Sprinting around the classroom in Riddick Engineering Laboratories, Skip Elsheimer is busy trying to set up for a screening of religious films for the Academic Study of Religions Club, lamenting how he failed to remember to bring a stand for his projector.
Lining up the projector gives him some trouble, but it is a problem that is resolved with some effort. Elsheimer continues to buzz around, moving his rolling suitcase full of film reels and making sure everything works, all the while expressing his excitement about showing some of his preserved films.
For nearly 20 years, Elsheimer has been collecting and showing preserved films from decades past. Currently he has in his collection about 24,000 films, and the number continues to grow.
※What＊s happening now is people know what I do, so I get these phone calls- for example, I got this phone call from a national park in Philadelphia, and they said ＆hey, we have these films and we need to get rid of them; I don＊t want to throw them out, and I see you collect films. Do you want them?＊” Elsheimer said. “So I end up paying for shipping and then I get 20 more films. That happens probably every other month.”
Elsheimer said his film collection started on accident. He used to collect surplus materials from the state, such as printing presses, CPR dummies and old video equipment.
After he acquired an old film projector, he began collecting film reels, and found that he could get a large batch of about 500 films for a surprisingly low amount of $50. Elsheimer continued to attend auctions and purchase more and more of the reels and has turned his interest into a business.
※I tour the United States showing these films for a variety of audiences, some who like to drink and watch films, some who are in conferences, some who do it for fun, do it for academics, what have you,§ Elsheimer said.
His business A/V Geeks is run out of Raleigh, with most of his collection being housed in a boarding house he purchased and various other storage spaces holding the remainder. Elsheimer estimates that there are about 20,000 in his house.
Film preservation was not always something he saw himself doing- until he began his collection during his senior year of college, he was not aware that preservation of educational films was something people did.
※I collect them because I thought they were funny [and] visually interesting, and then I kind of realized, huh, these are culturally kind of important because they capture at the time what was important to us and what scared us and what we wanted to fix and what we were aspiring toward and what were our dreams,§ Elsheimer said.
Elsheimer insists that often times watching one of the preserved films can give people a better idea of people＊s beliefs and values in history than watching a show or movie on TV or in a theater, as those are fictionalized narratives of life back then.
During his last year as an undergraduate at NC State, Elsheimer began his collection. While taking a film class entitled Film as a Subversive Art, he gained a new perspective on the concept and usage of film as a medium.
“The class was about films that were challenging films; challenging the concept of film making and film,” Elsheimer said.
Elsheimer said he came to NC State looking to major in computer sciences; but halfway through pursuing his degree, he switched into the school of design.
“Toward the end I was burning out on school, but I kept collecting films, and I started really watching and showing the films at the school of design for people,” he said. “People liked the films, they enjoyed them and I realized that, wow, this is kind of interesting and important and I want to keep doing this and I enjoy it.”
Today, Elsheimer is still collecting and showing, with some assistance. His intern Lucas Kessler, a junior studying English, has been working with him since last October. According to Kessler, through his internship he has learned the basics of handling, cleaning/repairing and digitizing film. Kessler has also discussed the future of archiving and exhibiting old films that are difficult and expensive to preserve.
“[Elsheimer] is very knowledgeable and excited about what he does, but he’s also a really laid back guy,” Kessler said. “The atmosphere he creates in his archive is super relaxed- we get a lot done, but we’re always joking around.”
Kessler says his daily tasks as an intern revolve around digitizing films with Elsheimer’s supervision, though most of the films he works with are ones that Elsheimer owns as opposed to projects for clients. Currently, Elsheimer presents his work at Hunt Library on the third Friday of every month.
“It’s great; they really get what I do,” Elsheimer said. “The actually have a collection of DVDs that I’ve made from my collection.”
In addition to these resources, A/V Geeks has a website, avgeeks.com, where they have about 3,000 films online. He has also digitized films for archives in Harvard and Duke.
“I didn’t know what it was; I just was like I want to do this, this is kind of interesting to me, and it turned into a business and profession,” Elsheimer said. “Sometimes it’s the passion, and it drives you, and you don’t know where it’s going to drive you, but if you are open to opportunities you might suddenly say, oh, you know what I can do this professionally and make a living, and that’s what I’ve done.”