Tim Emblem-English (TE)
Archive Telecine Specialist, Former BBC Broadcast Engineer
Interviewers: Paul Frith (PF) & Carolyn Rickards (CR)
CR: So we’re here with an interview today with Tim Emblem-English. Thank you very much for agreeing to do an interview with our project team.
TE: My pleasure.
CR: We’re going to run through a couple of questions about your career, about your background and so on. Before we do, I wondered if you could just give a few brief… a brief biography, basically, of yourself, your career to date and sort of where you’ve moved from in your career. And then we’ll move on to just talking about a couple of other more specific questions.
TE: OK. Right, well my working life began after leaving school with A Levels and I joined the meteorological office, first off. I’d always had an interest in the weather and weather forecasting so I got a job as an assistant scientific officer with the Met Office and was posted to their headquarters in Bracknell, as it was then, and I found myself in the department that dealt with wind and sunshine record keeping, and archiving and statistics and that sort of thing. I’d of loved to have got into their instruments and gadgets and technical division and I kept an eye on that while I was there but they were going through reorganising and changes and I could see that it wasn’t really going to happen. By coincidence, chatting with a neighbour who worked at the BBC in radio, he mentioned to me that they were running a recruitment drive for trainee engineers and, if I was interested, he’d get me some paperwork and forms and that sort of thing. So I said “Well, yes. Why not have a look and see what it’s all about.” And so, the upshot was that, after three years with the Met Office, I changed career and joined the BBC as a technical assistant – so, trainee engineer. And, at the time, all I knew was that they were recruiting for posts in television in London, so that would have been, really, Television Centre and Lime Grove, as they were, in White City. So, I was taken on and was posted to TV Centre and found myself in, what was then called, television recording department which nowadays we call post-production. That encompassed videotape operations and telecine and film work and transmission and that sort of thing. So that’s the department I found myself in as much by luck as judgement and it’s where I stayed for the next 34 and a half-odd years with the BBC in the post-production department through its various incarnations and changes of name and status and so forth. I eventually wound up being their archive telecine specialist for what by then had become BBC Studios and Post-Production Ltd., previously BBC Resources, and so forth. With the move out of Television Centre, when that closed in 2013, our department moved to premises in South Ruislip, close by Northolt Aerodrome, and became Digital Media Services Division of Studios and Post-Production where we were concerned with… there wasn’t much programme making in the day-to-day business of broadcasting anymore, but more with digitising of archive collections and film restoration and transfers of material, certainly film material for programmes, as needed. And also, of course, commercial operation because Studios and Post-Production was a commercial off-shoot of the BBC and was expected to make money commercially which was then fed-back into programme making. So, we were there for three years at South Ruislip and then the BBC Studios and Post-Production management could see that Digital Media Services, for all its usefulness, wasn’t actually making enough money to justify its continued existence. So, the decision was taken to close the entire department down and either relocate or offer redundancy or whatever to the staff. So I didn’t fancy ending up being an edit assistant at Elstree working on EastEndersand things like this because, by then, a lot of productions had moved to Manchester and Salford, and so there wasn’t what there was in London, and TV Centre had closed. So I opted to take the money and run. Take an early pension and run. And, as it happened, the BBC made me an offer to take all the equipment and run which is what you see around you here [TE refers to the equipment at The Flying Spot]. So I was able to make a clean break. I found premises here at Stockroom, London, here in Royal Arsenal, and I’ve been able to basically reconstruct my little corner of the BBC as my own business now, at The Flying Spot Ltd., as a traditional, unashamedly retro, telecine archive transfer operation. And, here we are in Royal Arsenal, Woolwich.
CR: Yeah, and just to say, it’s a fantastic venue. It’s a great office and it is a bit like a nostalgia trip, like stepping back in time slightly.
TE: I’ve landed in the right place, yes. The mind-set of the whole operation here very much fits in with what I do.
CR: Great, thank you for that. Can you talk a little bit more about, once you made the move from the Met Office to the BBC, can you describe your early roles there? So, the type of work you did and also the work of the Post-Production Department.
TE: When I started at the BBC, as a trainee engineer technical assistant, the Post-Production, or Television Recording Department, was really where anything and everything to do with video tape operations and editing, and day-to-day broadcasts, transmissions from tape and from film, came from. There wasn’t any of the desk-top editing facilities that we find nowadays so, if you were going to video edit your programme, you came to Post-Production. The telecine department was involved really with day-to-day transmission, live transmissions from film to air, for things like feature films and documentaries, and such like, and also with film play-ins to studios, film inserts to studios. The exteriors of sitcoms, and the like, would be shot on film and then played into the studio on cue, and that sort of thing. Film editing and production was concentrated mainly at Ealing Film Studios, which was Television Film Studios in those days. So, from the film aspect, Post-Production, the Telecine Department, was really the last part of the chain and was the transmission end of the operation. So I was involved in all aspects of that. My natural affinity was with the film side of things so I dealt with that. So, yeah, I was involved in everything from live transmissions of feature films, with two telecine channels back-to-back doing automatic changeovers every 20 minutes or so between reels, and play-ins to the studios, and that sort of things. One operation I was introduced to which, at the time, I had no idea was continuing was tele-recording which was based at Lime Grove Studios in those days and I took to that very much and I became ‘Mr Tele-recording’ for a good many years – involved with that. In fact, I can claim to be the BBC’s last ever tele-recording engineer. I was with that operation through its various reincarnations until it closed down in the mid-‘90s, so I was ‘Mr Tele-recording’. At Lime Grove Studios we also had the film play-ins to programmes like Nationwide and Newsnight came from there, so that was very much seat-of-the-pants broadcasting because the films would be delivered perhaps 15 minutes before transmission and you’d lace them up on the machine and just hope that everybody had the right cues in the right places and everything would match. So, very much seat-of-the-pants sort of thing. Obviously, Post-Production as a department evolved over the years and, you know, different techniques and processes came along so, for a while, the live transmission off film ceased, I think, in 1988, from memory, and that coincided with some accommodation moves in TV Centre as well. So, after that date, feature films would be prepared on video tape and transmitted from tape to air. In the ‘90s, we had quite a lot of work, sort of, film post-production electronically gained more of a style so using machines to this one we have here [at The Flying Spot]. We would do post-production of film programmes and drama series and that sort of thing, which would have been edited off-line and then conformed, and the negatives or the prints graded and the finished programmes compiled and completed on video tape for transmission. So there was plenty of that. We also used to deal with daily negative rushes, particular in the later-‘90s, when drama series’, like Lovejoy, In Between the Lines, and many of those sort of long-running series were still being filmed on film but the negatives were then telecined, they didn’t make prints, all the editing was done electronically, but we’d have the first port of call for the daily rushes, negative transfers and syncing up the sound, and that sort of thing. So, I did plenty of that. Sound syncing on a device called a SADiE, and the daily negative transfers. That started to die-down by about the turn of the century because shooting on video on location was more of a thing. Our then head of the Telecine Department, team leader, suggested I might like to take more of an active role in dealing with film archives and external clients from that world, which I was only too happy to do as it fitted in with my sensibilities and mind-set. So that’s how I really developed into becoming the archive’s specialist for S&PP up until the end.
CR: So you talked there about some of the key changes that were happening in the telecine process over the years that you worked there. Can you describe a bit more about the team that you worked with and about the working environment of the BBC during the 1980s and early-‘90s?
