David Shepard (1940-2017) : The Huge Difference Made By One Person’s Efforts in Preserving The Work of Many
On Tuesday, we all lost a giant in the preservation of film history: David Shepard. I didn’t know David as long as so many other folks did (I had only known him a little better since 2012) but, as so many others, was touched by his generosity and love for film.
It’s impossible to say in a few words a summation of any person’s life, so, instead, here is just a little about how this one person’s life helped preserve the work of many filmmakers.
David was involved with film preservation since the 1960s. He was instrumental in saving many, many films, working with the Libarary of Congress, UCLA, The Academy, and basically every film archive that handled classic features and shorts. His tireless work was matched by his interest in films being saved, whether he was involved or not. Watching him enjoying films at the Syracuse Cinefest was really heartening. When chatting about the Van Beuren cartoons, I was amazed that he knew all the films i mentioned and what existed on each, as if he had just done the research.
He easily had one of the best memories for details of anyone I’ve ever known: If he had worked with some specific material, he remembered not only what the was about, knew fairly accurately what still existed on each film down to details on what titles had safety materials on them and what didn’t, what had a neg or a fine grain, etc. While much of his work involved films from the silent era, his work in preserving the work of the Ub Iwerks Studio, from the material acquired by Blackhawk, allows Thunderbean now to scan and release these films in excellent quality. It can’t be understated how lucky we are that not only does this material exist, but that he allowed access to any and all of it to look through and make decisions on what to scan- whatever we wanted to use.
A little while back, I read an interview David did with Mark Zimmer back in 2000, and just went back to read it again. There are a few really good quotes in this interview that really describe how he thought about preservation and the value of film.
My favorites are:
On video releases:
“I try not to start something if it’s going to end up second-rate. There are so many films, and the needle’s eye that I can get them through is a relatively small one, so I try and only do films that I like and that I believe in, and films that I can make look pretty good or better.”
On being an important person in preserving silent films:
“Well, if you make the pond small enough, the smallest fish looks big.”
On working on video collections:
“I’ve been really fortunate, terribly fortunate, in finding collaborators and associates who see this work as I do, a cultural activity of real worth.”
The whole interview is here.
I like to think he saw that I was trying for some of the same ideals in the work we’re doing with Thunderbean.
We made a deal for the Flip the Frog films first. The set is finally starting to come together after a few years of work, interrupted by other projects. I had asked if we could put out a set of the Willie Whopper’s as well. He said that all the films were not available, but we could use some of them.
I gave him a call when I found out that Modern Sound Pictures went out a business, and he was right on it, making a deal to regain the Willie Whopper films that Blackhawk had sold the rights to, joining the series back together *just* for the Blu-ray release we were doing. I remember him saying at that time that he didn’t think the Willies were very good, and he hoped we wouldn’t go broke doing the set. Still, he went through the effort to help track down the best material that existed in his personal collection, the materials as UCLA and the Academy. Through his urging, the camera negative was found on the Willie Whopper short Hell’s Fire. Being able to present this short complete and in color was one of the great highlights of working on the set. I was heartened when I received an email from him just after watching the finished set; he said he never thought they could look so good.
The agreement we have with David’s company, Film Preservation Associates to release the UB Iwerks cartoon series will continue, as well as the other sets we had made agreements on. I’m looking forward to the next sets and hope to do David proud. The Flip the Frog set will be dedicated to him.
Here is Hell’s Fire (1934) availble for us to see because David remembered that the negative existed somewhere at UCLA, and was found though David’s efforts to start a search for it again. Thanks for this and all you did to preserve the history and enjoyment of film, David. You are already sorely missed.