Ron Ford

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Interview Date(s): 
27 Jan 1998
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[Notes supplied by Rodney Giesler.]


SIDE ONE [45 minutes]

Born Portsmouth 14.8.1921, father in the navy, served on the Royal Yacht. An unhealthy childhood, father always away, money very tight so left school at 14 and had a 14-mile paper round. Came to London; first job with Lagonda in Staines, then Ferris the cycle maker. Joined General Aircraft at start of war building read ends for Spifires; went down the mines at the end of the war. Part time job making camera mounts; wrote to 48 film studios, and offered a job at Nettlefold Studios maintaining cameras and editing equipment. Ernest Roy was the Managing Director. Warwick films hired him from the studio to go to the Antarctic for Hell Below Zero in 1952. Based on an ice-breaker. Problems of keeping the cameras rolling in very low temperatures. Supplying 110 volts on ice. Shooting on the glacier. More on Nettlefold. Early video monitor on a Debrie [camera]. Became a “body in the cupboard” on a Paul Temple film. Problems with new cameras. Cameramen there: Ted Moore, John Willcocks, Jack Hillyard. Working on The Adventures of Robin Hood TV series. Work overload made him move to Warwick at MGM Borehamwood in 1955. Was his own boss; Irving Allen interfered Ron suggested to company that they hire out idle cameras. Made a lot of money, set up his own company, Ronford and bought his first Arriflex.

SIDE TWO [45 minutes, 45 seconds]

When Warwick folded, Ron raised a loan to buy their camera equipment, which he paid off in 26 months. Took on Arthur Armitage, trained by MGM, and Peter Young. When MGM closed, he moved to Shepperton. Anticipated the arrival of colour television: bought 6 Arriflex 16BLs and never looked back. BBC a major client. How the Ronford fluid head and tripods were developed in collaboration with Harry Baker. Experiences with Moviecam. Arriflex provided superb back-up. The move into video. Video equipment became obsolete so quickly. Late payment – a disease in the industry. Technical innovations, synch motors etc. More recollections of Nettlefold. Trapped in a blimp. Unusual working conditions at Nettlefold. Made 27 pictures a year in those days. Never had to look for a job. Problems on 2001. Working with Stanley Kubrick. Worked with Gerry Anderson on Thunderbirds. Once saw a nitrate fire.

SIDE THREE [19 minutes 37 seconds]

Designed and built camera rig for Loch Ness Monster search. Working conditions at Nettlefold. Good relationship with Archibald Nettlefold. Union membership easy because of shortage of skilled people post-war. No set hours of work. Union rates pushed his wage from £4.50 to £14.50. Became a shop steward at Warwick. Experiences of working on High Flight in Cyprus. Interference from EOKA. [Greek Cypriot Nationalist movement] More on the Antarctic.



Inventor of new types of camera tripods and heads

Article by Ray Sturgess, copyright Eyepiece magazine1980, as is the coda about Ron's company..

The year 1980 marked the twentyfifth anniversary of Ron Ford's highly regarded and well established company. Without doubt Ron is one of the leading experts in maintaining and hiring Arriflex equipment, and his twenty-five years of hard work in the film industry represents only part of a busy working life. However, it represents a substantial period devoted to looking after our 'bread and butter' machines, designing equipment and seeing that it functions properly.

His interest started when working for an aircraft company during the war. He was engaged in making parts for a Technicolor 'gun' for the aircraft rear-- gunner. The company supplied the Technicolor engineers with these parts, and in doing so became involved with photographic equipment. Ron's 'shooting' days thus commenced before he actually came into the business.

When hostilities ceased Ron got the job in charge of maintenance at the old Nettlefold Studios at Walton-onThames. Many will recall this plant as the original studio where Cecil Hepworth made his 10- to 15-minute features in the silent days, and until the studio closed down to make way for a supermarket some of the old stage was still there.
Back to Ron: he was not only responsible for the camera equipment but for that of the cutting rooms and back projection as well. He told me, despite the ulcers, it was the best way, in one respect, to gain proficiency in one's trade, and he does not regret the difficulties and upsets to health he experienced. "Nettlefold's" he told me, "was at the time one of the best training grounds for camera technicians, making about thirty pictures a year. The fact can be proved by citing the large number of top cameramen who started the really formative years of their careers at this wonderful old studio, and names like Jack Asher, Mike Reed, Ken Hodges, Arthur Grant and Jack Hildyard can be associated with Nettlefold (not forgetting, of course, that most lovable man, their resident camera man, the late Geoff Faithful). After a brilliant career as one of this country's most brilliant operators. Jack Hildyard made one of his first features as light ing cameraman at Walton. Knowing Jack's character, the picture's title, 'The First Gentleman', seems quite appro priate."

