Filmmaker Ken G Hall predicted the future

BY MIGUEL GONZALEZ

From Film Monthly, July 1950. Original caption: 'Television in the USA – The “Cartoon Teletales” series on the ABC there, is the first American television session sponsored by an Australian firm, the Kiwi boot polish company.’

The introduction of new technologies is always disruptive, both for the users and particularly for those working in the ‘affected’ industry. Some resist the change, others embrace it. Some believe the new will simply replace the old, others foresee a new model of co-existence.

We can barely imagine what it was like for 19th century audiences when photography and cinema were first introduced. Sure, we’ve heard the anecdote about the Lumiere screenings that terrified audiences when they saw a train approaching, but these are mere legends for all of us who take the moving image for granted.

The same is true for each one of the major mass media introduced since. Radio, television, video games, the internet. Each one of them was welcomed with a mix of enthusiasm and fear – that they’d destroy their predecessors, that they’d be harmful for the audience, etc.

 

It’s 2013 yet we still have newspapers, radio, television, video games and an omnipresent internet delivering the content produced by all the ‘old’ media, anywhere, anytime.

When I discovered this 1950 article by Ken G Hall, talking about the future of television, it became clear that those people working in the film industry must have felt something very similar to the great challenge the big movie studios and broadcasters are still experiencing today – how to evolve from their traditional model to a new one that fulfills the needs of their audiences, and keeps the money rolling in.

Of particular interest is Hall’s description of live TV production – a stressful and imperfect process that unfortunately left no audiovisual record of those early shows for future generations.

The alignment and partnership between film and TV predicted by Hall 63 years ago made perfect sense and it was ultimately inevitable. Will history repeat itself in the digital age? Only time will tell; check back in 2076!

 

Dinner in the dark

One of Australia’s most prominent filmmakers gives his personal impressions of television, as well as some warnings and a few prophesies.

By Ken G Hall

(Originally published in The Film Monthly, July 1950)

‘And now we have dinner in the dark…!’

No, it isn’t the wail of some blackout-stricken Sydney suburbanite. It’s an agonised statement of fact, made by a television-conscious American.

But why is he screaming about having dinner in the dark? If he doesn’t like it, he needn’t do it.

Which is what you think, brother. The frantic wretch is screaming because screaming is what he feels like doing. And there’s nothing else that he can do.

The kids run most American households – as they do a good many Australian – and Television is something the kids of the US have gone for in a big way. Some of the best programmes are being aired at dinnertime, so Mum and Dad eat in the dark while Junior gulps his spinach, with both eyes glued on Hopalong Cassidy who is making it hot for the baddies on the luminous television screen.

Which brings us to the moot point: How dangerous is television – if not to the home – then to the motion picture as mass entertainment?

Personally, I believe television is a real danger – and one that it would be most unwise to regard lightly.

Of course, many people in the film industry do not share my point of view. And some of them are people for whose opinions I have high respect. But even that can’t alter my opinion, we must simply agree to disagree.

I don’t for a minute suggest that television will ring the death knell of the motion picture theatre. Man is gregarious and will always seek entertainment in company with large numbers of his fellows. The point is he won’t seek it so frequently when he can fill his leisure hours being entertained in his own home.

Television must eat into film theatre takings and consequently film grosses. If it only takes 10%, it will hurt. But I think it will take much more eventually.

And before someone calls me a Prophet of Pessimism, let me remind them of Variety’s recent re-publication of statements made by practically every film big shot period 1928, on the matter of the rise of the talking picture.

The roster included practically all the Industry Big Brass of the day – men like Samuel Goldwyn, Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, Louis B Mayer and a score more. All of them said, in effect, of the talkies – ‘This new fangled thing won’t last. It’s a seven day wonder and the public will never go for it.’

Then followed a lot of reasons why the silents were superior. It’s just as well they changed their minds!

The point is that all those very capable gentlemen are proven wishful thinkers. They didn’t WANT it to last because it was going to revolutionise their very comfortable businesses and face them with the expenditure of untold millions of dollars to equip studios and theatres for sound.

But they couldn’t stop sound – any more than we can stop television even if we were foolish enough to try.

Television, technically and otherwise, is in my view about where radio was in the middle twenties. Nobody was deeply interested; programmes were poor; reception was only fair.

It’s true that radio – even when it grew up – did not hurt the film business. But television is different – it’s visual. And there’s the rub.

‘Video will never get good films for telecasting’, runs an argument, ‘the film business will never give it those films’.

