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Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

Film stock, frame size, Independent Frame and the Schufftan process

Main image of Bryan Langley: BECTU Interview Part 1 (1987)

The copyright of this recording and transcript is vested in the BECTU History Project. Bryan Langley was interviewed by Arthur Graham on 18 November 1987.

1. Improvising with film stock

AG: We're on the different types of film stocks. What were their differences, and what were their special requirements as far as shooting was concerned?

BL: Well, originally film was blue sensitive only. It was called, when I started, 'ordinary film' and I arrived at the time when orthochromatic film was in common use. I mention this ordinary film because Mr. Parkinson... one of his strategies was to photograph landmarks in London, like teashops and monuments and so forth and mark the frame. You would photograph these things, fade out on the lens diaphragm and then you'd mark the frame, wind back and put it in the can. You would write down where it was shot, where the sun was and where to point the camera.

Years later, when I arrived, these cans would be produced and I was told to go to a certain place - I can't remember if any frames were developed - anyway, point the camera at this thing, turn the handle and fade in on a certain count. So we'd dissolve from then and now. The film I was exposing was 'ordinary film' which was blue sensitive. The consequence of shooting with blue sensitive film is that anything which is red or yellow simply doesn't expose - it comes out as black. Anything which is blue comes out as white, so that you got a pretty contrasty affair, but it's very crisp. Shall we say it's different?

I did a number of these scenes either with a cameraman or as an assistant or on my own. With orthochromatic stock this was sensitive, I can't really remember what it was sensitive to, but let us say it was green. It would make the sensitive part, it was rather like Verichrome, it was half way to panchromatic, I don't really remember, but it did have some blind spots and this was the normal way of shooting.

Jack Cox once told me when I was assisting that actors who had blue eyes - and he mentioned Brian Aherne - they had terrible problems being photographed on ordinary and ortho stock because the blue eyes vanished and they became like people without eye pupils. So Jack Cox's method was to shine an arc light into their eyes on which there was a red filter so this would give some modulations in grading in the eye parts. It meant that with ordinary and ortho red buses came out black and yellow tulips came out very dark and murky. Then of course with the coming of sound it meant that you couldn't use arc lights, and that meant you had to use incandescent lights which were very red sensitive and it meant that the film stock had to be sensitive to yellow light in particular, incandescent light, 3250, I think - degrees Kelvin.

So this panchromatic stock was used, I think it was called Super X and it graduated up through Plus X and Double X and 4X. I'm sure all old cameramen know their filters off by heart, A1 and A2 and 23 As and reds and the whole catalogue of reds. I certainly did and I can nearly remember all of them now. Then stock went into colour and that was the end of pleasure from a cameraman's point of view in a way.

2. Changes in frame size

AG: Over the years changes have taken place in the frame size. What were they, and how did they affect production - if at all?

BL: They certainly did. The original frame size was what we call the standard frame, and this extended edge to edge of the perforations, and from frame line to frame line, and it was 1" by 3/4". And then when sound came, the first sound I think was on gramophone disc, but then they had sound on film and the sound had to be printed on the positive. It meant the frame size had to be reduced to one-eighth of an inch off on the left which left you with a square frame, so they cut off a bit top and bottom and you ended up with a frame considerably smaller than the standard size frame. I think it was 16 by 11mm or something like this.

That was the Academy frame and of course this was the standard size and you often see it in old-fashioned newsreel. If you look at an old-fashioned newsreel of the First World War, you'll find people's heads are cut off, their feet are cut off and you can't see what's on the left of the screen. This is because it was in camera and it's on the negative but when it's printed it's printed with, as it were, an Academy gate, leaving room for the soundtrack.

