Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Stephen Pickard: Chapter Four - More From Pinewood

It's time for another facinating peep behind the camera with our ex-Southend friend in the know, Stephen Pickard. This chapter takes us into the 1970's, and covers the remainder of his time at Pinewood.

Once again, although I was established in the studios I found myself hitting a brick wall with regards to changing jobs. It was next to impossible to make the transition into 'sound' because of the trade union situation - NATKE (projectionists) and ACTT (film technicians). Unless you had a relative in the business (or there happened to be no ACTT members available for work) there was little chance of making the move. The only way to ease across was as a Trainee Boom Assistant, as you didn't necessarily have to be a member of ACTT for this job. So I went to the Sound Department head, Cyril Crowhurst, to ask him to give me a break and luckily for me it worked.

In May, 1969 I started work on J & K Stages, which were only three years old, on the TV sit-com "Up She Goes" (later to be titled "From A Birds Eye View"). The same day, Billy Wilder started shooting the film "Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" on the newly constructed 'Baker Street' set on the back lot. At lunch time I went on the set and chatted to the sound crew. The sound mixer was Jock May (who was Hammer's main production mixer during their golden period at Bray), and the Boom Operator was Charlie Wheeler. I was warned that he was a tough Union man to work for, but I got to like him a lot and he taught me much about the job. The leads, Millicent Martin, Patte Finley and Peter Jones were all very friendly. Likewise, Ralph Levy, who was a superb experienced TV Director. Jeff Seaholme, famous for the Ealing Films, was our camera operator and I got along with him really well too. Unfortunately, he had a falling out with the Director and was dismissed. I told him I was sorry to see him go and on his departure he gave me a whole pile of back issues of "Films and Filming" which I still have.

At this time Nagra quarter-inch Swiss tape recorders were steadily taking over the British Film Industry as the standard for production sound recording. Since the introduction of magnetic film at the beginning of the 50's production sound was either recorded onto 17 1/2 or 35mm single stripe magnetic film. "Up She Goes" was recorded onto 35mm single stripe magnetic film. The audio was picked by a D-25 microphone onto a Fisher 'boom' and was routed through a small 'floor' mixer and then sent to a small 'monitor' room located on the side of the sound stage.

My job as 'Boom Assistant' was to come on to the stage in the morning at least an hour before the crew arrived and lay cables connecting the boom to the mixer and the monitor recording room and a cable from the mixer to the camera. Next, I had to wheel the Fisher 'boom' on to the stage from the sound department. Thr Fisher boom was an instrument on wheels with a platform to stand on and an arm that extended several feet and at the end of it was affixed the microphone. The operator could control with ease the position of the microphone over the actors by extending the arm and swivelling the microphone to the correct angle of the emitting speaking voice. The wheels were like small car tyres and could extend or contract to fit through narrow areas. They had to be extended when being transported to and from the stage. Every assistant had had the harrowing experience of tipping the fragile boom over on it's side at one time or another, and I was no exception! One day upon leaving the stage I forgot to extend the wheels and when I went over the ramp underneath the large stage doors, over it went! Fortunately I wasn't fired for my mistake, but the sound department were obviously not happy with me for days after.

Jock May (sound mixer) did not like me at all. Part of my job was to listen for the 'local' phone which was attached to the side of the mixer. It's major function was to signal to the recordist in the monitor room when to start the recorder. This was done by pressing a button on the phone once, Jock would then wait for two 'beeps' and this would indicate that the recorder was up to 'speed'. He would then motion to the assistant director, Ron Purdie, that the sound crew were ready and the camera crew could commence shooting. On one occasion I missed the phone ringing because I was talking to somebody, and this annoyed Jock greatly. As a result he told me that I should find another job and stay out of the sound department. Well fortunately, this didn't materialise as here I am forty years later still working in the sound department!

