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British Movietonews – the process from idea to screen

G.R. – Movietone’s General Release

At Movietonews in the thirties, forties and fifties, there was a regime that produced two newsreels a week.

It was a team effort.  On the fourth floor at 22 Soho Square we had the News Department. It was their job to look out for stories and, having found them, to act upon them to ensure that we could cover the event, hopefully from the best camera positions.

No story was too far into the future to be ignored.  Many stories would first appear as a small item inside a national news paper.  This would be cut out and pasted on to a sheet of foolscap.  This was then placed inside a manila folder with its title written on the outside.  As time went by and more and more detail became available, they would add it to the file.  Eventually, they would be able to approach a contact and make arrangements to cover the story.

This job was handled, in the forties and fifties by Montague Benson, a former cameraman, who would go through every daily newspaper published in London.  These papers were placed on a large lectern and “Ben” would take most of a morning to go through them all.

All major sporting events would require a visit by a member of the News Department to the headquarters of the governing body of the sports involved.  This was to discuss requirements and to seek the best coverage.  Further visits would be required to the owners of the venue.  Movietone did not employ contact men, but on occasion, used the services of Terry Cotter, the soundman, and, later, Ken Hanshaw, a cameraman.

22 Soho Square

In the case of royal weddings, state funerals and major royal occasion, there would inevitably be an administration office set up to handle all press and newsreel requirements.  Depending on the subject, the office would be set up many months in advance of the story itself.

The News Department made sure that they were on the mailing list of that office and the News Editor, Frank Chisnell,  would attend any meeting required  in order to ensure a successful outcome.

This forward planning was essential if staff were to be relatively free to handle sudden events, in today’s jargon “Breaking News”.

For much of the time in the thirties, forties and fifties, the department was headed by The News Editor he was assisted by The Production Manager.  Between them, they issued assignment sheets to the cameramen.  These sheets gave the cameraman all the information he needed to do his job.  In the late thirties, and into the forties, Frank Chisnell and Jack Cotter would have held these positions.

Later and into the fifties and sixties, the News Editor was Ted Adams and the Production Manager was Jack Ramsden.  In effect, Jack Ramsden was in charge of the camera crews.

The Assignments Sheet  would list the following:

  • Location, the actual address of the location.
  • Contact: the name of the person to see on arrival.  This was given with a phone number and address of the contact.
  • Names and addresses of any other persons who had to be met before shooting.
  • Details of any hotel bookings that had been made for the crew.
  • Allocation of film stock and whether it would be Black and White or Colour.  This would also indicate to the cameraman what “weight” to give the story. The cameramen always carried a quantity of unexposed negative in the boot of their car.
  • There would then be a paragraph or two about the story and what was expected of the cameraman by way of shots and sequences.
  • Finally, instruction concerning the disposal of the negative after the shoot.

Copies would be issued to the Make-up Editor, then Tommy Scales, the Editor, then Gerald Sanger, and also to Sir Gordon Craig, the Managing Director.

On occasion, the assignment would require the building of scaffolding to provide a camera platform.  this work was usually undertaken by Scaffolding Great Britain, SGB, who were experts in such constructions and could guarantee their safety.  SGB would receive their instruction from the News Room.

Finally, the News Room would make arrangements for conveying the exposed film back to the laboratory by use of Dispatch \Riders, cars por even light aircraft depending on circumstances.

The Laboratory

22 Soho Square was shared with Kay (West End) Laboratories.  They occupied the basement which housed all the developing machines and the printers.  On the first floor, they had a managerial office and a grading room. Here, the cut negative would be handed to the grader who,by hand and eye, would estimate the light required to produce a good print.  This was a highly skilled job.

Eventually all the copies would be printed in the basement.

On the ground floor, Kay’s had a titling department where all the superimposed titles were filmed on a rostrum camera. At that time, the rostrum cameraman w as “Big Mick” Smith

On the fifth floor, they had an accounts office and Bill Short.   Bill was an artist who had his small studio there.  In his studio, he would make the Movietonews titles by hand in a style that it quite distinctive.  When titles were altered or changed, he did not bat an eyelid.  He re-made the new title.  He did the job for many years and his work can easily be identified on the Movietonews titles.

The Make-up Desk

The Make-up desk consisted of Tommy Scales, one time cameraman, who was Make-up Editor, Sid Wiggins, who was Head cutter and Cecil Burge, the commentary writer.

