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60 YEARS PLUS IN FILM - Gerry Weinbren

1 June 2014


At 85, having to constantly update my smart phone, I-Mac, Final Cut Pro, and digital “film” camera, is irritating to say the least. Keeping track of the numerous electronic methods of footage delivery (4K DPX files, 2K Pro Res,  MPEG - Long GOP, Rec 709, etc) is almost beyond the short term memory. Seriously and more importantly, the ever changing technology confuses and frustrates clients - even the computer literate. 

In 1953, on finally gaining union membership, my “official” film career started at the Shell Film Unit. There was little technology to contend with. Black and white 35mm nitrate film was the standard, most documentary cameras were clockwork driven, editing equipment was basic and limited to 35mm, sound was recorded on film although magnetic tape was starting to make an impact. Because American producers were obsessed with combatting the perceived threat from TV much effort was concentrated on large screen presentation. The result, the likes of Cinemascope, Vista Vision, Cinerama and 3D.

By far the most important innovation of the period was the introduction of 35mm Eastman Color negative. In essence, it made possible the use of conventional cameras instead of the large three strip Technicolor models. The reduced production costs and laboratory charges allowed more features, commercials, and shorts to be produced in colour for cinema release. After 60 years the original ECN1 negative, if properly stored, is still being used in archive projects. The print stock faded rapidly and was one of the many reasons why Technicolor’s dye transfer release printing continued for many years.

The single element safety negative simplified the intake of footage and eliminated the danger of handling and storing nitrate material. Production libraries and archives were well established in the 50‘s but footage libraries had yet to surface in Britain. The Film Centre Library, possibly the first, was set up to manage oil industry collections and those belonging to clients of the production arm of the company. It was essentially a public relations activity with the footage provided free to bona fide users. Industry, from both the public and private sectors, provided the funding. The Coal Board, Post Office, British Transport, Ford, BP and Shell were typical sponsors with many boasting footage libraries. In the U.S. the TWA aircraft collection instigated by Howard Hughes, to cater for the needs of Hollywood, led the way. The success was obvious with TWA  featuring in movies from the post war era through to the age of the Jumbo Jet.

I learned the value of an in-house library while at Shell but it became a vital part of my subsequent employment when establishing a film unit for the Bristol Aeroplane Company. With the restructuring of the aircraft industry the unit became part of a merged group of engine manufacturers - Bristol Siddeley Engines. In order to promote the new company I was provided with a special budget to exploit film and television outlets - something of a challenge with Rolls Royce the main competition. From the outset it was obvious that a footage service was vital but could only be achieved by filming the aircraft, ships, hovercraft and other vehicles powered by the company’s engines. By co-operating with customers including airlines and the armed services a wide selection of 16 and 35mm colour material was amassed. 35mm films including out-take footage were lodged with Film Centre in London for the convenience of clients including TV outlets.

The British film industry, described by Orson Wells in 1953 “as too small to qualify as a cottage industry”, was served by a co-operative bunch of enthusiastic librarians eager to assist film and TV producers. If unable to satisfy enquiries from their own collections they would happily direct researchers to known sources. Via this network Bristol was recognised as a provider of aviation footage allowing participation in a host of productions including the first ever world satellite link-up via Telstar. Importantly, it also resulted in co-operation with American aircraft manufacturers and indeed PBS, via Channel KCET 28 in Los Angeles. This station was responsible for PBS science and technology coast to coast coverage - Bristol Siddeley provided the European input. My years in the industry and the films I later made about aircraft and airline activity explain why the Index collection has an aviation bias.

Historically, the Film Centre library was important because it was responsible for preserving unique footage. When it closed, due to changing trends, many producers and sponsors lost a valuable facility and the expert staff required to manage film preservation. It was these circumstances that brought about the birth of Index in the late 60’s. I was desperate to find a new home for the films and footage from my own and associate production companies. The new venture was masterminded by Peggy Dowling, who had been in charge of the Shell Library and subsequently managed the Film Centre operation.   

