Supporting feature: tubular scaffolding

By Richard Farmer

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929.

Film studios are places of innovation. New technologies and creative processes are developed, adopted, adapted and eventually superseded. Some of these innovations, such as the arrival of synchronised sound or widescreen, are designed to be obvious to the viewer, to provide spectacle and inspire wonder and pleasure. But a host of other innovations go unseen, especially those that change how a film is made, as opposed to the form it takes when it is placed before the consumer. These background innovations can change day-to-day labour practices and are often introduced to make the working life of a studio more efficient and cost effective, even as they might simultaneously contribute to aesthetic change.

‘Bettaskaf’: Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd, (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929). ‘Double Grip’: London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd (Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948).

One such innovation, introduced to British studios in the late 1920s and early 1930s, was tubular metal scaffolding.  As an October 1929 advertisement for the Steel Scaffolding Co.’s ‘Bettaskaf’ system claimed, metal scaffolding could be used for ‘all constructional work’ in the studio:  

In the building of sets, platforms for lights and cameras, erection of scenery, temporary buildings, etc., there is nothing that ‘Bettaskaf’ will not do …  Dismantled even quicker than it is erected it can be stored away neatly until it is required again, no waste, no loss, adaptable to every need (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). 

But wait, cried a salesman for the rival London & Midland Steel Scaffolding Co., Ltd., there’s more: 

On location work its uses are many and varied, mobile sun rostrums and spot rails, temporary dressing rooms and canteen, generator shelters, baffles for suppressing generator noises, temporary studios for shooting interiors during inclement weather (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49).

Metal scaffolding was designed to replace timber and was said by manufacturers to offer such notable advantages over wood that it would ‘practically eliminate’ it as a building material in the studio (Bettaskaf, 1929: 54). The first of these advantages was cost, both in terms of labour – one report claimed that sets could be put up in one eighth of the time of a timber set – and outlay on materials – a greater upfront cost, admittedly, but its durability and reusability effecting as much as a 75% saving over time (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63; Carter, 1935: 259). Metal scaffolding was fireproof, a significant point of appeal for an industry with a tendency to dangerous and expensive conflagrations, and was also strong, its greater rigidity allowing camera platforms and lighting rails to be placed ‘in positions impossible with timber, i.e. over the sides of ships, on railway engines and automobiles’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 26 November 1936: 49). Furthermore, and suggesting how different kinds of innovation intersect, proponents claimed that it was quieter to erect and use, and so more suited to use in the early sound studio: ‘if Britain is to win the fight for talking film supremacy, the microphone will eventually demand the use of the spanner as against the noise occasioned by the busy carpenter and joiner’ (Bioscope, 13 November 1929: xv). Those wielding these spanners would, within a few years, find themselves playfully dubbed ‘tuberculars’ by their colleagues (Whitley, 1935: 27).

International Photographer, August 1933.

Tubular metal scaffolding had become increasingly common in Britain during the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, possibly because of the relative scarcity of wood in the UK as compared to other countries such as the USA, where timber scaffolding continued to be used until at least the late 1920s (New York Times, 24 August 1930: W14). The eventual standardisation of pole diameters was followed by the development of a range of patented connectors and accessories that allowed horizontal, vertical and diagonal tubes to be joined in pretty much infinite combinations.  It was this flexibility that appealed to filmmakers; the modular nature of tubular metal scaffolding could be used to quickly and easily construct a lighting rig or camera crane to match the specific needs of an individual production, sequence or shot. Moreover, it could be easily disassembled when not in use, freeing up space on often cramped studio floors: as Kinematograph Weekly observed, ‘a camera crane, in the ordinary way, takes some parking when out of action’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113).

Although stories vary as to who had the initial idea for using tubular scaffolding in British film production – some suggest that it was a studio manager, some a chief engineer, others a studio accountant – many reports focus on the fact that, as Meccano Magazine reported to its readers with no small degree of pride, inspiration was taken from a child’s Meccano set (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 335, 338; Coughter 1933: 415; New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4). What seems clearer is that in 1931 Gaumont-British became an early, and perhaps the first, adopter of this new apparatus in the context of film production in the UK, and by 1935 bragged that its Shepherd’s Bush studio was home to 100,000 ft. of tubular scaffold poles, ‘10,000 couplers, 5,000 base plates, 200 wheels (various)’ (Kinematograph Year Book, 1936: 310).  