There were three stages, all con stantly occupied, so Ronnie's work as maintenance engineer must have appeared endless. In that post-war period he attempted, with notable success, to build up the camera depart ment. It had, up until that time, become known as a studio where, lacking as it did many of the facilities that enabled the major studio to provide everything at one's fingertips, camera crews had to improvise. His fight now started to produce workable results and to give . J visiting technicians at least a little more service than they had previously come to expect, and often he was successful in providing facilities as good as they could get in any major studio.

The camera room was a sort of coffin-shaped affair, utterly windowless, and he soon found out that the Nettlefold Camera Dept was not the golden department of the studio. Pride of place in that regard was reserved for Sound department — at least accountancy-wise, as it made more money through Transfers etc. Money going for improve ments was not directed toward his particular 'baby'.

One of his first tasks was to service an old model L Parvo Debrie. To open the blimp it was necessary to insert a large handle in the socket on one side, and turn smartly. This divided the blimp through the centre and its top half was ratcheted up to allow for removal of the camera. Ron, poor sod, was not to know that the rack on its ratchet was damaged, so he wound up the blimp (failing to notice its resemblance to a hungry crocodile), inserted his head to find out why it was so stiff to operate; you can imagine the rest. . . The top half of the blimp broke through its damaged ratchet and crashed on to his neck, enclosing his head, which was trapped in a heavy lead-lined box for two hours. . . more ulcers. His shouts were in vain, as any calls for HELP were silenced, of course, owing to his head being well blimped.

Later came the studio front-line camera, the 1000 foot Super Parvo Blimped Debrie, which ran in an oil bath. The registration movement of the Debrie had a higher technical design than any other movement today. Not only did the registration pins withdraw every frame, the pressure plate was also set on four springs that were set evenly to press the film to the gate. The claw was something to see also. As it rose retracted, it was carried perfectly square to the gate by a type of cam, to enter again at that perfect angle. A wonderful camera — "when working correctly".

Ronnie remembers when the studio was making 'Little Ballerina', with Margo Fonteyne, the shots involved 900 foot takes. One Super Parvo would run perfectly for 800 ft and then jam. Through the rest of the following four weeks he tried everything to correct this fault, and then in desperation, and against the advice of technicians more competent than himself he honed Vi a millimetre off the register pins, and they were away (albeit with slightly larger ulcers).

Comments during this period from the management:

1. When asked for more testing equip ment to help cure the faults, "As long as it costs no more than thirty bob, get it".

2. After enquiries had been made regarding new camera equipment; having found out no-one would supply (as there were bills outstanding) the reply was: "They not only want our orders, they want paying as well!"

3. And: "Your main task in the studio is not the servicing of cameras, cutting rooms, and back projection. It is keeping furious Producers out of office".

Apart from his service duties, Ronnie was given a break as an operator for two weeks on a Tom Walls feature, the operator of which picture was away sick. He also assisted me for a couple of days on an old Vinten Everest camera, and that was the sum total of his 'floor' experiences, unless, of course, you except his role as the 'body' in the Paul Temple series "The one that was
found in the cupboard". He got paid £3 a picture for this cameo until the time he was left suspended upsidedown in a sack for two hours and over twenty-four takes. After this he handed the casting over to Equity. He did not appear in any more Paul Temple series.

Warwick Films were going into pro duction with a picture in the Antartic, 'Hell Below Zero', and they asked for Ron to go out into the cold to service their Mitchells and Arriflexes. The Arriflex, being a development of the first German combat camera, had a fibre gate at the time and it was prone to scratch ing. On his advice the company took three Arris with them. In the sub-zero conditions it wasn't easy. After one complete roll had been exposed, the Arri had to be taken down and cleaned. The gate had to be beeswaxed while the second one went into action on the picture. When this had finished its allotted roll of film, it in turn had to be inspected and cleaned in the same way as number one, and the third camera was put to use.

However, when the steel gate came in, his interest in this foreign product developed. He found that it was the most serviceable camera, and much the easiest for spare parts, especially for a hiring company — the formation of which he had been considering. It wasn't long before he took the plunge and in the process became the expert he is. His experience and know-how of the Arri has kept pace with every develop ment and modification. He still says it is the finest camera to maintain and hire out.