TE: Yes, in the 1980s and ‘90s, BBC Television had a strictly two-shift kind of operation who worked on, not quite alternate days, but a repeating seven days in a fortnight kind of rota. So you had these two shifts who never actually met each other and if you happened to come in on an off-shift day it was a bit like something out of The Twilight Zone in that the surroundings are all the same but there’s a strange load of people here and they do things slightly differently. So it was all a bit unsettling almost. So we had these two distinct shifts of staff. The telecine department probably numbered about thirty people per shift all told. Video tape was considerably larger because you included all the video editors and people, so that was about sixty or seventy people to a shift. That was a much bigger department in those days but, still, there was about thirty people on the telecine shift. You’d be split into, normally three shifts in terms of time. So, early start about 8 o’clock, intermediate shift staring about 10 which was usually involved with the studio play-ins because that fitted in with the hours that the studios worked, and then a late shift coming in at midday, or perhaps later, to cover the evening transmissions mainly which would go on until close-down whenever that would be on a particular day. So yes, there was a big team of people and you’d be involved in various operations through the day. So if you’re on transmissions you’d probably stick with a telecine channel or pair of machines for that day’s transmissions going out through there. If you’re doing studio play-ins you’d be allocated to that particular job and would stay with it until the studio was finished, That often involved a lot of sitting around and waiting for cues because if they’re endlessly rehearsing the cameras and activity in the studio, and you’ve just got the opening titles perhaps and mid-programme exterior scene to play-in, then it’s just a case of having everything cued up and just waiting for the shout in the [unintelligible] and reading a book in between times, that sort of thing. As time went on, the two-shift system was broken down and you all started to mix together and so got to know the other shift and rotas became more flexible I suppose to fit in with programme requirements and just a more efficient way of working than having two distinct teams of people. Certainly with the changes in production techniques the requirement for film activities reduced so eventually by the time with finished in South Ruislip, there were five of us operational people comprised the telecine department. Obviously there was all the support team and engineers but, as far as operational people and graders, there was five of us film and restoration specialists.
CR: So when was that sorry, by that time?
TE: By the time we finished at South Ruislip, so in 2013… no, sorry, 2016. I think the total staff numbers at Ruislip was about thirty people was the whole of digital media services by then.
CR: So quite a significant change?
TE: Very much so, yes.
CR: And it sounds like what you were doing day-to-day was quite varied, or could be varied, week-on-week, the sort of work you were doing?
TE: Yes it could be very varied. Some days would be than others. Some were just routine and humdrum, or tedious, or waiting around for something to happen-type of days. Because back in the ‘80s and, to some extent, in the ‘90s the staffing numbers were always generous to make sure there was sufficient staff on hand to cope with whatever might come along but not all days were as busy as others so sometimes you just had people twiddling their thumbs for good parts of the day. But that was the way it was in those days and probably one of the reasons why they broke down the rigid shift system to make things more flexible and more efficient really.
CR: Can you remember any particular challenges or issues that came up in your time working there?
TE: That’s a good one. There are the general sort of crises of day-to-day broadcasting really and keeping the show on the air and this kind of thing. Nationwide, for example, as I mentioned early was a sort of seat of the pants affair and they always used to leave it quite late to deliver the cut films and inserts for transmission. You would have three telecine channels lined up for Nationwide and there’s a least more than one occasion where the delivery of all the footage was so late that it wasn’t ready in time for transmission and so they’d have to fade up the studio and there’s no opening titles or anything so, “Welcome to Nationwide. Hopefully later in the programme we’ll have x, y and z.” And you’d hear footsteps running down the corridor as the assistant film editor would come haring from the cutting rooms and then lob a couple of reels of sound [unintelligible] and then you’d have to lace it all up and then cue it up and hope you’re ready in time. But I was always struck by how unflappable they were in the gallery in those days because it was two minutes to air and the lights are flashing and the director is running through the running order and giving [unintelligible] and checking “Has any film arrived yet?” and you’re replying “No, no. We’re waiting.” And they never seemed to get into a flap about it all, they were very cool about it. But, inevitably, one day it all arrived too late for the start and there was a big inquest so the next day everyone found they had their deliveries and footage sort of an hour before transmission because they’d all been given a rollicking in the cutting rooms. But then they’d sort of drift back, and back, and back, and get tighter and tighter again. So things like that would happen. With live transmission of film there was always the possibility of a splice breaking on air or the sound running out of sync or something like that, quite apart from the fact that you’re doing the colour grading live on air so you had to adjust the colours and the contrast as you were seeing it, as it happened. The thought was, it’s a live transmission, it’s out and it’s gone and it’s done, move onto the next and this kind of thing. Obviously you didn’t want a major breakdown on air but it was perhaps less polished but more immediate in this way, but it was the way it was done and so everybody, the other broadcasters all did the same so it was just part of the way it was done.
CR: You mentioned that film was your main interest in the work that you were doing, can you run through the sort of work… what that process would involve…
TE: In what form? If I was doing a day of transmissions of feature films, for example, typically there’d be four or five reels of 35mm for a feature film. So the usual routine with a feature film was the films would arrive in film despatch and be delivered to telecine and we always aimed to do a rehearsal before the transmission so that everybody involved could get an idea of, A, what the condition of the film was, what the colour was like, check that you’ve actually got the right reels in the right cans in the right order as well, little things like this, and that there’s no unforeseen problems with the content. The reels would be spooled onto spools to run the types of telecine at the time and we check that they’ve got cue dots marked, particularly for the automatic change-overs, and the leaders are sufficiently long, lace them up and set it running and effectively do a dummy transmission run so that the person doing the colour corrections can see what they’re getting and those of us running the actual machines check that the film’s ran and the changeovers happen on cue and the sound plays OK and all these kind of things. And the details would all be marked down on a rehearsal sheet so that you had reference for when the time came to do it. So in those days broadcasting hours were not 24 hours as they are today so you’d typically do the rehearsals in the morning for later in that day’s transmissions, that sort of thing. Then, come the time, you lace it all up, the first two reels on a pair of machines, presentation continuity people would typically take a look at the start of the first reel so they themselves could see how the film, or the programme, starts and check themselves that you’ve got the right reel, the right title, and so forth. Then rewind back to the top and set, and wait for the cue, and usually the machine would be started by remote control from the continuity desk so you’d sit back, and you’d wait, and the red lights would flash, and you’d listen to talk-back and they’d cue up and press the start button on their desk and a hooter would sound and, what was a big mechanical type of telecine machine would rumble into action and the leader would run down and you’d go on air with whatever it was, a feature film or an episode of Dallas, or something like that, and follow on from there. There was one occasion where we had a feature film where the opening title didn’t appear until three or four minutes in – there was a pre-title sequence of action – and continuity always wanted to see the actual title appear in writing on the screen before confirming and saying “Right, that’s it. Good, we’re ready to go.” The type of telecine machines we used for transmission were called twin-lens telecines. They’re a much more mechanical type of machine than what we have here [at The Flying Spot], which is a Cintel Mark III. Perfect for transmission but they didn’t fast-wind so it was real-time running forwards and backwards. So, if you’re four minutes in, it took four minutes to rewind back. Continuity, on this day, had left themselves without enough time so they started their preview and [unintelligible] down until they were about four or five minutes in until they were satisfied and they said “Right, we’re on air in three minutes so can you rewind it back to the top quickly please?” and the answer was, “No. This is going to take as long to go back as it took to go forward. So you’ve left it too late. You’ll just have to pad-out the junction and read from the Radio Times until we’re back on cue and ready to go.” So that taught them a lesson not to leave it too late for that sort of thing. I think, possibly, the network director was sort of thinking along the lines of a videotape transmission which of course you would fast-rewind back to the start as soon as you checked the content and he’d forgotten he had a film cued up that was going to take much longer to get back to the start. So that sort of thing. If we’re doing a studio insert, back in those days, then again, you’d find your roll of film and sep-mag sound, and set up your machine, and line up with the studio, and all the technical checks, and so forth and you’d usually have a script for the day’s programme as well for reference, and set yourself up and basically listen to talk-back from the studio gallery for cues as to when to start or stop, or take a break, or whatever it might be and you’d just stick with it for the day really on that one. Sometimes if it was just… you had, sort of, an animated opening titles kind of sequence, or scene-setting scene, and that was all your involvement in the studio was come the actual recording, which was usually in the evening, perhaps in front of an audience, once they were satisfied that the recording of the start of the programme was all in order then they’d stand you down and you wouldn’t have to stay there until the end of proceedings. It just depended on what was happening.