3. Independent Frame

BL: Independent Frame was a process devised at Pinewood. At the end of the war Mr. Rank, J. Arthur Rank, thought that British films needed mechanising - almost mechanising - more scientific. He got a gang of scientists from Watson Watt, the radar men, down to Pinewood to make filmmaking more scientific and it was called Independent Frame. Several of the people: Vivian Bowden, he was the principal man on the radar, he's now a lord: Dr Loins, he was a chemist and he left Independent Frame in due course and went to Rank Laboratories and became their chief man; there was Robert Holt and a whole number of people of very high academic scientific qualifications. The idea was to invent ways, develop ways of making film production more speedy and this consisted essentially of draughtsmanship. They had draughtsmen galore making plans about where to put the camera and how high the projector should be to point the back projection plates onto the screens and at times you would have a set up in which there would be three projectors coming from three different angles so that you could do a pan say of 45 degrees from one way to another way across the three screens projecting and everything was in synchronism and the sizes were right and everything was right.

In the end what seemed to bedevil Independent Frame was that the scriptwriters and actors and directors couldn't keep up with the pace of these advanced methods and consequently the films were always hurried and awful. And another problem we'd had is that all the planning was done before the shooting was attempted so that if the director found something was awkward or difficult he couldn't shoot around it he had to shoot because it said so on the plan and it had to be in a certain position. Now all that lead to the abandonment of Independent Frame but what has survived from it and what we should be very grateful for to Mr. Rank and his colleagues were the three great things that came from it. One of which are the giant rostrums some 10 or 12 feet square on which the sets would be built off stage and the whole thing rolled onto the set the day before shooting and simply bolted together. That was an enormous advancement from building on the set, that things were built off stage in a carpenter's shop and then wheeled into position. This was a wonderful advance.

4. Descendants of Independent Frame

BL: Another thing which we should be grateful for is all this back projection. Back projection and front projection are direct descendants of the Independent Frame. And the hotspots and so on. You should really talk to Charlie Steffan [?] about this because he is the man who was involved in the back projection. But to give you a very small example: on the big stage at Pinewood they built at the end of it a long tunnel like a tube tunnel and at the far end of that was a giant lift thing like you might see in a dockyard. The projector which was a triple projector of course, three projectors into one so you get more light, would go up and down ever so high and ever so low and the projector was really a floating object in this tunnel all worked out on the drawing board. I believe one of the draughtsman was John Hawkesworth who was one of the producers of Upstairs, Downstairs. It's the same name, it may not be the same person but if it is the same person you should talk to him because he will know it as a draughtsman.

My connection with this was in the travelling matte aspect of Independent Frame and this depended on having a beam splitter camera which was made by George Ashworth. The beam splitter camera consisted of a camera in which there were two gates at right angels and in between the gates was a prism and through the prism was passed one image and reflected from the prism was another image. One was photographed on blue sensitive film only and the other of course plus X, this was in the black and white days. Travelling matte had the great advantage compared with back projection in as much as you could shoot it now and put on the background at leisure, anywhere and any different background, if you didn't like the background you could change it. This was the theory and the practice. And I had virtually ten years at Pinewood doing this and we went to the smallest studios, for example Pathé in Wardour Street to film a Triumph motor car dashing through the Alps on a children's film. We of course had to squeeze up against the back wall and the blue backing was squeezed up against the other wall which was not very far away and in between was a Triumph Dolomite car and the actors were in it. We did all these things, weeks and weeks of shooting, and afterwards of course the cameramen went to the Alps and shot the background and the two things were united, stuck on top of each other.

5. Problems with Independent Frame

This went on and there was hardly a British film made in which travelling matte wasn't used: all over England, we went to France, 5 times I think doing travelling matte so it was a good thing. At first I thought it was marvellous and it was marvellous for me. I met these scientists and learnt all sorts of things and in the end it became repetitious and boring and I was particularly incensed because on one film called Journey Home or Voyage Home at Pinewood, a film about a ship coming from South America to England, and the whole film was shot in the studio against blue backings, the whole blinking film except a few location shots done by Peter Hennessy. When the film was finished and printed somebody said to me I saw a lovely picture the other day, pity about those three or four travelling matte shots in which we saw the black lines were in it. I nearly burst my boiler as they say. Because in 95% of that film it was unnoticed that it was travelling matte but of the 2 or 3 shots with the black rims round I got the feeling that in the end travelling matte was recognised as being kind of filming with black lines around it and I became disillusioned with it.

