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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1945

How to be a Magician

page 29

How to be a Magician

The history of the Pacific is full of stories of white men who saved themselves from the oven by announcing that on such and such a day the sun would be blacked out. Those who couldn't predict eclipses were presumably eaten, but the lucky ones and a few liars acquired a reputation for magic amongst the onlookers. Making movies, whether they are "shorts" in New Zealand or "features" in Hollywood, is pretty much the same. The few who know what to do get the credit, though not always financially, and the rest drift back into the outside world as doctors, shopkeepers, wharfies, commercial artists, clerks and the like The essence of making movies, as of predicting eclipses, is to know what to say and when to say it.

Given lime and a little money anyone of average intelligence can make a motion picture of a kind, and thousands do. Sixteen millimetre cameras made specially for amateur use are often much more flexible and adaptable instruments than those used by professionals. The best of modern film stocks, light meters and other accessories are available to the amateur. In peacetime even film sound recording is within reach of the enthusiast who would sooner have that than a small car. But no amateur has to face the flaring criticism of audiences numbered in millions; if Mum and Dad and Aunt Mollie are recognisable the amateur operator rates as a near genius at least, because family amusement is usually all that he aims at, and recognisability is most of what the family asks for.

The professional, on the other hand, has not only to secure the simple fundamentals of recognisability; he must keep on keeping his audiences interested, whether he does it by clever cutting, or beautiful photography, or educational value or a combination of these and other qualities. The professional in short, must know in advance what he is to achieve and how. So far as information and documentary films are concerned, knowing what to say is more important than the technicalities of delivery. Technical efficiency and the many fine craftsmanships of motion picture production open the way for increased subtlety of expression, but all the techniques follow along behind understanding, breadth of view and clarity of objective.

In an ideal setting a Film Unit producing documentaries would operate independently and under its own steam. In practice all units derive funds, motive and direction from the communities in which they operate. In New Zealand the final pattern is not yet worked out, but its shape can already be seen. There are things about our own way of life that we should better understand; for lack of knowledge the town dweller misunderstands the farmer's problems; the farmer occasionally gets at cross purposes with the wharf labourer. Each man, immersed in the problems and skills of his own job, tends to be unsympathetic to the problems of others, especially in matters of pocket linings and even sometimes of mere subsistence. Nothing short of the usually impossible personal contacts can add so much to mutual understanding as vivid, honest films. And nothing, not even a modern newspaper, is quite so expensive or so complex in organisation.

That is why in New Zealand, where the need for mutual understanding and mutual help is quite as great as in larger countries, only the community as a whole can afford to page 30 embark on film production So far as films can do it, the New Zealand National Film Unit, owned and operated by the New Zealand Government, attempts to increase our understanding of mutual problems. In the brief four years since the Unit was started, only the surface has been scratched, and possibilities have been opened up. A great future of service to the community lies ahead.

The National Film Unit has been built on a slender technical foundation laid by the Tourist and Publicity Department, when that Department took over the Filmcraft Studios in Miramar in 1936. The Tourist Department had one simple, clear-cut objective for its film organisation; it was to get tourists to New Zealand. The films showed well how good this country was to look at. The purpose they served was to draw dollars and pounds sterling into the national kitty, leaving to other agencies the increasingly urgent task of getting us all to understand each other better. When world-wide tensions snapped afresh into open warfare in Europe, all of the country's resources were thrown into the new job of repelling unwanted tourists of another kind, and the film branch almost ceased to exist.

From the beginning Government leaders, notably Mr. Fraser and Mr. Nash, realised how potent a factor films could be as morale-builders, giving facts quickly and vividly to vast audiences, highlighting chest-swelling developments in industry and agriculture, creating pride in achievement in the battlefields and on the home front. By the middle of 1941 the Government was convinced that there was the will and the ability to make the necessary films here at home in New Zealand—the only place where New Zealand films could be made—and the National Film Unit came into existence. Six of the original staff remained, two on the production end, and four in the laboratory. Amongst the old hands, twice that number of newcomers from radio, newspapers, education, the Public Service, were fitted in, and the new-born National Film Unit went to work to produce New Zealand's first weekly film news review in full sound. The new Unit had a clear directive from War Cabinet to make a weekly reel which, by presenting the facts about war-time development, would increase the New Zealander s confidence in himself and what his country could do.

