Tuesday 13 February 2018

Peter Tammer's Personal History of the Documentary (2) Flaherty & Hurley - The Search for Truth in Documentaries

Editor's Note: This is the longest post ever put up on the Film Alert blogsite. Some thought was given to breaking it up but the flow of conversation and inquiry would have been ruined. Take your time. Enjoy.

How difficult is the search for the “truth” in any field of human endeavour? This is a particularly challenging issue in historical studies. Throughout the history of the cinema there have been many debates concerning the veracity of some films which lay claim to “truthfulness” because of their very nature as “documentaries”.

The class of films gathered together under this heading of “documentary” covers an extremely broad range of divergent styles and approaches to “reality”. All “filmed works” which are grouped under that heading were present in the very first years of the invention of cinema: images which were recorded by cameras shooting many frames-per-second,(fps), were then replayed on projectors displaying at a similar rate of fps as recorded by the movie camera. In those very early days a rate of 16 or 18 fps was considered adequate for an approximation of naturalistic movement.

The frame rate increased in commercial cinema through the 1920’s, and became standard with the coming of sync-sound to Hollywood in 1927. In Los Angeles in 1985 I saw a demonstration of a new system called “Showscan”: the frame rate they used was 60 fps. That filming and projection system was developed by Showscan under the leadership of Douglas Trumbull, which used large format negatives (65mm) coupled with the higher frame-rate to create an impressive three dimensional grainless image, creating a wonderful sense of “solidity” for people and objects, as well as extremely smooth motion. Click here for the Wikipedia explanation

However, most films shot prior to the advent of sound-on-film were filmed at 16 fps and replayed at that same speed. Although they were considered “realistic” at that time, and although audiences were surprised at their depiction of “reality” they seem quite fragmentary and clunky compared to images captured in more recent times.

Central to this discussion is the very notion of “reality”: what can we call a realistic image of observed life if it is in monochrome rather than colour? And what if the frame-rate does not produce smooth motion for people within the frame, nor for objects captured in tracking shots? What is the “reality” of an image if the granularity inherent in the film stock closely resembles porridge bubbling in a pot?

However, in those days people seemed quite excited about the new medium and the facsimile of “reality” it offered. However, a division between applications already existed in those first few months of the cinema which I mentioned in my previous piece on the 1896 Melbourne Cup film

In that essay I described the two opposing views of what the new medium could offer: either recording the world around us for scientific or educational purposes, (The Lumière Brothers), or frivolous pieces of wizardry for the entertainment of a public hungry for such things (Georges Méliès).

I also described how sometimes each of these opposing teams produced some works which crossed over to the territory of the opposing side. (See endnote #1 at the foot of this essay)

In the years which followed from 1895 many filmed works were created which could be described loosely under those two headings: entertainment or education. And very early in the history of cinema the confusion between these two streams overlapping into each other’s territory started to cause argument and controversy, some of which still remains in our time when we see “documentaries” produced for TV which pretend to be about history although they may present few accurately recorded historical facts. I’ll leave that discussion for a later essay.

After months considering how to deal with this field of filmmaking in its early history, I decided to concentrate on the period of about 100 years ago: just a few years prior to World War 1 and a few years after the end of that terrible conflict. The reason for choosing this period is because of my deep interest in two major pioneers of what many people regard as “the” documentary film... Robert Flaherty and Frank Hurley. They were both extraordinary men, adventurous, deeply committed to the art and craft of film production, but very different in character. Both produced iconic works of cinema which have endured until our time which were, and still are, controversial.

Here’s an approximate timeline for the period I’ve chosen to compare the work of these two men:-

1910    FLAHERTY

From wiki:
In 1910 Robert Flaherty was hired as an explorer and prospector along the Hudson Bay for the Canadian Pacific Railway.

1911    HURLEY
Hurley departs for Antarctica with the Douglas Mawson Expedition in December.

1912  HURLEY
Hurley is still engaged with the Mawson expedition in Antarctica.

1913    HURLEY   
Hurley completes the Mawson expedition in March 1913.

1913     FLAHERTY

From wiki:
In 1913, on Flaherty's expedition to prospect the Belcher Islands, his boss, Sir William Mackenzie, suggested that he take a motion picture camera along. He brought a Bell and Howell hand-cranked motion picture camera.

