In the heart of Astoria, Queens — an otherwise residential New York City neighborhood full of tree-lined streets, charming row houses and Greek tavernas — sits the historic Kaufman Astoria Studios. This beautifully-maintained studio complex, officially added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978, also happens to be the home of one of my favorite NYC museums: the Museum of the Moving Image.
Despite being a lifelong Queens resident, I had never visited MoMI growing up, instead opting for the usual suspects – the Met, the Museum of Natural History, the Guggenheim, etc. A few months ago, however, I had read about a video game exhibit on view at the museum and decided to check it out. Art and video games? Sign me up.
I arrived at the MoMI on a Friday afternoon to a mixed crowd of locals, tourists and a few school groups. The entrance to the museum, a simple doorway off a busy sidewalk, appeared inconspicuous, but the doors opened up to a large, contemporary hall that was white from floor to ceiling and minimalist in its decor. The museum staff greeted me with a smile, gave me a map of the place and I was off.
Over the next two hours, I learned about the invention of the video camera and television set, got to recreate a segment of “The Muppet Show,” saw what it takes to produce a baseball game in real-time and discovered independent game developers who are blurring the lines between video games, cinematography and art. The museum as a whole was informative, captivating, interactive and architecturally stunning.
I wanted to know more about MoMI. How do they curate exhibits? What’s in their permanent collection? Should videographers and filmmakers visit the museum? And if so, what would they learn? What is a “moving image” anyway? My mind was abuzz with questions.
Luckily, MoMI’s Executive Director, Carl Goodman, was there to help.
What’s MoMI all about?
Carl joined MoMI in 1989 as an Educator and became the Curator of Digital Media in 1992. As the Curator of Digital Media, his job was to trackup-and-coming forms of digital technology and figure out how this new technology was changing the way creatives communicated with the public. Over the years, Carl was promoted to Director of Digital Media, then Senior Deputy Director for the entire museum. Today, Carl is MoMI’s Executive Director, overseeing everything from public relations to new exhibits and everything in between. The growth of his career is intertwined with the growth and history of the MoMI itself.
Before diving into MoMI’s history and significance, it’s helpful to first briefly discuss the Kaufman Astoria Studios complex. Originally called the Astoria Studio, it was built in 1920 by American motion picture and distribution company Famous Players-Lasky Corporation, which later became known as Paramount Pictures. The studio was the site of many famous silent and early sound films, including the first two Marx Brothers films ever released, “The Cocoanuts” and “Animal Crackers.”
In 1942, during the Second World War, the U.S. Army took over the studio and used it to produce soldier training videos and war propaganda. That’s right — war propaganda, in Queens!
The Army renamed it the Signal Corps Photographic Center and continued to make motion pictures until 1970, after which it was abandoned and fell into disrepair. Talks of knocking down the studio started to bubble up, so a group of government, film and other industry leaders came together to save it. They established the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation to restore the studio, reopening it in 1977. The first motion picture that was filmed there after it was reopened was “The Wiz,” starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson.
The studio was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1978, and in 1982, real estate developer George Kaufman took over the property to renovate, expand and revive it as a thriving film and TV studio. It was then renamed Kaufman Astoria Studios.
Around the same time, the Astoria Motion Picture and Television Center Foundation committed to establishing a museum dedicated to film and television. The Foundation was reincorporated and renamed itself the American Museum of the Moving Image, opening to the public in 1988. They dropped the “American” around 1999, and stuck with Museum of the Moving Image, or MoMI.
I was absolutely fascinated by this history. But I was still wondering: What did “moving image” mean?
This was the first thing I asked Carl when we sat down to chat. “When the museum was established, film and television were considered entirely distinct industries. Film was seen as an offshoot of photography, while television an offshoot of radio. The two had different business structures, separate distribution channels and were consumed differently by the public,” Carl explained. “Indeed, the public, especially people in the film world, looked down on the TV industry.”
Carl continued, “but when MoMI’s founders looked closer, they realized that there were all these commonalities between film and television that weren’t being discussed. Film professionals were starting to work in television, the creative processes in film and television were overlapping more and more, and new digital technologies were blurring the line between the two altogether.”
On top of all that, Carl explained, video games were beginning to emerge as well, yet they weren’t even considered part of the same category. So MoMI set out to learn about and celebrate anything that was put on the screen. In other words, the moving image. “There’s an elasticity to that name that allows MoMI to feature cutting-edge media and remain prepared for media that doesn’t even exist yet.”
Carl continued with an inquisitive undertone, “Now you’re probably asking yourself, why not publish a magazine instead?”
