David Samuelson – on Film and Videotape

The April 1982 Issue of Cinema Papers that included ‘Channels TV-Videotape’ magazine and my New Products and Processes section featuring a story about David Samuelson’s front projection equipment that was being demonstrated here. Clearly my interest was more in the switch to video production tools then what was really a SFX (Special Effects) tool from an older filmmaking tradition where rear projection gave us innumerable sound studio dialogue scenes in cars with shaky moving backgrounds. In TV the chroma-key process replaced that and was adopted with a sigh of relief that echoed through the video studio, until someone said ‘let’s just shoot it on location’. This was about a few pivot points in media production and that’s why the interview is archived here. 

The section also covered new Bell & Howell Super8 cameras (gasp!) an OKI NTSC to PAL TV Standards converter, a new Panasonic VHS edit deck and new U-Matic system, Daymax HMI lights with a 400hr warranty, a note about David and Tod Pride’s computer controlled camera rigs, and a Sony education video package.

David was warm and friendly, had been told that I was an apparatus ‘enthusiast’ and didn’t mind my wordy questions/opinions that prompted his replies (something I only noticed as I was laying this out.)

David Samuelson, technical author (he writes regularly for American Cinematographer magazine and has written two excellent books in the Focal Press Media Manuals series on the equipment and techniques of Motion Picture Cameras and Lighting), and he is a partner in  the worldwide equipment rental company Samuelsons. He was in Australia late last year to introduce his development of a new front projection system.

“I was born into the industry in the silent days and started as a boy in the projection room. I then went to the cutting room, became a cameraman and finally found myself in the equipment business. But until this day, I am a working filmmaker. Last July, I did some filming of the Royal Wedding in St Paul’s Cathedral.”

FH. Was that as a conscious effort to keep your hand in?

“Yes. Movietone, where I worked for 19 years, was making a film version of the wedding. They needed cameramen experienced in 35mm and in the old manners of newsreel cameramen that Australia knows well. They felt it was better to take an oldie out of retirement, who may have been rusty using a camera but whom they trusted. It is like riding a bicycle: once you have learnt . .” .

FH. It is interesting that there was still a demand for a film newsreel-style record of an event that had had worldwide live television coverage . . .

“There are a number of countries which don’t have television, or didn’t take all of the coverage, so there is still a need for film newsreels. And the Central Office of Information still supplies film to a number of overseas countries, particularly South America, India and South Africa.”

FH. In the future, our recorded history will be on videotape, instead of film. This will mean future study and use will be of essentially low-resolution images. It was pointed out, for example, that at the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan all the news crews were Electronic News Gathering (ENG) television
crews. And by the time the stop motion freeze frames reached Australia by satellite, and were recorded and replayed, the information content, although dramatic, was just a blur. The only images that were sharp were the still press and magazine photos. This, I feel, will leave a great gap in our visual history. . .

“Not only that, but a great deal of history is not covered in depth. Newsreel cameramen today take maybe three shots and are lucky if two of them are used. How often on television today do you get even a three-minute segment. You get maybe two minutes of what is happening, rather than someone talking about it.

The other worrying thing is how long videotape is going to last; how long is the gum going to keep the metal oxide stuck to the backing. And once that gum has perished, you end up with a can of metal filings. It depends on how it is stored, as I understand it.

This also obviously touches on Samuelsons’ future as a film equipment rental company. How are you approaching the growing use of videotape?

The more videotape there is, the more videodisc and cassettes, the more direct broadcast satellites and cables, the more outlets, then the more demand there is for material. In its wake, the greater demand there is for film.”

FH. As an originating source?

“Yes. And, of course, at the top end of the market there is still the cinema. Although more and more films will be made with the television outlet in mind, they really have to use the cinema outlet because that is where they get their publicity; where they become famous.
Once a film is on for a few weeks or month’s, and is written up in papers, it gets big word-of-mouth publicity. People know about Gone With the Wind, Raiders of the Lost Ark or Superman, but name me a five-year-old television play.”

