Multimedia Evaluation: Ephemeral Films

Gregory McKean
11 March 1994



For this review, I looked at the works entitled To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-45 and You Can't Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-60 (available from Voyager). My original intention was to view just the CD-ROM versions of these works. After working for a while with the CD-ROM versions, however, I became curious how the same work (or what is nominally the same work) would appear in a different format; so I also decided to view the films on videodisc. In this review, I will evaluate the Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM in terms of its interface. I then will discuss more briefly the videodisc version of the product, and then contrast the experiences I had in viewing in the films in the different formats.


The Product

To New Horizons: Ephemeral Films, 1931-45 and You Can't Get There From Here: Ephemeral Films, 1946-60 are, as the name suggests, collections of short-lived films and excerpts of films that until recently largely had been forgotten. The films were uncovered by Richard Prelinger, described in the literature accompanying the CD-ROMs as a "media archaeologist." These educational, industrial, and advertising films were made, as Prelinger describes it, "to fulfill the needs of their times and not made to entertain future generations. Each disc contains 19 film clips.

The Interface

The Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM uses a Hypercard-based graphical user interface. After an introductory screen, a contents screen comes up, from which a user can click on the title of any movie in the "program," return to the introduction, or go to the "credits," a list of the individuals responsible for the creation of the product. Once a selection has been made, the card for an individual film appears.

The right two-thirds of this screen are taken up by Prelinger's commentary on the film. If the text takes up more than one screen, the viewer can click on arrows to move forward and back through the text; this can be done even when the film is in motion. At the top of the left side of the screen is the title of the film, and below that, occupying about half the remaining space is a window in which the film itself is shown. Immediately below the film window is a "controller," which consists of a volume control bar, play and pause buttons, a scroll bar that allows the viewer to move to different points in the film, and buttons that allow the viewer to move forward and backward through the film. Buttons at the bottom of the screen can be used to get help, to quit the program, to return to the contents screen, to advance to the next film or go back to the previous one, and in some cases to select from a list of one or more related films.


Anyone who has seen the Hypercard format before should have little trouble working with the Ephemeral Films CD-ROM interface. The same could be said of any Macintosh user, even one not familiar with Hypercard, since the designers of the CD-ROM seemed to take little advantage of Hypercard's linking capabilities. One of the most notable features of Hypercard is that it allows the user to approach a work in a non-sequential fashion, through the use of links between related information, wherever that information might appear in a document. The only evidence I could detect of such linking in the Ephemeral Films CD-ROM was in the "Related Movie" button, and even that wasn't available for every film. No linking is done at all for information contained in the commentaries that accompany each film.

As for the non-Macintosh, non-Hypercard, non-mouse user, the Ephemeral Films CD-ROM interface might well cause some confusion. Although the point should be obvious, sometimes experienced computer users need to be reminded that the ability to use a mouse does take some practice. That aside, the use of such features as scroll bars and pull-down menus (or in the case of the "Related Movie" button, "pull-up" menus) is not readily apparent. As seems all too common with Macintosh products, on-screen help is sparse and unhelpful. The pamphlets that accompany the discs are mostly concerned with getting the system loaded; what information is provided is not too useful. For instance, getting to a related film involves the use of a pull-down menu associated with the "Related Movie" button. The documentation tells us "Hold down the Related Movie button to go to movies with a related theme." It is not too difficult to imagine an inexperienced user frantically searching the keyboard for a "Related Movie button," but even if the user finds the button on the screen, will he necessarily know to move the cursor until the desired title is highlighted, and then to release the button? Needless to say, no explanation is provided either for the use of the Controller, either; with a little experimenting I was able to make it work, but a novice might well be at a loss.

Since I am a fairly experienced Macintosh user, I had no trouble working with the Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM. I have stressed the shortcomings of the accompanying documentation because I do not completely trust that my greatest source of dissatisfaction with this product could not have been overcome, if only I knew how to do it. I could find nothing that could tell me how to expand the size of the window in which the film plays. There may be a way to do it, but I don't know what it is; so I may be reviewing Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM from a false perspective. Remember that the film window takes up about one-third of the left portion of the screen, which in turn makes up about one-third of the screen. So about ten percent of the screen is available for the display of films in what, after all, has the title Ephemeral Films. No doubt the size of the film window is related to the amount of memory and processing required for the display for the film, but this seems to me irrelevant in an analysis of how well the product presents its images.