CR: And it sounds like timing was everything obviously with live broadcasts…
TE: Timing was everything and cueing things up as well because you had to allow for machines to run up to speed and leaders to run down, and this sort of thing. Typically a VT, a videotape, would be on a ten second cue to allow the machines of the time to lock-up and a film insert would be, basically, parked on the figure ten on the leader which actually gave you an eight second, in real-time, run-up to the start of the piece. The people in the gallery, or in continuity transmission, had to be aware of this time-lag and cue things off with sufficient time to spare before they required it, and things like announcer’s scripts would be marked up saying “This is a ten second cue” so if he reads it at his normal pace, he reaches that point in the script with ten seconds before the programme starts, so when he says that word you cue the machine to run up to speed and then it all hits the marks. So, yeah, timing is everything and allowing time for things to happen was everything because nowadays it all comes off computer servers and the like and it’s instant and you just hit-bang and it’s there. But back in those days things were mechanical and they took so many seconds to get up to speed and into sync and you couldn’t hurry it.
CR: Obviously you collaborated with your team, and other teams within the BBC. Did you have much liaison with personnel outside the corporation? So, directors or distributors, film producers who were…
TE: Certainly people at my sort of level didn’t really have much contact with people outside because originally, in my early days at the BBC, it was very much an integrated organisation. Really we were at the end of the production process. You’d sometimes get a director, or a film editor, come and sit in on the colour grading aspect of things because they would have an idea of how their, sort of, artistic vision of how they wanted the material to look… would be. But otherwise we tended to get fait accompli, you know, completed material, and this is it and you do your bit and you transmit it or you play it in or whatever it might be. Certainly there wasn’t the same sort of liaison with external production companies, and indies, at that point because the BBC was very much a self-contained organisation. That did start to change in the ‘90s and onwards when things became less rigid and we would get commission from external companies. Very much with the archives, kind of, world as well, that was all external type work which fitted in with BBC Studios and Post-Productions, or BBC Resources as they were before that, sort of commercial remit to bring in work from outside so that’s when you started to deal more with external bodies and people and individuals. So there were various things… because we had some specialist facilities available we did do work for people like the In Colour series, The Second World War in Colour and The British Empire in Colour and these kind of programmes, which were ITV programmes but we had the knowhow and the machinery to deal some aspects of those. I dealt with all of the 8mm footage that went into The World at War in Colour and Empire in Colour and that was because we had the kit that would deal with that which ITV didn’t at the time. So we had some unique expertise. At one stage the BBC still had a nitrate-capable telecine channel, initially at Lime Grove and then in a specially adapted room in basement of TV Centre, so we would get nitrate-type work from outside as well as one of the few places able to do that. But, again, the volume of that fell-off and the Beeb decided to pull-out of the market because nitrate demands very stringent fire regulations and accommodation, and so forth, so it was felt that it wasn’t worth renewing our license for that at some point. There wasn’t the volume to justify the expense and that kind of thing. So it became more outward-looking as time went on and equally BBC internal work was going to outside facility providers as well so it kind of worked both ways so we were in competition of the outside facility companies to a degree.
CR: You mentioned about colour and I did have a question. Did the operation, where you worked, did it have a separate colour suite in the post-production department or was it all just done on-site?
TE: Well, for transmissions, the colour correction function would be in a separate booth away from the noise and the hubbub of the actual machines running the film so the person doing the live colour grading on air wasn’t distracted by the noise of the machinery and people rewinding spools and so forth. We had a desk not unlike this one here [at The Flying Spot] with pairs of joysticks to do the colour corrections live and in fact this was developed in the days of live colour grading, to have the BBC-designed two-joystick-type desk. So you would have a desk with probably three of these panels, two for use and one as a spare because, with live transmission, you always have a spare of something available in case something failed in the middle of a programme. So one for each of the two telecine machines, playing out a feature film for example, alternate reels, and a spare panel. So he’ll be doing the colour grading for transmission in his own booth for that. For studios, we tended to pass the colour correction adjustment onto the gallery, the thinking being that they would be in charge of the camera setup and so they would best be able to try and match the look of the film bits to the studio content on [unintelligible] that. As film post-production grew we did develop our own systems for pre-programmed colour grading and that sort of work, and the Beeb had various in-house-designed systems that had evolved over the years, one involving punch-paper tape, then early forms of computer memory came along. What I have here [at The Flying Spot] is a device called Digi-Grade which came out… is a joint collaboration, I believe, between the BBC and Cintel, and when it arrived on the scene it was kind of heralded as the wonder of the age because it made programmable colour correction straightforward and simple without all the clutter of complicated process. That came out onto the scene, I think, in the mid-‘80s in its earliest form. It replaced a system which I think was Rank’s own idea called Top-C which I didn’t get to grips with at all but it was around in my early days, when I wasn’t allowed to touch that kind of thing, but the one thing I remember at the Top-C control panel was that it had dozens and dozens of buttons, and some were under flaps and all the rest of it, and there was a big skull and crossbones on one of the buttons which was [unintelligible]. But then Digi-Grade came along and it became, in BBC terms, the standard process probably until the mid/late-1990s when, for the most exacting film post-production operations, we took on-board Pandora’s Pogel grading system which was a sophisticated colour correction system and could be interfaced to our machine. So, that was approached with three trackables and a sophisticated computer arrangement to it but the Digi-Grade remained in service with the simple channels like this [at The Flying Spot] until the very end and still works fine here. To give you an idea of its age, when I turn it on the software copyright page that pops up says 1991 was the last derivation, so it’s fairly elderly but does exactly the job it needs to do in this environment.
CR: Still works well…
TE: Still does exactly what is needed, yes.
CR: So can you talk through some of the key priorities and issues when it comes to colour grading for television. Can you describe what those might be?
TE: Colour grading for television is needed, if you like, because the way you view television images on a monitor is quite different to how you view film images projected in a cinema. A film print which may look absolutely fine in the cinema in the dark would still require some additional adjustments for satisfactory reproduction on television, not least because in the cinema you’re in the dark so your concentration is on what’s on the screen and your eyes and your brain are very good at adjusting themselves to effectively auto colour balance, if you will, what you are watching. When you’re looking at a TV set you’re generally surrounded by some light around you and the background, your wallpaper or whatever in your lounge, is a constant. It’s very much more obvious if the image on the screen has the wrong colour balance because your eyes and your brain now are fixated on surroundings and so it becomes much more critical how you perceive the colour on TV. And also, the contrast range that you can achieve out of the monitor or TV screen is quite different to that which you see in the cinema sitting in the dark so you need to be sure that your highlights and lowlights are visible as they come off on the TV screen because you have strict technical limitations to the signal that you can transmit. So it becomes a much more critical operation than you might think if you just had a well-graded print and you think “Yeah this is good” and just stick it on and play it without any further corrections. It doesn’t work like that in practice.
CR: Does screen ratio make a difference with colour correction and grading?
TE: Screen ratio? No I’ve not had that problem myself. But, very much here, we are a very retro outfit so it’s all 4:3 here. In practice, I’ve not had that be a problem. There are some post houses who actually use projectors in their grading suites rather than monitors of some sort. I’ve never tried but I think it would be a bit strange to do it that way but it’s just personal preference. I’ve always been around conventional monitors and in here [at The Flying Spot] we have proper CRT monitors rather than flat-panel ones. At Ruislip, in the last days, I was probably the last part of the place that had traditional glass teles rather than flat-panel screens to grade from.
CR: What would you think are the main technical differences between colour processes that are used specifically for television broadcast compared to projection? You talked a bit about how colour appears on screen so what kind of processes, or equipment, differs between the two different kinds of work, I guess, is the question?