Maybe – but so what? They’ll make their own. And that’s what I’m getting at – this is the kernel of this apparently destructive preamble.

Television is a motion picture technique. It must belong to the film industry.

From Film Monthly, July 1950. Original caption: 'Television in Britain – physiotheraphy demonstration at Alexandra Palace.’

I have had the opportunity of seeing television production. I spent days in the BBC’s Alexandra Palace in London watching television shows produced. I saw it again in the States. And with twenty years’ experience of film production behind me, I say that it is, apart from the electronic side of it, purely and simply a motion picture technique.

It is the matter of putting an entertainment before an audience by means of a camera and a microphone.

That the entertainment comes over the ether rather than out of a standard projector is not important.

Watching the BBC put a 40-minute playlet on the air amazed me. It was all about a submarine which sank and marooned her crew on the ocean bed. Cameras were running on three different sets in the studio and a fourth on a miniature sub in a tank.

The producer, a very harassed man, with his technicians cut from camera to camera as the action of the play demanded.

Someone else was putting in the musical backgrounds as required and another party was hoping that his sound effects and ‘noises off’ were hitting the right spots.

A bunch of technical boys were handling the electrical side of getting what the cameras and microphones recorded on to the air. Down on the stage, actors, sound engineers and boom operators were sweating with a fright that someone would fluff or miss a cue and wreck the whole show.

It was nerve-wracking even for me, an onlooker.

Everybody was sweating in that cold climate. Everybody was strung up to breaking point in constant fear that something, somewhere, would go wrong.

I suggest that neither actors, producer nor technicians would give a very good performance under those conditions. They wouldn’t be human if they could.

I had the unique experience, sitting beside the producer, of watching what was going on the air on the several screens in front of us and also watching the action itself down on the stage and round about.

And, as I said earlier in this piece, I was amazed – lost in wonder.

Why didn’t they put it on film? I’m still asking myself the question.

They’d rehearsed the show for, I was told, three weeks – probably two or three sessions a week. A good film production crew would have put that simple, confined short subject in the box in two full shooting days – three at the most. There was nothing to it technically – simplicity itself.

When the submarine sank in its tank it looked on the television screen exactly what it was – a model. Unable to drive the television camera that photographed it up to slow motion speed, the miniature went down in ordinary motion in a series of quick, jerky jumps which provided not the faintest suggestion of realism. Any self-respecting movie cameraman would have jumped over the Gap with the shame of it.

But it didn’t need to be that way. Putting that little story on film would have obviated all the hitches and a thousand other difficulties.

But perhaps more important, by using film, they’d had that play, which came and went in 40 minutes, on permanent record, for presentation over a hundred other stations if necessary this year, next year, or in twenty years’ time!

I believe that the vast bulk of television programmes of the future will come off film. It’s happening now, of course, and will build and continue to build.

It’s obvious that it has to. And that’s why I don’t think that television will be any serious blow to the production side of motion pictures. It might, indeed, prove a great boon, at least to the men who work in production.

If the film industry does not seek and secure control of television – and I suggest it must – the video people themselves will in turn go after the technicians trained in the motion picture field as opposed to radio technicians.

There’s practically nothing the movie producer and technical will have to learn except the electronic side of getting the show on the air. And I would suggest that there are not today many motion picture sound engineers who do not know the complete theory of television backwards. They need only the opportunity of practical application of it.

It stands to reason that a well-trained newsreel cameraman with years of experience behind him, will cover a news story or a sporting event immeasurably better than a newcomer, probably a good radio technician, who has suddenly had a camera thrust in his hands.

To me the following extract from Time Magazine of May 15, 1950, is truly significant:

 

BEGINNING OF THE END

Baltimore last week became the first US city in which more people watched evening television (50.5%) than listened to radio (49.8%). Just a year ago, according to Researcher CE Hooper, the figures were 85% for radio, 18% for TV.

Time did not even add a query to its caption of that story. But whether it is correct in its assumption, only time can tell.

But whatever way it goes I will continue to reiterate that television is essentially a motion picture technique that should be in the control of the motion picture industry.
Film is the only true answer to television’s programme problem.

Just as the gramophone disc – thousands upon thousands of them stacked in the libraries of every radio station in the world – is the backbone of radio today, so will the film be the backbone of video. It can’t possibly put on live shows 12 or 24 hours a day. It must have a library, not of solid wax discs containing music and sound alone, but of living, moving, talking film.

With which remark, having dropped enough bricks, I am content to sit back temporarily – and wait for the bombs to explode!