In the first two years, and especially the first six months, some of the reels were rather rough-hewn, and looked it. But the evident sincerity and a tendency towards understatement, instead of the usual newsreel bombast had its effect on audiences. They came to like and to trust what "Weekly Review" showed. It was, in its way, a triumph of clear purpose over technical difficulties, like the predicting of eclipses from knowledge rather than by guesswork.

This brief history leads in word and fact to a great difficulty ahead of film workers who deal in the pictured shape of current events. Foresight and the clear voice are essential if the respect of audiences is to be won and kept. But whose voice? It is not quite so easy as picking dates in the almanac, and some think the question can not be answered. The voice is that of the audience which, though usually dumb and often ignorant, is nearly always intelligent. If the film producer or his sponsor step too far out in front, John Citizen will haul them back; if they get into reverse they will also be brought up to current ideas with a jolt. The film worker who takes a pride in his job must be forever reaching out at the limits of what he can say in the most explosive medium of communication yet invented, and yet staying all the time just inside those limits. Because the commercial entertainment cinema is rightly concerned primarily with entertainment, it must deal in topics of universal interest and universal acceptance. Ranged up against this kind of fare, on the same screen, a short film which dealt as trenchantly with some matter of social import as a good pamphlet might, would cause a riot.

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There are, of course, more immediate controls than the final audience. Since no documentary film unit can be completely independent, sponsors, whether they are private firms or a Government Department, will issue some directives. Members of the National Film Unit have often been commiserated with for the agonies they must supposedly suffer through being pushed and pulled by Departmental and Governmental demands. But Departmental officers and Government officials are like movie audiences—often ignorant of film-making problems, but much more intelligent than they sometimes get credit for. Experience in the National Film Unit has matched that of the Crown Film Unit, the Shell Unit, the units working for the Gas Light and Coke Co. in Great Britain, and the British units which have worked for the Ceylon Government: it is that no film workers have ever had more professional freedom anywhere. This is partly due to the commonsense of sponsors, partly to the complexities of film construction whereby none but the highly skilled can even guess at the effect of the finished result. (How could anybody foresee that an unnoticed brass band "oom-pah, oom-pah" in the background music would lend a satirical note to a speech by a Very Important Person?)

The third and most important reason for lack of interference from on top is the fact that positive subjects requiring elucidation so far outnumber the available hours of screen time that the film worker has not time to get himself into trouble by being over-much critical of the other fellow's doings. This in some ivory-tower quarters is regarded as the height of cynical rationalisation, in most film units as sheer practical commonsense. There are other better fields for the practice of direct criticism; films, some of us feel, are best used for positive suggestion. The word propaganda has fallen into ill favour of late, and "education" or "publicity" have taken its place. The change reflects the current attitude of production staffs all round the world, who feel that if they can show the good things that have been done, they have served their main purpose in providing starting points for still better things elsewhere. In this view, a film showing how a good mine is run is more effective towards getting changes in bad mines than a horror picture without such direct suggestions. A film depicting bad methods of potato planting does that and little else; another showing good methods, if it is done persuasively, might improve Matters. It is this functional viewpoint which makes the good documentary groups what they are.

Dealing with matters which are superficially prosaic, as what the workmen do and how they do it, the kind of houses they live in, and how they get to and from them, the documentary workers are constantly driven towards new methods and new ways of saying what they have to say in film. Since the late great days of David Wark Griffiths no group has contributed so much to the freshness of film technique as has the documentary school in Great Britain stemming from Grierson and the old Empire Marketing Board. It was the knowledge that they had something to say which drove them into fresh pastures. Where the techniques of the day were inadequate they invented new ones, not self-consciously, but of necessity. And it is a fine tribute to Grierson himself that, wherever other groups of note have become established, they have not merely copied. In Canada in a very large field, and here at home in New Zealand where the scope is smaller, the attitude of mind is similar to that of the British group, but the methods are quite dissimilar, fitted closely to the urgencies of the times and to the mood and traditions of the countries concerned. Deep rooted in all the documentary units is the knowledge that before they say it they must know what to say. That is the real magic of "short" film production.