- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 9, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - The number is etched into Eric Grayson’s mind like the images on a filmstrip.

There were 4,440 frames in an old Buster Keaton movie that were supposed to be in Technicolor.

The color was barely visible. Grayson had 72 hours to run the images through a computer and bring the colors back, frame by frustrating frame.

He could’ve said no. The job only paid a couple hundred bucks, nowhere near the value of his unique expertise.

But Grayson couldn’t say no.

“I know this sounds really egotistic, but I have a bizarre set of skill sets and I knew I was probably the only person in the world who could sit there and do this and get it out in 72 hours,” Grayson told The Indianapolis Star (https://indy.st/12ITgeU ). “I knew if I didn’t do it it was never going to be done.”

This is how Grayson is saving old movies, one frame at a time.

And not just the classics. Grayson digs forgotten films - movies that shed light on our past or teach us something about the early days of cinema. Not for any artistic value, because as he’s quick to acknowledge some are just plain bad, but for their historic value.

He could be earning a good salary as an electrical engineer or an information technology specialist. Instead, Grayson hosts film showings and spends hundreds of hours repairing and rescuing old film for little pay.

He rescues all old films from other collectors, eBay and even trash bins. He has an affinity for the “orphans,” forgotten low-budget pictures with unknown actors, bad scripts and often insurmountable technical problems. These are the films other historians say are not worth saving.

The Star met Indianapolis’ “Film Historian/Collector” (that’s the title on his business card) at Calvin Fletcher’s Coffee Company in Fountain Square. He lives nearby in what he described as “a shabby, run-down house that’s paid for.”

Grayson, 49, carries old projectors in the trunk of his car. For a couple hundred bucks, he’ll set up a screen anywhere you want and show something from his collection of about 400 films.

He’s been hosting Vintage Movie Night at the Garfield Park Arts Center for six years. Grayson shows one film a month at Garfield Park. Next up, the 1950 film “The Great Rupert” at 7 p.m. Dec. 20. Tickets are $5.

Garfield Park audiences love him, according to assistant manager Elsy Benitez.

“It’s not just the movies, for us it is so educational,” Benitez said. “For every screening he adds so many elements.”

Grayson plays a short cartoon or other work before each feature. Benitez said he explains the history and process of film-making and talks about the directors, producers, actors and studios.

“He always has really great stories to share with the audience,” Benitez said. “Having him here revitalizes that old-movie feel.”

Grayson’s passion for film began when he was a child in the 1970s, staying up past bedtime and watching Sammy Terry host Nightmare Theater on WTTV (Channel 4).

In an homage to Sammy Terry, Grayson even produced a pilot for a TV show on film history in which he portrays a mad scientist-like character named “Dr. Film.” He’s yet to find a television station interested in buying it.

Old movies remained his passion after he graduated from Lawrence Central High School and earned an engineering degree from Purdue University.

He landed a job as a forensic imaging technician, where he’d use measurements and mathematics on photos and video images to help explain how an accident occurred. He spent some of this engineering income buying projectors and amassing a collection of 16 millimeter and 35 millimeter films.

Twenty years into his engineering career, Grayson was laid off in 2004.

He made film his full-time gig.

Gathering dust in Grayson’s collection were three worn-out, unwatchable film copies of “African Queen,” a 1951 blockbuster directed by John Huston and starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.

He bought the “African Queen” reels for about $600 thinking someday he might have time to devote to salvaging them.

Grayson spent about 100 hours fixing them; combining those three prints into one, big-screen-quality original theatrical copy.

He put out the word that he had a film copy of “African Queen,” one of the few copies that was not in an archive or museum. Film buffs started hiring Grayson to set up showings.

“That made my money back and gave me a reputation as a guy who has cool stuff,” Grayson said.

A couple years later, producers who were restoring the Buster Keaton flick called Grayson. Kino Lorber, a film distributor based in New York, was restoring a digital version of the 1925 film “Seven Chances” copied from original 35-millimeter reels in the Library of Congress. They wanted to release it on DVD and the production deadline was closing in fast.

“Because of the way the film was stored and the way it’s made and all kinds of technical stuff that I won’t bore you with, ‘Seven Chances’ had faded to the point where you could hardly tell it was color anymore,” Grayson said.

The color was only used in a short segment and it was badly damaged. By the time they called on Grayson, Kino Lorber had practically given up on trying to restore the color.

He got the assignment on a Friday; deadline was Monday.

“I knew that they would never be able to pay me how much this was worth,” Grayson said. “I also knew that I was rescuing a Buster Keaton film.”

Grayson attacked the project like a college student cramming for finals. He worked day and night at a computer. He didn’t sleep, didn’t go out, didn’t shower.

“Seven Chances” has 4,440 color frames.

“I still remember that,” he said. “I had to click (the computer mouse) 4,440 times, and if it was off I had to start all over again. It was insane.”

If you listen to his audio commentary on the Kino Classic DVD of “Seven Chances,” Grayson said he probably sounds a little drunk.

“I’m not, I’m just really tired.”

His latest project is a 1929 cliffhanger called “King of the Kongo,” a low-budget series rife with bad acting. Serials were popular in the early days of cinema and shown in theaters along with feature films. Each episode ended with the hero in some kind of dire peril. The audience would have to return next week to see the hero escape.

“King of the Kongo” was the first serial to use sound. Boris Karloff has a small part as a bad guy, but it was made before Karloff gained fame in 1931 for his role as “Frankenstein.”

Grayson has low-quality copies of all 10 chapters of “Kongo.” He has recovered only a handful of the shellac discs that contain the movie’s audio.

In 2012, he used Kickstarter to raise the $1,291 needed to digitally restore and add sound to the Chapter 5 of “King of the Kongo.” He showed that 20-minute restored chapter to the National Film Preservation Foundation, which gave him a grant to pay for Chapter 10.

Grayson doubts he’ll find all 21 audio discs that go with “Kongo,” but he’ll restore what he can.

He has a complete script and said he may someday hire actors to voice the missing parts. He’ll need actors willing to adopt the bad-acting style of the original.

“Then we’ll go to DVD and I’ll make just enough to get my costs back before someone puts it on You Tube,” Grayson said.

___

Information from: The Indianapolis Star, https://www.indystar.com


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