Some years ago I was watching the Bob Dylan documentary No Direction Home, produced by Martin Scorsese. There was a scene of Dylan on stage in London 1n 1965, possibly 1966 (I haven’t re-watched the film), that had been shot from a balcony, using what was obviously a high-speed black-and-white film like Kodak’s Tri-X, almost certainly 16 mm. Having been exposed in low light it had been “pushed” in the developing, and was harsh and contrasty and grainy, what seems like a fine black snow sifting over the stage and the band.
Seen in a an era of digital media, the process that created these images, though technologically advanced for the time, seems so simple as to not be technological at all. Watching it I thought of the steps that the images had gone through then: how a camera body and a light-proof metal can containing a roll of film (plastic, coated with light-sensitive material) had been slipped into a black cloth bag where the cameraman, putting his hands in through black sleeves like a puppeteer, could safely open it, remove the film, and fix it into the sprockets of the camera mechanism, all by feel. I thought of the shutter, so ingenious, taking still pictures at 24 frames a second, which when developed and projected at the same rate by the same kind of mechanism would, because of the human eye and brain’s way of overlapping a momentary image with a succeeding one (“persistence of vision”), give the illusion of motion.
I thought of the exposed film taken from the camera, again inside the black bag, and returned to the can, sealed, and labeled with a marker. The can then opened in darkness by lab technicians, wound onto a series of sprocketed spools and plunged into a bath of chemicals, or rather several baths, to produce a string of negative images, then strung on a rack to dry — a process resembling some homely task like washing and drying laundry.
I thought of the negative then pressed together with another length of film and exposed again to make a positive print, initially a “workprint” that would be taken up by an editor, who would cut it into strips and stick the strips together with a special tape punched with the same sprocket holes. The editor or the editor’s assistant would hang unused or yet-to-be used lengths of it on pins above baskets fitted with canvas bags; the strips hung down and lay looped together till needed, every one numbered and tagged. Sitting at a table whereon reels set up on the left side paid out film through a cutting-and-pasting gate to reels on the right, the editor built the film strip by strip. She (many, maybe most, editors then were women) would often wear the strips she wanted to insert around her neck, whipping them off and including them or removing them, like a tailor at a bench or a weaver at a loom.
I haven’t mentioned the sync sound: magnetic tape recorded on site, synced to the speed of the film running through the camera, transferred to stock the same size as the film stock, also with sprocket holes, so it ran alongside or along with the film as it was edited. The little scene of Dylan performing in a swarm of photographic grain revealed all this to anyone who had worked in that once sophisticated and now almost wholly obsolete medium, just as a piece of antique furniture or clockwork would show its handiwork to the craftsman or historian
I worked myself for some years in the old film medium. Not as cameraman or processor or editor but as writer and consultant for films, largely documentaries, but in the first instance as writer, actor, and begetter — I can’t think of a better word. I had decided while in college that though I had loved theater and had very large ambitions for what I might achieve as a set designer or director, what I really wanted to do was to make movies, or at least be part of the conceiving and creating of movies. In my sophomore year I met a student, a year older than me — he’d dropped out for a year — with the rather striking name Lance Bird, who had the unique status of having actually been part of the making of an independent feature film, a micro-budgeted ghost story that had played in a few theaters. He was then, and for long afterwards, far more ambitious for success and achievement in film than me, but we talked constantly about the possibilities that lay ahead for us.
Lance convinced me to study photography, which he said was after all the same medium: the chemistry of film, the focus and framing and exposure, were all the same. Photography was then taught at my university by a well-known art photographer, Henry Holmes Smith (he had been a student and associate of the Hungarian Bauhaus photographer and teacher László Moholy-Nagy, who emigrated to Chicago in the 1930s. Smith had experimented with color photography in that decade, and was when I took his sclasses devoted to abstract color photography – he’d press various mediums (Karo syrup was one) between glass plates, which he would use as negatives to make large dye-transfer color prints (another complex and now-defunct art technology). Students were given 4×5 view cameras with cut film in holders to use, a method basically unchanged since the glass plates of the previous century; only when you had done the requisite exercises with these wonderful monsters were you allowed to use (your own) Rolleis and Pentaxes. But the photography department also had a Bolex 16-millimeter film camera.
(See “Tigers in Lavender 2” to continue the story!)