Robert Haller (Anthology Film Archives)

introduction to Ed Emshwiller's Project Apollo (USIA, 1968)

Orphans of the Storm: Saving "Orphan Films" in the Digital Age, University of South Carolina, September 24, 1999

Edited from a transcription based on an audio recording.

* * * * *

I am going to be talking about Ed Emshwiller today and in particular the film Project Apollo that he made in 1968. Before I do that I would like to touch up on something Chris Horak just mentioned, which is documentation. Emshwiller started making films in 1959 he continued for the next thirty years until he died in 1990. During that time while he was written about fairly frequently in reviews and articles, there was no significant publication about him. Shortly before he died, he deposited a large collection of his film materials with Anthology Film Archives. The remainder of his film materials stayed at CalArts, where he was teaching, until several years after his death, when they were passed on to the American Film Institute, which after a while passed them on to the Museum of Modern Art.

Emshwiller's papers remained at CalArts for a while. They are now in the hands of the Iota Center, and I am eagerly looking forward to going to Los Angles to dive into those papers.

But in the mean time Anthology published, two years ago, the first major publication on Ed. This catalog, Intersecting Images: The Cinema of Ed Emshwiller, collects recollections about him as well as a major bibliography on him by Kathryn Elder. Kathy is here from York University in Toronto. She has just edited another such book, The Films of Joyce Wieland (1999), and is about to do another [The Films of Jack Chambers (2002)].

This kind of major bibliographic research is crucial in understanding who these filmmakers are. Kathy did something remarkable in this particular bibliography, which I hope she is continuing. She not only lists all the publications about these filmmakers but she annotates each one, so that even if you don't have access to the articles you get a sense of how deeply the author went into his subject. It's a very useful model, which should be done for most independent filmmakers as well as other filmmakers. And my predisposition of course is for independent filmmakers because they are the most over looked and ironically the most interesting filmmakers of all the people making motion pictures.

Emshwiller, in 1963, wrote an article in which he declared his objectives. I would like to read two sentence. He is talking about his film Relativity, but also about his whole career. "My principle project now attempts to express the state of an individual in the physical universe, as we understand it today, and his psychological responses to that state." In other words, Ed was trying to describe through his films where man stood in the universe midway between the atom and the galaxy, and what that meant. That's one reason I find his films so fascinating. On top of that, are the films' technical expertise and their visual, imaginative excitement. 

Anthology Film Archives also put out another publication recently called First Light (1998, by Robert A. Haller) that also has significant material on Emshwiller. 

In 1968 Emshwiller completed a 35mm film approximately 40 minutes long about the Apollo moon project. Project Apollo was made for the United States Information Agency, and therefore was never formally presented in the United States. However, Emshwiller had his own personal prints in 16mm and 35mm, which he privately screened on very rare occasions.

I personally saw the film at Carnegie Melon University in 1971 when ed came to the university. He was extremely possessive of this 16mm print. A student projectionist mounted the film sloppily on the projector and Ed charge down the aisle in a fury, telling him "Turn the projector off! -- because if you damage the film, there is no way to replace the print."

Project Apollo was made after his much praised Relativity (1966) and just before Image, Flesh and Voice (1970). This is the same time period when Stanley Kubrick approached Emshwiller and asked if he would work on the film that he was then completing called 2001: A Space Odyssey. Ed's answer was "No. I'm involved in much more interesting projects. Good luck, but I'm doing something else."

This something else was not only this Project Apollo film, which was about Ed's dream, the flight to the moon, but also Image, Flesh and Voice, which is a vastly underrated and misunderstood film, on which we have also just done some restoration. The film remained in our climate controlled vaults for eight years until the president of a New York video lab, the Digital Media Zone, approached us at Anthology because he was making a film about science fiction. He had been interviewing Ed's widow Carol Emshwiller. He was going to use clips from Relativity and in talking to me about this wonderful project (which is still underway) he learned that we had Project Apollo in 35mm, in faded condition. He offered to make a video transfer, correct the color, and donate to Anthology a BetaSP master.

I jumped at the chance; he was talking about giving us ten thousand dollars worth of services for nothing. That's the way Anthology gets a lot of its work done, because we are underfunded as an institution and we have an enormous agenda of things that need to be performed. Once this restoration was completed by Digital Media Zone (DMZ), the next step was making sure Anthology could show the film in the United States -- something I was not sure could be done at that time. This was a year ago, 1998.

There were laws on the books that films produced by the United States Information Agency could not be shown inside the Untied States. There was concern at the time that these films were made back in the 1960s when these productions started that propoganda was going to be produced with government funding and it could be used to influence the public agenda in the United States. But that situation has changed. Since 1990 it has been possible under public law 101-246 (104 Stat 149) issued on February 16, 1990, to release and distribute USIA films once a twelve-year period has passed since their production and use by the USIA. In other words if USIA makes a film in 1970 and uses it until 1980 as of 1992 the film can be shown in the United States without fear of political consequences or whatever.

