The Austerity Olympics by Janie Hampton
This book was published in 2008 and I read it in January 2009.
For someone who lived through the period of the 1948 Olympics, it was very interesting to read this book. However, as with so many modern historical publications, I have to disagree with a number of the opinions and eyewitness accounts contained in this volume.
In this article, I will only deal with those passages that refer to the Newsreels and film of the period. The rest of my disagreements will have to wait for another time.
Television, for all it offered in novelty and immediacy, was still junior partner of cine-film. For several months before the 1948 Games began, the Newsreel Association produced weekly black and white “picture stories” for cinemas about Olympic preparations. The producer J. Arthur Rank bought the exclusive film rights for £20,000 and set up the Olympic Film Company. He decided that the film should be the first feature-length documentary shot in colour. It was a huge task, with no possibility of re-shooting any scenes…… ….. Few film crews had any experience of either colour photography or the filming of live sporting events, especially in poor light.
There were only three Technicolor cameras available in Britain, and Rank realised that at least twenty would be needed. He discovered that a monochrome camera could be converted to colour with the addition of a special film magazine.
The Newsreel Association of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was the association comprising, at that time, of Gaumont British News, British Movietonews, Pathe News, Paramount News and Universal News. These companies would, indeed, have produced news stories for their cinema newsreels prior, during and after the Games. However the Association itself would have produced nothing, it could only act through its members. It is most likely that the Olympic Games events were “pooled” between the companies, that is all the material was put together and then issued to the individual newsreel companies to produce their own version. The newsreels would have called this scheme “rota”. Five separate camera crew would not have been allowed in the Wembley arena. I know this, how ? My colleague, Paul Wyand, with Derek Stiles, operated a mobile sound camera within the Wembley arena. I worked for British Movietonews on and off between 1945 and 1964.
There is no difference between colour and black and white film in terms of operating the camera except, possibly, the exposure index and, maybe, an additional filter. Any professional cameraman, and, at that time many many amateurs, would only have to have been offered the exposure index of any film, black and white or colour, to be able to expose it correctly.
The above mentioned newsreels had been filming, Football, Rugby, Athletics, Rowing, Horse Racing, Motor Racing and a whole variety of actualities, in all weather conditions that did not allow for “re-takes”. They had done this for many years. In fact, practically every action shot a newsreel cameraman took could not be repeated, it was the nature of their job. The companies could each call upon several cameramen highly experienced in filming such unrepeatable events.
The newsreels had been filming sporting events for, at least, fifteen years. By the time the Olympic Games came to London in 1948, Movietone and Pathe had each filmed over a hundred sporting events that included the annual A.A.A. (Amateur Athletics Association) Championships, usually held at the White City.
Pathe News could even claim to have filmed the 1908 Olympic Games.
A Technicolor camera consisted of a camera body which had enclosed, in effect, three cameras which were mounted side by side and which were synchronised to provide identical pictures. The film used in these three cameras was BLACK AND WHITE. Each of the three cameras shot through a coloured filter which represented, respectively, the three primary colours. Thus each of the black and white negatives would register the detail of one colour. Armed with this, it was possible to print a colour copy from the three negatives.
The only way that a standard camera could be “converted” to use colour is by using a “Bipack” film with its special magazine. This allowed two separate films mounted in the special magazine to pass through a standard camera wound emulsion to emulsion. I have no ideas how that would have worked. The bipack, especially Cinecolor, would produce a realistic colour image. However, it was not Technicolor .
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Elsewhere, derelict air-raid shelters were converted into film-loading rooms by sealing the concrete walls and fitting double-lock doors to keep out the light.
Most of the large, sometimes, sound cameras would hold no more than 1,000 feet of film. At ninety feet per minute this would record just over eleven minutes of film before the necessity to re-load. Can you imagine a member of the camera crew leaving the arena, with a camera magazine, in order to re-load in a darkened building some distance outside? I find that very difficult to believe and, if true, warrants some explanation. No, newsreel camera crews had changing bags. These bags were of jet black material and light-proof. It enabled the crew to insert the film can and the magazine in one end of the bag, seal the end, then to insert their arms into sleeves which gave them access to the inside of the bag. Thus they could re-load the magazine alongside the camera in a few minutes. Certainly, the newsreel cameramen would have re-loaded on site.
I can only imagine the dark-rooms were used to load and unload the bipack magazines which may have required specialist knowledge.
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For the duration of the Games, he (Castleton Knight) lived in a caravan in the stadium car park so that he could spend every available moment either directing the filming, or selecting the best material from the 350,000 feet of exposed film. Editing was done at the rate of 20,000 feet per day.
The book says, elsewhere, that the film was developed at Harmondsworth and edited at Shepherd’s Bush. Did he go to Shepherd’s Bush to supervise the editing ? If so, why the caravan ? Don’t ask !!
To me 350,000 feet sounds rather a lot for a finished film that ran 8,100 feet, being the length for a ninety-minute film. (Elsewhere it is stated that the film ran for two and a half hours, still only 13,500 feet).
Editing 20,000 feet a day ? It sounds a bit ambitious to me; a newsreel would, at that time, have run for no more than 800 feet. It was remarkable enough that the editors took only two weeks to complete the film, a process which, with a feature film, would have taken several months. I know this how? I was a film editor from 1955.
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It was the first full-length film to be finished in so short a time. Ten days later it went on general release across Britain. For many it was the first time they had seen a film in “glorious Technicolor”.
In the thirties and forties, it was not uncommon for people, in the main towns and cities, to attend the cinema as often as three times a week. Programmes which started on a Monday would be changed on the following Thursday and yet again for Sunday.
In the thirties, it was possible to see “Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs”, “The Wizard of Oz, “Gone with the Wind” and dozens of other colour films in local cinemas. In 1939, we also had “The Four Feathers” produced by Alexander Korda. In 1944, we had “Henry V” and the Royal Film of 1946 was “A Matter of Life and Death”. What about all the Hollywood musicals, like “Till the Clouds Roll By” ? By the end of the war, colour films were becoming commonplace. Then there was the Royal Wedding in 1947. All in glorious colour. No, people were well used to watching colour films by 1948. Who did not know the name of Natalie Kalmus, Technicolor’s technical advisor, whose name appeared on almost every colour production ?
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The Manchester Guardian film critic was also disappointed and found the two and a half hour film too much like an ordinary newsreel “The finish of the marathon is spoiled by use of slow motion” he wrote.
Well Castleton Knight was a newsreel man from Gaumont British News, I wonder what else the film critic would expect. As for the slow motion, there were probably just as many people who liked it as disliked it.
I wonder what he did use that caravan for?
There is no doubt that Castleton Knight used newsreel cameramen to shoot the official Games film. Where else could he have got crew members with long experience of such events?
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