Another source presents it this way:-
Flaherty decided to bring a camera with him on his third expedition ** in 1913, but knowing nothing about film, Flaherty took a three-week course on cinematography in Rochester, New York[7]

(** I’m fairly certain that this mention of his “third expedition is incorrect. I’ll address these sorts of discrepancies later)

Hurley returns from Antarctica and edits a film called “Home of the Blizzard”.
He joins Shackleton’s ill-fated expedition October 1914.(See endnote #2 at the foot of this essay)

1915   HURLEY
Hurley is caught up in the loss of the Endurance before the escape of the crew to Elephant Island.

1916   HURLEY
After the Endurance had been destroyed by the ice, the crew endured many months floating on various ice floes. Then Shackleton decided to head for the nearest island, Elephant Island.

From wiki:
After five harrowing days at sea, the exhausted men landed their three lifeboats at Elephant Island, 346 miles (557 km) from where the Endurance sank.[97] This was the first time they had stood on solid ground for 497 days.[98] Shackleton's concern for his men was such that he gave his mittens to photographer Frank Hurley, who had lost his during the boat journey. Shackleton suffered frostbitten fingers as a result.[99]

From:-  seeker.com
Mountainous and ice-covered, Elephant Island sits just a couple hundred miles off the north-northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Inhabited by penguins and elephant seals, it's no place for humans to dwell. And yet, for 4 1/2 months, 22 men did just that -- until, on Aug. 30, 1916, they saw a ship approaching.

In November Hurley assembled the photographic materials from the Shackleton expedition.


Flaherty’s smoking habit causes a fire in his editing room, destroying much of the original material from his first two expeditions:

From wiki:
In 1916, Flaherty dropped a cigarette onto the original camera negative (which was highly flammable nitrate stock) and lost 30,000 feet of film.[7] With his first attempt ruined, Flaherty decided to not only return for new footage, but also to refocus the film on one Eskimo family as he felt his earlier footage was too much of travelogue.

Sometimes this report is stated as 70,000 feet of film as per:

From 1913 to 1915, on two expeditions, Flaherty shot 70,000 feet of motion picture film of Eskimo life. The negative of this film was destroyed in a darkroom fire when Flaherty dropped a cigarette; the one surviving positive print has been lost.

(I’ll address the discrepancies between these two sources later).

1917    HURLEY    
Hurley returns to South Georgia to complete his film “In the Grip of the Polar Ice”.(See endnote #3 at the foot of this essay)

In August 1917 Hurley joins the AIF as Official Photographer (rank Captain) stationed in France and Belgium, where he shoots stills and film, e.g.,  'Morning at Passchendaele'.

Flaherty is now engaged in raising funds for a new film about the Inuit.

1918    HURLEY
Hurley spent some time in Palestine over Jericho filming aerial footage of the Light Horse Brigade.

1919    HURLEY
Hurley was Invited to join Sir Ross Smith on his historic flight from England to Australia

1920     FLAHERTY

From wiki:
Flaherty was eventually funded by French fur company Revillon Frères and returned to Northern Canada where he shot footage for “Nanook of the North”  from August 1920 to August 1921.

On 15 August 1920, Flaherty arrived in Port Harrison, Quebec to shoot his film. He brought two Akeley motion-picture cameras which the Inuit referred to as "the aggie".[5] He also brought full developing, printing, and projection equipment to show the Inuit his film, while he was still in the process of filming. He lived in a cabin attached to the Revillon Frères trading post.

1921    HURLEY
Hurley produces “PEARLS AND SAVAGES” a doco by Hurley about the people of  Papua New Guinea and Torres Strait.

1921    FLAHERTY
In August 1921 Flaherty completes filming of Nanook of the North.

Nanook of the North, was released in June 1922 to modest reviews and box office receipts but has for many decades been regarded as a classic.

Read more here

As you can see from this extremely rough timeline, for a period of about twelve years these two extraordinary men were working at opposite ends of the Earth, in tremendously difficult conditions. There were some gaps between their expeditions, such as Flaherty not filming between 1916-1920. I’m not saying he was inactive, merely that he was not filming in the Hudson Bay area in that four-year period. I imagine he was busy trying to raise funds for what later became Nanook of the North, perhaps showing gatherings of people some printed footage which survived the fire, filmed in his first two expeditions to assist in that fund-raising. On the other hand, Hurley had escaped; far away from his Antarctic adventures and misadventures, now safe and sound in war-torn Europe? Not a bit of it! Now he was in the thick of that war filming for the military. After that he went back to “documentary” filmmaking.