With these technical and legal problems now resolved Anthology next step has become one of better understanding this remarkable film. We have been significantly aided in this by film scholar Gerald O'Grady from State University of New York of Buffalo, who just donated to Anthology Emshwiller's production proposal for the film, a narrative description of what he wanted to make before he made it.

Emshwiller's challenge in making this film was to present the story of the Apollo Moon Project before the flight took place. Remember he is making this film in 1967 and 1968 and the moon flight itself in which Neil Armstrong lands on the moon, doesn't occur until July 1969. Emshwiller determined he was going to show the story through pictures for an audience that in many cases did not speak English.

Speech in this film is used only as a sound effect. This is contrary to his original intention. In looking at the production proposal that O'Grady provided to us, we can see that he intended to have extensive quotations from classical authors and poets about why it was important to go to the moon. All that went by the way. At the very beginning of the film you hear Wernher von Braun, the principle architect of the moon project, talking extensively in the background and those of us who were conscious and listening in the 1960s will instantly recognize von Bruan's wonderful German accent. But you really can't understand what he is saying.

Emshwiller did not try to convey any of the messages of this film in words; he tried to do it all visually. And he is rather successful. What I am going to show you know is a two-minute clip from the film that deals with three parts of this story. The transport of the Saturn rocket from the vehicle assembly building, the scale of the transport system compared to the humans who were involved in building it and ultimately using it, and last a very abstract image that returns to the focus of the film to the human dimension for the flight crew itself. This again is from a BetaSP master that was donated by DMZ.

I particularly like that last shot. It is totally meaningless in terms of the narrative of the film but the kinesthetic feeling it conveys is very effective.

I want to end with one interesting question. This is just one of hundreds of films produced for the USIA by American independent filmmakers and other people. I personally know absolutely nothing about what else was done for the USIA and I suspect there are dozens, if not scores of really interesting films that the federal government financed and made which can now be shown in this country, which we know nothing about. If there are any graduate students here who wish to grab onto a really interesting thesis, contact the USIA or its successor organizations and find out what those films were and what happened to them. Because I think that is a marvelous story to be told there.

-- #30 --

Words from Orphans of the Storm: Saving "Orphan Films" in the Digital Age
University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC
September 24, 1999. Transcribed and edited by Dan Streible, 2012, 2014.


A post script:

In 2011, the Orphan Film Symposium and Project issued a two-DVD set entitled Orphans in Space: Forgotten Films from the Final Frontier produced by Walter Forsberg, Alice Moscoso, Dan Streible, and Jonah Volk. Project Apollo is one of 15 works on the set, which includes a 40-page booklet. Here is the booklet's note for the film.

Project Apollo (Ed Emshwiller, USIA, 1968) 30 min., color, sound
Sources: Museum of Modern Art and Anthology Film Archives

Ed Emshwiller (1925-1990) was an accomplished visual artist, working in media ranging from abstract painting to 3-D computer animation. In the 1950s, "Emsh" first became known for his pulp-realist and fantastical cover art for science fiction magazines and novels. By the mid-1960s, he had made his mark in avant-garde film and video. However, his American followers were largely unable to see his masterful and unconventional documentary Project Apollo, made for the United States Information Agency in 1968. USIA productions were made to promote American interests to viewers in other countries; until 1990, federal law made it illegal (with some exceptions) to show such ideologically conceived material inside U.S. borders. Hence, one can find libraries in South Africa and Canada, for example, holding copies of Project Apollo, but none in the United States.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration holds the records of the USIA (Record Group 306), including much of its moving image output. The USIA often distributed films that had been produced for other purposes, translating them into dozens of languages. These included works as diverse as Emile de Antonio's documentary about postwar American art, Painters Painting (1972), and Willard Van Dyke's obscure New York University (196?), an orientation film commissioned by NYU's alumni association. The agency also originated hundreds of films, sometimes hiring newsreel crews, other times new creative talent. As USIA Motion Picture Service head from 1962 to 1967, George Stevens Jr. especially recruited the latter. Emshwiller began as a USIA cinematographer in 1963, helping to record the March on Washington for director James Blue's USIA documentary The March.

In 2010, Anthology Film Archives preserved a previously unknown Emshwiller reel of Kodachrome 16mm film, premiering it at Orphans 7. The remarkable footage, edited in camera, was taken in Washington on the day of and after the March. Emshwiller recorded crowds and protestors making their way to the Mall and the empty grounds the following day.


  • The National Archives reports no holdings for Project Apollo in its USIA collection. The source for this DVD was a 16mm print from the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA's Emshwiller holdings include material about his video and computer graphic work at television station WNET in New York (1972-79). Colorlab made a 1080p HD video transfer, performing color correction. This was done with the approval of Carol Emshwiller.