Prof. Susan J. Douglas (Professor of Communication Studies, University of Michigan)
Dr. Gerard Alberts (Associate Professor of the History of Mathematics and Computing, University of Amsterdam)
Prof. Annie van den Oever (Faculty of Arts, University of Groningen)
Prof. Andreas Fickers (Faculté des Lettres, des Sciences Humaines, des Arts et des Sciences de l’Education, University of Luxembourg)
“Media Scholars and Amateurs of All Countries and Disciplines, Hands-on!” *
Recent years have witnessed a growing turn to experimental historical research in the history of media technologies. In addition to archival investigation and oral history interviews, historians and enthusiasts are increasingly uncovering histories of technology through hands-on exercises in simulation and re-enactment. Equipment lovingly restored by amateurs, or preserved by national heritage collections, is being placed in the hands of the people who once operated it, provoking a new and rich flood of memories.
The turn to experimental research raises profound methodological questions. The unreliability of narrative memory is well proven, but what do we know about the limits of haptic and tactile memory? To what extent is it possible to elicit useful memories of technological arrays when parts of those arrays are missing or non-functional? How do the owners of old equipment shape the historical narratives which are stimulated by their collections?
Hands-On History is a colloquium designed to facilitate discussion of these issues between historians, users, curators and archivists (amateur and professional) who are making use of and taking part in these historical enquiries. In addition to a series of keynote presentations by leading scholars in the field, the event will also include stimulating workshops on specific focus areas. While the focus of the event will be on media technologies, broadly defined, we invite contributions from other areas of technology and from other academic disciplines.
This colloquium aims to make a decisive intervention in this emerging area of academic interest. It is part of the ADAPT project, a European Research Council funded project investigating the history of television production technologies through hands-on simulations. Research conducted by ADAPT will form a key case study for the colloquium.
In order to facilitate productive discussion, numbers will be limited. It is expected that papers presented will form the basis of an edited collection focused on hands-on historical research.
We invite proposals for research presentations, panel discussions, and historical equipment demonstrations. Presentations may take whatever format is most appropriate, and we welcome approaches which deviate from the traditional 20 minute lecture.
I’ve worked in television for over 25 years since the mid 80’s having filmed with such varied folks from Hollywood greats like Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis to the very first Big Brother contestants and Supernanny Jo Frost… but nothing has ever felt so life affirming and heart warming as the filming I‘ve just done for the ADAPT project with a group of seven utterly awesome (mainly) octogenarians who all once worked at BBC Ealing film studios.
We are focusing on 16mm filming on location for TV – so documentaries, topical current affairs shows like Man Alive and Chronicle as well as Play for Today along with a raft of 60’s and 70’s shows as the BBC film unit covered all programmes shot on film on location. Crews then had to be multi-skilled as they often had to shoot a drama one week and a schools programme or jungle based documentary the next.
So I blink in disbelief at having pulled this off…as Ray Sutcliffe (once editor of BBC flagship series, Chronicle) David Whitson cameraman (and DOP) looking boyish still in retirement (made Man Alive and series like The Voyage of Charles Darwin ) John Adderley acting as camera assistant (Tribal Eye, Man Alive) Alex Branson PA, Bill Chesneau on sound, John Hooper as sound assistant and Alan Muhley electrician, all walked into shot carrying the Éclair camera, magazines for loading film, a Nagra 3 sound recorder and an old DK25 boom, a hefty wooden camera tripod and various redheads and blonde lights from the era, it felt a bit like a Fellini film! The combined age of the crew was likely somewhere around 600 yet this seasoned crew from the 60’s and 70’s worked together like they’d just made a telly programme yesterday!
And while I’ve got one eye on the participants as they join forces to film once again with a 16mm camera kit, I’ve got the other on our student crew from Royal Holloway University (where the Adapt project is based) who have been selected as they have shown exceptional talents on camera and sound but who are barely 20… and as I stand in the middle, both professionally and age wise, it’s one of those defining and memorable moments. Pivoting between the young learning from the old, learning from the young as I learn from both and feel blessed that I was given this great job as Digital Producer on the project!
Everything about casting for, filming and even editing together material for the project has been so very different from my producing experience for TV – in an interesting and often deeply inspiring way.
The purpose of the ADAPT project run by Royal Holloway University of London (and funded by European Research Council over 5 years 2013-2018) is to pass on knowledge in a hands on history way about TV and how and why it was made the way it was – in a way that’s never been done before. Strangely non-one has ever reunited people with the kit they once worked with before – filming them as they rediscover, remember and then use that kit again.
