Friday 16 April 2010

Stephen Pickard: Chapter Two - MGM

Last month I posted the facinating recollections of Stephen Pickard, who was a projectionist at the Southend Odeon Cinema in the 60's. That post dealt exclusivly with his memories of Southend Cinemas, but was so well received, that I cheekily asked if we could maybe find out a little more about his life in film. Stephen very kindly agreed, and below is his next installment. This post covers his move from showing films to making them, concentrating on his time spent working for MGM.

I was interested in films and the cinema as far back as I can remember - It came from my Mother's side of the family. My Mother's aunt and her sisters went to the cinema regul
arly and also her elder sister and Aunt used to send away to Hollywood for film star pictures. Unfortunately the collection never survived and was probably destroyed or even stolen during the second world war bombings in London.

My recollections of going to the cinema in the early fifties are not very clear, but I do remember my Grandmother regularly taking me to the cinema in Muswell Hill, North London, and I clearly remember going there with my family to see "A Night To Remember". For some reason my memory is clearer once I moved to Eastwood, Essex in January, 1959. Maybe it was the change in the quality of the air from coal-smokey London to the crisp sea air of the coast of Essex!

My best subject in school was English and my Father had ideas that I might get into Journalism, or as I liked to draw, something in that direction, however I wanted to somehow be involved with films. My Father wasn't too keen on the idea, and had designs on me going to college when I left school. It was the experience of seeing "Lawrence of Arabia" in 70mm in London that finally did it. David Lean became my favorite director and I lived and breathed movies day and night (as one or two of my old friends will tell you!). However I had no idea how to get into the Industry, as unless you had a relative working in the business it was next to impossible to break in as it was a 'closed shop', due to the stringent rules laid down by the powerful entertainment union ACTT (Association of Cinematograph, Television & Allied Technicians). I thought that television might be a good starting point, but that idea didn't appeal after an interview with the BBC. Somebody else suggested that a way to get into the business was to train as a cinema projectionist. My Father didn't take to this idea at first but soon adapted when he learnt that I would have to spend one day a week attending a training course in Electronics, Mathematics, Cinema Engineering and Physics at Wandsworth Technical College in South London.

So in January, 1964 I started work at Granada Theatres at the Century Cinema in Pitsea, Essex. In September I went to work at the Odeon Cinema in Southend and by this time I had a good idea how a projection booth was operated. See Stephen's previous post for the full story of this part of his career.

In April, 1968 I left cinema projection. I was now a member of the cinema projectionists' union NATTKE, and I was able to transfer directly to the film studios in a projection-related capacity. I went to MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood for an interview with Tom Howard, who was a special effects cinematographer. As some of you may know, Tom Howard's career goes back to the days of Alexander Korda, and he worked on many British-based MGM films in the forties, fifties and sixties; "Village of the Damned", "The Haunting", "Gorgo", "2001" to name just a few. MGM moved into the lot in Borehamwood (Amalgamated) after the war and would remain there until 1969. Besides MGM, Fox and the Mirisch Corporation also shot some British productions there.

Tom Howard had an office in the MGM Laboratories. His department not only covered the field of photographic visual effects but also the process projection department which dealt with projecting specially filmed backgrounds known as plates that were projected on a screen behind actors in the safe location of a studio stage. I got the job and re-located to Borehamwood.

As MGM was the first studio I worked for, I found it was quite overwhelming. At every opportunity, I would walk around the studio. On the backlot there were the remains of exterior sets of "Quatermass and the Pit", and "The Dirty Dozen", and a satellite dish - which was part of the Discovery in "2001" - all sat rotting away. I met many veterans of MGM who had worked there for many years. One person in particular was a carpenter called Reg, and he described to me how he achieved and executed the effect of the 'bending door' in "The Haunting". I also recall visitng the property department and sitting high on a shelf at the back was Gorgo's head! (I regret not claiming it when I left, as it probably finished up in the trash when the studio closed).
At this time there was little work for us, but within a week or two Tom Howard came to us with some news that we would be starting on a production in June, called "Where Eagles Dare".

