In 1982, writer and filmmaker Rick Prelinger starting assembling a collection of films that would later become known as the Prelinger Archives. The films are all considered of cultural importance to the United States, depicting everyday life, social and environmental change and history through the medium of moving images.
Of the many tens of thousands of films, around 65% are in the public domain due to expired or improper copyright and more than 3,000 can be found on the Internet Archive. Each is licensed under the Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 license. This means you can download, remix, adapt and use the films in whichever way you like – oh, and you can watch them too.
In addition to being freely available to view, keep and adapt upon, many of the films are just plain interesting. Here’s a selection to get you started with watching old films.
Shot from the front of a cable car, this film offers a rare glimpse into life in San Francisco at the turn of the century where horse-drawn carts and unpredictable pedestrians make up the hustle and bustle. After examination, historian David Kiehn decided that the film was shot just days before a major earthquake on April 18.
This particular version is improved over previous uploads and comes in an easily editable DV25 format for use in your own productions.
In the 1950s a new threat emerged after the end of World War II – the potential for a nuclear attack. Teaching children about nuclear war, and more importantly what to do in a nuclear attack, was a task left to Bert the Turtle.
Depending on the size and height of the blast, the duck and cover technique would offer little protection within the 0-3 km radius, though seeking cover and getting low is the best practice for surviving the initial explosion; advice that the UK government also issued to its citizens in the 60s.
New York City is seen in incredible detail in this film contrasting rural and urban living in the 1930s. Utopian ideals of the perfect “green city” are explored and contrasted with scenes of chimneys billowing smoke, traffic jams and children narrowly escaping death on busy train tracks (yes, really).
The film is special not only for its historical values but also some wonderfully dark cinematography (in particular a number of match cuts).
Coronet Films produced instructional social commentaries for consumption by the American public, old and young, including this one from 1949 titled Dating Do’s and Don’ts. While it’s watchable for comedy value alone, don’t forget this was advice given to teens in order to help them start dating.
I can’t help but feel there’s a lot of potential for adaptation and remixing, especially with this Kodachrome version. This particular film has received the Rifftrax treatment, along with many other Coronet Films.
An attempt at making a one-size-fits-all film about your product, brand or business, this film is so generic and non-specific that it is quite hard to believe that it was ever made. If ever a public domain film invited the casual video tinkerer to play around and see what he or she could come up with then this is it.
The film attempts to appeal to those looking to cut costs and still stand out with their own film, though the chances of standing out with such a generic production are slim.
A selection of commercials from the past for childrens toys, edited together into a 10 minute segment. The films here can actually be downloaded elsewhere should you want to use them for whatever reason, though this is a nice overview of what’s on offer.
The opening toy, the Swing Wing, appears to be a neck-ache inducer made up of a plunger and some ribbon and it’s worth clicking play above just to experience the horror.
At the time of writing there are 3,207 items in the Prelinger Archives, all of which are open to being remixed, sampled and used in any way you see fit. Browsing is somewhat difficult, so it’s best to search or browse through any of the following collections to find what you’re after:
Don’t forget most aren’t contained in any collection, and the best way to find what you’re looking for is to dive in and see what you can find. That might mean watching a lot of old films, but you’re bound to learn, laugh and discover some gems while you’re at it.
There are also collections of films made from Prelinger footage, titled Prelinger Mashups. If nothing more they serve as inspiration as to what can be done with footage like this.
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