They would screen the incoming negative and, quite often, they would watch some rushes and then look at each other with one or two hand gestures and they would then separate.  Tommy would remain at his bench in the theatre while Sid would go to edit the film and Cecil would go to his office to write the commentary.  They did not use a shot-list. A shot list was only used for the more complex stories.  To make a shot list, Sid Wiggins would have been required to put the edited, original camera negative, through a footage counter and viewing machine with a possibility of scratching the film.

At this stage, after completing their initial task, the trio would make their way to Long’s Bar in Soho Street to partake of a glass  (or two)of William and Humbert’s Dry Sack.

The members of the Make-up Desk would re-assemble, in the theatre, after a “slash” print had been made of the cut negative.  A “slash” print is sometimes called a “one-light” print.  This was required in a hurry and no importance was attached to quality, they had verified the quality when they screened the negative.

In the projection box, there were always three people waiting to screen material at almost any time.

The General Office

Here, the commentary was typed and then Cecil Burge would try it out at the screening. He would make alterations and send it back for re-typing, sometimes this could be a long process, but it was part of the process so that when the commentator came to read, there would be no alterations to be made.  If fact, occasionally, there would be the odd alteration made by the commentator himself.  The final commentary would then need to be re-typed for filing.

The Make-up Editor would have as many as ten stories available at the start of the screening day, but he would issued a “Tentative Make-up” which would show the chosen subjects and their running order.  This was typed by the General Office and distributed throughout the building.

At the end of production of General Release, they would type the “Final make-up” which would then be complete with footages and verbatim titles, that is to say what was written on the title card. In addition, a paragraph was composed, by the General Office, for each story stating what the subject was about.  These sheets were distributed over a wide area to interested parties which included all the other newsreels.

At the completion of each edition, the Music/sound editor would produce a detail of music used as mood music. The General Office would prepare a Music Cue Sheet, which itemised the music used within the particular newsreel edition.  It would show the title, the Author, the publisher and the duration of the usage.  This was then sent to the Mechanical Copyright Protection Society.

Finally, the General Office would published what was known as a “Comparative Statement”, which showed what all the other newsreels had shown at the same time thus showing where that had the same story and where they had exclusive stories.


Of all the films shown on British cinema screens, the newsreel, alone, did not require to be passed by The British Board of Film Censors.

The newsreels were required to act as their own censors.  This, of course, was a two edged sword in that they were unencumbered by the process of censorship, but, at the same time, they would have to be extremely careful what they showed.  Sometimes they might be too careful.


Leslie Mitchell

Movietonews had a long list of commentators. At one time, they had Barry K. Barnes, a British film actor.  Later they would use David Jacobs, from time to time.  However the mainstay of the commentary team during and after the war were Leslie Mitchell and Lionel Gamlin.

During the early part of the war, the Germans were broadcasting in English and some people listening thought it was an English station.  For this reason, the B.B.C. started to get their news readers to name themselves become starting the bulletin.

We heard ”This is the B.B.C. News and this is Alvar Liddell reading it”.  Movietone’s response was for their commentators to say “This is Movietonews, Leslie Mitchell (Lionel Gamlin) reporting….

Both were craftsmen, seldom making mistakes which were quite costly.  At that time, their commentary was recorded on 35mm film.  Mistakes could not be erased, so the only recourse was to start again and the film already used would be discarded.  It would be many years before the projection and recording machines would be made to run backwards thus enabling the production crew to have a second attempt.  It would never happen to recording on 35mm film, it would be introduced some time after the introduction of tape recording.

Click to read a full article on the Movietone Commentators.


The aim of Movietonews was to find news stories where the actual event was taking place in front of the camera.  In wartime, this would mean actual warfare or the immediate aftermath of, for example, bombing.

In peacetime, it would mean a football match, the opening of a new bridge, the launch of a new ship etc.

For many years they were able to select almost any story that had pictorial appeal, but in the late fifties and early sixties they would have to consider that certain stories could not be included because the majority of the population would have seen them on the television.

Movietonews had a daily programme to follow: The newsreel was released on a Monday and a Thursday.

