Introduction to Amateur Fiction Films Symposium

Dwight Swanson
Center for Home Movies


While we will probably never know what the first amateur narrative film was, the first 16mm narrative film was Out of the Fog, which was made by Kodak Research Lab engineers and scientists as they were in the process of creating 16mm reversal. The film was made in their downtime, and is a comedy made up of string of inside jokes relating to the arrival of the founding Kodak Research Lab scientists such as Dr. C.E. Kenneth Mees and John Capstaff, as they arrived from England on the shore of Lake Ontario. The film consists of rough technique, with tentative nods to contemporaneous popular cinema forms. As such, it is very typical of the amateur narratives that have been made in the eight decades since.

In the early 1920s, Kodak quietly produced another film, Fly Low Jack and the Game, and promoted as the type of film of film that amateur groups could be making. Two prints of the film, a short comedy with romantic overtones, were made and sent on a tour around the country, where it was shown to film clubs and general audiences. By promoting the making of amateur narratives, Kodak seemed to be implying (and perhaps fearing) that home movies are not enough and that in the long run only narrative filmmaking would hold people’s interest in filmmaking.

This was reinforced by prescriptive literature of the golden age of amateur filmmaking such as the periodical Movie Makers and other how-to books, which rarely mentioned home movies in a positive light. Instead, more sophisticated and structured films were advocated. This is not to say that only narrative films were discussed, but they were held up as one of the paragons of amateur film styles.

The “bible” of amateur filmmaking was Eastman Kodak’s book How To Make Good Movies. This was primarily a technical book, but also included a chapter on “Play Making.” Throughout the chapter, the idea of filmmaking as being an enjoyable and easy group activity is stated repeatedly:

Most owners of amateur movie cameras are quite frank in their admission that they are not at all interested in using their cameras for subjects other than personal films of family, friends, home, and vacations. At the other extreme is a small and determined band of enthusiasts to whom trouble means nothing in the making of comedies and dramas with a genuinely professional finish.

...most cinamateurs are not overly interested in the complex phases of cinematography. Yet equally firmly entrenched is the belief that even the veriest amateur will, if simple play-making promises good fun in the taking and showing, elect to thread an occasional movie sequence on a simple plot.

The chapter also includes several examples of simple scenarios that can be filmed or adapted by the reader. All of the examples are comedies, which leads to the statement in the text:

Some serious-minded readers my feel obligated to raise the point that these play-making ideas are all comedies. Why not something more worthwhile? Why not a drama?

This is answered unequivocally: No! A thousand times no--unless you are willing to have your drama misinterpreted and greeted with howls of unwelcome laughter from your movie audiences. Drama, unfortunately, is too often the first recourse of embryonic producers. And a drama, unless it is well done--in fact, to perfection, is simply terrible.

Questions Raised by Amateur Narratives

A few questions, then, to be considered for the remainder of the symposium:

  • What are the motivations for making amateur narrative films?
  • Why make narrative films at all?
  • Why make THESE particular narrative films?
  • What are precedents for the films (forms) or is it simply other films (specifically commercial films?)

Additionally, what are the influences of film genres and individual films? Homage and parody, have always been very strong presences in amateur filmmaking, as to be seen in Tarzan and the Rocky Gorge and Sagecoach, Wyo. 1940, two films to be shown later in the symposium. This trend continues today through the plethora of Stars Wars parodies that can be found online and at fan fiction conventions.

One of the reasons that the Kodak Research Lab scientists made Out of the Fog was that they were surrounded by celluloid all day and like the rest of America (and the world), were constantly surrounded by film culture. It likely didn’t take too much to spark a “we should make a movie” discussion. There’s a certain amount of inevitability that given access to equipment and the cultural idea that movies=fiction, some people, at least, would be stricken with the creative impulse to produce narrative films. In my experience it usually just takes a persuasive ringleader to get that particular discussion going. What’s harder is following through with those ideas and actually getting a movie shot and then finished. Home movies need little or no planning beyond getting a camera out, and don’t need much follow through. Amateur narratives, on the other hand, require WORK to conceive of them and carry them out. The four phases of filmmaking, both amateur and otherwise, are:

  1. Conceptualization
  2. Creation (filming)
  3. Construction (editing)
  4. Reception (viewing)

The films we will watch will have different levels of ambitiousness and sophistication and both communal and individual aspects. Who is the auteur of the films we will watch, or is there a single one? Also, who is intended audience and how were these films viewed?

Some more questions: What makes this worth the work? What is the reward?

I will posit that the notion of PLEASURE may have more to do with amateur narratives than in most other forms of filmmaking. There are many forms of satisfaction derived from any hobby, whether it’s filmmaking, woodworking or stamp collecting, but in order to so many people to be involved in these film projects there has to be something inherently pleasurable in their creation.

The Tasks of the Symposium

Regarding the films themselves, the primary question is: What are connections between these films, and are there enough connections to treat amateur narratives as a cohesive film form? Will we find more similarities or differences in the films?

The inclusion of filmmakers at this symposium allows us the unique opportunity to examine both the films and the motivations of the filmmakers. We can approach amateur narratives for the first time not merely as an abstract idea or through individual case studies. The films themselves, while fascinating and enjoyable, may possibly turn out to not be the most interesting aspect in understanding these films. Instead, it is the larger process of filmmaking that may be the most unique and powerful element of the films.

The opportunities to watch amateur narratives or few and far between even for archivists and historians who specialize in amateur films. For that reason we can and should approach the films we will watch over the course of the symposium naively and without a lot of theoretical assumptions, and instead derive our ideas about them through the viewings and presentations. Almost certainly, the viewing of amateur narratives will be a different experience than watching home movies, as home movies foreground personal elements, while amateur narratives are designed to disguise the personal elements in favor of the stories. We will watch these narratives in a more conventional cinematic way following the arc of the narrative. Our work will simultaneously be easier and harder, because we do still need to be watching the films for deeper meanings, as they are most certainly to be found.