For Ken Burns and his crew, the image is everything
By Deanna Wong
When the words ‘a film by Ken Burns’ appear on the TV screen, get ready to be bombarded by a cornucopia of images. From the epic Civil War series to Baseball to Jazz, Burns’s films all employ the director’s trademark narrative method of using pictures to tell the tale.
Burns typically has two to four projects on the go at any one time – he is currently at work on Horatio’s Drive, about an eccentric American doctor who, on a bet, makes the first transcontinental car trip; and Jack Johnson, a biography of the first African-American heavyweight boxing champion, both for U.S. pubcaster PBS – leading one to wonder how he repeatedly manages to get so much unique material. His secret, it turns out, is working with a trusted stable of editors, writers and producers, who are often as enamored with the subject of the documentaries as he is.
According to Peter Miller, who coproduced the Jazz series, Burns is different from other doc-makers in that his producers do a significant amount of the research. They become so familiar with the subject that when the hunt for archival material begins, they’re well equipped to do the nitty-gritty task of finding the right images.
In conducting their search, Burns and his crew hit the usual places: government archives, repositories such as the Library of Congress, and online portals such as Footage.net (where one can search the databases of hundreds of footage sources). But, they aren’t confined by the dictates of the writer.
‘A lot of people go to archives with their heads buried in a script,’ explains Burns. ‘They’ve got shot lists, saying ‘I want this, this and this’, but we [are able to] get from archivists what people with stuff on a list wouldn’t get.’ Writer Geoff Ward, a frequent collaborator, adds, ‘It’s a funny chicken-and- egg thing with Ken. I write a script – I don’t think much about footage. He [and] his people start gathering footage without total connection to what I’m doing, and we sort of put them together.’
Miller adds that the footage often drives the script. He describes a clip from a 1959 TV show called The Sound of Jazz that features an aging Billie Holiday and tenor saxophonist Lester Young – both of whom figure prominently in Jazz. ‘The two of them hadn’t seen each other in years and they came back together for this amazing performance… We presented the footage and [subsequent] interviews to our writer, Geoff Ward, who wrote a beautiful, very moving scene that made everybody cry over this fantastic event – if it weren’t for the footage, there would be no scene.’
While sorting through dust-covered boxes and stacks of badly preserved photos isn’t for every- one, it’s a labor of love for Burns’s crew. Says Miller, ‘When I’m looking at a piece of footage with a musician in the corner whom I recognize, I can say, ‘Oh my god, that drummer we see for two seconds is Chick Webb!’ And everyone had told us there was no footage of him. You don’t necessarily have the same intimacy with the subject matter if you hire a freelancer.’
A Researcher’s Guide to the Archives
By Susan Zeller
The hunt for archive footage is a task some doc-makers relish. But, for those without the time, staff or inclination, often the best course is to hire an experienced researcher. London, U.K.- based prodco RDF Media went this route for both of its Time of Our Lives shows (two 3 x 1-hour series for ITV about social changes in British family life since 1945) enlisting the aid of film-footage specialist James A. Smith.
An archive researcher with 25 years’ experience in television and 15 years in film, Smith (a Londoner) knew how and where to find the right footage at the right price. His strategy involved ‘careful use of the home movies of the interviewees, striking a few good deals with [companies] like the Huntley Archive and British Pathe, and extensive use of certain wide- ranging archives rather than going to lots of little archives,’ he says.
Smith describes the London-based Huntley Archive as one of his favorites, for its eclectic collection. ‘John Huntley was a railway specialist, so they have loads of railway films; that led to getting travel films, and thus the collection expanded,’ he notes, adding, ‘They have a lot of old industrial films and quite a few home-movie collections as well.’
One of the gems Smith unearthed there was a 1970 film about steel called Wonderful World. He first came across it during research for the first series of Time of Our Lives and drew on it again for series two, though not for its main theme. ‘It is full of lifestyle of the times,’ he explains. ‘You’ve got mini-mopeds, people racing around, psychedelic graphics, a ridiculous theme song, a brand-new, modern Swedish kitchen with the family looking at each other with a ‘Happy, darling?’ sort of expression, and perfectly groomed children having a perfect breakfast. We scattered that all over the series.’