FH. You don’t think this will change with films being released first on cable?

“This is obviously a concern. The publicity of a film release carries on over into the time when it is a cable program or a cassette. If you were to make Gone With the Wind for television, would anybody have ever heard of it two weeks later?”

FH. I am sure the companies are looking at this aspect with, for example, the simultaneous release of “9 to 5” in theatres and on cassette, where the publicity can have a dual role and reach different audiences. . .

“Here we have an interesting situation, because of all the plays recently to make an impact on British television, A Town Like Alice made the greatest. Partly, this was because it ran for four nights, but mainly because it was very good. People were saying, “Did you see it?” or “Are you watching A Town Like Alice?” It got an unusual amount of word-of-mouth. But it has been shown once and it is gone. People can’t say, “Tonight I fancy seeing A Town Like Alice.” It is gone until it is scheduled again.

It would be interesting to see if a program like that, with the word-of mouth and good publicity it got, could carry over into another type of outlet. But very little television gets the fame cinema product does, and so you can afford to put money into cinema that you couldn’t in television. You know that film is going to live for 20 years.”

FH. Do you have plans to widen Samuelsons’ film base into the video area?

“We are planning to move into video. We are feeling our way in London, in that we are trying something new, which is dry hire, renting out C format broadcast quality equipment — Sony BV330 cameras, Ampex and Sony one-inch VTRs — without a technician. It is despatched in rigidized silver boxes in the same way as film equipment. Of course, all the ancillary equipment is the same, such as dollies, etc.

The next step, for Panavision and ourselves, will be a video camera that accepts standard film facilities: the Panacam. That is a likely trend for people such as commercial makers who like to
operate with the focus-pulling techniques they are used to, the same way of working with an operator and assistant that they do on film. That is one of the ways we see things going, particularly for commercials. One day they will ring up and order a Panaflex and the next day the same crew will order the Panacam.

We won’t be getting into trucks and broadcast vans because we think that will go with the new equipment. The whole business of truckloads of gear being unnecessary was the same thing that happened to sound recording when the Nagra came in. I remember when if you shot sound on location, a big truck was parked outside and cables went up walls and across roofs and into windows
and the soundman ruled the roost and actually switched the film camera on and off.

All that disappeared with the coming of the Nagra. The small VPR units will have the same impact. The only use for the large vans would be for an outside
broadcast, and certainly not for a commercial.”

FH. I wonder at the value of imitating film equipment when the design of the ENG video equipment is so advanced. Is it a way of encouraging greater use of videotape with crews which are reluctant to use it for commercials or which are used to feature film work? What is the balance of commercial hire as against feature work?

“They are both important to us; the same people do both. Top cameramen, such as Freddie Young and Doug Slocombe, do commercials when they are not doing features — the same as your people do here. You get top talent working on the same equipment, and it is checked out with the same love and care. And the charges are the same.

The ratio of commercials to features varies all the time. Nearly all the big special effects films from all over the world were made in Britain last year. Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Empire Strikes Back, Clash of the Titans, Outland, Excalibur — all were made at roughly the same time, so you tend very much to feature hire for that period.

In 1981, you got a balance because there was hardly anything going and the commercials were very important. The threatened strike of directors in the U.S. really killed that year for filmmaking, and we are just beginning to get over it. In early 1982, we see ourselves busy again with the new James Bond film, there is Superman III, the new Star Wars and another big special effects film called Dragons of Krull — all running at more orless the same time.”

FH.That is very busy for an (British) industry people say is dead . . .

“Yes. I have a running battle with people who say the British film industry is dead. I say, “Well, Superman and Superman 11 left 20 million pounds in Britain on below-the-line costs. How many Carry On Up the Khybers do you have to make to earn that sort of money?”

“Ah, but it doesn’t show British life,” they say. Well, The Deer Hunter was a 100 per cent British-financed film. Does that show British life?”

