Early movies flickering, stark in black-and-white, brimming with the energy of a new age may soon have a home on another rough-hewn new medium: the World Wide Web.
The American Film Institute said Wednesday it plans to make several classic silent films available for viewing free on a new Web site, starting Jan. 22 with the 1916 Charlie Chaplin short “The Rink.” Each month, AFI plans to place a different film on the Web, including Buster Keaton’s 1921 movie “The Boat,” and works by D.W. Griffith, Harold Lloyd and other film pioneers.
It won’t be perfect, said Dan Harries, the institution’s director of online media. Viewers who don’t have a dedicated high-tech phone line or a very high-speed modem will probably experience some blurred images and jerkiness in the film. Even the best Internet connections won’t look as good as film or video.
But, then, the first movies weren’t perfect either.
“It’s not the quality of video,” Harries said. “But anyone anywhere in the world from Burma to Finland can log in 24 hours a day and watch it on demand. That’s the trade-off.”
Most of the films placed on the AFI site will be in the public domain or owned by AFI in an effort to reduce potential copyright problems, Harries said. Because each film will take up a tremendous amount of computer disk space, only one will be available at a time.
Richard Jewell, associate dean of University of Southern California’s School of Cinema-Television, said the new Web site will play an important role in preserving the public’s knowledge of early cinema.
“Many students have never seen a black-and-white film in their lives,” Jewell said. “They have this sense that black-and-white cinema is primitive, is completely boring, not worth their time.”
But so many students are plugged into the Internet, he said, that the Web site might pique their interest.
“It strikes me as a wonderful possibility for bringing a new technology to bear on an old technology,” he said.
The Web site, to be called AFI OnLine Cinema, will be set up to look like an Art Deco movie house, Harries said. It will make use of a fairly new technology that allows users to play the films without taking the time to download them.
“Typically, it takes an hour to download 30 seconds of video,” Harries said. “Now it takes five to 20 seconds.”
The information, instead of being stored in the recipient’s personal computer, will flow somewhat constantly, stored for a few seconds in what is known in computer jargon as a buffer. Those with modems slower than 28.8 will likely experience more wavering of the image or blurring than users with high-speed access. AFI plans to use the site to preview portions of films from upcoming festivals. Historical and educational information about the classic films on the site will be available on the institution’s other Web site, which is called AFI OnLine. That site, which has been up and running since 1995, features links to other sites about films and information about classes, screenings and preservation work at AFI.
The classic films on AFI OnLine Cinema can be accessed through the main Web site, at http://www.afionline.org, or directly, at http://www.afionline.org/cinema. Viewers will have to download a program to run the films, and the sites will contain information on how to do this, Harries said.
“I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time,” Harries said.
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