Newsreels of years gone by

Once upon a time, before movie patrons were insulted with 10 minutes of commercials before getting to the film they just paid 10 dollars to see, a theatre's pre-feature entertainments were actually entertaining. Newsreels warmed up the audiences with current events, travel, sports, science, and such helpful presentations as "The French Tango Made Easy." We may be stuck with deodorant and soft drink ads in the theater today, but if you'd like a look back at the newsreels, British Pathe has put 75 years of history online - commercial free.

Beginning at the turn of the 20th century and producing its last cinema newsreel in 1970, British Pathe created an unintentional time capsule containing 3500 hours of material spread over 90,000 individual subjects - and the entire collection is being made available over the Web. (Well over 2000 hours is online to date, and the full catalog should be posted by May 2004.) The company's new Web presence offers the films in both free 'preview,' and higher quality, paid versions - for which users are charged a licensing fee. And if there had been any doubt about the demand to see old newsreels, they were put to rest within three days of the site's official launch last November, by which time visitors had already downloaded nearly 50,000 files - totalling 46 gigabytes of data.

After playing the time-honored British Pathe newsreel opening, the site gets straight to business with a keyword search which will take you to chosen subjects as well as the occasional surprise. (Among the 58 clips returned from the query "Beatles," publicity pieces about the Fab Four were accompanied by a 1964 introduction to the Theale Water Ski Circus -which happened to include some faux Beatles in the act- and advice for 60's teenagers about "How To Be A Man About Town.") An Advanced Search option allows visitors to narrow things down with such specifics as dates and film type. If you're not really looking for anything in particular, a "Lucky Dip" button serves up 20 reels at random with every click, so you'll be as likely to find The Battle of Britain as The Buffer Belt ("designed to make sure your dance partner keeps his distance!").

Once you've selected a newsreel, a click on the title or thumbnail opens a new window with an abbreviated shooting script and storyboard, displaying a series of stills from the film. While viewing the storyboards is free and anonymous (at least as anonymous as anything can be on the Web), downloading actual video files -even the free previews- requires registration, and the downloading process is a bit of an ordeal, moving through the typical e-tail Shopping Basket procedure. The free preview files (MediaPlayer format) are fairly low resolution (1 MB in file size for every minute of film) and watermarked with a copyright notice. Larger files (4MB per minute) are geared for Web publishing or desktop presentations (which still show a copyright notice - albeit in a less obtrusive location on the frame), and so, charge the licensing fees. If you're really keen on a collection of specific clips (a Beatles fan perhaps), there are also instructions on how to order even higher quality versions of your favorites -without copyright watermarks- on VHS tape or DVD. (The tapes are only available in PAL format, so North Americans will have to have them converted to NTSC. Potential DVD customers would be wise to check whether the discs will have any 'Region' restrictions.) Finally, if 3500 hours of film isn't enough to keep you occupied, future plans for the site include adding 12 million still images to the database, beginning in the spring of 2004.

(On a technical note, while the site gives no warning of the requirement, if you're browsing with cookies disabled, you'll find that the pop-up storyboard windows will pop up without the storyboards - so the more privacy-paranoid among us will have to put up with cookies till after leaving the site.)

While we're on the subject of free films online, surfers also have a resource in the Prelinger Archives. Part of the larger Internet Archives (home of the Internet Wayback Machine), the online Prelinger collection contains over 1200 out-of-copyright, "ephemeral" films. (The term refers to advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur productions, and the archive includes everything from personal hygiene and civil defense films to wartime propaganda and vintage TV ads.) While the collection may not number as high as the Pathe catalog, the films' public domain status means that they can be used -with very few restrictions- as the surfer sees fit. (So, if you'd like to drop some Eisenhower campaign ads or a spot for MUM brand creme deodorant into your trip to Disneyland video, feel free.)

Films can be found through either a keyword search or a browsing option which uses a catalog format not unlike Google. Each title has a synopsis, reviews and viewer ratings, and various ways to view the content, and at this point, we encounter a classic good news/bad news scenario. The good news is that the files are so big - the bad news is that the files are so big. (A common file size is over 200MB for MPEG files - 30 to 90 MBs for DIVX and VCD formats.) Even broadband surfers may find themselves giving up during high traffic periods, and -unbelievably dedicated- dial-up users might want to crack open that annotated copy of "War and Peace" while they wait.

The large file size is due to the fact that these films have been recorded as full television screen, DVD quality video, and unfortunately these admirably high quality files aren't accompanied by smaller sized versions for those who might just want to see the production in a corner of the computer screen. The only alternative for those unwilling to make a long-term download commitment are high- and low-bandwidth RealVideo streams for each title. The quality won't match a typical downloadable QuickTime clip, but a pixellated screening of "Duck and Cover" is better than none at all.

And, you won't have to pay for the privilege of watching a commercial.

British Pathe can be found at http://www.britishpathe.com with the Prelinger Archives at http://www.archive.org/movies/prelinger.php.

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