British Pathe also draws praise from Smith, for the depth of its collection and its extensive cataloging – a tedious process that not all archives are willing to undertake. In fact, some footage houses condensed their program descriptions prior to putting up their catalog listings on the Internet, he notes, which makes researching for specific scenes or shots more difficult. ‘You get these very dull little paragraphs that give you an idea of what the story is, but very little idea of what the shots are,’ Smith says.
The researcher found several good clips for the series at British Pathe, but one he wished to avoid is an oft-seen image of London hippies in the 1960s. Smith explains: ‘Good footage of hippies or flower power is very hard to come by. It’s surprising, but if you look at any British documentary about the 1960s that mentions flower power, you will nearly always see the same two long-haired guys walking down Carnaby Street. Because there’s so little, it’s become almost iconic.’
But, Smith made a lucky discovery that came in handy for the second installment of Time of Our Lives. He had earlier made the acquaintance of ’60s documentarian Peter Whitehead while researching for another project. The filmmaker, whose docs were well regarded during that era but have not been widely viewed since, offered Smith the chance to see his film Tonite Let’s All Make Love in London. The researcher hit the jackpot. ‘It has wonderful footage of Pink Floyd playing live and in the studio, and interviews with people like Michael Caine, David Hockney and Julie Christie talking about London in the ’60s. This isn’t retrospective – this is the people who were there, making it happen at the time,’ he says. ‘It’s pure ’60s, and we managed to use a bit in Time of Our Lives, series two, because it was fresh.’
In the end, RDF employed roughly 20 minutes of archive footage per episode – almost half of each 48-minute program. Series two of Time of Our Lives is slated to air on ITV sometime later this year.
Lost and Found
Every now and then, the quest for archive footage leads to a great unexpected discovery. Such was the case when James A. Smith was researching for series one of Time of Our Lives.
The researcher had set out to find late-1950s or early-1960s footage of Dagenham, U.K., a town built up around a Ford Motors plant. He contacted the local museum and found out that the curator had all the footage from the town’s now defunct film society.
Smith viewed the films in two sessions. Near the end of the second sitting, the curator unveiled a mystery film. Its content was Smith’s first surprise. ‘It was wonderful black and white footage of Soho in 1942,’ he says. ‘This was the heart of London in the middle of the war. Though there’s lots of film of the Blitz, observational shots of streets and people are rare around that time.’
The director of the film was the second unexpected discovery. ‘It had a title on it: Soho, directed by Ken Hughes, music by Vaughn Williams,’ says Smith. ‘As it turns out, Ken Hughes was one of the more successful British directors of the 1950s and 1960s, and his most famous film was Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’
Through some super-sleuthing, Smith tracked down Hughes’s wife, Charlotte, who filled him in on some of the background. He recalls: ‘[She said] Ken had made this film when he was about 21 or 22 years old, while working for the BBC… He would get hold of 16mm film – offcuts, ends of rolls and things like that. This being the war, you couldn’t go out and buy film, so it was just the few feet left at the end of the reel, mostly shot- exposed. So using this put-together reel of film, he’d go and film all around Soho.’
Now, Smith’s goal is to put the film together in chronological order and turn it over to the British Film Institute. As he says, ‘It’s unique footage.’ SZ
Politics and Pictures
By Kimberley Brown
Finding good footage that’s relevant to a film’s topic is almost always a challenge. But, the process becomes even more complicated when a country’s political agenda prevents access to official archives and renders useless traditional avenues of research. ‘To get politically sensitive material from China is a matter of years of personal contacts and networks,’ says Carma Hinton, a filmmaker with the Long Bow Group in Brookline, U.S. ‘Finding something or not finding something is completely by chance.’