Gaumont-British was eager to put this giant building kit to work, and almost as keen to be seen doing so. Numerous reports in both the trade and popular press from the mid-1930s refer to the uses to which studio employees were putting the company’s ‘grown-up Meccano’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 11 January 1934: 113). Oliver Baldwin, son of Stanley, excitedly informed readers of Picturegoer that when he visited the set for First a Girl (1935), he found ‘cameras, microphones, rostrums of all shapes and sizes, erected [from modular metal scaffolding] with a firmness that was unknown in the old days’ (Baldwin 1935: 8). A crane weighing an estimated 15 tons was constructed for The Iron Duke (1934), allowing cinematographer Curt Courant and his camera to gracefully track Wellington from a high-angle as he moved through a crowded ballroom (Mannock 1934: 25), whilst a dramatic mobile shot in Britannia of Billingsgate (1933) was made possible by a tubular-scaffolding slipping rostrum measuring 30 ft. long by 75 ft. high (Kinematograph Weekly, 27 June 1935: 63).  For Channel Crossing (1933), tubular scaffolding was used to build both the supporting framework of the s.s. Canterbury set and a crane large enough to accommodate camera, director and cinematographer.   

The Sphere, 23 March 1946.

The art director on Channel Crossing was Alfred Junge, one a number of German film technicians working in British studios in the 1930s who were able and willing to explore the aesthetic possibilities afforded by the new scaffolding. STUDIOTEC’s Tim Bergfelder has noted that Junge ‘revolutionised scaffolding and crane technology [in Britain], which led to an increased mobility for both sets and cameras’ (Bergfelder 2016: 25). Junge was eager – indeed, was employed – to bring a German polish to British films by replicating something of the ‘unchained camera’ that had influenced him during his formative years in Germany during the 1920s, a technique which had shaped production design and cinematography in pretty much equal measure but which, Katharina Loew suggests, was in Germany often facilitated by wooden trusses and steel cables (Loew 2021: 246-7). The flexibility and economy of tubular scaffolding made it easier for Junge to realise his creative ambitions, whilst the cost-effective nature of the system meant that studio bean-counters were perhaps more willing to let him try. As Edward Carrick noted of tubular scaffolding, its mobility was ‘a great asset’ when designing more elaborate sets that could accommodate more mobile cameras:

whole sections of walls, including windows, mantlepieces and stairways, are attached to tubular scaffolding towers which are mounted on rubber-tyred wheels. There is an inch of so clearance between the set and floor and the whole lot can be moved in and out at will (Carrick 1949: 82).

For all that German art designers and cinematographers had the skills and experience to more fully exploit the opportunities afforded by tubular scaffolding, it was heralded in many quarters as a British innovation, and one that improved the look and so the prestige of British films. The Era’s Kenneth Green, for example, observed that ‘it is satisfactory to record the ingenuities of a British device of which Hollywood knows nothing’ (Green 1933: 18). On the other side of the Atlantic, the August 1933 edition of International Photographer noted that it was ‘a surprise’ that American studios had not yet adopted tubular scaffolding (Tannura 1933: 17), whilst the New York Times, seemingly unwilling to take the British studios at their word, cautiously observed that the system was ‘regarded by American technicians as a useful development’ (New York Times, 7 Jan 1934: X4).  Further research might be needed before we can state with certainty whether British studios really did lead the way in their use of tubular scaffolding, but what is evident is that they were clearly happy to take the credit.

Kinematograph Weekly, 24 June 1948.

By the end of the 1930s, the use of tubular scaffolding was widespread in British studios, and by the late 1940s fan magazines felt comfortable dropping references to it into their articles without having to explain what it was or the influence it had had on filmmaking. What in the mid-1930s had been declared nothing less than ‘a revolution’ (Baldwin 1935: 8) had been normalised, although the changes it brought about in the industry lived on.  Indeed, it is a testament to the durability and usefulness of these metal poles and connectors that they sometimes outlived the studios in which they had been used, auctioned off when production ceased so that they could find renewed purpose elsewhere.   

References

Oliver Baldwin, ‘Behind the scenes at Shepherd’s Bush’, Picturegoer, 31 August 1935: 8-9.

Tim Bergfelder, ‘The production designer and the Gesamtkunstwerk: German film technicians in the British film industry of the 1930s’, in Andrew Higson (ed.), Dissolving views: key writings on British cinema (London: Bloomsbury, 2016): 20-37.

Bettaskaf advertisement, Kinematograph Weekly, 24 October 1929: 54.

Edward Carrick, Designing for films (London: Studio Publications, 1949).

A. L. Carter, ‘Equipment and technique in 1935’, in Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935): 219-70.

Ellis Coughter, ‘The largest film studio in Europe: Gaumont-British enterprise’, Meccano Magazine, June 1933: 414-5, 470.

Kenneth Green, ‘Alfred Hitchcock’s new talkie’, The Era, 27 September 1933: 18.

Kinematograph Year Book 1936 (London: Kinematograph Publications Ltd, 1935).

Katharina Loew, Special Effects and German Silent Film: Techno-Romantic Cinema (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2021).

P. L. Mannock, ‘George Arliss begins as Wellington’, Kinematograph Weekly, 6 September 1934: 25.

Philip Tannura, ‘European supremacy?’, International Photographer, August 1933: 17.

R. J. Whitley, ‘Studio “slanguage”’, Daily Mirror, 13 September 1935: 27.

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