Celebrating 15 years, museum reflects on all manner of moving images

Sunday, September 28, 2003

— The past? That starts on the third floor with illusions created by simple light and movement. Looking for the present and future? Check out the digital media gallery on the first level.

Since it opened in the late 1980s, the American Museum of the Moving Image has tried to present the entire field of moving images in entertainment. That includes film and television but also means video games, digital images, electronic editing, animation and more.

The museum, set up in part of an old movie studio complex in the Astoria section of Queens, celebrated its 15th anniversary this month with numerous screenings and other events. The centerpiece was a screening of "Singing in the Rain," the first movie ever presented in the museum.

The events mark 15 years of collecting moviemaking equipment, costumes, sheet music and photographs (check out the doll used in the head-turning scene from "The Exorcist"), while exploring animation techniques, digital editing and sound.

"I'm amazed by the place," says Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker whose experimental work has been shown there. "It's a cinema utopia."

"We specialize, really, in behind the scenes, in the world of the work behind the screen," said Rochelle Slovin, current and founding director of the museum.

The museum emerged from a project to rehabilitate the Astoria Studios, built by Paramount Pictures in the 1920s. By 1977, the studios had fallen into disrepair and a foundation was formed to get them back into use. The concept for a museum focusing on the history and power of the visual image evolved from that, and the museum opened its doors on Sept. 10, 1988.

Museum officials say that more than 1 million people have visited over the years, with annual attendance now at about 80,000; at least 20,000 who visit the museum are schoolchildren.

During the next five to 10 years, officials want to double the museum's size, and hope to break ground on the first phase as early as next spring. The museum's permanent collection now occupies 17,000 square feet with another 1,800 square feet given over to changing exhibits.

Slovin said the museum is unique because of its scope. She called it "the foremost collection of this kind anywhere, in terms of an integrated collection of motion pictures, television and digital media."

Even when they were searching for a name for the museum, years before it opened, those connected to the project knew they didn't want to call it only a film and television museum, because the technology was changing, Slovin said.

"We understood even at the beginning that movies, television, video, computers were moving closer and closer together," she said.

So while the top two floors present the history of moving images -- from an 1887 photographic study of a galloping horse by Eadweard Muybridge, to an early mechanical television created in 1931 -- the museum uses the first floor to showcase what's happening with digital imaging and software-based art.

There are interactive displays throughout, where visitors can try their hand at recording dialogue for a movie scene, picking out sound effects, or putting together a short animated clip using a computer.

Technology has made it possible to do such work on home computers -- but Slovin says that's only deepened the public's appreciation of the complexities facing professionals.

"The fact that we have the equipment or the fact that we have the potential doesn't make us into that kind of an artist, and doesn't enable us automatically to do something that's terrific and worthy of other people watching it," she said.

"The more you know, the more you can acknowledge the artistry of the person who really does it fabulously well."