Saving Vintage Animation One 400-Foot Reel at a Time: An Interview with Tommy Stathes

Photo courtesy Lazara Stathes

Several of the shorts in our Wladyslaw Starewicz program (Screening Sunday 11/2 at 7pm at Cinema Borealis) are coming from film collector and animation historian Tommy Stathes. We exchanged a few questions with Tommy by e-mail about some of his ongoing projects and his role in keeping film alive.

For more information, visit Cartoons on Film & the Bray Animation Project

JA: What came first, your interest in film collecting or your interest in animation? How did you first get involved with both?

TS: I was definitely deeply interested in animation as a very young child, well before the moment when I understood that I could collect anything. Growing up in the early 90s, I was seeing most classic animation by way of VHS tapes given to me as gifts by older family members, and less occasionally, on television. As for why I gravitated toward animation so much at such a young age, I’ll never know, although it’s generally accepted that most infants, toddlers and older children simply love cartoons. My fascination and urge to see more and more and eventually learn about their history was the unusual aspect.

My parents and grandparents were all instrumental in seeking out more tapes once I started showing a great interest in the ones I already owned as a toddler. It was probably around 1995 when I realized I could start looking for tapes in stores on my own (with mom’s or dad’s assistance, of course!), and that began a little collecting craze. However, my knowledge was limited as this was before we had a computer or the internet at home, and I was still a very young child. A couple years later, my father happened upon a small collection of 1940s 16mm cartoons in bright, attractive Castle Films boxes and acquired them for me, knowing I would love the packaging. I didn’t have any clue what a reel of film was or how it could be used, though, and it took awhile before an elderly family member dug out a 16mm projector and introduced me to the magic of actual film projection. I was immediately hooked, and the rest is history. I estimate that by age 13 or so, I began seriously collecting film prints and today I own over 1,000 silent and early sound animation subjects in my personal archive.

JA: A lot of film collectors (and collectors in general) tend to only provide “access” to their materials when dealing with other collectors and close friends (e.g. secret basement screenings), but you sort of bridge a gap between the private collector world, the archiving world, and the exhibitor world by maintaining a collection and providing access to it via digital transfers and public screenings. What do you think the responsibilities of a collector are in an increasingly digital world? What’s the mission of Cartoons on Film?

TS: I originally began collecting film prints not only because it was a fascinating medium, but also because in most cases, 16mm prints were the only examples of many of these films that could be viewed–a shockingly low percentage of what survived or was still accessible in the 1980s and 1990s had been transferred to video, and even less than that was available to the average VHS consumer. I was very frustrated to read about early animation history and not be able to go to the video store or look in a mail order catalog and find the films I was reading about. So, once I discovered 16mm, that was also the method by which I could actually see some of these films, and I believe others should be able to see them as well.

As you mention, today there is a necessity for reliance on digital mediums. I’ve provided access to some of my material in the way of unrestored, standard-definition DVD transfers so that any researcher, fan, or historian can watch and own a copy of some of this material. Remember how I mentioned that so little of what survived in 16mm was transferred to video? Even more bothersome is the fact that little of what was available on VHS has been made available on DVD, and I’ve tried to fill that void with my own home-brewed collections. That being said, though, I do have lots more in the way of 16mm than what I offer on DVD. We’re in a transition period, though, and it looks like the trend for video consumption is now moving to the online realm. I will be sharing more of my material with the public, but it’s not clear yet whether to invest in and rely on the DVD market for much longer.

In the meantime, I have the great pleasure of curating occasional 16mm screenings in the NYC area (something I’d like to greatly increase) as well as making some prints available to fellow exhibitors and screening venues. Film is an art form that was meant to be seen and shared and while collectors have every right not to share what they own, I feel that a mutual consumption of film is what benefits us all the most. Viewers are usually very appreciative to see rare film material, and print owners are often celebrated for their collecting efforts in this arrangement.

The trouble with digital anything is the risk for limitless copying and filesharing, so some caution needs to be exercised when circulating rare material that way. Rampant sharing of films on the internet by people other than the collector who generously digitized a film can often downplay that collector’s efforts in the field, and often even cut into any living he or she makes by curating and screening the physical material. Unfortunately, the attitude of some people nowadays is “If I can see a film in low-res on YouTube or the Internet Archive, why should I buy a DVD, attend and pay for a physical screening, or pay a collector and lecturer to show a film in my community?” In other words, digital is a double-edged sword. It’s marvelous for quick access and reference, but can be awful when an intellectual property is exploited in a way that negatively affects someone’s ability to afford food. It’s also not a great archival medium.

JA: You started the Bray Animation Project in 2011. Can you tell us a little about the studio and your goals for the project?

TS: Gladly! In short, the Bray Studios was the first fully-functioning animation studio, and it helped create and also held ground in the new industry for several years. Founded in 1913 by J.R. Bray, the New York City ‘assembly line’ cartoon factory produced animated content throughout the silent era, and helped launch the careers of classic animation moguls like Max Fleischer, Walter Lantz, and Paul Terry among others.

The studio’s films were, surprisingly, better archived than most product of its time throughout the decades, but sadly the surviving material has been largely unavailable and obscured since the 1950s. I’m doing my best to try and amass the largest archive of the studio’s films so they can once again be studied and enjoyed. I currently have just over 200 of their roughly 600 animated comedy and educational cartoons, and my main goal is to keep searching, discovering, acquiring and copying more of them as they turn up in private collections and archives. My second and more long-term goal is to bring the films (and the stories behind their production and archiving) back into public view, especially as I get closer to collecting complete series. Many are lost, but “lost” films do turn up every so often!

JA: You’re in the process of making new 16mm prints of two Walter Lantz cartoons. How difficult is this to do? Do you have any more “film-to-film” (to borrow a phrase from the Academy Film Archive) preservation projects planned?

TS: This is not difficult at all to do. Providing a film element can still run through lab equipment (as these can), there’s a simple process involved: make a new internegative, and then master and reference prints off that new negative. I hope to do this for several other cartoons as funds allow. It’s not immensely expensive, either, but requires some fundraising and creativity since I cannot fund all this out of pocket. As I said earlier, digital is simply not an archival option, at least not in my eyes. If a rare, valuable film exists in a film format, I believe it should be preserved in its native format instead of simply being copied to digital.