I pondered silently for a few moments before Carl offered his explanation. “There’s more power in an experiential approach to learning. And MoMI wanted the public to learn about moving image in its entirety — not just the final product but also the objects and processes involved. No one else was doing this. We’re next door to a film studio, so people expected to just see ‘where the magic happens.’ But MoMI wanted people to also learn how the magic happens.”
But wouldn’t demystifying the magic people see on screen potentially turn them away from watching films and television? I mean, we all know Godzilla isn’t real, but isn’t that why we escape into film and television — to suspend reality?
As if reading my mind, Carl addressed this very thought. “People assumed that by teaching the public about the process they would grow to dislike the end result, be it television, film, or otherwise. But our philosophy was that demystifying the process would lead to a greater appreciation of it. MoMI’s only been growing since it opened, so I’m confident in saying that we were right.”
What’s on at the MoMI?
The MoMI’s core exhibition, aptly named “Behind the Screen,” is the manifestation of this philosophy. Taking up approximately 15,000 square feet across two floors, Behind the Screen is home to historic film and television cameras, projectors, television sets, costumes, set designs, makeup kits, posters and much, much more. I saw a mold of Jim Carrey from “The Mask,” a Praxinoscope from 1880, a Bell & Howell 35mm camera from 1919 and a thousand other things, some of which I even recognized from films and shows I’ve watched.
Behind the Screen also has interactive experiences. You can record your movements and then print out a series of still photographs to turn into a flipbook. You can record your voice over a movie scene to learn about voice-overs. My favorite activity involved choosing different musical scores to accompany famous movie scenes; I hadn’t really appreciated just how music can direct mood and tone. Playing classical music over a famous scene in “Twister” and swapping that with heavy metal right afterwards over that same scene made a playfully indelible impression on me.
And of course, there are hours of video clips ranging from some of the earliest kinetoscope films to, my absolute favorite, a behind-the-scenes look at legendary baseball director Bill Webb mixing and producing a live game between the New York Mets and San Diego Padres. In fact, if you only have time to see one thing at the MoMI, it should be this. And I’m not even a sports fan.
“Behind the Screen has been absolutely resilient,” Carl observed of the exhibit. “It’s all about the different people and practices that go into creating a moving image. It’s been the anchor of our museum.”
The MoMI’s other main exhibition is “The Jim Henson Exhibition,” which celebrates the film and television work of Jim Henson, the creator of “The Muppet Show,” “Sesame Street” and “Labyrinth,” among other things. There are famous puppets and costumes on display including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Elmo and a full-size Big Bird. I even got to try my hand at recording my own Muppets segment, which was more challenging than I had expected. I forgot that I had to open my hand, not close it, when I wanted the puppet to appear like it was talking. I got it eventually, and I was pretty happy with my work. It’s the little things in life that sometimes bring the most joy.
Then there are the temporary installations. MoMI’s long-anticipated temporary installation, “A Whole Different Ball Game: Playing Through 60 Years of Sports Video Games,” which opened this past September, looks at the progression of sports video games over the past six decades and examines, among other things, how broadcast sports and video games have come to reflect and inspire one another. You can play most of the games featured in this exhibit, too. That’s right, you can come here and just play video games for hours. It will be on view until March 10, 2019.
There’s also “Cinema Play House,” a beautiful photo installation by artist Nandita Raman, depicting dilapidated and defunct single-screen theaters in India, mostly as black-and-white photos. This installation is running until January 27, 2019.
So how does MoMI curate such a wide variety of exhibitions? “We’re constantly evolving,” Carl explained. “It’s a team effort. We have a group of curators with expertise in different fields who are always looking for creative and interesting opportunities. Sometimes we look at exhibits elsewhere that inspire us to create our own exhibit. That’s how the Jim Henson exhibition was born.
“Other times we curate around a famous film or television show to educate the public about it. One of my favorite examples was our ‘Mad Men’ exhibition back in 2015. As the show was coming to an end, we worked with series creator Matthew Weiner to bring sets, wardrobe, objects and even the actual writers room to the museum. It was the largest ‘Mad Men’ exhibition ever created. It was a real hit.
“Ultimately,” Carl continued, “balance is key because people don’t want to see the same thing over and over. Sometimes people come in for nostalgia, other times for something cutting edge. During one of our edgier installations, we were playing mature content that wasn’t appropriate for our younger visitors. We had to polarize the monitors and give out glasses to the of-age visitors so they could enjoy. It was a powerful installation, so we found a creative solution to balance competing interests.”
What can videographers and filmmakers
learn from MoMI?
“MoMI wants visitors to start at the beginning of video history, walk through the advancements and progressions, and leave with an appreciation of the present and excitement for the future. Online platforms like YouTube, Vimeo, Snapchat, Facebook and others have democratized the production and distribution of video content, and your iPhone is more powerful today than professional cameras of just 20 years ago. In other words, we tend to forget how good we have it.”