Now we must return to the central issue of “Searching for the Truth in Documentaries”. Or, should I say, “Searching for the Truth” in any field of human endeavour?

As you can see from some of the few excerpts quoted, there are many significant discrepancies in the accounts of the lives of these men. The fire in Flaherty’s editing room reveals one such discrepancy which re-occurs in many accounts. Did Robert Flaherty shoot 30,000 feet of film or 70,000 feet over the period of his first two expeditions? I think these figures have been garbled by historians as they seem to have fused the two early expeditions in one single period, as distinct from his later filming event in 1920-21. Also I think the reference to his third expedition ** is incorrectly placed in that quotation… I’m certain the third expedition was the one he made in 1920.

When we address the life of Hurley as represented in that timeline, you will find extremely different accounts of how he came to be involved in each of his Antarctic forays. There are also disputes about how much of the footage which is currently regarded as his personal contribution to the existing copies of films from that time is often confused with footage shot by others who were present, but who may not have been properly accredited.

A Digression with Tom Cowan

While I was wondering what sort of an essay I might write, I sent an email to my good friend Tom Cowan, well known for his fine feature films and also his cinematography on numerous works of other filmmakers including some of my own earlier films. Tom and I met way back in 1962. I was working at the State film Centre in Melbourne. I had dropped out of Uni and got a job at the State Film Centre where I was most fortunate to have access to their film and journal library. I started experimenting with film, then my sister Maureen introduced me to Tom. One of Maureen’s hairdressing clients, Elaine, lived a few doors from Tom’s place and so we met through that lovely person. Very soon we started working on each other’s baby films… at first using Standard 8 and Super 8 cameras. Then Tom found a 16mm camera which we bought in partnership.

Why do I bring that up?  Well the camera we bought was very similar to those which might have been used in Antarctic filming, not necessarily in Hurley’s time, but later.  In my email I reminded Tom of this co-incidence:-

Hey Tomdo you recall that clunky old camera we had when we started out 55 years ago, well, just the other day really… that awful Bell & Howell 16mm with 3 lenses and its “butterfly shaped” handle for winding it up to give us only a 25 second shot? As I recall it also could be “hand-cranked” like a coffee-grinder and it also had a parallax viewfinder which was a devil of thing to negotiate, having to reset it every time you had to take a shot say 3 ft. away from the camera followed by another one say 15 ft, away. What a monstrosity!

We started making our first 16mm films on that ancient monstrosity. You shot a film for me with my sister Gabrielle running down streets near my home, and then you made a film called “Nimmo Street”, shot in South Melbourne. Later on you bought a Pathé 16mm “reflex” movie camera which was a step-up indeed. We also mucked around with Bolexes. You filmed “The Dancing Class” on Nigel’s Bolex. That lovely film won you awards and landed you the job at CFU in Sydney.

Why am I recalling all these semi-related events Tom? Well, I’m thinking a lot about a film we both love and respect, Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North” which I’m trying to write an essay about. I keep getting struck by the tremendous difficulties he faced making that film at Port Harrison, in the wilds of Hudson Bay up near the Arctic Circle. I realise I shouldn’t be concentrating on the difficulties he faced, the immense challenges which stood in his way, but I just can’t help it. Then I also started thinking about Frank Hurley and his various escapades in the Antarctic, at first with Mawson and later with Shackleton.

Now Tom, I don’t think I have told you about this, but when Monique and I were living in Canning St. North Carlton, I got the bug to make a 35mm film! Yes, indeed! I saw a camera in the window of a shop in Lonsdale St. Melbourne. GUESS WHAT? A 35mm Eyemo just like the one Robert Flaherty may have had with him when he started out on his first expedition to Hudson Bay in 1913, when he was prospecting for a company which had interests to exploit that area. Perhaps Flaherty had an earlier version as Quentin tells me “Eyemo” dates from 1925.