A year or two passed by after his Antarctic jaunt, and he was again approached by Warwick, who offered him a job at the old and now sadly extinct MGM studios at Elstree. Not everyone saw it as a wise move: "You're in a regular job, when Warwick finish their productions you'll be un employed" opined the Jeremiahs. How ever, he took up the offer, but at the same time set up his own hiring com pany in his 'shop' at MGM. Apart from looking after Warwick's Mitchells, he had his own Arriflex concern and by keeping his eggs in more than one basket could feel reasonably secure. With the coming of the steel gate his maintenance capability made a quantum jump, his enthusiasm the keener now that the camera became more and more trouble-free. Headaches were disappear ing. In 1955 Ron Ford Ltd was the nameplate over the door and when MGM closed down in 1970 he moved his shingle over to Shepperton where, with his competent crew, the workshop is well and truly established. Righthand men Peter Young and Arthur Armitage have been with him for well over fiheen years, proof that he is no mean hand when it comes to labour relations.

The first B L Arri was delivered to Ron Ford Ltd., and this, as is every other new model, was taken down and scrupulously examined in order that every member of the company become familiarised with each of the camera's working parts.
Now came the FLUID HEAD, which was his 'brainchild'. The original concept of this excellent piece of equipment was entirely Ron's, but, honest as he is, he admits that he did not actually build it. He engaged Harry Baker, a highly skilled engineering designer, to carry out the job and in 1966 formed an engineering company with Harry as the chief designer of the new head, and Manager. Today, with the increasing demand for sub-Standard equipment Ronnie tells me that he is involved with more 16 mm cameras than 35 mm, and most of his work reflects the popu larity of that format.

He has now built up a thoroughly flourishing concern. For RON FORD Ltd, 1979 was the most successful audited year to date.* One hopes that it proved a happy augury for his anniver sary year, 1980, and that when the figures are in all those high expectations were, as one suspects them to be, well founded.

Such success should attend the high standards of anyone who provides consistently efficient service, plus a desire to help and an abundance of good humour; all part of "the old Arri Forders".


Ronford Limited, as the title suggests was formed by Ron Lord, B.K.S.T.S. member and noted camera technician, in 1955. The Company ran a small but highly successful Camera hire service until 1966, when an Engineering division was formed and Harry Baker was engaged as Designer and Manager. He writes:

Accessories to the camera had been a thorn in the side of hire services for some time. The talents of Camera manufacturers seemed to end after they had designed wonderful pieces of equipment, and complaints grew over the camera's operating practicality. New directors were coming up with more exact ing demands for the cameramen to carry out, so our first step was to design and manufacture a reliable tripod that could be operated in any conditiori without having to be serviced. A stainless steel metal tripod with patented locking was evolved in two weights; one for cameras of the Mitchell kind and . another for those of the Arriflex-type specifications. These tripods proved an immediate success, especially with motion pictures like 'Ryan's Daughter' where they were used for long periods semi-immersed in sea water.

Next the universal low angle tripod was manufactured, whilst Mr. Baker designed the Fluid Fifteen Camera head for 16 mm cameras or light-weight 35 mm's. This head is now very much in demand by cameramen as they can compute almost any shot according to whatever lens they are using. Enough drag can be engaged to allow the slowest creep, even with a' 1000 mm lens on the camera, the fluid manufacturer's working temperature specification is +150°F to -40°F. We have been able to confirm these are accurate working figures. Only recently we received word from a cameraman working under extremely adverse conditions in temperatures of minus 30° F. The Fluid Head, apparently behaved normally, with no increased drag variance, despite the harsh demands made on it-

Our next Head was the 16 mm Fluid Two, which gives a light fluid control to a whip^pan, plus a heavier drag, when required, for a zoom lens, this Head had to be as light as possible as it was made especially for the Eclair A.C.L. 16 mm camera. It has proved ideal for other very light cameras like the Cannon Scoopic. From this we advanced to the Fluid Seven, a swing head pivoted to accept the balance of the N.P.R. Eclair 16 mm camera. The camera being in balance, only seven variations of fluid are needed for full control.

Attention must be drawn to the one thing insisted upon; the design of our equipment had to be such, that with normal use, little or no maintenance would be required for many years. This has been achieved with the Fluid 15 and Stainless Steel Tripods. Very few have come back for repair/servicing — a built-in design concept translated into gratifying reality. r.f: