Anaheim, Calif. — A bit of Hollywood excitement came to the Society of Plastics Engineers annual conference — a continuous screening of the documentary "All Things Bakelite," produced by Leo Baekeland's great-grandson, Hugh Karraker.
Karraker and director John Maher completed the 56-minute film in the fall of 2016, after years of filming in which they shot just a few scenes a year.
Karraker has screened it several times, but the Antec showing came in the middle of a whirlwind of activity for the movie. Two weeks earlier, Karraker and his wife Sherry played the film at the Worldfest Houston film festival, where "All Things Bakelite" picked up the Platinum Remi Award in the documentary category. The Remi is named after Texas painter Frederic Remington.
"We tried to get it into Tribeca, but they wouldn't take it. We tried Toronto, New Orleans, Sundance," Karraker said. He is talking to a distributor, and said the film is designed for television.
Then it was on to Anaheim and Antec, where the Society of Plastics Engineers set up a room with couches and played the film on a continuous loop. Karraker made some remarks at the Antec awards banquet, and a short version was shown.
On May 30, Karraker will present "All Things Bakelite" at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, which has in its collection the egg-shaped steam pressure vessel called the Bakelizer that Leo Baekeland used to invent the first man-made synthetic plastic in 1907, a phenol formaldehyde, or phenolic.
The documentary tells the story of Baekeland, a native of Belgium who came to the United States, where he made his breakthrough. He set up General Bakelite Co. in New Jersey. At 36 years old, he became a millionaire.
"All Things Bakelite" tells his story, including his childhood. But it covers a lot of ground in just under an hour — depicting the go-go period of invention and industrialization in early 1900s America, Baekeland's stubborn nature that kept him trying different formulations, his self-doubt as the business exploded, and how plastics have spread since then, and become a huge array of products — some that cause litter and ocean waste, becoming a problem, and a "double-edged sword," a miracle material but one that lasts forever.
And the film does it with some humor, sprinkled with commentary from experts on industrial history and chemistry, such as Jeffrey Meikle, who wrote the book "American Plastic: A Cultural History."
Karraker, who appeared in some commercials in the 1980s and had some bit roles on television shows, appears in a few scenes of "All Things Bakelite." He financed the film himself: "I went very low-budget on it. Not over $300,000."
He had a Bakelite inheritance, so he joked that, "It's a Bakelite movie that Bakelite made."
Bakelite came along at the right time. Manufacturers needed a better insulator for the growing automotive and electrical industries. The insulator of the day was shellac, made from the excretions of the "lac" beetle on India and Southeast Asia.
"I was interested in the fact that, 100 years ago, cars, telephones, plastics, were brand new," Karraker said. "And I wanted to sort of show the timeline of how things developed. And how plastics have this surge on the planet. And then maybe, somebody 100 years later will figure out how to solve the problems."
In 1907, the problems were different. "They didn't know how to manufacture stuff fast enough, cheap enough for people. Or how to handle all the parts that needed to be done," he said.
Why did Karraker want to make the film? He said his mother, Leo Baekeland's granddaughter, had a lot of archival material, including lab notes and diaries.
"She had it, then I got it, and I said, I gotta do something with it," he said. Karraker found his director in Maher, who has done historical documentaries. He appreciated Maher's skills and the use of imagination and creativity in his movies.
Karraker told the story of how "All Things Bakelite" came to Antec and an audience of plastics enthusiasts. The first-ever screening was in 2016 in Ridgefield, Conn. Earlier, Glenn Beall, a plastics historian and industry activist, had introduced Karraker to SPE officials, including Russell Broome, managing director of SPE in nearby Bethel, Conn.
"So Russ was able to come. He showed up. Watched the movie. During the Q&A after the movie, he stood up and said, 'We want you in Anaheim, next year!'" Karraker said.
Beall said he loves the finished version of "All Things Bakelite."
"I'm overjoyed that the film exists, and I like the way it was done, the personal touch to Baekeland," Beall said. "People may know a lot of the story of Bakelite, the material, but [Karraker] was able to give Baekeland a personality, and it came from the fact that he is a member of the family. And he had access to a lot of memories and recollections of family members that most authors would not have.
"That human stuff brings in a much larger audience than just plastics experts. "It's a story that a person with no plastics knowledge at all would enjoy," Beall said.