TIGERS IN LAVENDER 4
Meanwhile Lance and I together and separately did become filmmakers, and did work in film (almost all in 16mm) that we are proud of: but it was documentary films we made, not dreamy and impossible fantasy. Among the things we learned in this career was that the lines are, actually, not so far apart.
By the time I was working in the film business in New York (I came there directly after the summer of 1964) the mechanics of independent film-making had changed. Documentary film-makers like Richard Leacock and Robert Drew were using light, shoulder-carried 16 mm cameras fitted with zoom lenses, some adapted by the users, some manufactured – the exquisite French Eclair was one. A team of two – cameraman and sound man – could largely shoot a film without other helpers. The system required that the camera be synced with a tape recorder that was also innovative: the Nagra, a Swiss product, used a crystal that oscillated at a fixed frequency, normally 50Hz, keeping the film motor and the tape recorder running at the same speed. This meant that the sound person and the camera person could function separately, sometimes well out sight of one another.
Matching the resulting tape to the film in the editing room was made easy by an feature of ingenious simplicity: when the camera person was ready to shoot, the camera was pointed at the sound person; the sound person pressed a button on the recorder and a small light blinked, and at the same moment a beep-tone was put on the tape. When the tape was eventually transferred to sound film, the beep on the sound track could be matched with the light appearing on the film. Perfect sync. There was always something touching to me about this filming of the blink that began the sound recording, especially in the stripped-down participatory documentaries that came to be called cinema verite. The camera would search (through the lens) for the person with the recorder; when the two found each other the little light went off, and the camera swung back to its filming.
There’s a moment I remember in Martin Scorsese’s film of the Band’s final tour, The Last Waltz. In a packed concert hall, the camera, on one side of the auditorium, roams over the balconies looking for the sound man – who of course has to see the camera looking for him to know it’s time to sync up. We see only the darkened loges, and then – blink blink – the little light goes on, like the light of a ship far off shore, signaling.