Wednesday, May 9

Focusing on Film

On a shelf here in my den—where I can put my hands on it at any time—is a Bell & Howell 70-DR camera. Sometimes I pick it up just to feel its solid weight. I put my left hand through the worn leather strap, use the wing-shaped key to wind it up, brace its bulk against my forehead and crank off a few imaginary feet of film.

That’s right—film. 16mm single-perf Kodak film. Silent (you saved the more expensive magnetic stripe, or "mag-stripe" film for your bulky sound cameras). Kodak film: Ektachrome 7242 for daylight or 7240 for use indoors under tungsten light. Of course, in a pinch you coulduse 7240 film outdoors by putting an 85B filter in the filter holder. The orange tint of the filter brought the tungsten film closer to daylight: otherwise tungsten film shot outdoors would be bluish.

I twist the turret and bring one of the three lenses into position—and the ratchet brings the proper viewfinder lens into place. That, of course, is the difference between the DR and the DL. With the DL you had to manually move the viewfinder lens every time you changed lenses. With the DR when you rotated the lens turret you were rotating the viewfinder turret as well. No zoom lenses here! “Through-the-lens” viewing?—hardly. In theory the viewfinder lens showed you what you were getting on film. In theory.

Focus you can guess—especially at larger f-stops. f22 for bright sun on snow—f16 for bright sun—f11 for overcast. All the way down to wide open (f1.9) at night under a frezzi lamp. Remember, though, that if you’re going to shoot wide open in low-light you probably ought to use a wide-angle lens to minimize focus problems.

Did I just say, “Remember, though?” I did, didn’t I? How the HELL do I remember those obscure facts from almost forty years ago? I have no idea.

My first job at WOOD-TV in Grand Rapids, back in 1969, was producing the 11:00 p.m. news. But I knew I was in my apprenticeship years, and that anything new I could learn, anything more I could learn, would pay off for me down the road. I went to Chief Photographer Tom O’Rourke and told him I wanted him to teach me how to shoot film.

“What makes you think I’m going to give you an expensive film camera to play with?”

“Well, how about high school football games on Friday nights? You never have enough photographers to go around.”

“Kid, now you’re making sense.”And that’s how I tricked Tom O’Rourke into teaching me how to shoot football games—how to wander the sidelines about 20 yards ahead of the line of scrimmage—when to move from the sideline to the end zone for the (anticipated) touchdown—what to do when you get trampled on a sideline play (jump up quickly and pretend you’re not in agony).

Film was expensive. Our 70-DRs took 100-foot reels. At 24 frames a second, 33 feet a minute, one spool was good for just over three minutes of exposed film. By the time you factored in film processing (every TV station had its own on-site lab), it cost 14½ cents to shoot a foot of film (and how did I remember that?). You wanted to keep costs to a minimum, so in a medium-sized market like Grand Rapids Tom O’Rourke had us aiming for a 3-to-1 film ratio. That is, for every three minutes of footage you shot the station hoped (expected, demanded) one minute would make it to air. If you got to 4-to-1 or (God forbid) 5-to-1, you were either working in a big market with money to burn or working on a special project. Tom kept a chart that showed each photographer’s shooting ratio.

The joke—absolutely apocryphal—is that O’Rourke once sent a photographer to a minor league hockey game with 100 feet of film. When the photog. complained and asked how he was supposed to shoot an entire match on one roll of film, O’Rourke (it was said), replied, “Easy. Just shoot the goals.” Obviously untrue—but a cute legend.

That, of course, was the first thing we noticed when we (the TV news industry) switched to videotape in the early 70s: shoot as much as you want of anything you want. We can always reuse the tape later.
The old Bell & Howell 70s were the workhouse of the newsreel and TV news business for decades. You can still find them on eBay—even, occasionally, brand-new government surplus DRs in factory cases. But even if you could find film, and if you shot some footage, and if you wanted to get it on TV, I don’t know how you'd do it today. Not many photo labs handle 16mm film anymore—and few TV stations can air it. Film projectors are almost nonexistent in most TV stations. Too bad. Film was fun.

I was around for film's final days. One of my chores at WABC in New York in the early eighties was to find a buyer for the station’s film freezer: a huge walk-in meat locker used to keep the film fresh. But WABC was a film holdout, keeping some film crews on staff until about 1982 and mostly, if memory serves, for union reasons. Those were the days. Cameraman, soundman, lighting man (and I mean no sexist disrespect: 99.99% of the crews were male).

Field Producer Eddie Galorenzo once told me of the problems of a five-person crew (five when you add the field producer and the reporter): “No matter what you need to do and when you need to do it, somebody’s always off taking a pee.”

Forget the debate about the aesthetics of film, about which looks better—tape of film. Forget the fact that an ENG camera’s output can be beamed back via microwave or satellite for live news coverage. Film had a couple of advantages from a reporter’s perspective.

First, the film had to be processed: which meant you got to finish your day in the station! No trying to write a complete script in a notebook, no trying to record an audio track in the back of a live truck.

Second, you knew it was going to take at least a half-hour for the film to come out of the lab and be ready for editing. That meant you were in the station, at your typewriter (no computers, kiddies!) with time to craft your piece. Yeah, we lacked immediacy. With film runs at, say, 10:30 a.m., 2:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m., that 5:45 fire didn’t get on until 11:00.

Want to know the scariest thing in a producer’s world back then? Going back to the lab at 5:00 to see how the film run was coming—and finding the door locked. A locked door meant that the lab was sealed—a sealed lab meant it was dark in there—dark meant that there was a processor problem (the film probably jumped off one of the guide rollers) and the technician had opened the light-tight processor trying to fix it—and you stood outside trying to figure out what to do if two-thirds of your newscast was lost in a vat of chemicals. It happened.

The film went over-and-under, over-and-under, over-and-under a series of rollers through various tanks of processing chemicals—then through a dryer box where hot air and light bulbs finished the job. Hundreds and hundreds of feet of film working its way through the "soup" during a film run. I remember a day when the dryer broke, and sticky wet film started coming out of the machine. Somebody got a huge take-up reel and sat with it in a chair about twenty yards down the hall while the rest of us ran up and down with borrowed hair dryers trying to save the run.

Adapt—improvise—overcome. We had our film that night.

What else? When my friend Elden Hale was news director at WNEP in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in the early 70s he got a great buy on some “double perf” film stock: with sprocket holes (which pulled the film through the camera) on both sides, instead of on one side like single-perf. I was visiting Elden and watched as his lead story got on upside-down and backwards. Back to single perf!

Teases, bumpers, promos, headlines: sick of seeing the same shot over and over and over and over again? Not in the film days. Catch the building collapsing on film? Great! It goes in your story. But there’s no way to use and re-use it until you get it dubbed to tape. When I was starting out that meant 2” tape (no 3/4” yet). Not an easy thing to do in most medium-sized TV stations in the early 70s.

Let’s end with a primer on B-Roll and DP.

The term “B-Roll” is still used today—it refers to a shot laid over a jump cut to minimize the distraction. But what does it mean? DP (“double projection”) was rolling two film projectors for the same story. At WOOD, with an hour-long newscast, we might use 20 minutes of film telling our stories—but only use DP to cover jump cuts in five or six stories.
Your main film reel was spliced together, in order. It was loaded on your main film projector. The DP, maybe a minute-and-a-half in all, was spliced together (again, in order) and loaded onto your secondary film projector. Since the main film was on the “A” projector, the DP reel became your “B-Roll.” B-Roll covers jump cuts, get it?

Here endeth the lesson.