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DVD Talk's Interview with Undercrank Production's Ben Model
Over the last couple of years Undercrank Productions has released some excellent and exceedingly rare silent movies on DVD. Mainly dealing with short subjects, the company has released Accidentally Preserved Volume One and Volume Two, featuring an entertaining selection of films from a private collection, The Marcel Perez Collection an amazing set of films by a forgotten comedian, and two volumes of The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (reviews of Volume One and Volume Two) a short-lived comic series from the 1910's. DVD Talk writer John Sinnott recently had a chance to talk with Ben Model is the driving force behind Undercrank who not only puts the discs together, but also scores and provides musical accompaniment to the films. He talks about how some of these movies came to be preserved outside of film archives, the difference between scoring shorts and features, and what we can expect to see from Undercrank in the future.

John Sinnott: How did you get interested in silent film? Which came first, music or movies?

Ben Model: I don't know that one or the other came first, but they didn't merge until I was in college. I am told that I discovered Chaplin on TV when I was 3 or 4 years old, back before cable TV when they used to show silent comedies on either public television or in the afternoons on the independent stations as kids programming. I started playing piano when I was 5, because every time we'd visit someone with a piano I invariably wound up gravitating to it and noodling. I took lessons all the way through high school, playing classical and ragtime, and was in the school band. I began making movies in 8mm in grade school and eventually became a serious super 8mm filmmaker (sound and silent). I bought silent comedies in super 8 from the Blackhawk Films catalog, and watched The Silent Years on PBS, but the way I got to see a LOT of silent film was going over to Walter Kerr's house to watch movies. He had a huge 16mm collection and lived in my town, and when I was in 8th grade I wrote him a nice letter and that's how that happened. I started accompanying silents for William K. Everson's classes when I was a film production student at NYU, and met and learned as much as I could about it from Lee Erwin. Lee was a house organist at a repertory cinema in NYC that had a Wurlitzer and he'd been a film accompanist since the 1920s.

 JS: How do you approach creating a score for a silent film? Do you have a process that you go through when starting a new project? Do you prefer scoring shorts or feature films like Flying Luck?

BM: In a nutshell, my approach is to take the film as seriously as the people who made it did, and try to get inside their heads. I avoid recognizable music and will use a few themes, but sparingly so they don't become recognizable themselves during the film. I stay within the era, and when it seems right will try and utilize the sound or musical flavor of a particular film's setting.

As far as shorts vs. features, I'll score anything. The idea is to make material available for fans in a quality release. A shorts disc is a little more labor-intensive. Most people don't realize this, and think that 90 minutes or 2 hours of film is 90 minutes or 2 hours of music. The difference for me is that with shorts it's several stories being told, whereas with a feature it's just one. It's not the running time, it's the number of stories - and the same goes for live shows. An audience can only take in a certain number of stories during a show. That number, by the way, is four. If you run more than four shorts at a show you have to put in a lights-up break and a second intro, and then it's fine.

 JS: Undercrank Productions has released some great DVDs of silent shorts, many of them sourced from 16mm film. Why did these movies survive in this format rather than 35mm which is the format used in movie theaters?

BM: Well, you've basically asked me to plug the Accidentally Preserved series here. Thanks! In the 1920s, '30s and '40s home movie enthusiasts could rent movies from the Kodascope Library, the Universal Show-At-Home Library, Mogull Brothers and several others. They were 16mm prints made on safety film, and the service was like Netflix for the art deco era. Most of these rental libraries closed in the 40s or 50s and the prints got scattered or snapped up by collectors. Because they were on safety film, there weren't the same issues with flammability or decomposition or, especially, studio neglect. It's as if the films were accidentally preserved. The only reason Lon Chaney's Hunchback of Notre Dame exists is that there are 16mm Show-At-Home prints that survive.

JS: How do you decide which films get included on a discs like the Accidentally Preserved series? Does the quality of the print trump the quality of the film?

BM: Initially, the choices were basically what I had on my shelf. The oddball films I'd acquired were ones that were easier to win on eBay because there was little to no interest or in some cases the films had been listed incorrectly by one of the many "I don't own a projector but the reel looks okay" sellers. In most cases the prints are very sharp and look good in an HD digital transfer. There were a few titles that I didn't include because the films weren't as good as some of the others. I've donated all my prints to the Library of Congress now that I'm done with volumes 1 and 2. With volume three I had the good fortune of being offered films for the project by other collectors.

 JS: You've just released the second volume of Musty Suffer shorts. These are very creative and hilarious films yet very few people have heard of the series or the star, Harry Watson, Jr. Why do you think they have been forgotten and how did you first discover these movies?

BM: The Musty Suffer films were basically out of circulation after they were released. Their producer, George Kleine, made some efforts in the late 'teens and very early 'twenties to get them back out, at least overseas. The films were never made available on the home movie market, and since they only ran for a year, they really were a blip on the radar of silent film history. Both stylistically and in their creative team - with Harry Watson Jr. and director Louis Myll in particular - these films popped up out of almost nowhere, existed briefly, then disappeared. I first saw one or two of these at the Slapsticon festival, a now-defunct classic comedy film convention that used to happen in Arlington VA. A few years ago Steve Massa showed me an article he'd written on Watson and the Musty films, and what struck me is that they were part of the real peak of popularity that serials initially had, that the films were released on a weekly basis with a regular ensemble cast and recurring characters. Once Steve and I found that 24 of the 30 Musty Suffer films were at the Library of Congress we made a project of watching all of them. And that, basically was what led to my interest in putting together a DVD of these.

JS: Undercrank Productions has mainly released comedies from the silent era (mainly shorts). Why silent comedies?

BM: There are a lot of them that were made available for 16mm rentals, and aside from Westerns there really aren't a lot of dramatic shorts made after the mid-teens. I also get a kick out of discovering someone like Cliff Bowes or Alberta Vaughn and making their films available and hoping I'm not alone in liking them. I'm not necessarily interested exclusively in comedies, but they are the springboard that got the enterprise going.

JS: What is coming next from Undercrank Productions? Anything in the pipeline?

BM: Well, I've just finished my fourth Kickstarter to produce a third volume of Accidentally Preserved. Half the films on the disc come from other collectors this time around, and I hope to have the DVD out in the fall. I have a few other projects in mind but it's too early to mention specific titles, but I can tell you that there are a couple of features I'm interested in releasing. One thing that's happened is that the success of my releases has led to a co-branding arrangement with the Library of Congress, and both the Mishaps of Musty Suffer and The Marcel Perez Collection DVDs were part of this. I'm looking at film possibilities from the LoC's archive, titles that deserve to see a release but which don't have the sort of appeal that outfits like Kino or Flicker Alley look for.


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