During the slow times we would have to service the projection equipment. Unlike regular cinema projectors, which were equipped with an intermittent sprocket beneath the picture gate, they were installed with a 'Mitchell movement'. This was probably the most successful method of moving film through the gate at an extremely steady rate. It was designed by the Mitchell Corporation in the US, many years before for the 35mm motion picture camera and was the standard throughout the film industry for many years. The film we used, which was known as 'plates', was specially photographed by a unit on the production, or from a library of moving backgrounds photographed at various angles, which were projected behind actors in various set-ups, boats, planes, cars etc. These 35mm standard four-perf plates were specially color graded and utilised the complete negative area.

When the main "Where Eagles Dare" unit arrived from Switzerland and Austria they immediately started filming on existing sets that were constructed on the various large sound stages, of which MGM had many. From memory, Stage 10 housed the 'Gold Room' where Burton and Eastwood confront the Germans during a meeting. On another stage there was the interior of the cable car station which was located at the top of the castle. The station itself was built high up on the stage as several feet were needed for an approach and departure for two 'practical' (i.e. working) cable cars. The cables themselves ran several feet to the bottom of the stage. The scenes that we were to prepare for were backgrounds for the plane on it's approach and escape from the airfield, the bus, the motorcycle, the cable cars and for odd close ups of actors. Our very first set up was a shot of Richard Burton in the cable car unscrewing a light bulb while instructing on the timing of the explosives.

On the many occasions where we utilised actors, we would have to wait, sometimes hours, fo them to become available from the main unit. On the cable car scenes, we utilised a front projection rig. This front projection rig was specially designed for Stanley Kubrick on "2001". It consisted of a method of projecting a static 10x8 positive/negative plate which was projected through a special 50/50 transmission/reflection glass plate mounted at 45 degrees onto a large glass bead coated screen, developed by the 3M company (now widely used). The image on the screen was amplified in light level by many times, reflected straight back into the mirror and reflected at a right angle into the lens of the camera which was attached to the same rig as the projector. The main benefit of this process was to pour more light onto the background image resulting in a more realistic illusion of the foreground subject being in the same location as the background - a problem which has beset rear-projection set-ups for many years. Kubrick was so sold on the idea that 3M had developed, that he planned to use it extensively on his next project which was to be "Napoleon". On one of my many visits to Tom Howard's office, he showed me a rough plan of how he and Kubrick planned to apply this material.

Tom Howard was one of the 'old school' gentleman, and very much a father figure to me. (I was only 20 at the time). He knew I was genuinely interested in what he did and was always eager to share it with me. The last time I saw him was at ABPC around 1977, almost eight years after MGM closed, and he told me of his plan to write a book called "From Korda To Kubrick" which I don't believe was ever published.

The front projection rig was only used for background shots behind exteriors and interiors of the cable cars, when leading actors can be seen clearly. I do not want to discredit the incredible work of the stuntmen headed by the legendary Yakima 'Yak' Canutt and his team. Unfortunately, I did not meet Canutt at the studio as I think he left after the location work was completed. However, I did befriend Alf Joint who doubled for Burton. The rear projection work on the bus was utilised by a method called 'triple head' projection. Looking toward the rear and the front of the bus three simultaneous images were required, one facing at the rear and one on each side. Three interlocked projectors were used. The shutters had to be phased with each other as well as the camera and each image was projected onto individual translucent screens. The motorcycle, airplane and car-crash sequences utilised the traditional single projector set-up. With rear projection, being located on the other side of the translucent screen to the camera and actors and crew, you couldn't observe the action being filmed. All you could hear was the director shouting instructions to the actors and the actors performing their lines and sometimes firing weapons, which were often extremely loud.
As I have already mentioned, we would set-up the equipment and then sometimes sit around for a long time for the main unit to come over to the stage. If the set-ups involved using main actors, the main first unit would come to the stage, and I had the opportunity to get to know most of the crew. Brian G. Hutton, the director, was very friendly toward me. His background was as a Hollywood actor. He played 'bad' roles in "Gunfight at the OK Corral" and "King Creole".

