Alumnus gives new life to old films through digitization

September 4, 2012
By Bill Krueger

For the past 20 years, Skip Elsheimer ’91 has been on the hunt.

Whether searching though surplus auctions, school auctions, eBay or simply willing donors, Elsheimer has spent hours searching for abandoned educational videos, all in the name of his enduring passion for film. Elsheimer has amassed an impressive collection of more than 24,000 films, all stored in his downtown Raleigh home.

“It’s a hobby that’s turned into something more,” Elsheimer says.

skip-hi-resThe film enthusiast has made a career of digitizing old films for business groups, the state archives and even his alma mater. However, it wasn’t until mid-July that Elsheimer launched an effort to digitize his own extensive collection. His goal is to digitize 100 miles of film. That amounts to roughly 240 hours of material, or 1,000 films.

Given the high cost of equipment, Elsheimer has turned to the public for support in his effort, and in return will make the digitized collection available online for people to learn from and enjoy.

“People who contribute [to the project] will get to pick which films in my collection they want digitized,” Elsheimer says. “Instead of having them languish on the shelves, now I can share them with the world.”

The films in Elsheimer’s collection are primarily educational and were once used in classrooms to teach students everything from how things are made in assembly lines (one of Elsheimer’s favorites) to the workings of the federal government. However, Elsheimer also works with promotional films and advertisements, short narrative films, and even home movies.

“At first they can be corny and silly but in a lot of them there is a cultural history locked away,” he says.

Elsheimer’s films date back to the 1950s, and cover a variety of topics in which he’s interested. “It’s almost like collecting encyclopedias,” he says. “It’s been very exciting to go through my old films. Some of them I haven’t seen in 15 years.”

With 26 miles, or about 70 hours of film, digitized thus far, Elsheimer has accomplished just a quarter of his original goal but has already received positive feedback for his efforts, which can be found on his website.

“Researchers use them; they show up in music videos; editing students use the material,” Elsheimer says. “I’ve even been contacted by filmmakers who are excited that their films are getting a new life.”

Elsheimer emphasizes the historical benefit of reintroducing these forgotten films to the public, characterizing them as “cultural documents from the past” that demonstrate the values, political ideals and even gender roles of the time period.

Jim Alchediak, a professor in the Department of Communication, has witnessed the evolution of Elsheimer’s passion since he first taught Elsheimer in a film production course in 1988.  “He seemed to immediately have a great love of visual media,” Alchediak says.

Elsheimer’s former professor also praised his inventive thinking and imagination in reviving neglected films.

“The fact that he would rescue those [films] was really far sighted on his part,” Alchediak says. “I’m a big fan of what he does.”

— Jamie Gnazzo

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