TE: Well as far as [pauses briefly] … as far as colour processes go, of course we’ve got the distinction between reversal processes, which were perhaps used for home movies and intended for direct projection, and perhaps neg and print processes which were obviously used in the commercial world and for TV. Although there was current affairs and news, back in the day, used a lot of reversal Ektachrome footage for their sort of thing. From a telecine perspective, historically we’ve always preferred low-contrast prints because they are easier for the machine to cope with the contrast range. So, high-contrast images like Kodachrome, would historically be a challenge for telecine machines to get the best from although they look far better projected, because that’s what they intended for high-contrast projection but, for TV broadcast, the preference was always for a low-contrast print which, conversely, if you were to project that in a preview theatre it looks flat and uninteresting but gives you the best option to get a good picture out of on transmission, on telecine. Modern machines are much better in that respect as far as contrast ration handling goes so it’s probably less of a distinction now but if you have a very dense, or very contrasty film, then it can still be a challenge to get the best from on a traditional telecine. Scanners are a slightly different thing because they work in a fundamentally different way and you don’t normally do any colour correction, or contrast correction, at the scanning stage in that sort of workflow, you do it as a secondary operation further down the line. I still do it the traditional way, the real-time way, as it comes.
CR: You’ve talked about the issues of dealing with conversion of different kinds of colour prints, can you reflect a bit on Eastmancolor specifically? Can you…
TE: Eastmancolor, to me, always rings the horrible faded-pink alarm bells, unfortunately. I mean, even with the best kept material in the BBC archive, for example, where the warehouses are refrigerated and it’s… I won’t say ideal, but it’s best practice conditions… Eastmancolor fades. The negatives don’t but the prints do. If you’re to run the negatives on a telecine and then electronically flip the image they generally keep their colour and are fine. The prints all go pink unfortunately and that presents a challenge to get a reasonable result on a traditional type machine because, typically, if you apply the necessary correction to remove the magenta, or pink, colour cast, you find that quite often… I mean, it varies. Some stocks fade differently to others, or how they’ve been kept, but you find typically that the blues tend to go very, very pale, and so, what should be blue skies are sort of a bluey-grey kind of colour. You can get the shadows reasonably neutral and the highlights to look right but you find the strong blues have disappeared and you’re left with a sort of red and green almost colour in truth. OK, it has a look to it and kind of says ‘old colour’ but it’s obviously not how they were to begin with. So this is why, when we were doing restorations of classic BBC series and things like this, it was always best to go back to the negatives if we could because, although they have their own concerns, and obviously they are full of splices, joins, and so forth, generally the colour imagery is so much better. So, if you’re using a top-flight machine that handles negatives as well, then you’ll get far far better results and you haven’t lost the resolution loss in the printing process so you actually, particularly if you’re rescanning in high-definition or 2k, you can really appreciate how good the original photography actually was. So we’d do that many times. Some of the classic David Attenborough series, Life on Earth and the like, which everybody has been so used to seeing the rather well-worn prints that were made of those, if you go back to the master negatives, although it’s a very painstaking process to do, you can really appreciate how good the photography was to begin with if you do that.
CR: Obviously, we’ve heard about the dreaded pink from the research we’ve been doing into Eastmancolor. Can you talk a bit more about how long it would take to work on a print film that wasn’t up to spec or to standard? How much time would need to be spent improving the quality? I guess it couldn’t be completely improved but… and what system would you be using to do that?
TE: Well, for myself, with my own kit here, if I have a faded print, I can get a reasonable result from it… I won’t say swiftly but, depending on how it’s faded, and how the original printing consistency was to start with, if I’m just taking a clip from a programme then I may be able to find a suitable setting fairly straightforwardly straightaway. If it’s a complete programme to transfer then I’ll probably want to rehearse the grading completely, so we’re talking about a run-through and logging the shots in the Digi-Grade and doing it scene-by-scene grade which, depending how complicated it is, is sort of ballpark, three-time the running time of the programme perhaps. So, that will give an acceptable result which still says “I’m an old colour print but I’m not bright pink and hopeless” so it would be watchable and useable in the context of what it is. Which is what I have here [TE later gives a demonstration of restoring faded prints using the telecine] so when the time comes, here’s one I prepared earlier, in the best Blue Peter tradition. If you’re going to do a total restoration, with things like negatives, then that’s a very much more painstaking business, but I can produce an acceptable result nine time out of ten in, perhaps, three-times time. Sometimes you find one that’s faded just too far-gone and you can take out the colour cast but you really haven’t got the colours within the image.
CR: So what do you do in that instance?
TE: Well, you have to either say to the customer “This is as good as it goes without going to a full-blown scan and digital restoration workflow” which may be way beyond their budget. Or, just cut your losses and make it black-and-white and it’ll still have its black-and-white image quality to it. That’s an extreme case. Nine times out of ten you can get an acceptable, not true as it was, but a watchable result from something.
CR: I guess with that as well, thinking about black-and-white, what do you think are the main differences between dealing with black-and-white as appose to a colour film print?
TE: Black-and-white is usually much quicker and easier to grade because, obviously, you’re not worried about the colours so it’s purely tone and contrast. So that’s quicker and easier to do in that respect. I mean, a well-graded colour print in good order is not going to take particularly longer if it’s well presented but, yeah, a black-and-white one is much easier to do. I can’t say more than that…
CR: Just more simple… easier?
TE: Obviously you get some stinkers of either sort really but generally a black-and-white one will be quicker to do in that sense, yes.
CR: You mentioned a bit earlier that you worked with, or that you did have a director come in and talk to you about colour grading for a particular film. Was that a television programme or…?
TE: That particular one… it would happen… a director or film editor would attend a grading session from time to time, particularly when we were doing the more intensive film post-production type of operations and doing the final transfers from, perhaps, the cut negatives and the like. It would normally be the case in those kind of high-profile situations that someone from production would sit in, as much for them to see the end result as them to guide us as to how they wanted it to look because. When you’re working at that sort of level, perhaps from the original negatives, you haven’t got any kind of print grading to guide you as to how scenes are supposed to look and so you’re very much dependant on, obviously the lighting and photography to begin with but also there are things you can do electronically to enhance the artistic look of a scene which you wouldn’t be able to do necessarily in the lab or at the photography end of things. So yeah, we would normally expect to get input from someone from production, the director or the film editor, for those kind of things and that was normal routine, if you like, in those days. Often, back in the days of live transmissions from graded prints, we’d normally be left to just sort of get on with it ourselves for those kind of things and you’d expect to essentially produce a neutral sort of result from what was coming off the machine and hopefully the, sort of, creative and artistic angle would have been taken care of at the lab and in the print grading and that side of things. So you were just mainly keeping it on track for the transmission. Yeah… that’s probably that one, unless you want me to expand anymore?
[00:48:40 – 00:48:50 break in recording]
PF: OK, next if we move on to your work here at The Flying Spot, Tim. If you just talk about the remit of The Flying Spot and the projects that you’ve been working on recently, or any of the projects over the past few years, which you’d like to talk a bit more about?
