Forty Some Odd Years Ago


Forty some odd years ago, when I was a young man, just a year or so out of High School, I found myself running the only motion picture film processing laboratory in the City of Baltimore.  Although I did not own the lab, the man who did gave me free and complete reign over its operation.  Our main account was WJZ-TV Channel 13 in Baltimore.  We processed all of their newsreel footage.  I say we, but actually it was only me doing all of the processing, as "we" could not afford any additional personnel.  There is an interesting story concerning some film that I processed that was critical evidence in a court case, in which that "I versus We" came into play.  I'll get to that story later on.  In this book you will soon discover a compilation of short stories, technical information and history of the processing of 16mm Black & White and Color Reversal Film and other processes.


Anyway, the film we processed during those early years was primarily Black & White Reversal with some Black & White Negative-Positive.  Black & White newsreel footage was fine since color television was not yet available.  And video tape . . ."forget it!"  The only way to record and save a television show was to shoot with a "Kinescope".  A 16mm motion picture camera was set up on a tripod aimed directly at a television monitor.  1200 feet of film loaded in the magazine allowed for filming a 1/2 hour show.  36 feet per minute times 30 minutes equals 1,080 feet.  

Shooting a TV monitor however, required a special shutter, appropriately named a TV Shutter.  A normal shutter on a movie camera is a 180-degree shutter, meaning half the time it is open and the other half it's closed.  It is during this closed period that the film is quickly advanced to the next frame by the claw located in the film gate.  The problem with a 180-degree shutter was it did not sync properly with the scan rate of the monitor.  So a "TV Shutter:, simply had a wider than 180 degree "open" section.


During this time period, early in the 1960's the first "film class" was started at the Maryland Institute of Art in Baltimore.  A fellow came down from New York where a few film classes already were available and set up this first one in Baltimore.  He would visit the Lab almost every day and we would discuss anything and everything about movie film.  I believe the bulk of the film course was developed along with some newsreel during those visits.  During the next year of two, other film classes appeared at schools like Towson State College, Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC).  The students became a new customer base for the Lab.  The only problem was they (the students) didn't have any money!  Well I won't say any money, instead I'll say not enough money.  Even back in those "good old days" putting together a completed film was an expensive project.  As I said, I was only a few years out of high school and these new customers not only were the same age, but we had the same goals. . .to make movies.


Talking about the struggling students and how they had to come up with the money to pay for all of their film stock and processing along with work prints, sound tracks, answer prints, and everything else that goes in-between, reminds me of one student who had finally reached the finishing stages of his production. 

He came into the lab toting two Mole Richardson movie lights, complete with barn doors and collapsible stands. He quickly explained that he no longer needed the lights since he was done shooting, and wandered if I would accept them as payment for the answer print that he now needed. Those Mole Richardson lights are still here in our studio and have been rented out to many other producers over the years. An interesting thing about renting out movie lights is that most rental companies rent only the stands, heads, and barn doors . . . no bulbs! They do it that way because the bulbs have a very short life, only 4 or 5 hours and even less if they are abused. The person who rents the lights is expected to supply their own bulbs. Since the bulbs were and still are quite expensive, we offered an alternative in an effort to help the students. As an alternative we would rent the lights with bulbs. We would plug them into a wall outlet and prove that they were in working order before the lights were taken out. When the student brought back the lights we would again plug them in, if the bulbs came ON the student was a winner, if not they had to pay for a new bulb.

I had mentioned some of the steps required in producing a finished movie, and now I will go over each of those steps and what they involved. During the sixties and seventies l6mm films were shot on a reversal type of film.

The term reversal comes from the fact that during the processing the exposed negative image is reversed to a positive image. Later in this book I will take you through each chemical step of the process for both black & white reversal film and color reversal film. During the eighties reversal film was being replaced by negative type of films. This change was participated by Eastman Kodak. Many a film maker fought this move and loved working with the old commercial ektachrome commonly called ECO.

When Kodak announced that they would no longer manufacture ECO they dashed the hopes that it could continue along with the color negative stocks.

Thus one of the finest motion picture films ever made was put to rest forever.

Whether one used reversal or negative, the steps remained the same.

No. One: Buy the stock and shoot the original and record synchronous sound on a quarter inch recorder with pilot tone

No. Two: Have the lab process the original

No. Three: Have the lab make a work print from the original

No. Four: Have the lab print matched edge numbers in ink on both the original and the work print

No. Five: Have the quarter inch audio track transferred to full coat 16mm audio tape.

No. Six: Edit the work print and line up all of the audio takes by using the slap stick Que.

No. Seven: Have a final mix done of all the audio tracks. Voice, effects, and music.

No. Eight: Edit the original into A&B rolls to conform to the work print edit.

No. Nine: Have the lab make an optical sound track from the audio final mix magnetic track.

No. Ten: Have the lab make a answer print combining the A roll with the B roll and the optical sound track.

No. Eleven: Have the lab make release prints.

Any questions?

In the next installment I will talk about the most famous of those film students . . and since we are in Baltimore, you probably already know who that is.

I am not sure just when the next installment will appear, keep checking our site and tell your friends, it won't be too long.

Thanks Pete

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