Thursday, June 8, 2023

Interview with Ben Model of Undercrank Productions


June 2023 marks the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions, a DVD distributor founded by silent film accompanist Ben Model. I've had the privilege to interview Ben Model at the TCM Classic Film Festival a few years ago. And now he's back with an interview for Out of the Past.

Check out my interview below. And if you're interested in buying some DVDs, Undercrank Productions titles are discounted on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

Raquel Stecher: I really enjoyed your recent performance at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival for the Rin Tin Tin movie Clash of the Wolves (1925). It was a festival favorite for sure! Can you tell me a bit about how you became a silent film accompanist?

Ben Model: I got my start accompanying films while I was a film production student at NYU. I was a big silent film fan growing up, and also played piano. The first semester of the basic overview film history course we all took Freshman year was silent films. And I do mean silent – these were screened in 16mm prints that had no soundtracks. I don’t know what possessed me but the next year I volunteered to play for the silent film screenings, and found myself playing for 2 or sometimes 3 classes a week. I made a point of meeting film accompanists in NYC to get advice. William Perry – who was MoMA’s film pianist 1969-1982 and scored films for “The Silent Years” on PBS – was a big help. Lee Erwin, who was the organist at the revival theater “The Carnegie Hall Cinema”, became a friend and mentor – Lee had been a movie theater organist in the 1920s

Still from Clash of the Wolves (1925)

TCM's Jacqueline Stewart with Ben Model at the 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival

Raquel: Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of Undercrank Productions! How did your label come about and how did you come up with the name?

Ben: A few things I was interested in kind of came together at the same time. I was looking for a way to do more scoring for silent films on home video than I was being hired to do already, I was interested in the process of how DVDs get made and released, and I was looking at ways of getting some obscure and rare silent comedy shorts I owned in 16mm out to fans who’d want to see them. During 2012, I figured out the various pieces of how this could happen, and also became aware of Amazon’s just-launched manufacture-on-demand DVD platform. Around the same time, I learned about Kickstarter, which had only been around for a couple years, and realized that involving fans of silent films in the process by crowdfunding my first DVD project, that would take care of the production costs. I’m pretty sure the Kickstarter I did to produce and release Accidentally Preserved was the first time this had been done with a silent or classic film home-video release. The whole thing worked, and I kept doing one or two of these every year. 

The name comes from my fascination with the way undercranking was used and utilized throughout the silent film era and was a ubiquitous part of the movie-making process for the camera operators and the performers. I thought naming my DVD company “Undercrank Productions” would help promote awareness of this. I also was looking for a name that had a few of “K” sounds in it. 

Raquel: How have you used Kickstarter as a platform to help create awareness and fund your projects?

Ben: I’ve found Kickstarter to be a great way to democratize the process of funding these projects. For the video I made for my 2nd or 3rd Kickstarter I came up with the tag-line, “Why not be part of the ‘someone’ in ‘why doesn’t someone put that out on DVD?’”. I try to emphasize the fact that if we all get out and push, we can make this happen. Ten years ago, it felt a little funny to be going hat-in-hand on social media, but by now – even 5 years ago – I think everyone gets it.

Raquel: What is the workflow like for your releases in terms of curation, restoration, accompaniment and distribution?

Ben: If it’s a disc of comedy shorts, Steve Massa and I start with picking an overlooked or forgotten comedian and then seeing if there’s enough of their films extant and available – through collectors or, more often, from the Library of Congress – to fill up a disc. Sometimes we’ve been able to add to a playlist of shorts with a title that we’d get, through the Library of Congress, from MoMA or the EYE Filmmuseum. We’ll screen the material for completeness and image quality and make a decision from there. Because these are fan-funded, manufacture-on-demand projects, that takes the issue of whether or not we’re going to sell 1000 or 2000 units off the table. Who the heck is Marcel Perez? Or Alice Howell? Nobody knows or remembers them, but that doesn’t matter. Once I have the funding from the Kickstarter, scans are ordered from the Library of Congress, and I get high-end video files of the film or films. 

If the Kickstarter campaign goes way way over the funding goal, then there’s a budget for digital restoration. Then there’s inter-title recreation, if needed. Then the restored version of the files get graded, which means someone goes shot by shot and corrects exposure, and will also reinstate color tinting if we know what it was supposed to be originally. Once we have the final version of the restored film, then I create a screener for myself, and create the scores on either piano or theatre organ.

Once I’m at that phase, Marlene Weisman begins work on the graphic design of the Blu-ray and DVD case. She is beyond fantastic, and I think the artwork on a release is crucial. It’s your first line of defense online, and makes an important impression – just because a release is self-published it doesn’t have to have a self-published look to it. Once all the video and audio pieces are done, then the “authoring” happens, when the files get woven into something that can be burned into a disc and play in your physical media player.

For distribution, I’ve been using Alliance Entertainment to do all the manufacturing, order fulfillment and online listings on the various platforms like Amazon and DeepDiscount, et al. The final files and graphics get uploaded to Alliance, and I set the street date. I write a press release and send it out to my press list, and we mail out copies of the finished disc to reviewers… and hope for the best.

Raquel: Tell me about your partnership with the Library of Congress and your Found at Mostly Lost series.

Ben: Rob Stone, who is a Curator in the Moving Image Section of the Library of Congress’ National Audio Visual Conservation Center, came up with the idea of doing this. He’d worked out a co-branding deal with Kino Lorber in 2012 for their release of King: A Filmed Record... Montgomery to Memphis. I’m one of the resident silent film accompanists at the NAVCC’s Packard Campus Theatre, and am down in Culpeper VA for a show a handful of times a year. I was set to Kickstart and produce my 2nd project, The Mishaps of Musty Suffer (1916-1917), a slapstick comedy serial, and Rob got the idea to apply what had been done with Kino with me and Undercrank Productions. It meant I’d have to put the Library of Congress’ logo at the head of the film and on the DVD case, which was a huge plus for me. I had no name recognition, but the LoC sure did. 