Where the rear projection set-ups only used a portion of the stage, the art department built several sets. I had the oppportunity to watch them being filmed. Among the scenes I recall was a brief scene shot between Ingrid Pitt and Mary Ure in her bedroom. The underside of the bridge was constructed for the scene of Eastwood and Burton rigging it with explosives. On this occasion Liz Taylor came to visit the set one evening. We did a front projection set up with Richard Burton retrieving his parachute. I recall the camera operator requesting Burton's hood not to be pulled too far forward over his face, immediately Burton snapped back that audiences would know who it was!

There was a mock-up of the snow covered roof of the cable car station. This was used for an insert of two gloved hands, where Burton reaches out to prevent Eastwood from sliding off the roof. Obviously, the actors were not needed for this shot, just two stand-ins with jackets and gloves. After watching the first hour or so of the film last night, I was reminded of the contribution of the matte artist, Douglas Adamson, an MGM employee. I visited his department on one occasion where he and his lovely assistant Anne were painting on glass a long shot of the 'Castle of the Eagle' with the surrounding mountains. A large miniature was also constructed on the back lot. The painting can be seen when Derren Nesbitt accompanies Mary Ure and Ingrid Pitt in the cable car at night. The scene is made up of location, (the cable car station - at the bottom - when the cable car leaves) the POV's of the Castle which are the matte painting and / or miniature and interior studio when they reach the cable car station. Similarly, the sequence where Eastwood and Burton travel on the roof of the cable car, is a mixture of location with stuntmen, studio with actors and front projection set-up.

When filming was completed on the cable car station, the set was struck with the exception of the cables and the two cable cars. This was left for the shot where Burton leaps from one cable car to another after rigging it with explosives. The jump was done by Alf Joint. On the morning, I managed to go down to the stage to watch. Alf did it in one take successfully, but in the process he landed on the cable car and caught his mouth on the rail, which ran around the rim on top of the car, cutting himself badly.

During the filming of the interior of the plane sequences, the costume or props department asked if I would be willing to put on Mary Ure's parachute, as at that age I was approximately her height, so they could check to see how it would fit and make necessary adjustments before she arrived on the stage. I also recall that day several actors, such as Patrick Wymark and Peter Barkworth, relaxing and reading whilst sitting in special prop chairs. One of my supervisors was always grumbling and complaining and on that day he raised his voice to me and I will never forget Wymark's expression when he looked up and frowned at him!

One morning when the crew were walking toward Stage 10 to film on the 'Gold Room' set, I noticed Derren Nesbitt in costume and a bandage over his eye. I did not realize until that evening or the next day, when I read in the newspaper, that Nesbitt's eye was injured. Apparently a squid effect of him being shot by the squid somehow misfired and part of it went into his eye.

During the completion time of "Where Eagles Dare", the new James Bond film "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was readying to go into production. The climax to the new Bond Adventure was a fight between Bond and Blofeld on the roof of a cable car. When the Bond Producers heard of the fights aboard the cable car in "Where Eagles Dare" they rewrote the end of their screenplay to a fight on a toboggan run instead. I spent nine months in the projection department. I projected dailies for the productions based at the studio. I also helped out in the dubbing stages where the soundtracks were mixed. Among the productions I was involved with at the time were "OHMSS", "Strange Report" TV series, "Dracula Has Risen from the Grave" "Carry On Up the Khyber" and "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".

In late July early August 1968 filming was completed and, with no immediate work in sight, I decided to take a projectionist's position at Pinewood Studios. It was just a year later after the completion of productions such as "Captain Nemo", "Goodye, Mr. Chips" and "Alfred the Great" that MGM Studios were closed permanently.

MGM continued to be represented in England for a few years, by name only when they collaborated with the Associated British Picture Corporation and became MGM/Elstree Studios. One victim of the closure of MGM was Fred Zinnemann's production of "A Man's Fate", of which much money had been spent including extensive exterior set construction on the back-lot.
A very big thank you to Stephen for taking the time and trouble to share these memories with us, it's much appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Some great stuff from Stephen there. That era he's talking about is bang on when I was never out of the cinema. Great movies and what celebs then. As a teenager I just didn't appreciate the work that went into these films.


Dan said...

Wow. Just, wow.

I found this utterly fascinating, have already read it twice, and am about to read it for a third time.