At first glance, the Ephemeral Films videodiscs have much the same arrangement as the CD-ROMs do: the same 19 film clips are offered for each disc, as far as I could tell with the same content as on the CD-ROMs. No commentary accompanies the films, although a much-condensed version of what appears on the CD-ROMs is provided on the back of the disc jackets. (At this point, I will note that I saw no evidence of any accompanying commentary. This was my first experience with videodiscs, but I believe that it is possible for there to be running commentary on another track; if such commentary was available here, blame it on my novice state and on a lack of documentation.) The "interface" consisted of a remote control device provided by the staff at the Media Resources Center. The buttons on the remote control allowed me to play, pause, back up or go forward, go to the next of previous film, and select a specific film number for viewing, as well as a number of other things whose utility wasn't apparent to me.



Before I proceed with a comparison of the two formats, I should briefly discuss how I went about working with these products. This is important, I believe, because the order in which I viewed the different formats may well have had an effect on my evaluations. My original plan was to evaluate just the CD-ROM. After viewing a number of the films in this manner, I had become vaguely dissatisfied with what I was getting. The picture was so small that I had trouble seeing what was going on (I also had trouble hearing everything, but that may have been a problem with the system I was using, not with the Voyager product), and I had no doubt that I was missing many important details. The films themselves were intriguing enough that I wanted to be able to see them better; so I decided to view them on videodisc as well. In two different sessions, I was able to see all the films on videodisc; I later returned to the Macintosh to view more, but not all, of the films on CD-ROM.

Viewing Sequence.

The CD-ROM interface made it very easy to watch the films in any order, and that is just what I did. When I first entered the program, I selected a title near the end of the list of contents, and I continued to jump around according to my fancy. At times I took advantage of the "Related Movie" button, and at times I didn't. Since it was so easy to jump to the Contents screen and work from there, I was selecting films that way. Although it is possible to jump around on the videodisc as well, at least among all the films on one side of the disc, I rarely viewed the videodiscs in this manner; when I did, it was always to go back and see something on a film I had already seen, not to move to another part of the disc to watch a new film. So I ended up viewing the Ephemeral Films on videodisc in a continuous, sequential manner.

Although it was a little more difficult to move in hypertext fashion among the films on the videodisc, I don't think this explains entirely the contrasting styles in which I viewed the films in the different formats. All my experience in movie theaters and with television has conditioned me to the idea that films are meant to be watched from beginning to end; even collections of short films are normally viewed in the same way. There was no real reason to do so with the Ephemeral Films; the films are ordered chronologically, not by theme or any other condition that would suggest the necessity to view them in a particular order. Movie-goers are traditionally passive; computer users, on the other hand, must take a more active role in controlling the presentation of information. As a frequent user of computers, I felt free to determine myself the order in which the films would be viewed. It would be interesting to see if a complete computer novice would have taken a more sequential approach.

Image vs. Text

The most startling discovery I made during this project was how greatly the experience of viewing the Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM differed from that of viewing the films on videodisc. Obviously being able to view a full-screen image with the kind of resolution offered by laser videodiscs was much more satisfying than peering at a tiny window with the relatively poor image quality available on the Macintosh. This was especially true for films such as Master Hands, a celebration of the Chevrolet assembly line,To New Horizons, General Motors' celebration of its Futurama exhibit at the 1939 New York World's Fair, and Design for Dreaming, a lavish musical production celebrating GM's new models for 1956.

But what really struck me after seeing the films on videodisc was that I had been treating the CD-ROM version essentially as a textual tool. The screen for each film was dominated by Richard Prelinger's commentaries placing the film in its historical and social context; the film itself seemed to be a sideshow. As I worked with the CD-ROM, I found myself concentrating more and more on the commentary and less and less on the film. At times I would even stop the film so that it would not end before I could finish reading the commentary. Conversely, after I had used the CD-ROM version, I found myself missing the commentaries while I was watching the videodisc. Some of the films were so amazingly cynical or didactic that I wanted to know who sponsored and produced them. That information, which is always present in Prelinger's commentaries, was flashed on the screen briefly at the beginning of each film; I had to go back and check that information for To Market, To Market, an ode to billboard advertising, Meet King Joe, a 1949 film explaining to American workers how good they had it, and A Date with Your Family, a guide for making the family dinner the highlight of your day.


What conclusion can be drawn from all of this? The two-volume set of Ephemeral Films on CD-ROM is a useful and interesting tool that tells us a lot about the kinds of films that were made, during these three decades, for educational, industrial, and advertising purposes. But it is valuable as much for the commentaries as for the films. It is true that if no images were available the text probably would not be as interesting; but the films seemed to me to be supplementary to the commentaries, not the other way around. It is also true that I missed the commentaries when I viewed the films on videodisc, but that problem could be solved easily be providing an insert with the same commentary that appears on the CD-ROMs. The problems of the small viewing window on the CD-ROM version and the relatively poor resolution cannot be solved so easily. For one has no access to the videodisc version of Ephemeral Films, the CD-ROM version will be a valuable resource, but if one has a choice, I recommend viewing the films on videodisc, with or without commentary.

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