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Academic Insights for the Thinking World

What the professor saw on YouTube

The pervasiveness of digital media in contemporary, moving-image culture is transforming the way we make connections of all kinds. The recent rediscovery of the 1903 film Cheese Mites is a perfect example, as the way the film came to light could only have taken place in the last decade. Cheese Mites is a landmark of early cinema, one of the first films ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic. It belonged to a series of films called “The Unseen World” and was made for the Charles Urban Company by F. Martin Duncan, a pioneer of microcinematography. It was a sensation in its day, capitalizing on the creepy fascination with microscopic creatures inhabiting our food and drink. While researching my book on early popular-science films, I had seen the lone surviving shot from Cheese Mites—the microcinematographic view—held in the BFI National Archive. But Urban’s catalogues mentioned another version of the film that contained a shot prior to the view through the microscope.

I am not a film collector; I don’t haunt antique shops, participate in Ebay auctions, frequent yard sales, or do any of the other things that are the bread-and-butter activities of people who seek to acquire physical film prints. Instead, I am an early-career film scholar who has spent a fair amount of time in film archives, is friends with film collectors, and incorporates aspects of film archiving into his teaching. But I would not have guessed that I would ever find a lost film, let alone a film that figured prominently in my own research.

I would not have guessed that I would ever find a lost film.

The story began for me with an email from a friend, Doron Galili, containing a link to a YouTube video. Doron, a fellow cinema-studies student from the University of Chicago, was putting together a ‘wine and cheese’ screening event where actual wine and cheese would be accompanied by films on that theme. In YouTube search using the keyword “cheese,” he came across an old film entitled What the Professor Saw in the Cheese. From our time together in graduate school, he knew that I worked on early popular-science films and wondered if I had seen this one before.

I had not.

Watching it on YouTube, I saw a file of approximately two-and-a-half-minutes consisting of two shots. In the first shot, a man is seated at a table outdoors, reading a newspaper and eating bread and cheese. He uses a magnifying glass to read his newspaper and eventually turns his attention to the cheese. At this point, he does a double-take, and there is a cut to a microcinematographic view of the mites. Surely, I thought, this must be the two-shot version of Cheese Mites. The find was stunning, not least because I recognized that F. Martin Duncan himself played the part of the “gentleman” astonished by the mites on his cheese. Of all the missing films in my book project that I could have wanted to find, this one was at the top of the list.

Locating the source however, took some detective work. The YouTube page offered scant clues. The poster, “Treksintime,” had no internet presence, and I was at a dead end. So I redoubled my efforts, this time watching the other films in “Treksintime”’s channel. One film contained a company name, “Golden Age Publishing, LLC,” which led me to the state of Virginia’s corporate directory, where I finally found a name. The internet also provided an address and a phone number, which I subsequently called.

The owner of the print turned out to be a collector named Robert Quesinberry. He had bought the film, which was on a reel with two other films, from an antique shop in a nearby town. During the course of several fascinating conversations, he described how he had digitized the original print, a 35mm nitrate print. Although in good condition for a film print over one-hundred years old, it was slightly shrunken and brittle. He devised his own ingenious method for making a digital copy using the automated advance feature on a filmstrip projector, a widely used A/V device in American classrooms for the better part of the twentieth century, taking a digital picture of each frame as it was projected on a small screen. Afterwards, he used some software to stitch together the 2251 images and posted it to YouTube.

So, a collector buys a reel of nitrate decades ago. He digitizes the 35mm print via an ingenious contraption of his own design and posts the file to YouTube, where a cinema scholar looking to put together a “wine and cheese” themed screening notices it. And because this person is a friend of mine from graduate school, he thinks to email me about it. Then I use a variety of internet-based search methods to track down the print, which its owner allowed me to purchase (an effort in which fellow science-film scholar Scott Curtis was an enthusiastic and equal partner) and which I then donated to the BFI for permanent preservation.

Image Credit: “Photo Camera Photography Old Retro Film Photo” by PublicDomainPictures. CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) via Pixabay.

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