I looked down at my phone, realizing that I capture and share videos with friends and family from time to time. I definitely take it for granted.
“Part of what the museum does is it pushes videographers, and all visitors frankly, to think outside the box,” Carl philosophized aloud. “I would find myself wondering why my 15-year-old was watching videos of other people taking iPhones out of boxes, but there’s an art to that and it’s an entire industry now. It’s another direction videographers can go with their careers.”
And that’s the kind of stuff MoMI likes to explore. Right now there’s an ongoing installation called the “GIF Elevator” which features newly commissioned GIFs by six artists, animators and illustrators that will be presented as two-month installations on the walls and ceiling of the Museum’s elevator. “So what we’re saying to our visitors, particularly the video enthusiasts, is, ‘hey, we aren’t sure if this is art, but it’s important and significant, so let’s explore it together.’”
As I was walking around the sports video game exhibition, I was starting to see things differently. In one particular area, they showed the progression of baseball video games over the past few decades with side-by-side clips of broadcast baseball games from that same year. The earlier video games were heavily pixelated and clearly two-dimensional, almost a mockery of the sport. But as the years progressed, the video games started looking more and more like the real thing, which themselves were getting better in quality. When it got to 2017, it was hard to tell the difference at first glance, both in terms of visual graphics but also in terms of the production — camera angles, cuts and transitions, lighting and so on. The video games, Carl told me, were starting to inform how live games were broadcast.
“We work with film and video technique, game design, animation and more. When you come here, you begin to appreciate the overlaps, you connect the dots between what you may have previously considered separate forms of expression. That’s where ideas start flowing. Maybe it’s a new movie idea, or maybe it’s a completely novel collaboration. Either way, that’s what we reinforce at the MoMI.”
The museum also plays old films at high-level specifications that simply aren’t used in the regular cinema. For example, Carl recalled, MoMI once screened a fully restored 70mm version of the 1962 historical drama “Lawrence of Arabia,” and apparently, it was epic.
MoMI also holds over 500 film programs a year, including screenings, panels, talks and more. Just recently, they screened “2001: A Space Odyssey” in 70mm and lead actor Keir Dullea came in to talk about the film’s creative process. “This is the kind of event videographers can draw information and definitely inspiration from. Oh and by the way, 70mm is the only way that movie should be watched — if you watch it on TV, you should be arrested!” Carl quipped.
MoMI isn’t just teaching and inspiring today’s videographers and filmmakers, either. “We host over 50,000 school kids a year,” he explained. “You’ve got to see it; they come in huffing and puffing because they’re at a museum and they’re expecting to hate it. But once they get settled and start interacting with the exhibits, all that cynicism melts away.”
I asked Carl how the museum got started with their student programming. “At first it was rather unwittingly — students just came here for class trips. Now we have educational programs, we teach kids how to make video content and talk to them about the hundreds of jobs that exist in the industry. We’ve had students visit us at the age of twelve and then go on to pursue careers in film and television, crediting MoMI as their source of inspiration. That’s an incredible feeling.”
Indeed, MoMI has an entire tab on their website devoted to education. There are summer camps, teen programs and family programs as well as information and resources for teachers.
What’s next for MoMI?
Since MoMI’s redesign and expansion in 2011, the museum has been geared toward growth. “Get on an airplane and come to New York City!” exclaimed Carl jovially. “So many people come out to New York to experience the world’s greatest cultural attractions, and the MoMI, now more than ever, brings that to the table.” Queens is also gaining popularity as a tourist destination, so the Museum of the Moving Image is making its way onto international itineraries.
“And cameras are encouraged! We want our visitors to come here, make videos of their experience, and share with others. Everyone has a powerful recording device in their pockets, and we want you to feel inspired to use it.”
If you can’t make it out to New York, though, you can still get a taste of the MoMI through the museum’s traveling Jim Henson exhibition. “The Jim Henson exhibition has been one of the most creative and accessible exhibitions we’ve had in years here at MoMI, so we decided to make a traveling version,” Carl noted. “So far it’s been in Seattle and Los Angeles and is currently running in the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience in Meridian, Mississippi as well as the Center for Science and Industry in Columbus, Ohio.” MoMI will be announcing more cities soon, so the museum website is the best place to go for up-to-date information.
“The exhibition itself reinforces the values that underlie Jim’s work, like tolerance and acceptance of differences. We’re particularly excited about bringing this around the country to remind everyone that there’s a lot of good out there.” I didn’t want to get political, but I couldn’t agree more.