While I'm on this can I say when I was at Pinewood I went to see high definition films on an official visit from Pinewood at Highbury Studios. Norman Collins was in charge of it and high definition films was some way of shooting with thousands of lines of definition on a television screen. I dont really understand it very much, this was really part of the evolution of television. But they suffered from the same thing as Independent Frame. Their great problem was was that the scriptwriters and stories were to be churned out at sufficient speed to match the shooting. At Pinewood we had the same problem. We couldn' match the output. You can't mechanise thinking seemed to me the conclusion of that time.

6. Schufftan process

AG: Talking of these processes did you ever have anything to do with the Schufftan process?

BL: The Schufftan process yes. I came across it at BIP studios and this was really a wonderful process. It had the disadvantage that it had to be set up on the stage and all the arts and all the craft necessary was done on the stage so it locked up the whole stage for maybe a fortnight while it was being married together. The system was there was a lathe bed, one end of which the camera was mounted and it could move in all directions on gears. On the other end was a cradle holding a mirror at 45°and the mirror was surface silvered with stuff which we said was German silver, very soft [unintelligible] silver. The set would be built on this studio floor up to head height we'll say, just above head height and you'd have a miniature set built or a photograph or a model to be reflected through this mirror to coincide what was built in actual size. The set might be a 10th of the scale of the actual set and the job of the Schufftan technicians was to scrape away the silver so that the reflected image and the actual image would coincide and marry up one with the other. Of course, the mirror being relatively close to the camera would be out of focus so that the mingling from the model to the actual was an out of focus blur. So it was really imperceptible so long as the lighting was level. Naturally if you overexposed one or the other you could tell it but generally speaking it was jolly good. They could do all sort of things. On one film I remember there was some disaster happening and all they built on this stage was a window frame and a foot or two wall around it. Out of this window somebody had to holler ssh, stop. The rest of the entire set was a model reflected in through this mirror, most wonderful really. But it had the disadvantage that it locked up the stage so it was superceded by hanging mattes and front mattes but old timers like me will regard the Schufftan process as a bit of magic.

7. Quota Quickies

BL: Quota quickies, in my book, are the reason why the British film industry is so good today. Somebody passed a law that a certain percentage of all footage screened on British screens should be made in British studios, they should be originating in British studios. I don't know what the percentages were, it was a quota - we'll say 10% of all things seen had to be made in England. Now, the films, they had to be made and they weren't going to be made to attract people, so they had to be made very economically, cheaply. The schedules were very often 18 days, 12 days I suppose, and the films were often just 60 minutes long, an hour long. But many people of my generation worked on them and, as far as I was concerned, I wouldn't have got my job as a cameraman if it hadn't been for quota quickies, because there weren't enough cameramen to start with, and they couldn't afford very expensive cameramen. On many occasions the situation was abused. I remember on one film I shot - something about Sexton Blake, a man coming out of an office into a motorcar - the director deliberately made him cross the road and come back again because you got a pound a foot. The return was a pound a foot so that if you could do a long pan you got more money for the least output. I think they were a good exercise. I don't think there isn't anybody who hasn't benefited by those quota quickies. Of course, many people were exploited no doubt, but they did learn their trade and I sometimes wish they had it nowadays.

AG: Would you say there's any resemblance between the quickies and some TV series?

BL: I have a very limited experience of TV series. The one I did which Alan produced, English By Television, I must confess to thinking it was going on forever. Very strict office hours, never a minute early, never a minute late and it seemed to go on and on and on. Now a quota quickie went on, if you were lucky, for 18 days and that was the end of it. So there was really in my view no comparison. In one you had a unique one-off bash on the quota quickie, either good or bad. My experience of this one television series was that it seemed to go on forever and I could never see the end of it, week after week.

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Langley, Bryan (1909-2008)