The Eyemo I bought also had two 400ft mags, and this is what it 
looked like with one of its 400ft magazines attached:

You see the head of a bolt protruding at the rear of the magazine: in the case of my Eyemo, the 2 bolts suffered from metal fatigue, from the time the camera had been used in the Antarctic. I now wonder if Hurley had used or owned this camera? The two bolts were “cracking up”, the metal was fragmenting. I needed to get them replaced and that led me to meet Reg Robinson about whom I later made the film Here’s to you Mr. Robinson with Garry Patterson. Reg solved the bolt issue by making new ones, and then I mucked around with this ridiculous camera for about a year before I became totally exasperated with its clumsiness, its weight, its clunkiness and that awful parallax viewfinder problem!

So now you know why I’m thinking about Flaherty, how he ever made his film “Nanook of the North”, or how Frank Hurley ever got any shots at all in his Antarctic expeditions. How did these amazing guys function under the difficulties which faced them with such primitive gear?

That email I sent to Tom led me to look up the types and brands of movie cameras which were used by Flaherty and Hurley on the early expeditions. In that search I found links for the film which is often attributed to Hurley, listed on YouTube as:

Frank Hurley Home of the Blizzard (1913) on Youtube

In January this year I received a letter from Tom which included a large essay by Quentin Turnour published in NFSA JOURNAL Vol.2 No. 4, 2007:

Quentin’s essay concentrates on Mawson’s expedition and the film/s which arise from that event. He describes its scope at the head of his essay:-

The subject of this essay is the official motion picture record of the first Australian-backed expedition to Antarctica, the Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE) of 1911–1914, and footage from this record that is preserved today in the NFSA. At issue is a problem of Australian cinema historiography.

I don’t intend to quote very much from this superb essay. It is incredibly detailed and Quentin has done an amazingly thorough investigation into all the issues he has raised for consideration. However, I will quote a summary of those issues here:-

That Frank Hurley directed or was the film’s auteur.
That he subsequently lectured with the AAE film.
That Hurley owned the AAE film and must be the source for the surviving film material.
That the film was called “Home of the Blizzard” on its release.
Let’s take the title of the film represented in that YouTube clip: Quentin asks whether the title “Home of the Blizzard” might be a title given to a single film entity, rather than a title applied to cover a number of events depicted in different films which were released at the time:
The NFSA’s preserved AAE film footage is spread over at least five title numbers. As well as three reels catalogued as Home of the Blizzard, the NFSA also holds four reels of different footage catalogued under the title:
The Mawson–Antarctic Expedition, 1911–1913, Version 1;
two 16mm reels as:-
The Mawson Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1913, Version 2;
and one described as The Mawson Australasian Antarctic Expedition 1911–1913 [Offcuts],
Despite having a reputation as a work of cinema, none of the footage from Home of the Blizzard seems to exist as a complete released feature.
The Mawson Australasian Antarctic Expedition, Version 1 and 2 material often repeats scenes or alternate shots, suggesting it is fragments of more than one complete work. The three Home of the Blizzard reels have some consistent episodic continuity, suggesting they might be part of an incomplete film. However, neither version has head or tail credits, continuous intertitle cards …or a clear narrative continuity.
Thus, for the NFSA there is a factual conflict between the canonical, classic Australian title Home of the Blizzard, with what many believe to be its history as a film, and a collection of footage that clearly has a shared, but obscured provenance and release history. 
This next film listed on YouTube as Hurley's historic Antarctic footage comes in for close scrutiny and detailed examination by Quentin: 
The issue is simple: how many men filmed the departure of the Aurora? Was Hurley the only cinematographer covering this historic event, or were there others whose work has not been properly accredited? Here is just a small sample of Quentin’s investigation:
 “But there was no need to wrestle with the logistics of trying to place Frank Hurley everywhere. Surviving footage in The Mawson Antarctic Expedition, Version 1 and 2 material demonstrates that there must have been at least two film units. Shots of the Hobart throng (Fig. 8), along with those of the Aurora drawing away and crossing wakes with the chase flotilla (Fig. 9), must have been taken on board the Aurora simultaneously to the departure footage used in Home of the Blizzard (most likely from the upper deck). Although frustratingly out of shot in the sequence of the departure in Home of the Blizzard, a cinematographic camera and tripod can just be seen in the bottom left (Fig. 7), on the stern of the Aurora as it travels down the Derwent River. In The Mawson Antarctic Expedition, Version 1 and 2 material the likely reciprocal on-shore camera position would have been used (perhaps by Primmer) to film the Aurora’s departure.”