I’d of course imagined that finding physically fit and able, yet elderly, former TV crew members with memories in tact might well be tough. But the casting experience was enlightening. I found myself meeting fabulously fit, extraordinarily capable and lucid folk who were fascinated by our Adapt project and keen to take part. All seemed to be going swimmingly well, especially after meeting the wonderful John Adderley who not only owned just the kind of old film cameras and kit we so desperately needed ( and working ones!), but is also so well connected, meaning I was now just a few phone calls away from many of the BBC Ealing studios lot. But then came the stream of calls and emails alerting me to upcoming skiing trips, cruises, sailing commitments and Russian language courses! After an action packed TV career, of course they were all out enjoying adventurous and travel filled retirements! I finally found some dates that worked for most though Producer/Director Ray Sutcliffe did say he might not make it back in time from his Adriatic cruise!
Lucky for me Ray did in fact make it, and I’m eternally grateful as under his direction, the newly reunited film crew most of whom had not seen each other for 20 years or more, proceeded to film with the Éclair camera and Nagra sound kit – using our specially created 1960’s domestic backdrop (thanks to the lovely Royal Holloway art department) to demonstrate how sync sound interviews were achieved back in the late 60s and how decisions were made around lighting, interviewing, filming establishing shots and exterior interview material for what would have been a key section of a documentary of its day made on 16mm film. Watching the professionalism of the crew all respectfully but efficiently supporting each other in their pursuit of best picture, best sound, best lighting, falling back into the language and etiquette of the past ‘ Is that redhead ok for you Dave?’ (Alan Muhley gaffer to cameraman David Whitson), ‘OK for sound Bill?’ (David Whitson to soundman Bill Chesneau), ‘mag loaded’ John Adderly, and most of all, witnessing these guys who have not made a TV programme for over 20 odd years, roll 8 minutes of 16mm film capturing at least 3 minutes of broadcast footage! That’s a ratio of less than 3:1 !
Now given that TV shoots today end up with around 100:1 ratio at least, it’s pretty extraordinary! ‘How on earth editors manage to make any sense of the footage today when there’s no PA on shoot and just acres and acres of the stuff as they just seem to shoot and shoot’ says David Whitson unable to fathom the lack of discipline with shooting since it all went digital,
Ironically for me, this is just what we are doing as we film them … filming!
I come from the discipline of linear TV (mid 80’s it was all still linear) where programmes were pre-scripted and edits were pre approved from ‘paper edits’ and an edited programme never got changed by a commissioner (hard to imagine now!) but here we are for the project, filming almost continuously!
Which is partly why it is actually so very different from producing for TV for me…
The footage which is for the project’s use not for TV broadcast, has to serve a completely different purpose. It is ultimately for educational and research purposes and for academics, historians, media fans, students and telly addicts. As the focus is all about reuniting technicians with equipment they used to work with, the project is intrinsically interested in memory, thus dictating that the reunited crew have the time and freedom to allow memories to be reignited, memories of each other, of the way they worked together, the conditions under which they worked, memories of the kit whether they have or haven’t forgotten how to use it etc (‘Come to daddy’ says Dave Whitson when he first sees the Éclair camera).
So, when filming I had to resist over producing them and getting them to demonstrate the way I wanted the kit demonstrating or to tell me the fabulous stories they had told me in the pub over a pint etc rather leaving them uninterrupted and with the freedom to feel the kit, to explore how it works, to engage and re-connect with each other… in short to allow their memories to be triggered through the hands on experience rather than from a lot of short sharp pokes at it from a producer like me!
This was clearly a challenge both to me personally (my instinct from producing format and feature shows is to get points across quickly and succinctly) and to our filming methods. I made the decision that the best way to cover the actions of up to 7 people moving around and a whole load of kit , was to shoot it all handheld so we could come to the action rather than expect any of it to come to us– and supplemented 2 hand held camera with 2 fixed cameras overhead to give us some general wide shots of the scene.
Our poor two camera guys Joe Burns and Zak Derkler who were brilliant, are probably still having massages having barely had a moment to put the cameras down. No gym for them for many weeks to come!
I’m not quite sure I should say this, but I think our young crew tired well before our old crew who were so energized by the reunion and experience I think. Long after calling ‘cut’ they carried on sharing memories and playing with the kit, we kept having to pick up cameras and keep rolling!
Now for one of the biggest challenges of the project- making sense of and editing the footage!
Having encouraged the reunited film crew to indulge in memory and hands-on experience with the kit, the edit challenge is proving so very different to TV editing where short succinct sync bites and simple narrative rule! For Adapt I’ve got to wade through 1TB of material… that’s around 15 hours of footage with 7 people often talking all over each other, sometimes demonstrating sometimes ‘presenting’ to an imaginary audience, sometimes getting on with filming, sometimes explaining it, often using old familiar jargon, often walking off camera or asking for a chair or standing listening to others.
