The H. Lee Waters Film Collection dates from 1936 to 2005 and comprises primarily 16 mm black and white reversal original motion picture films created by Waters between 1936 and 1942 as he traveled across North Carolina, South Carolina, and Virginia filming the residents of small towns. Waters aimed to film as many residents in each community as possible, often setting up his camera at the main intersection in town to capture community members walking downtown. Waters also typically filmed school children entering or leaving school and workers arriving to or departing from mills, plants, and factories. Waters often included trick shots to engage his audience, such as trains moving backwards or children jumping in reverse. Although the films are dominated by shots of crowds and individual faces, Waters also captured a wide variety of activities, like school recitals, sports, mechanics at work, and manufacturing processes in factories.
The collection, arranged alphabetically by town name, includes various preservation elements created from the original footage: 16 mm internegatives; 16 mm screening prints; 3/4 inch Umatic, Betacam SP, and Digital Betacam preservation tape masters; and VHS and DVD use copies of Waters' works. The majority of films represented in the collection are silent, black and white, and were filmed in North Carolina. The collection includes a small number of color films and one film with sound. Reels containing mixed black and white and color footage were separated into two reels based on picture characteristic during the preservation process.
The collection also contains a small number of papers and physical objects related to Waters, including: photocopied and original advertisements for screenings of Waters' films; photocopies of Waters' notes, receipts, and correspondence concerning film sales; related ephemera; VHS copies of a news report and a film on Waters; a copy of the master's thesis written on the films of H. Lee Waters by University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill student Martin Johnson in 2005; and oral histories with Mary Waters Spaulding and Tom Waters, the children of H. Lee Waters. In addition, the collection contains a photocopy of two log books (encompassed in one volume) maintained by Waters between the years of 1936 and 1942 to document his earnings from the Movies of Local People films. The logs provide information about film screenings in the towns that he visited, including the dates of the screenings, the theaters where the films played, admission prices, the number of tickets sold, and advertising revenues. See the digital collection to view the logbooks.