TE: Right, well The Flying Spot is basically my means of continuing doing what I love after the BBC closed down S&PP. So I’ll happily do any kind of film work for anybody of any sort, from private home movie collections to DVD, for example, that sort of thing I do quite a fair bit of, to work for film archives, and collections, broadcasters. The Flying Spot is an approved supplier back to the BBC now so it all goes full-circle in that respect. And other independent production companies, yeah, I’ll do anything for anyone in that respect. And odd bits of video work as well. I’ve got a job at the moment which is basically copying VHS-C home video cassettes to DVDs for a client. Nothing very elaborate about it but I have the means and the kit to do it so it’s a job to do in quiet moments and work through this chap’s collection of home videos for him. Otherwise, I’ve dealt with everything from, in recent times… well, we’ve been open coming up two years now, our operations, so I’ve done quite a lot of work for London Screen Archives, small format 8mm and 9.5mm film transfers for them, for a BFI project that they were working on. That’s kind of run its course now but I did a lot of that for London Screen Archives. I’ve had an interesting job for a community arts centre based in Herne Hill, here in London, which was some sixty-odd reels, large reels, of 8mm film shot by a chap named Sam the Wheels. Now, he sounds like he might be an East-End gangster with a name like that but he’s actually an elderly West-Indian gentlemen who has filmed a lot of activities to do with the West-Indian community around the Brixton area over about twenty-odd years. So, this was his collection of films which the arts centre in Herne Hill asked me to digitise for them, to file on a hard-drive, so that they could investigate his collection and see what was there. So I dealt with that. I’ve had Lord Lucan’s home movies last year. This was as part of an ITV programme which went out last year, an interview with Lady Lucan, and so this was their home movie collection to illustrate the programme, so that was quite something. So, plenty of that. Some material to do with pop videos for a band called Placebo, the producers got in touch and initially they wanted to view the various negative rushes of previous pop videos with a view to getting some of them re-transferred for use as projected backdrops to the band’s tour. So yeah, I said “I can certainly do that and we can view the material here but…” I was ready to say “If you’re going to be projecting this material, and some of it is 35mm and some of it is Super-16mm, you probably want to go for a HD or a 2k scan ideally for projection purposes. But we can certainly view the material here and you can make your choices.” So they came in to do that and they chose the various bits, and spent a couple of days spooling up and down reels and reels of stuff, and then they decided, well, apparently their projection equipment or whatever was only SD standard so they said, “Well, we like the look of the pictures you’ve produced so you might as well do the masters for the projection on here in SD.” So, fine, yeah, so I did that. Had a whole load of audio tapes from the BBC natural history unit in Bristol last year, which turned out to be Sir David Attenborough’s personal stash of audio tapes of the original location recordings to some of his earliest wildlife programmes in the late-‘50s and early-‘60s, so that was quite fascinating to listen to and digitise and turn into WAV files on the hard-drive. So there’s that. Yeah, various other films archives. The Staffordshire Film Archive are a regular client and that dates back to the BBC days. I know Ray Johnson from the Staffordshire archive as well, he’s a regular. The Shetland Moving Image Archive have sent me jobs from time to time, just finishing one for them at the moment. Other various bits of production work for BBC productions and independents who want to use BBC material as well. So The Flying Spot is fully accredited for all forms of BBC content including negatives and single-copy masters and the like. The chap who came from the library to, sort of, assess me when I was all set up to go, a chap I knew anyway, he came down and said “Yeah, there’s no question about all of this. You’re ex-BBC, the kit is ex-BBC. It’s all in a secure place and it’s all properly maintained” so, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, and we had a natter and drank a cup of tea together and he said “Yeah, it’s fine. That’s all good”, so no problems there. So all sorts of stuff really. Anything for anyone in that respect.
PF: Well you’ve just mentioned amateur film again and earlier on you talked about the look of old colour, when you’re restoring amateur films you get a sense that there’s a look of old colour. Could you explain that a little bit more because I’m aware that there’s some difficulty in restoring amateur film because there’s not a reference, it’s from intuition and ‘best guess’ – I’ve heard that word used several times. So could you explain a little bit more perhaps?
TE: With amateur films really I aim to produce, as far as colour correction and general look on the screen goes, I aim to produce a neutral natural look to things. As you say, it’s a best guess because you have no real reference and you have to assume that, you know, gauge from what you’re seeing ideally how the original filmmaker intended his material to look. Sometimes it’s a case of the filmmaker’s ambition isn’t matched by his technical… I won’t say technical ability but the facilities available to him. So you think, “Well, that’s clearly supposed to be a day-for-night shot but it hasn’t come off in the context of the content and the narrative” if you like, but you can discern… so we can make that look how obviously he was intending it to look. Otherwise, it’s best guess, it’s keeping things neutral and watchable and, I’ll say, enjoyable. I always feel it’s not my point to apply too much editorial input to these kind of things because I’m really the means to preserving or to making accessible the content and in this day-and-age it’s not difficult once you have a digital master for someone to re-grade or re-work material provided I’ve done my job properly at the start and as far as possible captured the essence of the image on the film as best possible and in a form that is in itself perfectly acceptable and watchable. You do get differences between film stocks used in the amateur world obviously. Kodachrome has a unique high-contrast, highly-colourful, look to it and keeps its colour well; AGFA tends to fade; Ilfocolor, or Ilfochrome, seems to come out brown whatever you do to it. Dufaycolor has its challenges because it’s a matrix of coloured spots, and in television terms, of course, you can run into strobing issues with that so that’s always a challenge because you’ve got to tread a fine line between getting a nice sharp image but one that doesn’t zing when you get it on the screen and cause all sorts of strobing and flickering problems, so that’s an interesting one. The earliest Kodachromes tend to fade and that was a known chemistry problem in the first year or two of Kodachrome manufacturing so with those you often wind up with just basically almost red and green colours to the image because the blues have gone. So the different stocks have their challenges. I’ve seen Ektachrome Super-8 where it’s almost as if the dyes have spread and they’ve sort of gone soft-focus. The grain is sharp and the machine is in focus, and you’re focused on the image, but the colours have all spread in the film emulsion and it’s a very odd sort of look to it. It almost looks like it’s been filmed out of focus, but I’ve seen footage that I know has been sharp originally but it’s just gone soft which is quite odd.
PF: Just out of interest, have you seen many amateur Eastmancolor films during your time here because I’m aware that a number of budding enthusiasts, budding amateurs, got their hands on some Eastmancolor film? I just wondered if you’d seen any in your time here?
TE: No Eastmancolor amateur films, I can’t say I’ve seen… Sometimes you get Kodachrome or Ektachrome duplicate prints and that sort of thing but… No, I suppose the nearest you come would be sort of Ektachrome dupes where they’ve filmed on a low-contrast Ektachrome stock for ease of editing rather than a negative and had an Ektachrome dupe print made, perhaps with an optical soundtrack. I can’t say I’ve knowingly seen strictly amateur Eastmancolor type films, no.
[00:59:53 – 01:00:05 brief pause]
PF: Something I wanted to go back to as well was, sort of during that early-‘80s period we saw Channel 4 started broadcasting and there was a use more of Eastmancolor on location filming. So what are your experiences around that time? Was there an increased use of Eastmancolor for location filming and, perhaps, was that being used in the studio broadcasts? Or was that mainly Ektachrome being used for the inserts for live broadcast?
TE: In BBC terms Ektachrome tended to be used purely for news and current affairs, quick turnaround programmes. Mainstream programming, like film-shot documentaries, and studio inserts generally were done as neg and print, so Eastmancolor process, yes, there was sufficient time involved. Generally Ektachrome was only the quick turnaround type news and current affairs-type things.
PF: So, moving on, I wanted to ask you a little bit about the main challenges which you face in terms of preservation of technology and equipment. You’ve already mentioned that yours is quite an old-school set-up. What are your thoughts on keeping this kind of set-up in existence? You’ve already mentioned digital technologies, but could you reflect on the more analogue side of the restoration business?
TE: The Flying Spot is unashamedly retro largely because the kit is what it is from its vintage. We’re sitting here in what was essentially a standard BBC telecine channel dating from the early 1990s. The telecine machine itself is a late-‘80s model and is one of the last of its type to come off the production run at Cintel’s before they changed to the next generation of machines. It is a combination of analogue and digital. In here, the sound chain is all traditional analogue, with post-office jacks and analogue sound, the vision chain is digital from the telecine through to the video machines and the computer, that’s SDI digital, but there is power video also circulating around here for some of the monitors and things like the DVD recorders and the like. So it is a complete amalgam of technologies in that sense. In many ways that makes it extremely flexible. I found, particularly in our latter days at Ruislip at the BBC, where a lot of the other channels had been re-engineered into the latest all-digital processes, and the like, this was one of the last bastions of traditional analogue technology in that sense simply because the complexity of re-engineering this channel for what it did would have been completely out of all proportion to [unintelligible] and that actually makes it very flexible for doing odd things and unusual things where in the digital world it’s not so easy to plug things into the jack-field and convert mono to stereo and back and forth. I plug my analogue tape recorder into the channel and make use of the graphic equaliser’s, for example, to clean up something. For my money, and for what I do in the archives world, this is probably the best combination of technologies for what it does. Purely digital technology and infrastructure has its place and in the 2k and 4k scanning world, of course, it’s the way it all works and it certainly simplifies with the amount of cabling and connections and all the rest of it that’s required. But that’s a different world to the one The Flying Spot inhabits and so, for my purposes, this is the best combination of technologies. As far as keeping it all going is concerned, I have a whole load of spares, and a spare machine to pick apart for bits, a telecine to pick apart for bits, and all the spares the BBC coughed-up because they weren’t going to be used anymore. And it is of an age when most of the technology is of the sort that you can actually see without a magnifier and you can actually repair and replace individual components so it’s not hard to do the day-to-day things just to keep it running. I have to say, to be fair, it has been remarkably reliable since it was moved here to Woolwich. Odd things fail or wear out and you need to replace capacitors and things like this but it is all, by and large, it’s of an age that you can do that sort of thing with a soldering iron and a pair of pliers.
