Conversations about Studios

To coincide with the recent publication of In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, STUDIOTEC’s Sarah Street joined the book’s editor Brian R. Jacobson and two other contributors, J.D. Connor and Rielle Navitski, in a conversation about studios organized and hosted by Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York. It was a great opportunity to debate some key issues arising from researching film studios from comparative perspectives, drawing on examples from Britain, Brazil and the USA. We were asked about the value of studying studios, the methods and approaches required, and about our particular case studies we wrote about in the book. You can listen to the audiocast: 

https://www.patreon.com/posts/41633905

The conversation enabled us to draw out some of the similarities and differences between ‘The Independent Frame’ experiment conducted at Pinewood in the late 1940s, studios in Brazil in the 1920s, and Lucasfilm’s approach to organizing studio spaces in the USA. A key issue that emerged towards the end of the discussion was how studios, in a number of different contexts, needed to provide stability in the face of chaos. Structures that were inflexible could easily become economic liabilities, and adaptability to local conditions and networks was crucial. This theme is also relevant to the many diverse studios in the book. 

In the Studio covers a range of contexts which, as Brian R. Jacobson writes in the Introduction, invite ‘new questions about the conditions that shape the construction of profilmic spaces and their products’. While all of the diverse examples offer insights into studios, perhaps the most relevant to the work of STUDIOTEC are the chapters by Noa Steimatsky and Sarah Street. Steimatsky examines Cinecittà in the 1940s, focusing on how the studio served as a prisoner of war camp and as producer of fascist cinema in which prisoners were used as extras. This darkest phase of the studio’s history is described by Steimatsky: ‘The phantasmic world of the movie studio is transfigured into an altogether different kind of ghostly place, a shadow of the life outside’. 

Sarah Street’s chapter explores the impact of ‘The Independent Frame’ (IF), an experiment conducted at Pinewood Studios for one short and six feature films produced in 1948-51. From short and longer-term perspectives, the IF serves as an instructive case study of the reception of innovation within prevailing studio cultures and practices.

Pinewood Studios, 1950

The IF was devised by David Rawnsley, a British set designer with an engineering background who had worked with David Lean, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. The IF was a system of pre-production planning in which effects were utilized to speed up production and reduce costs. This meant deploying back projection, process shots, miniatures and glass shots into a precise scheme of pre-production planning informed by storyboards. It introduced several technological innovations, especially concerning mobile equipment such as easily moveable rostrums and towers, as seen in these illustrations:

Costs were further reduced by substituting ‘doubles’ for the principal actors whenshooting at expensive overseas locations. Heralded as a revolutionary approach, the IF promised to streamline British production methods and halt a series of serious economic crises that had beset the film industry following the end of the Second World War. While most of its key components were already in existence, the IF represented a shift towards more mechanized and cost-effective methods for their deployment. It was applied to a number of feature films in the late 1940s, including Warning to Wantons (Donald Wilson, 1949), Floodtide (Frederick Wilson, 1949), Stop Press Girl (Michael Barry, 1949), Boys in Brown (Montgomery Tully, 1949). Warning to Wantons, the first IF feature film, was a comedy shot in six weeks at a modest budget. Here we see it being filmed using mobile equipment and a camera and lighting set-up:

Back projection (the projection of a film or still image onto the back of a translucent screen in front of which actors are filmed performing) was also used for shots to save location shooting costs, early examples of ‘virtual’ approaches to filmmaking:

Warning to Wantons

The IF constitutes an interesting case of applied research that resists being summarily dismissed as an expensive gamble by J. Arthur Rank, Britain’s dominant film producer who bankrolled its development. Although some technicians opposed an over-emphasis on cost efficiencies and streamlining, seen from a longer-term perspective the IF was an innovative response to the problems facing the British film industry at the end of the 1940s. These issues occasioned an unprecedented level of state protective legislation as well as a series of in-depth, valuable reports into its structure, including studio space. Looking back on the history of Pinewood, the IF was influential in the infrastructural development of the complex as a major studio renowned for technical ingenuity. At a time when film and television producers are having to devise ingenious methods of filming actors to take into account social distancing restrictions, and as the world of ‘virtual’ filmmaking gathers momentum, the IF has lessons in filming under constraints, albeit of a different nature. 

References

Brian R. Jacobson (ed.), In the Studio: Visual Creation and its Material Environments, (University of California Press, 2020).

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