Together with partner Richard Gordon, Hinton – who was born in China, but moved to the U.S. in 1971 – has produced nearly a dozen films on the communist-led country. In so doing, the prodco has established a web of sources in Asia, one of whom recently led Hinton to discover rare documentary footage never before seen in either the East or West.
‘Any film footage that has to do with the Cultural Revolution the Chinese government has designated as out of bounds, unless you can get approval to use it for ways that serve particular political agendas within China,’ explains Hinton. This presented a difficult hurdle for the filmmaker when trying to find archive images for Morning Sun, Long Bow’s latest project, produced in collaboration with Geremie Barmé. The two-hour doc tackles the psychological history of China’s ‘Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution’ (circa 1964 to1976) from the point of view of the generation born around the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949 and that came of age in the 1960s.
In addition to the archives being effectively closed, reams of footage were either lost or destroyed during the violence and turmoil of the period. So, when a friend of a friend mentioned that an acquaintance (ah, networking) had in his possession reels of film he had shot during this era, Hinton followed the lead.
‘I was able to first see a very poor quality half-inch videotape of it,’ she recalls. ‘I thought it was really great and wanted to meet [the filmmaker].’ About a year and a half later, a time lag caused by Hinton’s trips in and out of China as well as the task of coordinating schedules, she finally met Beijing-based filmmaker Zhao Likui, who showed her the rest of the footage.
Shot on 16mm, black and white film, Zhao’s doc chronicles one instance of a mid-1960s craze that saw China’s youth reenacting the Red Army’s historic Long March – a year-long trek between 1934 and 1935 that relocated the army’s base from the south of China to the north, where it eventually became strong enough to take over the country. ‘The Long March became a metaphor for the communist revolution,’ explains Hinton. ‘In 1966, when the Cultural Revolution erupted… young people looked back to past glories for the future of this revolution. The Long March, of course, was one of them.
‘At the time, there was no independent filmmaking to speak of,’ she continues. ‘Every roll of film was registered by the government. You couldn’t just go into a store, buy film, have a camera and shoot.’ But Zhao, then a young graduate from film college, saw the marches as an opportunity to shoot something on his own, because they were condoned by the politicians. So, says Hinton, he took the initiative and got approval.
Using his old school contacts, Zhao located a group of youths that planned to walk south from their home city in Inner Mongolia to the terminus of the Long March. From there, they would retrace the Long March in reverse and then walk to Beijing, where Chairman Mao was holding political rallies. ‘When they got to [the terminus], everyone was so tired that eventually the group split up,’ says Hinton. ‘So, Likui’s footage is from the beginning of the trip to the group’s first glorious destination.’
Zhao never finished the film, because the Cultural Revolution escalated, creating a period of anarchy. ‘Because he was in the process of editing it, he had this raw footage in rolls in his private possession,’ explains Hinton. ‘By fluke, it didn’t get put back into the hands of the government studio.’
The film is special in other ways too. Although Zhao’s shooting style conformed to what was permissible at the time, Hinton says he made an effort to play with the form, framing moments as creatively as possible. The content is also revelatory. ‘Official films want to stress the heroic: the reading of the Red Book, walking in unison. He did all of that, because that’s the style,’ Hinton explains. But, he also captured the more human moments, such as the kids slipping on the ice or vandalizing local temples. ‘Even though it was condoned by the government of that time, the direct act of revolutionary vandalism was never really included in government films,’ she notes.
After viewing Zhao’s film, Hinton quickly arranged to use the footage in Morning Sun, but she is reluctant to disclose the economics of their contract. ‘He was very generous with his time and we worked closely together to put the material in the right historical context,’ she explains. ‘Anyone who wants to use the footage, he holds the copyright.’
Zhao is no longer the physical guardian of the original film, however. ‘I took the actual copy out of China,’ says Hinton, who adds that back in the U.S., she and Gordon arranged to have the film remastered and shipped to Zhao. ‘Zhao and I agreed that I should keep [the original] here, because we fear that it will eventually be lost and destroyed in China.’