British Movietone News Poster

British Movietone News Poster

Material for the Monday release would have been gathered up to three days before.  Work would start on the make-up of the newsreel on Thursday morning when the stories would be selected, given a running order (a tentative make-up), scripted and the sound track prepared. On occasion, a story shot on the Friday might be included but only if it had been shot in the morning near London. On Friday, the make up would be finalised and the commentary recorded.  By Friday evening the negatives would be handed over to the laboratory for assembly, the making of Fine Grain Duping Positives and Dupe Negatives.  From these the bulk printing would take place.

For the Thursday release, material might be included that had been shot from the previous Friday, but might also include material shot on the previous Tuesday.  The routine would be exactly the same as for the Monday release.  All material, for the Thursday release, being handed over to the laboratory by Tuesday evenings.

From this schedule it can be seen that certain stories might be regarded as unsuitable simply because of the dating of the subject by the time they actually got into the cinema.

In the case of British Movietonews, some cinemas, to save money, contracted to take a “three day old” version of the newsreel.  There were even “nine day old” contracts. I believe a situation existed where there were more cinemas taking a “three-day old” edition than took General Release.  This highest number I ever saw on a can containing the print of a General Release was 187.

From time to time, there were “specials” which were stories that happened at inconvenient times, but were considered important enough to be included in the next available release.  The Derby would be run on a Wednesday and this subject was filmed, processed, edited and finished in time to be included in the Thursday General Release.  It might even be distributed to principal cinemas in London on the Wednesday night.

Sporting events like Cup finals and the Grand National were routinely covered on a Saturday and shown in the cinemas the next day.

In spite of these problems, concerning the time it took to get the stories from camera to screen, many general subjects were included in the reel.

The cameramen were all individuals with their own style and methods.  This helped to give variety of approach on any given subject.  They would shoot subjects, sometimes, under the most difficult of conditions.  Lighting was always a problem since until the late fifties, there were few practical and portable lighting sets to be had.  It was quite common for cameramen to replace the bulbs in houses or halls with Photoflood bulbs. This was hardly conducive to good cinematography, but it was the only way.

The cameramen were masters at innovation and would always find ways of overcoming problems involving the location, the subject and finally, how to get the film back to the laboratory fast.  While on location they were, usually, a one-man band.

Of course, sometimes, they would be assisted by a soundman and, later, they might even be joined by a sparks, when Colortrans lamps were introduced.

The newsreels were highly organised and a large number of their staff went on to become pioneers in television news, in which their influence was to play a large part.

A pioneer of CNN was Burt Reinhardt, who was former head of Movietonews in New York.

The Library

The library of British Movietonews was always an important department within the company .  They carefully guarded the material they gathered and set it out within the library with the prime objective that it could be retrieved easily.

To do this, a member of the editorial staff would compose a Master Card.  This card showed the following detail”

  • The name of the story.
  • The location of the story
  • The crew engaged on shooting the story.
  • A brief shot list
  • The length of the original rushes and the cut length of the story used.

Additionally, there were headings, showing the requirement for cross-index cards. These cards would, each, have headings such as Locations, Towns, Cities, Buildings, Personalities, Aircraft, Ships and Boats, vehicles etcetera.  Thus the cross index card would indicate that, for example, The Queen was in the story.  The cross index card would indicate, only, direct reference to the Master Card of the same story.  All that card had to show was that The Queen was in that story.

This system worked well and I am sure that, before the computerisation of the library system, it was still working well.  In any case, the computer would have only taken information from the cross-index cards and from the Master Card.  There was no other source of information.

The Library has always had problems with space.  In seventy years, Movietonews would have generated, at least, six million feet of film in the form of cut stories, to say nothing of sound tracks and trims, that is, unused rushes.

They were obliged to keep the contents of the library at a manageable volume.  Every month the Librarian would issue a “Junk List”. This was a carefully prepared document listing all the subjects that the Librarian considered possible items for disposal.

The form was then sent as a round-robin to all departments of Movietonews.  Any member of the production staff wishing to retain an item would only need to put their initials alongside the item on the list.  This would be sufficient for it to be retained.  There was no discussion, no argument, no one would ask why.  It was considered that the production team were experienced enough, and sensible enough, to be able to make a measured judgement on the matter.

Perhaps that is why Movietonews is among the world’s finest libraries documenting the twentieth century.

© Terence Gallacher and, 2010.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Terence Gallacher and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

For other articles about Movietone click here.

Image of Movietone poster from phantom of the flicks.

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