PF: I guess that’s if there are parts still floating around to replace…
TE: Yes. An example I often show… can I just show the circuit board?
[01:05:35 TE shows one of the telecine circuit boards]
TE: This is a shading-corrector card from the telecine and, as you can see, it’s all individual bits so I can practical repair parts. Some parts, the clever digital parts that are in here are much more complex and, in fairness, I’ll probably need a specialists help if something failed in a big way. All the essential workings are of an age when you could actually see it and repair things and keep it going so, hopefully, touch wood, it will keep going for a good few more years. They’re rugged old machines and they keep going so, touch wood. The parts that wear out with time and age is the cathode-ray tube, the scanning tube, used in one of these but I’m fortunate to have four spares for it and the one that’s in there is starting to show its age but it’s been in there for at least ten years now, of quite heavy use, which is quite phenomenal because they’re not supposed to normally last that long but that one’s still going strong so it’s quite amazing.
PF: There’s something else I’d like to go back to. We were talking about transmission of theatrical prints. Could you talk a bit more about the end-to-end process of that because I’m aware that, even with the colour prints, they were low contrast prints that were specially made for broadcast and I’m aware that, when you got to that stage in the late-‘80s when they were being transferred to video for broadcast, a lot of those are still floating around and have since been re-used elsewhere, sometimes for DVD production. Could you talk a bit more about that? I know it’s quite a long period we’re looking at there, sort of end-to-end, but just give us some thoughts on…
TE: Yeah. I mean, live transmission of theatrical prints from low contrast masters was the way it was done, shall we say, through the ‘70s and the ‘80s. When we started preparing material for transmission off of videotape, once live transmission from film and from telecine had ceased, is really very much the same because you’re using the same sort of prints and, although you wouldn’t have two machines back-to-back to do changeovers, you were editing them together onto videotape. So, you’d have the one machine and do it reel by reel and edit your own changeovers, so to speak. So that didn’t change too much except, because you weren’t doing it in real-time live on air, you could then do some pre-programmed grading if needed rather than just seat-of-the-pants flying and that became more the norm. You’d do a one pass through something like the Digi-Grade to control it and then rewind and lay your result down to tape and then put the next reel up, grade it, rewind it, lay down to tape, and so forth. You’d typically prepare a five-reeler feature film in a day’s work and have it all wrapped up and ready for transmission like that. So you could be a bit more painstaking about the process rather than just hammering through something live on air, certainly towards the end of live transmissions every so often you’d find that the transmission would have been record for a future transmission to save running the films again. But that was something of a stop-gap because, of course, it was per the live transmission so if there were any rough edges they were there on the tape but it was considered that if it was good enough to go out once it’ll go out again looking like that. If it had no problems it was absolutely fine. Once we were mastering things to tape for transmission then you could be a bit more painstaking and just iron out some of the rough edged and that sort of thing if it was kind of content. If it was a pristinely fresh, well graded print then it wouldn’t give you any real problems.
PF: And were they transferred onto, was it one inch tape?
TE: It would have been one inch and then the BBC moved over to D3 as its production transmission format, and then latterly onto DigiBeta, and then HD came along and that changed things. HD-Cam SR was the HD mastering format towards the end and now it’s all files of one sort or another so tapes don’t really get a look in. Although I was asked a few weeks back to do a transfer of a 1964 BBC programme for the music department and they actually did ask could I produce for them a DigiBeta tape for them to take into the archives. So there’s still a call but it’s very limited. Most things I deliver now for broadcasters are as files of one form or another either sent by file transfer, WeTransfer or something like that, or on a memory stick or a hard drive for them to use. But BBC music wanted a traditional DigiBeta tape in their hand so I said “Why not.”
PF: Sometimes feels safer really…
TE: Well I think that’s probably their thinking, yes. Between you and me I think they’d been bitten a bit by some files that then proved to be unplayable in the future or LTO tapes and things like this which then can’t be recovered and so I think maybe some of them are a little bit wary and just think “Well let’s have a traditional videotape that we know we can play back and use.”
PF: I don’t know if you know much about it but that step which is involved before the Beeb used to get the print, is that from the studio themselves? Would they print that low contrast broadcast print? I suppose you weren’t really involved too much…
TE: I wasn’t really involved in the acquisition side of things. I imagine that would have been the distributors of the feature films, I’m sure, would have had low-contrast prints available or at least instructions for labs to produce because all broadcasters would have been looking at low contrast prints. Again, it was the way it was in those days and it was standard practice so low contrast transmission prints… so they’d order one up from Ranks or wherever, Deluxe or whoever was handling the distribution at the time. It would be a standard request in that sense.
PF: Would Ranks, or Deluxe, or whoever it was at the time, would they be working to a standard which had been agreed with the BBC in terms of the level of contrast change in the image.
TE: I imagine so and probably was just a joint thing for general broadcast, so, “This is what a low contrast print is going to be and everyone will accept that.” I don’t think there was a specific BBC spec for low contrast prints but then again I was not involved in that angle of the business. They’d come in from Programme Acquisitions, purchased programmes, as low contrast transmission prints, “Here it is boys, get on with it.” So I couldn’t swear that there was a particular BBC spec but whether the BBC had a hand with the other broadcasters in just all agreeing that “This is the density range that we want from a low contrast print so if you could aim for that sort of thing in the lab, then that would be acceptable to us all and would be OK.”
PF: Just to go back again, talking about where these videotapes ended up, you know, some of their archives… some of the material, Channel 4, BBC… some of those films were actually used in the creation of VHS, retail VHS, or DVD. Do you know much about that because part of our project is… we’re looking at various versions of films and how they’ve been seen subsequently after their theatrical release, one of which is television but also when it appears on DVD. If it was a low contrast print transferred to video and it founds its way into a collection somewhere else where it was being released. Could you say any more about that perhaps?
TE: In BBC terms, and subsequent release for home video or such like would have been handled through BBC Enterprises. We did from time to time make BBC Enterprises’ versions of programmes, I wouldn’t say necessarily feature films, but of BBC programmes which would typically have a BBC Enterprises logo at the start and a copyright warning, and this kind of thing, but otherwise would be a copy of the tape of the programme as such. Again, I wasn’t involved in any of that side of the operations so I can’t say whether BBC Enterprises would have struck deals with the film distributors to produce the video masters of transmitted feature films if you see what I mean. I suspect that sort of thing would have been done more by independent facilities and the like. But, again, it’s all tied up with rights and permissions and so, if the deal was “You get this print for two transmissions and you’ll make us a video release for our own purposes and we’ll pay you X pounds for that through BBC Enterprises” perhaps, maybe, but I wouldn’t like to say that that was necessarily the way it went, no.
PF: So, final few questions. I guess one of them is quite broad. I was going to ask about the challenges you faced in relation to archive film in TV material and I guess that’s going back to a lot of what we talked about today in terms of images as they appear on VHS or DigiBeta, whatever it might be. Is there any particular difficulties you’re facing at the moment in terms of the work you’re doing? Perhaps how the technology has changed?