FH. How active is Samuelsons with new product development like the Louma3 and the new front projection rig?

“That is my side of the business. I am an inveterate inventor and a very lucky person because I have the facilities to do that sort of thing, and an outlet for the devices I come up with. It has always been my dream to devise a front projection system. I could never do it because I didn’t have a process projector
and I wasn’t prepared to spend tens of thousands of pounds on an old Mitchell process projector and then make something of It. Then one night I had an Idea of how to turn an obsolete camera into a process projector. Having made that up, the development of the rig was straightforward.

The Louma started when a couple of young French guys came to Samuelsons with the basic idea. They had put a camera on the end of what could only be described as an outsized microphone
boom; it was originated to make a film in a submarine. I suggested putting a television viewfinder on the camera with a remote control, as we had already done for Ryan’s Daughter. So, we developed it, and all three of us received a technical Academy Award for our contributions.

Now I am busy In London on 3D. Comin’ at Ya’ is a big success in the U.S. and I read in Variety, a couple of weeks ago, that there were 10 3D films in production — and that didn’t include the one Roman Polanski may direct, for the producer of Being There.”

FH. So your system just requires polarized glasses?

“Yes. That’s not new; it is how you link the two cameras and how you project it. This is my new toy for 1982. Front projection was last year’s.

One has to keep up-to-date, and it is a philosophy of our company that we like to innovate. That is the way we keep ahead of everyone else and how the industry keeps ahead of television. You
have to give cinemagoers something more than they can get from television. You still need good scripts and craftsmanship, though. I saw Outland last night and, apart from being good entertainment, it was a fine piece of craftsmanship.”

FH. I was reading in ‘Cinefx’ a description of the front projection system that was used for “Outland” . . .

“Yes, the system is called Introvisión. It is a complicated system with limited
uses. Certainly on Outland they put it to good use. I have seen a commercial here starring a garden gnome, and l suspect it was done that way.”

FH. I think you will find that was an Ultimatte chroma-key on videotape. That is how we have had to work for trick effects. Now that your front projection system is available, there should be an immediate application in commercial work . . .

The Samcine Front Projection System.

“We hope it will be a lot less expensive than chroma key. The ability to film edit should be cheaper also.”

FH. The man who developed the Introvisión system commented that if he really hated somebody he would give them a simple description of how his system worked and let them go away and tear their hair out for three years trying to make it function . . .

“Yes, there is a lot not written about the amount of anguish expended sorting it out, and we don’t want to hand it on a plate to everyone else. I have applied for some patents, but whether I would spend money protecting them is another matter.

We have a lot of innovative ideas in our system, but primarily we are trying to be the opposite end of the market to systems like Introvisión. We are trying to take the bullshit out of front projection.

Front projection has been around for 10 years and has built up this mystique and specialization around it. I am trying to say that it is a very special matte box that fits on the camera that puts backgrounds in. You can use your ordinary dolly and ordinary geared head, and you can shoot In a room like this. With a piece of 3M screen material behind me, you could “film” this Interview in New York.

You should be able to go from normal shots to process in 20 minutes, just like changing from an Elemack to a Fischer dolly. You should be able to swap back and forth easily. I hope that as well as using it like chroma key, adding foregrounds and backgrounds, people will use it simply to fill in windows and doorways, to transpose a location.

There is a company in London called World Backgrounds which has a library of stock shots of everywhere in the world. If you wanted to have a Bangkok or Rocky Mountains background, you don’t have to go there to shoot plates. You just say to these people, “Send me 100 feet of the Rocky Mountains”, and it should be on the next plane. They have a remarkable collection and l hope we can get together to supply their materials, because part of the idea is to have available backgrounds. I look upon it as a background machine.”

(The Louma crane was used for the first time in Australia by Melbourne commercials director / cinematographer Ian Baker used it on a Datsun Bluebird commercial (see Technicalities in Cinema Papers, No. 33, pp 272-75).