The Library of Congress recently acquired the Prelinger Archives, which will be made publicly accessible after a 3- to 4-year processing period. In the meantime, the Internet Archive will be the primary way to access the films.

We caught up with Rick fresh back from New York City, where he had been cataloging and preparing to ship the actual film stock for delivery to the L.O.C. The process had left him covered in rust and dust from digging into the corners of his storage facility in search of any lost films that may have slipped through the cracks.

CC: Rick, what exactly is the Prelinger Archives?

RP: The Prelinger Archives is a large collection of what I call “ephemeral films.” These are industrial, advertising, educational, amateur and government films — films that were generally made not to show in movie theatres or on TV, but films that were made to teach, to educate, sometimes to miseducate, to train, to sell, pitch a product, or promote an idea. Films that embody the persuasions of the past. In addition to showing us the way things were, they also show how things were supposed to be. They are a wonderful set of visions of the way we were supposed to think, what we were supposed to buy. A vision of the sort of people we were supposed to become, and as such they record aspects of our history that are suppressed. They are not necessarily public aspects of our history.

CC: What do you mean “not necessarily public aspects of our history”?

RP: I’ll give you an example. If we want to have a sense of what it was like to be a member of a family, a nuclear family in the American 50’s or 60’s, you really can’t get that authentically from a TV sit com, or from a Hollywood movie, or from a news reel. But when you see these films, they are filled with footage of idealized families in action. We get a sense of how the family actually looked and behaved, what was the body language, what were the gender roles, how kids were supposed to behave differently than adults, and you also get a sense of that sort of all-encompassing ideology. So you could argue that all of these films, in a way, are sort of an ethnographic vision of a lost America.

CC: Do you feel that producing these films is a lost art?

RP: These kinds of films really aren’t made today, but if you could imagine the World Wide Web — where organizations and institutions, companies and individuals use the Web to build a site to make their voice heard —imagine that instead everybody was making movies…every company made movies to promote products and train its workers and reach the public. In the schools of the past, really from the turn of the century until recently, films were shown to teach everything. Whether it was “How To Brush Your Teeth,” “How To Get Married,” “Social Studies,” “The Products of Guatemala”…this is the kind of material that I’ve collected for about twenty years.

CC: How long has the Prelinger Archives offered films on the Web?

RP: We first started putting movies up at the very, very beginning of 2001, and the site was kind of embryonic for a while. It’s still a work in progress, but well over 1,250,000 movies have been downloaded — some of those for people to just look at and enjoy from the privacy of their homes, their dorm rooms. Others have been made into other movies.

CC: The movies in the Prelinger Archives have been used to create a wide range of “derivative works.” Could you give us some examples?

RP: In 2001, we had a contest on the theme of “The World At War”…the winners are actually on the Internet Archive Website. The film that took the first prize was “The ABC’s of Happiness,” where an animated character tells the audience that we really shouldn’t worry about the past. We should be happy. We shouldn’t look at disturbing images and let this knock us off of our complacent center — and of course the images we’re seeing in the background are all very disturbing. It’s a very funny and a very sweet film, but with a real punch to it. An artist in England whose name is Vicki Bennett — who performs under the name of “People Like Us” is a musician whose work is made of sampling other kinds of works and knitting together a new whole which is kind of utopian and imaginative. She made a ten-minute movie called, “We Edit Life,” which is about the history of electronic music and the (perhaps) obsolescence of human beings in the future, and it’s all made with material from my collection that was downloaded through the Internet Archive. It’s a funny and very complex little movie.

People are working with our footage to make shows for Tech TV. There’s a series called “Big Thinkers” that makes very, very heavy use of our material. And you know, when you’re making a movie about “Big Thinkers,” you have people talking, and how do you add ametaphoric dimension to what people are saying? How do you visualize their ideas? One of the ways that the producers decided to do that was to download an incredible amount of footage from the site, build a little library, and use a lot of these archival images to contextualize what people were saying.

A woman in San Francisco named Heather Rogers just made a great little film on recycling that actually questions whether recycling is beneficial. We all think that recycling is a good thing…she’s not sure that it is, and she uses a lot of old imagery from the Archives depicting consumption and waste to illustrate her point. It’s a strong movie. So, there are artists. There are documentaries. There are people doing conventional commercial TV, and there are people doing work that doesn’t look like anything that has ever been made before. But all of it relies heavily on having access to a pool of old imagery.

CC: Could you explain more of the details about how making your footage available “for free” through the Internet Archive has actually increased revenues for your stock footage business?

RP: I run a small stock footage company. It grosses every year in the low-to mid-six figures. My competitors are big companies who spend at least as much and maybe more money than I gross every year just on magazine advertising. Probably, they spend that much money just to build their Websites. I couldn’t afford to do that. But if the footage that’s in my collection is “out there,” and [if] it works its way back into the culture by being ubiquitous, I gain. Because ubiquity of images makes them more valuable.

CC: How about an example of what you mean when you talk about how an image’s being used over and over again makes it more ubiquitous and therefore more valuable?

RP: The example that I always like to point to goes back to when I used to work at HBO. (I worked in the entertainment industry for six years.) One day, I was sitting with a colleague of mine who was head of the Time-Life picture collection — a wonderful, wonderful collection of images, many of which are the most emblematic images of the last 70 or 80 years. I asked [my colleague], “What’s your highest revenue-producing image?” She said, “Why I’m surprised you asked, Rick. Of course, you know what it is: It’s the image of everybody sitting in a movie theater with their 3-D glasses on.” You know this famous image. It’s kind of emblematic of the fifties. [Time-Life] makes a great deal of money selling that image…it’s also pirated. It’s been shot over and over again by people. People have set up people in theaters and then shot it on film, so they have a movie version of it. Repetition and ubiquity haven’t lessened the value of that image: they’ve increased it.

Through our partnership with the Internet Archive, my images are just going out all over the world. They are achieving a level of spread and penetration I could never do on my own. And therefore, I think that giving things away ends up benefiting me. You know, these images don’t get used up. They don’t get yellow around the edges. They don’t become less valuable from being shown and repeated. Ubiquity equals value. That’s how I think you can make money by giving things away.

Posted 01 October 2005