TE: For myself I’m pretty much doing what I always did in regard of archive material, that hasn’t really changed. I have all the same kit and work to the same standard. You have to try and work out with the client what are their expectations and what is their budget because “How much time can you afford for me to spend on this? How polished a result do you want?” Because with some archive material it may be the case of running it through in near enough real-time and grading as you go so that they have a master that they can see to evaluate the material with and that’s all the budget will allow or some people will say “No I want a polished result from this and I’m prepared to pay for the time to do it” and so fine we will do that. My business model is I charge by the time spent on a particular project so the degree of precision and polish that you require is reflected in the time it takes to do it in that respect. So I won’t say it’s a challenge but the question I have to ask the client is “How do you want this done and what’s your end result for going to be.” Also with things like frame rates so, typically amateur footage is shot at 16 or 18 frames for example, and so would silent era material, so you have to tie-down with the client “Do you want me to transfer it at sound speed, 25 frames per second TV speed, and you will sort out the speed correction base?” which is in some ways the best way for conservation purposes, keeps everything frame for frame true. Or “Do you just want a copy that you can screen from whatever media as it comes to you without any further manipulation?” so, typically the home movie to DVD clients want something they can play on the tele at home as it comes and it will look right for them so that sort of material gets speed corrected at source. Archives may well want it 25 frames, frame for frame true master, which is ideal raw material then if you’re going to do any subsequent restoration work and de-spotting and that sort of thing. Depending on how they are set up they may ask me to make from that a speed-corrected version as well for screening and viewing purposes. You have to… there’s not one size fits all so I have to have this conversation with the clients and just tie them down as to what they want. Typically, Ray Johnson at the Staffordshire Film Archive says “Do everything at 25 fps and I’ll speed correct it at base”, which is fine, that’s how he does it. The Shetland Moving Image Archive people ask for both so I do a 25 frames transfer off the telecine to file, and then from that file make a second speed corrected version as well so they get both. And they’re prepared to pay for the time and effort it takes to do that which is fine but at least we’ve had that conversation and they know that I know what they want me to do and that’s fine.
PF: One of the last questions I want to ask… we did want to ask about any of the major projects that you have worked on in the entirety of your career, so the BBC and here. Is there any particular examples of colour films or colour projects, amateur films, that you have worked on which you’d like to share your experiences with us?
TE: In BBC days we did a big job for the Scottish National Film Archives. This would have been some ten/twelve year ago now, which was basically a deal which was struck for the BBC to digitise pretty much the entire, as it was then, the Scottish National Film Collection and this ran for about fifteen months shared out between myself and a colleague. For most days of most weeks we were working through the Scottish Film Archive so that was quite something and that was everything Scottish from commercial films, home movies, amateur footage, documentaries, all sorts on there. At the time I knew everything about making curling stones and bagpipes, and building oil rigs, and the last days of the Glasgow trams, and all sorts of things like this. I was always struck by the slight irony that the Scottish National Collection was being digitised in London by the English. Not only by the English in London but an Englishman in London with the surname Emblem-English as well! So the Sassonax’s are getting their hands on the Scottish National Collection! But they were lovely people to work with and it ran on and on. That was a long running project. What else have I done? A collection for the Royal College of Surgeons some years back while we were at South Ruislip which was a collection, I think the story goes, almost rescued from a skip from a hospital that was being closed down or refurbished. And that was mainly sort of amateur… I say amateur footage, not professional shot material but to do with a lot of very early plastic surgery processes and procedures, so there was some serious historical content to that, if a little grisly in places, and filmed in loving Kodachrome with vibrant reds! But that was another one. I mentioned earlier the World War II in Colour and The British Empire in Colour series for ITV that we dealt with. So, what else would there have been…? One of the last projects we did at South Ruislip for the BBC was the colour originals of David Attenborough’s original Zoo Quest programme which was only ever seen in its various transmissions in black-and-white but was actually filmed on Kodachrome but this had apparently been forgotten over the mists of time. It wasn’t until a researcher was rooting through the cans, in Bristol I think it must have been, and realised that… they’re logged as black-and-white masters but they’re actually Kodachrome originals. So we had a job of retransferring in HD all of these Kodachrome masters so that these things could be seen in colour for the first time really because back in the day in the ‘50s, they were copied to black-and-white dupe negatives and that was used for editing to make the programmes. So the colour masters hadn’t been seen since then, so that was quite a fascinating one. It was because I’d been one of the team working on that I got the job here subsequently with David Attenborough’s audio tapes because the people at Bristol remembered the name and they said “Oh yes, so can you help out with that?” So, that was that one. I’m trying to think what else. Over the course of a career stuff comes and goes and it all passes through and you move onto the next thing…
PF: I guess the Attenborough films is an example of probably some of the first colour footage to be recorded for television, I’m guessing, even though it was shown in black-and-white?
TE: Very much so, yes.
PF: I know we had a lot of that later in the ‘60s with things like The Avengers which were recorded in colour but, knowing that they were going to be shown in America and the fact that eventually colour TV would come in…
TE: That’s right yes. There was an explanation given for why the Zoo Quests were filmed in colour originally. I think it was to do with… I’m trying to remember the explanation that they gave at the time which may or may not have been true but in the mists of time, “Why was this done in colour?” Possibly because the black-and-white 16mm stocks of the day were quite grainy and they didn’t want to lug a 35mm kit around in the jungles of Central America or wherever they were and they took an almost clockwork 16mm kit. Kodachrome, for all its slow speed and high contrast would give sharper images than the black-and-white stocks of the day for their purposes. I don’t think there was any real though of future-proofing it in that sense, it was just a practical way of filming what they were filming with what was available at the time I suspect. But that was lovely stuff and it had kept its colour and it really looked good. So it just shows the quality of the original photography.
PF: I think one of the last questions I’d like to ask… we’ve already talked about Kodachrome, Ektachrome, and Eastmancolor. When you’re working here, is there anything particular that you consider when working individually on each of those colour formats in terms of recreating that look? I’m not really after, you know, a soundbite but, of those different processes, is there anything particular which stands out from each of those? I’m mean, they are three of the big ones from the period of our study which feature most prominently.
TE: Well, Kodachrome says stable colours, good saturation, high contrast, very limited latitude at the filming stage so if you don’t get the exposure right then you run into problems fairly quickly but, if you get it right, and it’s been kept in any kind of reasonable surroundings, then I can get a really vibrant, colourful, enjoyable result from Kodachrome. In all fairness, a lot of Lord Lucan’s films were Kodachromes and shot well so it wasn’t difficult to get cracking good results from those. So, well shot Kodachrome, lovely, yes works well. Ektachrome, softer, grainier, more muted colours, can fade or go soft, so, typically gives you that current affairs or news kind of look to it. So it’s that kind of feel to it, that rather grittier sort of look to it. Eastmancolor, faded, washed-out with age, sometimes you get a low-fade Eastman print comes through and that looks fine, it’s not a problem, but otherwise, they’re characteristically that. Dufaycolor has problems with strobing. Kodacolor, ‘30s process, you cannot resolve the colour on a telecine because it relies on being projected through the three-colour filter so that’s never going to work on this kind of machine, you’d get a black-and-white image with stripes basically but you can’t resolve the colour. Agfa home movie reversal tends to suffer from mould and fungus, it can fade to a sort of blueish colour as well sometimes but if you’re going to get a fungus attack it’s usually on Agfa. Don’t see much Fuji, as the other one with Single-8 in home movie terms. Don’t see enough of that to really form an opinion on for that. Obviously in surroundings like this, no nitrate, we’re not allowed to have nitrate here. Although, in practice, nitrate film that’s in good condition and is stable will play on this type of telecine without any difficulty but the overall fire regulations and surroundings about it mean it’s a no-no in the building essentially. Is that sufficient for that topic?
PF: Yes thank you. [To CR] How are we doing for time?