Indeed, I was so taken by my first read through of it yesterday morning that as soon as I was out of work, I went to the shops and purchased Where Eagles Dare on DVD. I've seen the film before, but was compelled to watch it again. It still holds up extraordinarily well even now, and it was a delight to watch the scenes that Stephen talks about.

This sort of extremely personal film history is a source of complete fascination and joy to me and I hope you've got some more material tucked away, Piley, that you're going to treat us with.

In fact, if Stephen ever considers putting his thoughts and memories down in a book format (there are some excellent POD [Publish On Demand] sites out there) then I'll be first in the queue to purchase a copy!

What particularly struck me about this what that it was clearly written by someone who still loves the magic of films and hasn't been corrupted by cynicism. Brilliant, brilliant stuff and I look forward to some more!

Thanks Stephen for writing this, and thanks Piley for blogging about it. Delightful!

phsend said...

I can pretty much echo everything Dan said. I really enjoy reading acounts like Stephen's, particularly as I was a bit of a film obsessive as a child, cutting out film details from the radio and tv times and clipping them into photo albums. I also spent ages ticking off the films I watched in Halliwell's film guide.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Stephen and you too Piley. I really enjoyed that. I love it when people are passionate about things and you can clearly tell Stephen is passionate about films. I've seen Where Eagles Dare many times over the years and it was great to read about the making of it. What a fascinateing job to have , helping to make these movies and seeing how it is all done. I know Stephen now lives in the US and i would love to hear about his work there if he has the time. Nice one.


Mondo said...

OMG as the young'uns say. I'd give anything for a wander around that backlot

Kolley Kibber said...

What a lovely bloke, and what a fascinating career. He obviously knows how fortunate he's been to have worked in such a golden era, but he seems completely down-to-earth at the same time. You don't often get that combination. A gent.

Piley said...

sorry for not replying, been off on our hols...

Warble - Yeah, I remember a time too when you just watched a film and thought nothing more of it! Now I'm always looking at stuff thinking "bet that was hard to set up" etc etc... although these days it's more often than not CGI'd anyway... I call it cheating.

Dan - Excellent! Delighted it hit the spot. WED is a cracker, and certainly one of my most favourite war films. And I have some good news for you... Stephen has been hard at it, and has sent me yet more goodies, this time on his time at Pinewood. All I can say is if you liked this, you are going to LOVE the next chapter! Keep 'em peeled!

PH - I used to cut out those cinema ads in the local papers too. Remember those long skinny ads that you got for the Odeon, ABC and Classic. Also used to keep those freem mags thay they gave alway - was one called "FILM"??

Thanks Carl. I agree, Stephen oozes passion for his profession doesn't he? Well, the good news is, he has very kindly written another chapter (all about Pinewood), if we are very lucky, he may well complete the journey for us with details on how he ended up in the US (keep em crossed!).

Mondo - what would you give for that Gorgo head eh??!

Thanks ISBW, i'm really pleased you've enjoyed Stephens story. There will be more in a few weeks!


Cocktails said...

Hello Piley, I've been waiting AGES to read this (been having work hell and IT nightmares recently) and I wanted to have time to enjoy it. And boy, has it been worth the wait!

It's an absolutely fascinating read and I love the 'behind-the-scenes' stuff - I've often wondered exactly how they did those back projections and now I know!

Piley said...

delighted you enjoyed it Cocktails, a real insight isn't it? and as others have mentioned, written with such enthusiasm and love for the industry (as it was then).

Don't miss the next part on Pinewood, he was there for about 6 years, and there are some great stories.


Dave Whit. said...


I really enjoyed Stephen Pickard's article on his life in cinema. It must be so rewarding to spend your working life doing something you are passionate about. I really hope that Stephen has more insights to write about soon...


Piley said...

Thanks Dave... yes, as mentioned above, there is more to come. Next 2 posts will be about his time at Pinewood, and there is some cracking stuff in there! Be up in a couple of weeks.


Martin said...

For various reasons it's taken a while to get round to reading this but I'm glad I remembered to come back to it. Like Dan I find this sort of personal history fascinating. There's something about knowing the background of how a film or song was created. It seems to let you view it in a different light. Thanks to Stephen and Piley for this. Looking forward to the next instalment.