Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions

On 22 and 23 September 2020 the STUDIOTEC project held its first workshop Studio Architectures: Vistas and Visions online. Here the team presents a report of the highlights.

Sarah Street introduced the event by welcoming guests Brian Jacobson (California Institute of Technology), Jonathan Mosely (University of the West of England), Dietrich Neumann (Brown University), Angela Piccini (University of Bristol) and Michael Wedel (Konrad Wolf Film, University of Babelsberg) who kindly accepted our invitation to participate and respond to our papers. This early stage of the STUDIOTEC project, which turned one on 1st September (happy first birthday STUDIOTEC!), was the perfect moment to be reaching out to invite perspectives from experts working in related fields. 

The STUDIOTEC project promotes comparative themes, relating to studio environments in Britain, Germany, France and Italy. As Sarah explained: ‘In our project we are concentrating on the years 1930 to 1960. In these decades film studios experienced highs and lows, periods of intense productivity and activity, but they were also at other times prone to contraction and major disruptions. They also developed physically over time. The snapshot that we will be presenting in these sessions I hope will give an idea of how our research is developing as well as exploring productive directions for studio studies’.

The workshop was divided into two sessions. The first concentrated on the studios’ geographies, their locations as important determinants. It aimed to explore methodological challenges and opportunities to analyse and interpret studios’ geospatial histories. It consisted of team presentations on Britain, Germany, France and Italy followed by Fraser Sturt’s talk on GIS technology as a tool for studios’ spatial analysis and interpretation.  

Richard Farmer and Sarah Street’s paper ‘British Studios: Key sites, locations and facilities’ documented how British studios between 1930 and 1960 were almost exclusively concentrated to the North and West of Central London. The Gaumont-British Studios at Shepherd’s Bush were an exceptional example of an inner-city studio which sought to overcome the restrictive size of the site by building up, rather than out, stacking the stages on floors above dressing rooms, offices and workshops. Sarah concluded this first geographical overview by discussing statistics and data which indicate a rapid growth and later decline within the thirty-year period in the number and operational capacity of studios in Britain. In his paper on ‘German Studios: Berlin, Munich and Beyond’, Tim Bergfelder shared extensive details of the diachronic evolution of German film studios, identifying key phases and regional/urban production clusters (the Greater Berlin area and Munich initially, but then also Hamburg, Bendestorf and Göttingen). 

In her presentation, Carla Mereu Keating raised some conceptual issues related to the (geographical) identity of film studios in Italy, arguing against taking an exclusive Rome-centric perspective. Morgan Lefeuvre introduced France’s ‘contrasted’ studio landscape, highlighting the great waves of construction and renovation of French studios and their functioning as a network.

Fraser Sturt gave the last presentation of this first afternoon, ‘Space, Time & Everyday Life’, explored our spatial data. Our archaeology expert reflected on the surprising ephemerality of the historical data generated by film studios and on how few film historians have so far used studios’ geospatial data to investigate qualitative and quantitative aspects related to film production. 

The second afternoon took us beyond the studios’ doors, as it were. Each member of the team gave a paper on particular case studies dealing with architectural aspects and the functional organization of the studios. Offering a range of approaches and analyses, the presentations highlighted how film studios’ material infrastructure and means of production influenced professional practices. They also discussed how social, economic and political factors played a role in the architectural design and working life of the studios. 

Sarah Street’s paper ‘Designing the Ideal Film Studio in Britain’ explored how studio planning was at the heart of post-war reconstruction for the British film industry, making the need for re-thinking the functionality of existing structures and locations particularly acute. Using Helmut Junge’s Plan for Film Studios: A Plea for Reform (1945) as a springboard for analysing existing studio structures in Britain and on-going debates about ‘the ideal studio’, Sarah focused on studios’ architectural designs, external appearance and public images. A cross-section drawing of Gainsborough in 1928 gives glimpses into some of the interiors.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper ‘Babelsberg and its context in 20th Century German Architectural Trends’ followed the line of utopian thought illustrated by Sarah, documenting how Nazi Germany’s dominant control of the film industry translated into the emergence of an ideal studio aesthetic and function. 

Continuing the discussion of transnational, ‘ideal studio’ motivation, Catherine O’Rawe’s paper, ‘Building the Ideal (Fascist) Studio: Cinecittà and the Symbolic Rebirth of the Italian Film Industry’, interrogated the genesis of Italy’s flagship studios as the instantiation of the fascist regime’s commitment to architectural and cinematic modernity. 

Morgan Lefeuvre closed this comparative session by examining the case of the French studios in the 1930s and 1940s. In her presentation, ‘The unfulfilled dream of a French Hollywood or the impossible centralization of the French studios’, she referred to the many unsuccessful attempts to centralise and rationalise French studios (in very different political and economic contexts) before analysing the causes of these repeated failures and consequences for film production. 

The second part of the afternoon was devoted to case studies focussed on the transition to sound and developing comparative and environmental approaches. In her paper, ‘The symphony of work: Architectural space and working practices’, Eleanor Halsall described the early activities and material infrastructure of Ufa’s purpose-built sound studio Tonkreuz, at Babelsberg, the first of its kind in Germany. She explained how architect Otto Kohtz configured the interior space to eliminate the unwanted intrusion of undesired sounds, illustrated with contemporary impressions of the studio Tonkreuz as a working space. 

Carla Mereu Keating shared ongoing research into the spatial history of Cines, Italy’s first silent film production facilities and also the very first to be converted to sound. Inspired by Henri Lefebvre’s triadic conceptualisation of space, Carla reflected on Cines’ ‘archi-textures’ to observe the tensions present within the studio’s material infrastructure and interrelated spatial representations and social practices (city planning, housing expansion, transportation). 

‘What can we learn from researching the activities of the ‘lesser’ studios of film history?’ asked Sue Harris in her evaluation of two of the twenty film studios active in France during the 1930s: the studios Pathé de Joinville, the largest and most prestigious corporate film production facilities in France, and the Studios de Neuilly, one of the smallest independent sites established after the transition to sound. 

Joinville

Richard Farmer’s original exploration of the impact of localised (anthropogenic) climatic factors in the siting, design and equipping of British film studios, ‘Fog and British studios’, concluded the final session and our first workshop. London’s winter ‘peasouper’ fogs were considered the ‘arch-enemy of good photography,’ and during the first decades of the 20thcentury they regularly disrupted filmmaking in Britain, delaying production schedules and increasing production costs. Richard’s paper explained how British studios evolved in response to problematic meteorological factors.  

Throughout the two sessions thought-provoking questions were asked and observations shared generously. These discussions led us to collectively question the geography and architecture of the studios from several angles. We debated the links between the studios and their territories by asking how these environments influenced the studios in terms of their architectures, functioning, levels of activity or sustainability. The study of studios’ technical and aesthetic characteristics shows how they reflected their eras, reinforcing a material conception of cinema and its place in society. But beyond materiality, studios also functioned as spaces for creation and sociability, leading us to reflect on how these might have influenced the films they produced. Lastly, methodological reflections emerged from these debates, in particular how GIS and other working methods in archaeology can enrich our thinking and help us to understand the histories of the studios in all their diversity and complexity.

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