CR: We’re fine.
PF: Is there anything you’d like to add, thinking about the project itself and colour from the period that we’re looking at some of the changes that happened, perhaps in television broadcast or amateur photography?
TE: I’m trying to think now. Thinking of specific projects, stuff comes and goes and you remember some of the outstanding ones and there’s obviously been others that have come and gone in between times. We had a project when we still at Television Centre which was to do with an academic chap from Scotland, from Edinburgh, and he had a big collection of films to do with R. D. Laing, the controversial psychologist… psychiatrist? I always get them muddled. And this was a load of films of a tour he made in the States and that was mainly shot on Ektachrome originals as I recall and not always under the best of lighting sometimes very contrasty lighting in lecture halls and things like this. So some of those could be a bit of struggle to get a reasonable result from. We were using a Spirit telecine in HD for those. So, they were a bit tricky. That ran for quite a few months actually and he’d come in once or twice a week with another few rolls and we’d grade them and transfer them mostly without sound so he was going to match-up the soundtracks later on those. I’m sorry… [unintelligible]
PF: I was just thinking about broadcasting on television again and the fact that we have a theatrical print, that’s projected in a darkened cinema, as you mentioned before. Are you trying to recreate that look for home viewers or is there something else? What’s the differences would you say?
TE: I would say for the home viewers you’re trying to create a satisfying look, shall we say. You can never guarantee what everybody’s TVs are set up like so you have to just go by what you see on a properly set up monitor at the transmission stage. You want to produce an enjoyable, shall we say, an enjoyable and satisfying presentation that hopefully is close to what you would see in the cinema, or certainly what the original production intended to be seen. But it is a matter of personal judgement at the end of the day and so you can watch oscilloscopes and a properly set up monitor and say “That’s how I think it should look. The colours are either neutral or I’m aware of the artistic sense that they’re trying to convey at this point so I’m not going to try and neutralise a deliberate effect that’s in there” something along those lines. If you haven’t got someone specifically guiding you with their requirements and their look to it, colour grading is a totally subjective business in that sense and we all have our different looks if you like. I mean, back in the days when we had quite a big team in the telecine department some of my colleagues were, if you like, the graders of choice for dramas, for example, gritty dramas, because that was their style, they could get the best out of a gritty detective drama or something like that. Someone else might be better for a more abstract look for perhaps an arty programme that kind of thing. So people had their own sort of specialities and leanings and colour biases. We used to say “So and so, he’s got pink eyes. Always comes out looking a little red on his transmissions. So and so’s tends to go blue.” And then you have, back in the live transmission days particularly, it wasn’t unknown for the late-night movie person doing the colour grading to perhaps nod-off in the booth and if you fall forwards [snoring sound] it all goes green! If you fall backwards it all goes blue! So more than once this would have happened and, “It’s going a bit green. Go see if Don’s fallen asleep in there” and sure enough [snoring sound] he was off and slowly sliding forwards and his hands are pushing the controls away from him. That kind of thing did happen once or twice.
[01:35:35 break in recording]
PF: So following on from what we’ve just been discussing Tim, if you could just give us some idea of your opinions on the look of television broadcasts and the quality of colour in television.
TE: As far as television broadcasts go of course you can never be sure how peoples TVs at home are set up and that’s very much an individual choice. For my money a lot of people have the colour and the saturation turned up too high compared to how we would have things set up in the studios for example so you can never be sure you just have to go by… we transmitted as we see fit, if you will, to look correct and how you get it at home is out of our control in that sense. As far as people’s perception of feature films as seen at home goes, obviously it’s a difference experience to watching the same thing on the big screen in the cinema with perhaps big sound as well, because let’s not forget the soundtracks, you know, they’re transmitted without particular compromises in the sound as far as we’re concerned but a lot of TVs have quite small speakers although someone with a home theatre type setup will have the whole works, and surround sound, and subwoofers, and all the rest of it, and gets the better result. But, I daresay the majority of viewers would not get necessarily the sound as we would have transmitted it, never mind the pictures. The other sort of perception, I mean, going back to the days of live transmissions, would have been films perhaps shot in CinemaScope which, in the days of 4:3 TV, we would generally transmitted as a pan-and-scan type process and that in itself raised its own challenges for live transmission, doing the pan-and-scan, by and large that was a pre-programmed process that was assessed and worked on by a film editor in Programme Acquisitions and he would pre-programme the various scan positions required and that would be, in the early days, that was transferred to a punch-paper tape which then was used to control the scanning position on the telecine machine on-cue for the various shots. Of course, watching a CinemaScope film as a 4:3 pan-and-scan is a very different experience to seeing it in true widescreen in the cinema so I wouldn’t be surprised if people who’d only ever seen, I don’t know, an epic western like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly for example, as a pan-and-scan version on the TV, when you see it in its full-aspect in the cinema, for example, it’s a very different experience, completely so. Particularly where you have typical scenes where you have two actors on either side of the screen reacting to each other. Now, you can only really show that on TV by cutting from one to the other, back and forth, and that is a whole different editorial visual style to a single shot of two people engaging with each other on either side of the screen. That sort of thing can give a totally different experience to a home viewer compared to the cinema experience. Nowadays, with widescreen TV, showing widescreen CinemaScope films in their true shape, as it were, is normal practice. And with bigger and bigger TVs at home as well now, you’re getting closer to the big screen theatrical kind of experience potentially. Back in my time of live transmissions, it was one of the compromises you had to make because to transmit a widescreen, or a ‘Scope, film in its true shape on a 4:3 TV you would give a very unsatisfying result to the average home viewer considering that screen weren’t that big in those days and you’d just have this narrow image across the middle. While that might suffice for something like an arthouse late-night transmission of a particular film aimed at a particular kind of audience, for your general Saturday evening audience, that’s not going to wash so you’d have to compromise in that sense. Does that make sense?
PF: If I just go on to ask you now about what you’re going to demonstrate for us today and just a brief overview of how this work finds itself… how it arrives and what steps you take and what you do before you get to this stage.
TE: I have lined-up here on the TK, in the best Blue Peter tradition, one I prepared earlier. So this is a typically faded Eastmancolor print, it’s actually a film from the Gas Board on the environmental impact of new buildings, and plant, and pipelines and the like but I’ve chosen it because it’s a typically faded film. So what I can show you is the difference, on my type of colour correcting and grading system here on my traditional telecine, the difference that I can produce from how the print is and how it would appear if you projected it, to the sort of result that I can produce which is acceptable for clips and for viewing in the context of something archival. But obviously not the same as you would aim for if you were doing a total digital restoration with all the clever digital tools that you have for that sort of function. So what I’ve done is, I’ve pre-programmed the grading for some of the scenes and we can easily switch as the film plays between, effectively, before and after, just to give a comparison of the degree of improvement that can be achieved with careful colour grading and use of, what I call on here, masking-seven, which is a development of colour log masking which was a technical development in the early days of colour telecine where… I think it was probably a joint operation between the BBC and possibly Kodak and Cintel… someone had the idea that, because the colour analysis of telecine machines and the dyes in film overlap with each other spectrally, that gives a reduction in the colour fidelity of reproduction. So, someone thought “If we can electronically mimic this cross-talk between the colours, but in the opposite sense, and cancel out the distortion, we can improve the colour reproduction.” Nice idea but, in practice, tended not to get used too much because its sort of calibrating depended very much on particular print stocks and dye combinations and so forth, and in a practical sense of day-to-day transmissions and use, you don’t really know what print stock is in the can. It’s a colour print and so you don’t know its, necessarily, its history in that sense. An extreme setting on the colour matrix that’s used for masking was developed to try and counteract the worst of Eastman fading to give you a fighting chance of then recovering some of the colours and so it became known as masking-seven, it’s position seven on the switch. So use of that and careful colour grading can give quite a remarkable improvement in the image which is what I’m going to show you.
[01:44:15 – END TE demonstrates how colour fading can be corrected using the telecine]