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Industrial and Corporate Films

The fascinating and surprisingly diverse world of sponsored film and video

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The story of industrial film in Britain is rarely told, but it is one that is both epic and intricate, and which tells much about the relationship between the definitive modern medium - film - and the wider modern economy in which it was born.

Business and industry were early stars of the screen, via the 'industrial scenes' shot by Edwardian filmmakers. Factories and other workplaces offered these filmmakers ideal subject matter, but they brought significant technical challenges. For industrialists, film could make visible, in vivid moving images, processes of manufacturing, refining or assembly that were previously hidden from public view, and convey to audiences the quality and technical sophistication of products in an era of mass-production in which producers and consumers had never been so far apart. A Visit to Peak Frean and Co's Biscuit Factory (1906) and A Day in the Life of a Coal Miner (1910) are famous contrasting examples. The first, showcasing modern consumer goods production, emphasises mechanical details; the second, representing older staple industries, shades them with human interest.

This kind of 'process' documentary, executed with increasing skill and style, would remain a choice ingredient of industrial filmmaking for decades to come. It's unclear, though, how many of these early examples were directly commissioned and paid for by the companies featured, rather than merely facilitated by them. As commissioner, industry was at least as likely to be involved in other kinds of films, where industry itself was less on display. For example, one of the earlier works that we can confidently assert was corporately sponsored is Scenes on the Cornish Riviera (1904), a Great Western Railway travelogue and ancestor of the crowd-pleasing classics crafted by British Transport Films a half-century later.

The industrial cinema of World War I and the 1920s is even less well explored and understood than its equivalent earlier in the century. Yet this was almost certainly an era of expansion and growing sophistication. Among those industries showing increasing interest in the possibilities of film were several that would later become major players on the mature sponsored-films scene. They included oil (Liquid Sunshine, 1921), transport (North British Locomotive, 1924) chemical-based industries (Port Sunlight, 1919), and state postal services (The Romance of Postal Telegraphy, 1922).

If the 1920s remain ripe for research, the 1930s gave us the most celebrated corporate films ever made: most of the decade's British documentary movement films were state or private industry sponsored. At the movement's heart sat the film units set up within the General Post Office (in 1933) and Shell (in 1934), producing short films that are as crucial to the study of corporate film as they are to documentary or experimental film (1936's Night Mail and other GPO classics belong to all three traditions simultaneously).

The documentary movement's profile, though, has rather obscured the magnitude of the industrial filmmaking going on elsewhere at the same time. While Pathé, Movietone and Gaumont-British all took a modicum of industrial commissions, a growing number of independents were specialising in them, from busy London firms like Publicity Films (straddling advertising and industrial film, as in Cadbury-sponsored productions like Plantation People, 1936), to local producers like Birmingham Commercial Films (Chains, 1939). It's also worth noting that the GPO and Shell were by no means the only trailblazers for in-house corporate production. ICI set up its own film unit as early as 1929, while the London Midland and Scottish Railway did so in 1934.

World War II saw industrial filmmaking curtailed, or co-opted to the needs of the state (Shell made several Ministry of Information training films). But by causing the factual film production scene to grow, the war laid foundations for the golden era of industrial filmmaking that followed, which reached its zenith under Britain's booming mixed economy of the late 1950s and 1960s.

Some 1,000 films were now made annually, for more sponsors in more industries than ever, and extensively distributed to 'non-theatrical' audiences (that is, audiences beyond cinemas) as well as, to a lesser extent, to cinema and television. The Shell and ICI Film Units were now joined by the nationalised British Transport Films and National Coal Board Film Unit, as well as lesser-known internal units at Dunlop, Laing, Courtaulds, Costain and elsewhere. Hundreds of other sponsors, including major leaguers like BP, Ford, Unilever, Wimpey, Mullards and state-owned energy industries, turned mainly to independent producers, often forging close relationships, as between Unilever and Editorial Productions, United Steel and Wallace Productions, the nuclear industry and ACE Film Productions, Wimpey and World Wide Pictures.

