PROLOGUE: This somehow turned into a very long post that I don’t have the will or patience to trim down. Probably best to just skip this one.
Here I am again, sitting home alone on a Friday night when I could be at the ridiculous and, in my humble opinion, largely unpleasant Black-and-White MCAD Ball (the theme this year? Dada and steampunk, somehow), and so I thought I’d take this opportunity to talk a bit about the technical challenges of shooting a 16mm sync sound film on a student budget.
As a disclaimer, I’ll be talking shop, and I have a tendency to make people’s eyes glaze over when I do that. However, I’m making it a personal goal with this post to use layman’s terms as much as possible and describe the process in a way that is understandable by everyone. So if you’re interested in the technical process of old-school FILMmaking, even if you don’t know a lot of the technical terms, read on. If, on the other hand, the tech stuff bores you, this is your stop. See you next week.
The way motion picture (film) cameras work is they’ve got a motor that drives a series of geared mechanisms that open the shutter and expose the film, close the shutter, pull the film down to the next frame, and open the shutter again. In the past hundred years, camera companies like Arri and Aaton have become quite good at making devices that do this reliably. The weak spot in the system is that camera motors are driven by direct-current batteries, and the current they give off is not constant. This variation in current isn’t enough to cause problems for the picture, but it does mean that the frame rate of most non-sync cameras tends to drift around a bit, meaning that the picture doesn’t stay synchronized with the sound.
NOTE: This isn’t to say that sound can’t be synchronized to a non-sync picture with a little patience. Here’s a proof-of-concept film I made with my spring-wound Super8 camera and Ethan’s Marantz field recorder this summer: Notes for an Unfinished Poem (this is actual sync sound, not re-recorded ADR). To achieve this, I had to take the sound recordings, sync them up as best I could, then chop up the sound into short phrases and slide them around to match up with the picture. It worked here, but it is not recommended for longer-form or more complex dialogue work).
The other major problem with non-sync movie cameras is that they are NOISY. This is a reference audio take recorded for Rum and Pancakes last semester, which was shot on an Arriflex SB with a 400-foot magazine. The advantage to shooting with a camera like that is that you don’t have to wait for your cinematographer to tell you the camera is rolling. You know the camera is rolling because there is a noise so loud that you can barely think. The disadvantage is that there is no way to record usable sound with the camera making that kind of racket. (For the record, the way I did the sound in Rum and Pancakes was to shoot “audio takes” without rolling film, and then painstakingly synchronize them in post.)
Back long ago during the olden days of studio film and television, the way around this problem was to put the camera inside a “blimp” – basically a giant case that would surround the entire camera in noise-dampening foam. They work great, the problem is that by necessity, they are ENORMOUS. (image of an Arri 16S next to its blimp, from arri16s.com) And even when they WERE usable, that still left the problem of the sound drifting out of sync with the picture. For a very long time, the only way sync could be preserved was to run an umbilical “PiloTone” cable between the camera and the sound recorder to keep the motors of the two devices from drifting apart.
Well, someone came along to change all that by inventing the crystal sync camera, which keeps the film going at a constant speed by regulating the camera motor with a quartz crystal, the same way a digital watch works. Who do we have to thank for such a wonderful thing? Bob Dylan.
You see, what happened was that when D.A. Pennebaker set out to make his landmark documentary Dont Look Back, he really didn’t want to have his sound crew and camera crew tied together by some stupid little cable. And so he hacked a watch crystal into his camera, and a new era was born.
At the same time, the camera makers were working on making their wonderful machines quieter, developing camera housings that absorbed their own noise (“self-blimped” cameras). The culmination of this research and development, at least in terms of Arri’s 16mm camera line, was the Arriflex 16SR, first released in 1975. The SR is a beautiful camera: quiet, lightweight, a breeze to load, and reliable. (Pictured: behind-the-scenes photo from Who Is Landyn Banx?)
The problem is that all that quiet dignity inside a 16SR comes with a hefty price tag; heavily-used SR1 packages routinely go for upwards of $15,000 on eBay. Lucky me, I pay my tuition and so I get to use it for FREE! The problem being that cameras sometimes break, or start acting up (or just get dirty inside) and need to go in for servicing. More on that in a moment. Right now I’m going to go on a tangent and tell you a little gothic mystery:
It was a dark and stormy Friday afternoon. The sun was shining, the birds were singing, the MCAD infestation of bunny rabbits all joined hands and engaged in intricate, synchronized frolicking in piles of strategically-placed daisy petals. And yet, somehow, it was dark, and it was stormy. I had just checked out the SR for the first weekend of shooting on Out the Window, and Matt was helping me cart it back to my apartment.
“Hmm. That’s strange,” said Matt.
“What’s that?” I replied.
“This box is labeled ‘Arri SR #2.'”
“But MCAD’s only got one SR.”
A chill wind swept across the courtyard. The bunnies dashed for cover. The clouds rolled in. Ravenous vultures circled overhead. A murder of crows took flight from a nearby tree, pursued by a winged shark of some kind.
“You mean… the winged shark, or…?”
“No, the SR.”
It wasn’t until I returned the camera on Monday that I discovered the secret: When I complained to Alex, the media tech in charge of the SR and such things about the presence of those godawful collapsible cores in the magazines instead of normal core rollers like God intended, he let it slip that MCAD did, in fact, have another SR—a broken SR, kept alive suspended in a jar in formaldehyde, from which he could harvest replacement parts if needed.
And so was solved the mystery of the extra Arriflex. Or so I thought.
You see, when I returned the SR, I also reported that poor Ingrid was dead (the SR batteries are all named after movie stars of yore), and that there was some kind of gunk on the leading edges of the shutter blades—the SR features a mirrored shutter that spins to expose the film, and the corners of the shutter had picked up some old grease. It wasn’t a problem, but it needed to be serviced at some point.
So Alex, with the best of intentions, took the camera to Cinequipt to have it cleaned. Problem is, Cinequipt was all backed up because these dudes are in town shooting a movie and apparently Cinequipt is doing their camera servicing for them, and so Friday rolled around and the camera wasn’t ready yet, and I was scheduled to shoot with it that weekend.
Baron Von Gingerich, understandably distraught by the news, pitched a little hissy fit in his bedroom, from where he marched forthwith to confer with the better angels of his nature, who advised him to burn the building down. The good Baron rationally elected instead to go plead with the media center for help and guidance.
And so it was that Alex revealed unto me the truth: Arriflex SR #1 actually worked, it just wasn’t in circulation, and if I was a good boy and didn’t blame him if my footage came back upside-down or something, I could have that camera for the weekend. Apparently what had happened was that MCAD used to have both cameras in circulation, and then a student dropped SR #1 and broke its lens, and it was taken out of circulation until its damage was assessed. The lens was replaced and the camera was sent to Arri for a repair estimate, where they were quoted the price of $10,000, even though the only problem was a minor “lazy shutter” issue that didn’t effect the operation of the camera. And so it got boxed up until the then-media tech quit and a new media tech came on who decided that the best thing to do was to just leave it out of circulation, and then there was a media tech who was a really nice guy but he was a digital video person and didn’t know anything about the SRs and so he probably just ignored it, and then Alex came on the job this year and inherited this pretty little problem.
Anyway, this whole post is just a long way of saying that due to a series of completely reasonable decisions, a perfectly good $20,000 camera package—not just the camera, but a 400-foot magazine, Zeiss zoom lens, matte box and filters—has been sitting unused in a storage room for upwards of three years, and this chills me to the very core of my being.
FADE TO BLACK