Many readers will already have come across Quentin’s fine essay. For those who have not yet sighted it, I highly recommend it. It is a serious investigation into so many aspects of the history of the Mawson expedition and of the filmmaking, the screenings, the publicity, the preservation of the original film negatives, or the total lack of care in regard to these most unstable and degradable materials. Finally, the question of who was the owner of the footage?

For me the most important aspect of what Quentin unveiled was the nature and personality of Frank Hurley, the difference between what are perceived to be the facts of his life, and the various mythologies which have arisen from accounts of those events. Some of them seem deliberate misrepresentations, others accidental, and yet even when they were probably not deliberate Hurley seems to have used the publicity for his own ends. I don’t think Quentin would mind me saying this: he gives a very different picture of the man Frank Hurley from that which is so often presented which makes him into a sort of hero.

On the other hand I wish to separate out Hurley’s involvement with Mawson’s expedition from his subsequent work with Shackleton. If everything which Quentin debates in his essay is true, and he has given them the deepest investigation and consideration, nevertheless the two expeditions are distinctly different from each other and the events which occurred in Shackleton’s were truly staggering by any measure.

Hudson Bay, Canada.
Now, while the 25-year-old Frank Hurley was busy on his first visit to Antarctica with Douglas Mawson, a young chap named Robert Flaherty, who was one year older than Hurley, was sent “prospecting” for iron ore in the Hudson Bay area of Canada. His boss, William McKenzie, suggested that he take a motion picture camera along.
From Wiki:
“He brought a Bell and Howell hand-cranked motion picture camera. He was particularly intrigued by the life of the Inuit people, and spent so much time filming them that he had begun to neglect his real work.
When Flaherty returned to Toronto with 30,000 feet of film, the nitrate film stock was ignited in a fire started from his cigarette in his editing room. His film was destroyed and his hands were burned. Although his editing print was saved and shown several times, Flaherty wasn't satisfied with the results. "It was utterly inept, simply a scene of this or that, no relation, no thread of story or continuity whatever, and it must have bored the audience to distraction. Certainly it bored me."
As you can see from the above a remarkable serendipity was at work for Flaherty. If he had not been employed as a prospector for iron-ore we may never have had the film Nanook of the North. I don’t know if Flaherty’s first camera had 400 ft magazines like mine, but in any case, those early experiences led him to a life of filmmaking, because he became much more serious after the accident. Imagine anyone being stupid enough to smoke in an editing room full of explosive nitrate film! I think it was a significant experience which changed his approach to the filming of Nanook of the North.
What impresses me most about this part of Flaherty’s life is not just the story the fire in his editing room. I am totally in awe of Flaherty that he had spent so much time making his “observational” film coverage over the two early expeditions, but then he had become completely disenchanted by it. There are numerous reports of this. It seems he found it deeply unsatisfying, even though by current standards to do with ethnographic filmmaking it must have had some redeeming features, some charm. And after all it was filmed at a time when the Inuit were still in the early days of Europeanisation, by which I mean European culture destroying the culture they had formed over thousands of years.

Flaherty was forced by the outcome of that fire to revise his concept of the sort of film he wished to make about the Inuit people. This revised concept became the basis for Nanook of the North, which was a scripted and planned film rather than consisting of casual observational footage, yet it has been often criticised for being “fake”. Even audiences from the time of its release seemed to read it is a “documentary” rather than what it really is, a narrative drama. I think it’s fair to say Robert Flaherty was inventing a form of film which had not been created until that time! I also agree with my friend Tom Cowan who made the observation that his filming of Nanook must have been deeply “informed” by all the observations he had made prior to the 1920 filming period.
Meanwhile, while Flaherty was engaged in revising his plans and raising the funding for his third expedition, way down south, at the other end of the Earth, another serious expedition was underway. Under the leadership of Sir Ernest Shackleton the young Frank Hurley was taking photographs and shooting movie film footage as the official photographer of Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition which did not come to fruition, instead becoming a most extraordinary tale of loss and survival, one of the great expedition sagas of the 20th century, and some of it is recorded on film, a lot of material in still photographic form.
Recently I came across an essay about Hurley written by fellow filmmaker Andrew Pike. A few weeks ago I renewed contact with Andrew whom I had first met in the 1960’s. Although we had been in occasional contact between then and now, I had not spoken with Andrew for many years, until I came across the essay he had written about Hurley. Andrew has given me permission to quote from that essay:

In October 1914 he joined Sir Ernest Shackleton in yet another Antarctic expedition and produced his most famous still photographs—a series showing the ship Endurance, being gradually destroyed by pack-ice, and the heroic struggle for survival of Shackleton's men. He ended the adventure in November 1916 in London where he assembled the film and photographs, including colour plates. Early in 1917 he briefly visited South Georgia to secure additional scenes to complete his film, In the Grip of Polar Ice”.
                                                       Frank Hurley, c.1913
Now there’s some debate about what sort of camera technology Hurley would have had available to film the expedition. Tom Cowan recalls seeing his Debrie movie camera on display when he went to Sydney to join the Commonwealth Film Unit in the early-sixties:-
“I saw that Debrie Parvo at the Commonwealth Film Unit - or maybe it was at Colorfilm Laboratories in the sixties. Frank Hurley had been around the CFU a few years before I got there.”
From Wiki:-
“Hurley also used a movie camera to record a range of experiences including the Antarctic expeditions, the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, and war in the Middle East during World War II. The camera was a Debrie Parvo L 35mm hand-crank camera made in France. This camera is now in the collection of the National Museum of Australia.[12]
But Hurley may have taken more than one movie camera with him on that expedition. I’ve read that he had 3 movie cameras with him, including this one:-
Hu                              Hurley filming under the bows of the Endurance 1915,
              with  J A Prestwich  Cine Camera 
 I’m not sure when this next photograph was taken. It looks like the Debrie camera, with some sort of electrical motor attached to the rear, above the tripod’s pan-handle. Rather than a motor to run the camera it may be some sort of focus control fitted to the camera lens.

Tom Cowan also reflects upon the primitive equipment available to Hurley:
“How exciting it must have been for young Hurley, and for Flaherty, to be recording the world for the first time with their cumbersome primitive cameras.

“Funnily enough when I went to Antarctica it was with equipment as primitive and more cumbersome than Hurley had: 70mm Imax cameras. And that was over 80 years after the Mawson expedition that Hurley accompanied. We re-enacted Mawson’s fall into a crevice on his lone trek across the ice shelf, probably the most awesome feat of physical endurance known. Just filming the re-enactment was one of the most arduous jobs I ever had.

“I had a few thoughts about Hurley on that trip and some of his pictures appear in the film as they have in almost any documentary from anywhere about Antarctica.”
Although this next photograph is not Hurley’s actual Debrie movie camera, I imagine it was similar to the more recent model displayed in this photograph:-

Moving on from the sort of cameras Hurley had available to him in 1914 leads me to discuss Flaherty’s camera equipment when he set out for the final shoot in 1920 to film Nanook of the North.

From Wiki:-
Flaherty was determined to make a new film, one following a life of a typical Inuk and his family. In 1920, he secured funds from Revillon Frères, a French fur trade company to shoot what was to become Nanook of the North.[4] On 15 August 1920, Flaherty arrived in Port Harrison, Quebec to shoot his film. He brought two Akeley motion-picture cameras which the Inuit referred to as "the aggie".[5] He also brought full developing, printing, and projection equipment to show the Inuit his film, while he was still in the process of filming. He lived in an attached cabin to the Revillon Frères trading post.

Well, as you can see from the above, this new expedition is extremely different from anything Flaherty or Hurley had done before. Not only did Flaherty buy two new cameras, AKELEY, he also took processing equipment to develop the film, also printing equipment to make copies in positive from the negatives, and projection equipment to show the unfolding work to his Inuit cast and crew.

Serial number 108 makes this camera date of manufacture somewhere around 1919 or earlier. This camera is now nearly a hundred years old and will still shoot today.

I’ll consider the developing/printing and projection equipment later, but for now let’s concentrate on the differences between the AKELEY and the DEBRIE cameras. Obviously the change of the shape of the package: the circular shape allows for the reel of negative inside the envelope, and from my experience of other camera designs in my experience I’m sure it was “co-axial” where the film feeds from one light-free compartment, through a loop and the “gate” into the other light-free compartment after the images are exposed in the aperture. Other cameras such as the Bell and Howell Eyemo cameras were quite different in design, not co-axial, and that made them much more bulky to hold an equal footage of filmstock. Improved versions of co-axial cameras such as the ECLAIR NPR (noiseless portable reflex) greatly assisted the rise of “cinema verite” films in the 1960’s.

