16mm (sometimes disparagingly referred to as spaghetti).
That’s all I knew.
I got into film, partially because I was studying chemical engineering. A local film production company that had its own lab got a contract with the local television station to develop newsfilm for the eleven o’clock news show. They had to put on another shift, and a friend that worked there suggested me, since I was living in a fraternity house nearby.
Since the developing part of the job was minimal, the place got me to do a lot of the chemistry for the various developing machines. I had taken just enough chemistry courses to get into trouble. Over time I worked in 16mm exclusively. I developed and printed 16mm film. I recorded and developed 16mm optical soundtracks. I filmed limited animation with a Kodak Cine Special, 16mm, modified for that work.
Sixteen, sixteen, sixteen, sixteen!
Enough already! I happened to get involved in filmmaking at a perfect time. Although 16mm was denigrated by ‘pros’ the medium was perfect if you respected and understood it. The camera technology was superior to higher formats. Here are a few examples.
One of the first things I filmed in Matt’s project was an interview with a priest walking through the streets of my hometown of Braddock. I filmed it hand-held walking backwards while a PA guided me. It couldn’t have been dome with 35mm equipment. A few years later I did the same thing on a ‘test’ commercial with a young lady in Central Park, a single take. The clients liked it so much they asked to re film it in 35 mm. I had to use a dolly and do it in multiple cuts. I preferred the original.
Proctor and Gamble did research and found they could save millions of dollars a year by shooting in 16mm, rather than 35mm. In those days commercials ran on 16mm prints in most markets. It was before video tape became a standard. Also, P&G did research that audiences couldn’t tell the difference between material filmed on 16mm or 35mm.
Most directors and cameramen refused to film in 16mm and that posed a problem for Norman Mews, the great creative director at Leo Burnett. His most important account was Cheer Detergent. He wrote and supervised these mini dramas and used the best directors available. He saw some of the Iron City Beer commercials and we met and started to work together, very, very successfully.
An advantage I had was my time working for MGM Telestudios in New York.I had been hired to be a post-production supervisor for them as they used a twin cam system for production, one camera for videotape, the other 16mm film. The reason? In that time, videotape was only used in major markets, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Other markets used 16mm film. If something was produced on tape, it had to be converted to film for other markets and the only way to do that was a kinescope. A kinescope was merely a film of the work taken from a television screen. Crude. By using a twin cam system, MGM Telestudios had an advantage of quality, as the selling point was that videotape looked better than film in the proper broadcast markets. That was a matter of debate since most directors and cameramen preferred to work on film, but…
I was hired because the system had been invented by Warren R. Smith, the company founded by the namesake, where I had worked in Pittsburgh. Warren left the company and moved to New York to supervise this system. WQED, the NET station in Pittsburgh, had used the system for production and I was familiar with it since they used the lab (WRS) where I worked. Warren asked me to move to New York and did so, reluctantly, a big stage, so I thought.
New York was a film disaster. The labs and optical houses were incapable of doing good work in 16mm. Warren and I fought them for a while, then decided to put our own lab together.
The company was supportive, and the place was a state-of-the art dream.
We developed the film, edited, made the opticals, and then the the prints, all in-house. Perfection.
Warren was a savant, knowing much of everything about film and its processes. We developed film developing formulae and optical techniques. Somehow, Warren ran afoul of the company and was removed, and I was left alone.
The company began to take in other work, and I objected, and objected, and objected because the quality couldn’t be supported, and the situation became impossible, so I left….and taught skiing.
Ten years of 16mm.
Fun fun fun.
I was able to do hand-held interviews for documentaries that wouldn’t have been possible in 35mm. I did edits on the Oxberry printer, most of a documentary of motocross racing. Editing on a viewer and moviola was far quicker and more accurate than on a flatbed. I never understood the advantages until I was forced to film in 35mm. Eventually the technology caught up, probably with the creation of the Aaton.
Now, an iPhone can do everything all those wonderful instruments could do, then.
The actual ‘art of film’ was supported by 16mm. The (in) famous Filmmaker’s Cooperative that consisted of extremely avant-garde filmmakers even used eight millimeter film, but sixteen was the mainstay, because of its comparative inexpense, but more for its better utility. John Cassavetes filmed his film SHADOWS in sixteen for those reasons and the fact that sixteen enabled him to free his actors. Improvisational spontaneity was an, if not THE, important component in his work.
I didn’t know any of this when I started, I just used it for utility and I benefitted from the geniuses of Matt and Warren.
Matt was Mathias von Brauschitsch, the team leader at WQED, Pittsburgh, a flagship NET studio. There were three flagship Public Broadcasting studios, WQED, Pittsburgh, WGBH, Boston, and KQED in San Francisco. Public Broadcasting was more important then, because there were only three regular television outlets, the three networks. NET was the only alternative.
Matt came from a famous German family. One von Brauchitsch was a race car driver, another was a famous Nazi general. Matt’s family had moved to Switzerland before the war, I think because his mother was Jewish. Matt became a famous chemist and helped in the discovery of various uses of Butyl rubber. I won’t bore you with these details, but Matt came to the USA to become a filmmaker because he loved the Western movies of John Ford. I learned a great deal from him, but his most important contribution was introducing me to the Éclair camera.
Warren was a sort of engineering genius. He had developed the twin camera system to film videotape and film simultaneously. It was originally developed to avoid a crude kinescope to record live broadcasts. When videotape came into use, Warren adapted his systems to that process. Contemporary vido playback systems for film cameras are a version of Warren’s first invention.
I worked with Warren for a bit in Pittsburgh, but he was squeezed out of his own company, mostly, because of an unsuccessful attempt to do a documentary of the Indanapolis 500 Race that cost the company financial losses. Warren resurfaced at MGM Telestudios, a videotape arm of MGM in New York. He asked me to come and help him in post- production of the film materials that were created at the studio.
I was torn. I had a great life in Pittsburgh. I loved (and still love) the city. New York would be a challenge, the City.
What did I learn?
I learned that New York film sucked. I couldn’t get anything done properly in the labs and optical houses. They scoffed at 16mm. Warren convinced the powers to be that we should install our own lab.
They agreed and we did.
Warren and I combined (his brain and my brawn) to develop 16mm techniques that were beyond state of the art. Warren had them purchase an Oxberry that we used to make dupe negatives for printing, something unheard of. The Oxberry allowed us to eliminate processes that corrupted the look of the film. We also used batch developing to use the very best chemical formulae. Most of our work was black and white but we experimented a great deal with color, even to the extent of using Kodachrome for production. Kodachrome was an amateur color film but of high resolution. We had to get it developed through drug stores because it wasn’t a true professional grade film, but…
I was so naïve that I once asked Warren what ‘available light’ was. His answer, ‘It’s what’s there when you get there.’
I wouldn’t say those two guys were mentors, because to them I was just ‘help,’ but I learned so much, especially about a medium that was considered inferior, but really supported the ‘art’ of film better than any other in the day.