The changing economic situation forced the independent libraries to change their modus operandi to survive in a commercial world. Their income now depended on sales of their own material and sharing fees earned from represented collections. The footage was mainly contemporary with shots rather than excerpts being sold. Movies, commercial TV, the advertising sector, combined with a new export market provided the vital customer base. As the home market was limited in size the libraries were quick to find American partners in order to gain a foothold in the US - in particular Hollywood and the West coast. 

Material from films free from distribution restrictions was also exploited  -  cinema release often prevented footage exploitation for up to ten years. Documentaries and short films provided quality material because of the talented directors, editors and cameramen then working in the sector. When this 35mm source declined Index and World Backgrounds, the other pioneer independent library, started shooting footage to satisfy the demand from “high end” users - movies, commercials and quality TV outlets.

At the time researchers and editors were very particular about the footage they selected and insisted that film elements were ‘duped‘ from the original 35mm negative - even when ordering 16mm material for TV.  A very different attitude from that of to-day, where picture content  often seems to be no more than wallpaper and instant availability overrides quality considerations - courtesy of new technology.
Over the years tape gradually replaced film in TV production, especially after the introduction of DigiBeta in the 90’s. I had not considered tape a serious production contender until attending an early demonstration of HD in Washington in 1989, sponsored by Sony, NHK and Kodak. It was intended that HD would be a 16 : 9 1080/1920 world standard so ridding the industry of the problems associated with Pal - NTSC - SECAM conversions. Unfortunately US commercial interests delayed the introduction of broadcast HD resulting in the introduction of a hotchpotch of lesser HD systems and conversions that  often make simple requests for footage somewhat complicated.

I was stunned when first viewing the image quality of true HD but apprehensive about the affect it might have on footage libraries. A senior Kodak executive allayed my fears by pointing out that HD could not match the resolution of 35mm negative. He however advised that cameras should be modified to conform with the 16 : 9 HD format. Since 1990 all Index footage has been shot full gate super 35mm - a great asset in today’s world of HD, 2K and 4K scans - one commercial decision I possibly got right.

Until recently, shooting native HD footage for library was not an option because of equipment costs. The introduction of a new generation of digital cameras has radically altered the situation. DSLR models - stills cameras with video capability - looked promising but the latest digital “film” cameras are more practical and technically superior. I chose the Canon C300 PL as It produces broadcast results and accommodates the “cinema quality” lenses from my 35mm cameras but I may have to upgrade in order to shoot 4K.  

Footage libraries, in coping with the relentless introduction of new technology, have had to invest in new equipment and adapt very rapidly. The expense of shooting specialist footage for library is obviously not appreciated by clients who insist on high - res footage but complain about costs (lab charges are often greater than license fees). Producers of quality TV shows and movies still prefer to access original negative where available, not for film elements or tape, but 2K or 4K scans delivered as files. The great advantage of a 35mm negative collection is that it is possible to satisfy most requests without expensive and time consuming technical conversions.

Unfortunately digitisation, because of the expense, has limited the amount of footage available on line with the result that clients are denied access to important material. In the case of represented footage, commercial libraries only digitise about 30% of the copyright owners holding. The problem is not helped by the employment of staff ill equipped to manage the selection process. It is a great pity that only a minority of clients look beyond website offerings. The traditional practice of contacting librarians, particularly those  with specialist collections, can be most rewarding and save time. The problem with the mega libraries is that they often have too much material to select from and website information cannot begin to match the encyclopaedic knowledge of an experienced librarian. 

Restoration appears to be at the top of the FOCAL agenda while the production of contemporary footage - the lifeblood of the industry - is largely ignored. As we progress into the age of 4K and even 8K it is vital that footage is shot on equipment capable of recording at the required technical standard. Much of to-day’s TV output is shot using sub standard HD equipment. It might be OK for news and reality shows, but for archives it can only result in another debacle like that of Hi-8 or the use of 16mm “video film” responsible for the atrocious quality of the early colour coverage by BBC news and current affairs. One thing not yet possible is the transformation of low res footage into the high res standards  of to-day, never mind the future.

Gerry Weinbren