But as challenges go it’s a rather lovely challenge…
As I listen to those amazing stories… ‘we were so lucky to find a donkey at four in the morning in Cairo’ ( Alex Branson)
She called me by the way to let me know it was actually Luxor…
Amanda Murphy is Digital Producer on the ADAPT project.
The original version of this post incorrectly stated that Ray Sutcliffe is 90 years old. This is not the case and this post was edited on 21 December 2015 to correct this error.
Vintage television production equipment took centre stage last week as a veteran team from the BBC’s Television Film Studios at Ealing were reunited with obsolete film equipment as part of a unique historical re-enactment experiment.
The event took place as part of ADAPT, a European Research Council funded project designed to improve our understanding of the changing ways in which technology has been used to make television since 1960.
For the retired film crew, it was a first chance in decades to revisit the lights, cameras, and tape recorders they once used every day. Camera operators David Whitson and Brian Tufano were joined by sound recordists Bill Chesneau and John Hooper, production assistant Alex Branson, electricians Alan Muhley and Tommy Moran, and director Ray Sutcliffe.
Vintage equipment collector John Adderley, who also fulfilled the role of camera assistant, provided a vast range of equipment from his personal collection, including two Arriflex St cameras (one with an external blimp) and an Éclair NPR camera.
The range of sound equipment available included a wind-up EMI L2 and two Nagra tape recorders. Lights were, as far as possible given current safety regulations, those which would have been used at the time.
The veteran crew demonstrated how the equipment worked, rediscovering it as they went. They explained and demonstrated their roles and how they used to work together. They shot a number of interior and exterior sequences onto film.
The experiment provided ample evidence for the value of carrying out such hands-on research in the history of technology. Handling the vintage equipment reminded participants of working patterns and routines which may not have been recalled in a more traditional “oral history” interview. Using the old equipment brought to light forgotten advantages and limitations of different technologies.
The entire exercise was recorded on multiple Sony PMW-100 cameras. The participants were equipped with wireless microphones which enabled them to freely discuss their memories and actions with ADAPT researchers and each other.
The shoot was directed by ADAPT team member Amanda Murphy, with assistance from Royal Holloway staff including media arts technician Sri Southall and studio manager John Walsh. Southall directed camera operators Joe Burns and Zak Derler, while Walsh – assisted by Summer Walker – oversaw the event’s complex sound recording requirements.
Additional assistance was provided by Molly Pearson and Patsy Webb, who – along with ADAPT PhD students Rowan Aust and Tim Heath – ensured that participants were taken care of and digital files were appropriately transferred to secure storage.
ADAPT is led by Prof. John Ellis and funded by the European Research Council and will run until 2018. Future simulations will trace the other major ways of generating television programmes, from outside broadcast to video tape editing.
These studentships offer an opportunity to join ADAPT (the Adoption of new Technological Arrays in the Production of Broadcast Television), a five-year, £1.3m research project led by Professor John Ellis.
The studentships will cover full UK fees plus an annual maintenance grant of £16,400. The standard length of the award is three years of full time study. It is anticipated that the projects will commence on 1 October 2014 and conclude by 30 September 2017.
Studentship One will investigate the evolution of tape-based and digital sound recording in British television production and the conflict between the demands of sound and camera, particularly on location.
Studentship Two will investigate the rapid change from 16mm film cutting to digital editing in the context of British television production.
Successful applicants will hold, or will expect to have completed by September 2014, a Masters degree in Film Studies, Television Studies, or a related subject. Experience of research in written archives and/or the collection of oral history will be beneficial, as will an understanding of the methods and concerns surrounding the history of technology.
The successful applicants will join a busy department with an active research culture in the fields of film, television and digital media. In addition to working under the supervision of the project leader, Prof. John Ellis, they will benefit from the support of a research team including Dr James Bennett and Dr Nick Hall.
Welcome to ADAPT’s new website. ADAPT aims to research and document the history of British broadcast television technology between 1960 and the near-present. This five year project has been funded by the European Research Council.
Over the years to come, we’ll fill this space with details of the project as it develops and begins to produce insights into the history of British television. We will also provide regular blog posts from members of the project team and other television scholars and researchers.
In addition to carrying out academic research, we also want to hear from the many enthusiasts and local historians who research television history. Over the next five years we will organise a number of events which will help to promote and share these important sources of television history.
We look forward to sharing and discussing our research with you soon. If you’d like to hear more about the project, or offer your own memories of British television production since 1960, you can email us at email@example.com. If you prefer to write a letter, our address can be found on the Contact page of this website.