Companies developed recognised house styles. Individual directors, even, became appreciated in the business as stylists, their aesthetics ranging from Peter de Normanville's scientific elucidation in films like Schlieren (1958), via Geoffrey Jones's rhythmic montages such as Snow (1963) to Derek Williams' sombre documentaries like The Shadow of Progress (1970).

Industrial film was now meeting many more functions: training, health and safety, industrial relations, sales, recruitment, public relations and company news. A significant growth in the number of films targeted solely at employees or shareholders coincided with the heyday of the 'prestige' film, presenting broader subjects to general audiences. Some even won Oscars (BP's Giuseppina, 1959, and British Transport Films' Wild Wings, 1964). The contrast between an institution's inward- and outward-facing films can often be fascinating and revealing.

The 1970s was a decade of prolonged upheaval. A complex mix of technology changes, generational shifts among filmmakers and paymasters, and the instability of the economy itself caused the established 'industrial' film, funded by 'sponsors', to falter, while 'corporate' film and video, commissioned by tighter-fisted 'clients' tentatively emerged to replace it. Another growth area was independent production of films whose copies were sold to industry - particularly its white-collar sectors - for training use. This alternative funding model, pioneered by producers like the Rank Short Films Group and Millbank Films (ICI's renamed unit), was now taken up with gusto by new companies of whom Video Arts is the pre-eminent example.

These developments hastened in the 1980s as 16mm film lost its drawn-out battle with video, and the Thatcherite revolution brought decline, or drastic changes of governance and strategy, to many of the great sponsoring industries of the past. The late 1980s and 1990s was the era of 'corporate video', which has laboured under a reputation (partly deserved) for naffness, blandness and low production values.

By the early 21st century, a different picture was emerging. The growth of new media has massively expanded the corporate filmmaking horizon. The internet (together with company intranets) has reinvented the 'third space' beyond cinema and television, ideally suited for delivery of paid-for content, free at the point of use, that 16mm film had filled for around half the duration of the previous century. Entering that space, thanks to increasingly well-honed business models and creative skills, are specialist moving image producers like the Edge Picture Company and New Moon Television and broader-based communications agencies, like Imagination, which embrace video alongside other media.

As well as the targeted works they commission, businesses seem increasingly interested in the public relations benefits of financially supporting mainstream film production. For example, Waitrose funded the cinema release of the concerned documentary The End of the Line (2009), and Shane Meadows' feature Somers Town (2008) was bankrolled by Eurostar. Corporate film in the purer sense may be more of an acquired taste but, like malt whisky, it can be a richly fascinating, even addictive one. Enormously diverse in its form (it can encompass documentary, reportage or animation; intense drama, light fiction or dark comedy), it offers an inside (if inevitably partial) view of all sections of the economy; and reflects the ever-changing fiscal and ideological circumstances. Our rich heritage of industrial filmmaking has much to offer to Marxist, Monetarist and Keynesian cinephiles alike.

Patrick Russell

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)Day in the Life of a Coal Miner, A (1910)

Classic early actuality that prefigures later documentary approaches

Thumbnail image of Giuseppina (1959)Giuseppina (1959)

A bored girl has to amuse herself at her father's filling station

Thumbnail image of Night Mail (1936)Night Mail (1936)

Classic documentary about the London to Glasgow postal train

Thumbnail image of Scenes in the Cornish Riviera (1904)Scenes in the Cornish Riviera (1904)

Fascinating whirlwind tour of the South East

Thumbnail image of Shadow of Progress, The (1970)Shadow of Progress, The (1970)

Sponsored documentary exploring the downside of technology: pollution

Thumbnail image of Snow (1963)Snow (1963)

Stunningly shot and edited meditation on trains in winter

Thumbnail image of Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works, A (1906)

Unusually sophisticated early marketing film.

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