Anyone can pay for scans of films from the Library, as long as they’re public domain films and have no donor restrictions, and get them as files or on a disc. My co-branding relationship with the LoC allows me to do a slightly deeper dive into the collection when I’m considering a film or bunch of shorts. It’s made it possible for me to release silent films that the more established labels might not be interested in, which is a win for the Library as it helps get films they’ve preserved and worked on get out that ordinarily wouldn’t see the light of day.

The two Found at Mostly Lost DVDs are actually comprised of films that were identified at the “Mostly Lost” film identification workshops held at the Library of Congress in the 2010s. These films had been scanned and scored for a DVD included in the “swag-bag” attendees got each year. My idea was to make these available for the general public, for the folks who were interested. The workshop hasn’t happened for a few years, due to the pandemic, and while there aren’t any concrete plans for when it will happen again, I’m hoping that it’s just hibernating and will resurface in the next year or so.

Raquel: You've done a great job releasing the lesser known work from some key figures from film history including Lon Chaney, Marion Davies, Frank Borzage and Edward Everett Horton. Why is it important that these rare silents be preserved and shared with silent film enthusiasts and beyond? 

Ben: The silent movies I release, thankfully, have already been preserved by the film archives. I feel like my role in the overall process is one of feeding and enriching the interest and fandom of silent cinema, including my own, by helping to fill out the landscape of silent cinema beyond the “usual suspects” tentpole films. These are the movies everyone went to see and enjoyed back in the silent era while they were waiting for the next Mary Pickford or Harold Lloyd film to be released.

Raquel: Is there one release that you're particularly proud of?

Ben: It’s hard to pick just one. But I’m really pleased with what we’ve done to make the films of comedian Marcel Perez available. Steve Massa got me interested in these, and they’re all excellent comedies. Perez was one of the many comedian-filmmakers of the silent era, physical comedians who also had a unique and recognizable directorial style. His own grandchildren–who Steve had connected with– had never seen Perez’s films and believed them to be lost. Most of his U.S.-made films are missing and we’re hoping more of them turn up so we can do a third volume.

Raquel: I really loved The Alice Howell Collection! Can you tell me more about how you came to curate and release that collection?

Ben: We have Steve Massa once again to thank for this project. Alice Howell is on the cover of his book Slapstick Divas, which is a huge book all about the women of silent film comedy. The more of her films we tracked down, watched, and showed in film programs we worked on, the more I thought a DVD of her films needed to happen. She starred in her own series of comedy shorts for about ten years and was popular and successful. You can see a link – even if it’s one you’re threading yourself – from Alice Howell to Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett and onward. She’s also got an important Hollywood legacy: her daughter married film director George Stevens, and her grandson George Stevens, Jr. is a filmmaker, founder of the American Film Institute and is co-creator of the Kennedy Center Honors. The Alice Howell DVD wound up being a 2-disc set, and was another Undercrank Productions release that was done through my co-branding arrangement with the Library of Congress. 

Raquel: During the early days of the pandemic you and Steve Massa started The Silent Comedy Watch Party series which now has over 90 episodes on YouTube. Can you tell me how this came about?

Ben: I’d had the basic concept for this for a few years. Somewhere here I have a drawing I made of how the equipment and the piano would be set up. The second week of March 2020 we all knew something was coming and we didn’t know what, but things were beginning to close up a little, and we were starting to hear about staying 6 feet away from each other. I live-streamed the show’s pilot, sort of a proof-of-concept to see if I could do it and to see if it worked for viewers. The reaction we got was enthusiastic and heartfelt – people who posted comments or sent emails thanked us for giving them some laughs. It was that release from the stress we were anticipating we’d be under, and then a couple days later I watched every gig I had get canceled, and the shutdown happened. 

We now had to do the show, and had to continue doing it. There was nowhere for anyone to go, and we knew people really needed the laughs. This was more than just putting on a silent film show, we realized we were now helping people get through what they were going through. Marlene created the title logo for The Silent Comedy Watch Party, I figured out how we would bring Steve on from his place for his intros – for the pilot, he’d come over to my apartment – my wife Mana had to learn how to operate a camera and tripod, and she and Steve’s wife Susan worked out how they’d stage-manage the show together via text while we were “on the air”. And I now found myself in the position of silent film accompanist-presenter and also the director of a live television show, both at the same time. 

It was the comments we’d get every week from people who were watching around the globe that let us know how much the shows and getting to laugh and forget everything for 90 minutes every Sunday meant to them. Now I meet people at in-person shows who recognize me and come up and tell me how The Silent Comedy Watch Party helped get them through the pandemic. It’s very moving.

Raquel: What's next for Undercrank Productions and where can people follow you?

Ben: We’re releasing a disc of restored Raymond Griffith silent comedies on June 13th, and a disc of restored Tom Mix westerns on July 11th. We’re in the midst of production on a project of restorations of films starring and directed by Francis Ford, and I expect to announce a Kickstarter later in the year for our first collaboration with the UCLA Film & TV Archive. The month-long anniversary sale on all our releases during June will hopefully give silent film fans a chance to discover some of the many silent comedy gems we’ve released, and for any loyal fans to fill out their Undercrank Productions media shelf. My website’s the best place to check out my blog or sign up for my emails, check out my Silent Film Music Podcast, and find out where I’m performing. My Twitter and Instagram handle is @silentfilmmusic, and my YouTube channel is

You can buy Undercrank Productions DVDs at a discounted price on Critics Choice VideoDeep Discount and Movies Unlimited for a limited time.

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