STUDIOTEC goes to SCMS

This year the annual Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference went virtual, and the STUDIOTEC team delivered two panels. The conference provided a great opportunity to showcase some of our ongoing research to new audiences. 

Putting Studios into the Frame: Architectural, Environmental and Geospatial approaches

The first of our panels foregrounded factors which influenced how studios in Britain and Germany developed over time with reference to crucial determinants such as the weather; geography and location; the human cost of changing technological practices, and the impact of architectural conventions on studio planning. The panel demonstrated that by understanding studios as dynamic spaces defined by multi-stratified layers of industrial and creative activity, as well as by architectural, environmental and geographic experience, they can more fully be put into the frame of film history and interdisciplinary analysis.

Richard Farmer spoke on the relationship between meteorology and filmmaking in Britain, exploring the ways in which global developments in studio design have been adapted to take localised climatic factors into account. Using London’s famed winter fogs as a case study, the paper demonstrated that specific kinds of weather necessitated specific responses: from the initial closure of British studios in the winter months in response to fog entering into and disrupting the places of cinematic production, via filmmakers’ seasonal migration to places such as the French Riviera, to eventual solutions that allowed for year-round production in the United Kingdom. Such solutions included the development of air-filtration plant that allowed production to continue through the winter at urban studios such as Islington and Shepherd’s Bush, and the construction of new studios outside the London ‘fog zone’ at more rural places like Elstree, Beaconsfield and Denham. These developments placed the British production sector on a much surer footing. The paper also showed how filmmakers in Britain, having finally found ways to banish fog from their workplaces, then sought ingenious ways to artificially simulate it in order to create ‘authentic’ visions of London.  

Eleanor Halsall explored working conditions in the first sound film studio built in Germany in 1929. This cruciform construction, known as the Tonkreuz, embodied the latest technologies in terms of soundproofing and ventilation and was designed to minimise disruption and control human flow throughout the building. When interviewed for film magazines about what it was like to work in these conditions, film stars (and it was mostly their voices that were heard!) complained about extreme heat and long working hours. Reading these testimonies led me to think about working conditions at this historical turn towards sound and the experiences of those working behind the scenes: the camera operators enclosed in soundproof boxes; and the engineers perched high up on the lighting bridge where the heat was even greater. The extras who were now required to stand in absolute silence for extended periods of time, an unwelcome departure from the silent era when they had more freedom to chat and move whilst waiting for their turn. The higher cost of shooting sound films led to more intense working patterns in order to complete these expensive productions quickly and this led her to think about workers in Metropolis.

Sarah Street’s paper ‘The Film Studio as Narrative Architecture’ focused on Denham, Britain’s most extensive complex of stages when opened in 1936, in an analysis of architectural plans, maps, photographs and A Day at Denham (1939), a promotional film which documented how the studios functioned. Looking closely at such visual documentation, the paper promoted new ways of thinking about studios as ‘narrative architecture’ that are inspired by architectural theories of the built environment and notions of buildings as ‘lived’ spaces with contested meanings. How Denham’s ‘narrative’ evolved was demonstrated with reference to the ways in which the spaces were used, adapted, moved through and experienced. Although Denham’s Art Deco façade projected an image of modernist, streamlined industrial efficiency, a post-war report observed that Denham’s spaces did not necessarily reflect this aspiration. This reflected a tension between the desire for efficiency and recognition that workers’ conditions needed to be improved. While oral and written accounts shed light on these issues, the visual evidence of floorplans, measurements and photographs enables the record to be more vivid and precise. At the same time this evidence opens up a whole range of conceptual approaches from architectural theory and practice to the analysis of studios.

Denham’s long corridor with colour-coded directions on the wall

Fraser Sturt’s paper focused on the work that we have been doing to build a spatial and temporal dataset for studios in England, Italy, Germany and France between 1930 and 1960. These data allow us to consider changing patterns of activity across Europe and the factors that might have driven them; from changing technologies, economies, migrations and the impact of war. The scale of the challenge this represents in terms of data collection, and the complex inter relations between datasets was highlighted, with little in the way of digital geospatial data currently available for this subject. Whilst it may be challenging, the gains to be had from such work were also drawn out – in that they allow us to explore the data in a different way and pick out different patterns. The map below indicates a partial representation of differing film outputs between 1930 and 1960 from data processed to data. As we build this dataset we’ll be able to explore cross cutting themes and tease out causation and correlation in a new way.  

Trans-European Patterns in European Film Production during World War II

The second panel discussed the inter- and transnational exchanges between film industries in Europe during wartime conflict, particularly the operational activity and organisation of film studios in France, Germany, and Italy.

Tim Bergfelder’s paper was focused on the transnational strategies and developments for German studios between 1939 and 1945.  Exterritorialising film production, the Nazis moved studio activity from Germany to occupied territories such as Austria, France, the Netherlands, and Czechoslovakia, or produced in studios of Allied countries such as Italy. While in Dutch and Czechoslovak studios the emphasis was in the main on producing ‘camouflaged’ German films, French studios under German control catered primarily for local tastes and audiences. Meanwhile in Germany itself, studios experienced shortages of material and labour, as German personnel were increasingly drafted into the immediate war effort as soldiers, while studio facilities, production company offices, and printing labs were damaged or destroyed by bombs. The loss of a constant workforce was in part compensated by the use of foreign workers, some voluntary and actively recruited, while others coerced. The conditions for forced labour, including prisoners of war and camp inmates, varied from studio to studio and according to individuals’ usefulness to the studio operation. In this respect, German cinema’s war-time transnationalism took on colonialist and imperialist features.

Attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-1990-1002-500/CC-BY-SA 3.0

Sue Harris’s paper focused on the Parisian studios during the war and Occupation period (1939-44), asking how the studios operated under unprecedented new constraints that were both political and practical. Noting that the much-researched films produced by the UFA affiliate La Continental amounted to only 14% of the national output of the period, Sue redirected our attention to the broader landscape of French film production, which saw a wartime production of 220 French features and many other kinds of films (newsreels, documentaries, information films, advertising films). Putting the work of the studio employee back at the centre of the history of French cinema during the Nazi Occupation, Sue explored how the working population was transformed through a variety of measures: a drastically depleted male workforce that entailed the removal of much of the studios’ core skills base (to imprisonment or enforced labour); strict requirements for work permits; raw material and electricity shortages; the increased employment of women in historically male roles (such as carpenters, electricians and stagehands); and the impact of bombing and air raids. Drawing on contemporary records, Sue showed that the Parisian studios remained active, resourceful and productive throughout this period, and thrived in the most reduced of circumstances. 

Morgan Lefeuvre highlighted the unknown film cooperation between France and Italy during the war. Although the two countries had begun close cooperation in the field of film production in the early 1930s, she analyzed how the War and then the establishment of the Vichy regime, far from interrupting this cooperation, made it possible to strengthen the Franco-Italian dialogue in a new political context. Relying on numerous examples and mostly unpublished Italian and French archives, she showed how cooperation developed between September 1939 and the end of 1943. From the massive presence of French professionals in Italian studios during the ‘Phoney War’, to the control of the Nice studios by Cinecittà, via the creation of a Franco-Italian production company or the circulation of actors and technicians between the Rome and Paris studios, this brief but intense Franco-Italian cinematographic cooperation contributed to forging or reinforcing links between film professionals in the two countries. And it is on this rich ground that post-war Franco-Italian co-productions have flourished since 1946.

Reception organised in Paris in September 1942, in honor of the two Italian stars Assia Noris and Bianca Della Corte, in the presence of French and Italian actresses, as well as the Consul General of Italy (Mr Orlandini) and the official representative in Paris of the Italian film industry (Mr Sampieri)

Carla Mereu Keating‘s presentation ‘Studios at War: Military Transmutations of Spaces of film production’ explored how World War II altered the geography of Italian film production and impacted film studios’ physical and material infrastructure. At the beginning of the conflict, film studios across the country expanded their capacity (number of soundstage) to accommodate the making of a larger number of films. This infrastructural growth was a direct response to the increasing demand for domestic films caused by the facist regime’s monopoly laws of 1938. This ambitions programme was not sustainable, especially from 1943 onwards, when the war was fought at home, rather than being waged abroad: loss of human capital, scarcity of primary material resources, aerial raids and electricity and water shortages did not allow the film industry to continue to operate as planned. During the later stages of the war, the Art Exhibition venue in Venice became the regime’s main film production site; Roman studios were looted by military raids, heavily damaged by Allied bombings (e.g. De Paolis studios) or served as POW and displaced-persons camps (e.g. Cinecittà). Under Nazi and Allied military occupation, some Italian studios were requisitioned and put to a use quite different from their original one: Pisorno studios in Tuscany and Farnesina’s in Rome, for example, were chosen because of their size and location to fulfil a variety of tasks in support of the war.

Yearly film report by minister of Popular Culture Alessandro Pavolini, ‘La consegna: consolidare e perfezionare le posizioni raggiunte’, Film, 13 June 1942, no. 24, p. 4

Both panels generated very interesting questions, comments and reflections. For panel one, a question about the colour-coded directions seen in Denham’s corridor suggested an awareness of contemporary thinking around using colour to aid industrial efficiency. Workers’ health issues also came up as a topic for discussion, particularly how synthetic fog created quite dangerous work environments. The reasons for particular locations – British studios near London, and French studios near Paris – highlighted the close proximity of actors who also worked in theatres, as well as the key resources and expertise necessary for film production. Finally, this panel was asked about the use of GPS-generated data gathering. The richness of data for Ufa, for example, is enabling new insights into issues such as migration, labour mobility and employment patterns that can then be compared across the four countries. GPS helps us to see how spaces changed over time and the growth of studios in relation to city planning and development. Questions for the second panel prompted reflection on how limitations and scarcities had an impact on films such as Roma città aperta (1945). The material presented on Continental Films during the Nazi occupation of France prompted discussion of its ‘independence’, as well as Franco-German collaboration in the 1930s. The position of Jewish involvement in the French industry was also discussed, the risks involved and the very few examples of people who were able to continue to work at the studios. The precarity of the position of black workers was also referenced, as well as the position of women in the studios. Responses to a question about the extent of co-operation with Japan showed that some took place in Germany in the 1930s but there was little of note in Italy except for a visit by Japanese dignitaries to Cinecittà. 

The STUDIOTEC team found the experience of delivering two panels at SCMS stimulating and a great way to take stock of our research so far. It was great seeing other panels too, several of which touched on our interests. We look forward to the next occasions when we can present as well as interacting with other scholars interested in studio studies.

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