Recreating Motion Pictures from Visual Artifacts

By Woodruff, Daniel | Journal of Film Preservation, October 1999 | Go to article overview

Recreating Motion Pictures from Visual Artifacts


Woodruff, Daniel, Journal of Film Preservation


My mission as a preservationist has been to save films from the silent era. It is common knowledge to most film historians that only 10% of all films made during the silent era still exist. As I read about films in old motion picture trade magazines that are now considered lost, I am filled with curiosity about how certain films looked on the screen.

When I became the film curator for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1981, my objective was to preserve all of the uncopied silent-era films that were still stored at the Academy. By 1990 all of the silent nitrate films that were in the Academy's vaults were copied onto safety film. However there were thousands of images from lost silent films in the form of individual film frames that were awaiting conservation in the Photographic Department in the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library. I decided I wanted to accomplish conservation on these fragile images so that there would remain a visual record of these silent-era film productions for future study.

As a special project, I combined the synopses (from either trade paper or studio synopsis) and images (stills or frames) from a group of these productions and recreated individual motion pictures in a silent-era lantern "slide show" format. The most difficult part of this recreation work is deciding where and how the appropriate image should illustrate the story line. On average there are about seven images to represent one reel of film. However, this is not always the case. Many times it is necessary to repeat images or repeat image details (cropped enlargements of images) of previously used images in order to better illustrate the story.

Although this process does not preserve actual motion picture footage, it does preserve many aspects of the original motion picture production. The physical look and gestures of the actors, sets, locations, art direction, lighting, make up, etc. are all depicted in the new film recreations.

After recreating a few lost films in this manner, it became apparent that there was still an emotional pull derived from the presentation of the series of images combined with the original synopses. In other words, in this format, the presentation of the synopses and the corresponding images was still entertaining as well as informative. The two collections that yielded the most material for the film recreations were the William N. Selig Collection of motion picture film frames and the Thomas H. Ince Collection of still photographs.

The William N. Selig Motion Picture Frame Collection

The Selig Polyscope Company was one of the earliest of the major American production companies, just as its founder, Colonel William N. Selig (1864-1948) was an important early American film pioneer. The company was formed on April 9, 1896, in Chicago and was originally called the Mutoscope and Film Company. At first, the company specialized in slapstick comedies and travel films, though they also made industrial films, most notably for Armour and Company, the meat packing firm, in 1901. Sued by Thomas A. Edison for patent infringement in 1905, Selig was provided free legal representation by Philip Armour in return for prints of films. One outcome of the litigation was that Selig joined with Edison and other companies to form the Motion Picture Patents Company in 1908. The Selig Polyscope Company ceased film production in 1918, although Colonel Selig continued producing into the 1930s, The Drag-Net (1936) and Convicts at Large (1938) being the last films credited to him.

The Selig Polyscope Company was a large and important pioneer film company, and apparently the first company to shoot a narrative film in Los Angeles (The Heart of a Race Tout, 1909). Later that year, Selig established a permanent studio in the Los Angeles area. It may have been the first U.S. company to shoot a two-reel film, Damon and Pythias (1908), and it later made the first true serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn (1913-1914). …

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