Once again we have similar problems shared by these earlier cameras: viewing the subject was not through the lens which was filming the event, (reflex), but via an adjacent viewfinder which caused a parallax problem: the closer the camera was to the subject, the viewfinder had to be adjusted to avoid the framing to be quite lopsided, i.e. instead of the subject being central in the frame, he or she would be off to one side. This was not such a problem the further the camera was away from the subject. At a distance of 10 metres, the discrepancy would be negligible. But it would still be an issue when filming with a telephoto lens.

The AKELEY camera displayed in the photograph looks like it was totally hand-cranked, rather than relying upon a spring which is wound up (as in the Bell & Howell which had both options). Being hand-cranked allowed you to make longer takes than if you were relying on the length of time one wind-up could deliver in spring-wound cameras.

I believe Flaherty did take lessons when he bought the Akeley cameras.
In some sources these lessons are linked to the two earlier expeditions, but I think that was not necessarily true. I think it is much more likely that in purchasing two new cameras, and other equipment for a more serious attempt at filming, that Flaherty went to school for the three weeks to find out everything he needed to know for that expedition.

Now we come to the developing and printing equipment Flaherty took with him.

I refer my reader to a film I made in between 1973 - 1976 with my friend Garry Patterson. This film “Here’s to You, Mr. Robinson” is available on YouTube, and it features Reg Robinson who fixed up my Eyemo, and also built movie cameras in his backyard shed!

The relevant section of this film occurs from 19.36 -  21.13.

As you can see from this sequence, Reg’s developing bath and its rotating frame could only handle 100 ft of film. I think he could process both 35mm and 16mm camera negatives. After feeding them onto the drying rack above the developing tank he would then have to copy them using a film-printer. After that would have to develop and dry that printed film to make positive film to place in his projector, just as he had done for the camera negative.

You can see this is a large set-up and involves an arduous process, and if you were filming with 400 foot camera rolls, the problem would be much greater than for 100 foot rolls. So Flaherty was incredibly ambitious in filming, processing the negative, and then making positive copies for projection in a room attached to a trader’s hut. I don’t know if he had a simpler version available than what Reg had installed in his garage.

Summing Up
When I was teaching at Swinburne in the 80’s we had a small Bakelite developing tank which had spiral frames, enabling development of 100ft of 16mm film. I don’t recall it ever being used while I was in that department, although it was certainly much less cumbersome, much more user-friendly than something as substantial as Reg Robinson’s back yard processing plant!

What a mission Robert Flaherty undertook to create that wonderful film!
What dedication he displayed!  

I think at this stage we can take a break.

In my next essay I will attempt to analyse scenes from his film, as well as scenes from Hurley’s film “In the Grip of the Polar Ice”.


Peter Tammer

[1] Quentin Turnour has commented to me: The division between scientific uses of cinema and entertainment ones was a continual source of debate throughout the history of what is called ‘Research Film’ (see science journalist Anthony Michaelis’ book RESEARCH FILM from 1957). Most ‘hard’ scientists with an interest in using cinema in fields such as ethnography, biomechanics, social science or biology were pretty dismissive of the ‘documentary’ movement, thinking it just a gloss of their work. Mawson, for example, hated Hurley’s documentaries, such as his 1929 BANZAE film SIEGE OF THE SOUTH, for the entertainment skip they’d take on the expedition science. Modern ethnographic filmmakers in the 1960s were often making film in reaction to Flaherty, even though they’d often fall for many of his same techniques to get their films competed, such as editing together two different scenes.

[2] Quentin Turnour has commented: This is one of the key points of my essay; Hurley never did this. He shot the footage, but the various versions of the HoB film were edited by either staff at Gaumont Australia or later by Mawson. As soon as Hurley was back from the summer 1913-14 Mawson rescue expedition he was off with Shackleton. In the Australian winter of 1913, when he could have been editing his 1911-13 footage, he was in Java making a film for Shell and being chased by Edgeworth David, the Chairman of the AAE, to come home and meet his contractual obligations

[3] Quentin Turnour comments: Much of Hurley’s key AIF work was done in the middle-east. Most of the classic Western front AIF footage was filmed  by Hubert Wilkins.

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