Another chore I had as a boom assistant was as a 'grip'. When actors walk from position a to b, which could be any distance, the camera and often the boom has to follow (track). This procedure was not easy. I had to first observe the position of the camera, which was on a 'dolly' a four-wheeled 'transport' which supports the heavy camera. The camera 'grip' can move forward, backward or sharply from side to side by simply turning the steering column handle. Camera tape or chalk marks are placed on the floor as a guide to actors and technicians showing where the camera will move. I then had to follow the camera and make sure I knew when the camera dolly was going to stop so I didn't bump into it. I recall this happened at least once. My wheels bumped into the camera dolly which sent a vibration through to the camera. The camera operator, observing the action through the viewfinder immediately called 'cut' when he felt the sharp movement. This was before the completion of the series and I thought I had been fired. Fortunately I was just re-assigned.

It was at this time that the ACTT Trade Union were reviewing my application and deciding whether or not to grant me membership. There were several people that were opposed to the idea. I have to thank Graham Hartstone, who I heard managed to sway the decision of the board into granting me membership. Graham was a sound technician at the time when I went to work at Pinewood in August '68 and he eventually was promoted to Dubbing Mixer and then as department head before he retired a few years ago.

In August, '69 I was assigned as a boom assistant to a picture called Tam-Lin (The Devil's Daughter). This was the first production to utilise the new L & M Stages. These were identical in design to J & K Stages, built on the opposite side of the studio right on the edge facing Black Park - a large heavily wooded area with a lake and large grass patches and long narrow rough unmade roads. This site is well known as a filming location, and Hammer Films (and Pinewood) used it on many of their productions. "Tam-Lin' was a production made by companies Commonwealth United and Winkast Productions (Jerry Gershwin & Elliot Kastner - who had produced "Where Eagles Dare" the previous year). The director was actor Roddy McDowall. The film had been on location in Scotland and had returned to the studio for filming interiors and other local areas. The sound crew were mixer Bill Daniels and the boom operator was Gus Lloyd. Together they had worked on many Pinewood productions. The continuity lady was Penny Daniels who was married to Bill. The production moved a lot slower compared to working on a TV series due to the more critical lighting methods, camera set-ups and longer rehearsals with the actors. Ava Gardner and Ian McShane were the main stars and the film's plot featured the opportunity for many young actors who would soon develop their own careers, including Stephanie Beacham, Joanna Lumley and Madeline Smith. Also featured were daughters of established players such as Jenny Hanley (daughter of Jimmy) and Sinead Cusack (daughter of Cyril).

I worked on this film for almost two months and it was a happy experience all the way. We had a few interesting people visit the set. Among them were Allan Ladd Jnr. and Stanley Mann, both were either producer/writers on the film. Lee Remick also visited the set on one occasion. She was involved with our assistant director Kip Gowans and, if they weren't already, they would eventually marry. My duties were the same as on "Up She Goes\From A Birds Eye View". Occasionally a second microphone was required for odd dialog lines at a distance where the main boom mike could not access in time. On these occasions I would have to plant myself, often on the set eg. hidden behind a couch out of camera range holding a 'stick' with a microphone on the end.

Usually at the end of production there is always an 'end of production party' when all members of the cast and crew get together on one of the stages for a final get together. This was the only occasion that I had the opportunity for a brief conversation with Ava Gardner who was a very charming and lovely lady. These parties can often be an emotional time, as with long shooting schedules, people form close relationships. For some people these were colleges with whom they would never work with again.

Working on film and TV production, for most of the crew is a 'free-lance' career. Once the film is over you are unemployed and it could be months or the following Monday before you are employed again. In the 1960's the sound department, mixers, boom operators, sound camera recordists and boom assistants were 'on staff' studio employees. Eventually, as time went on they would also become free-lance. Fortunately my employment continued and I was moved over to Theatre #5 in October, '69 and remained there until Spring '74. This was the ADR / Foley recording theatre where post production dialogue and sound effects are recorded.

During my time there I met many actors and directors. For a 21/22 year-old film buff on the loose in a film studio, with so much activity and creativity going on, it was like being in a huge amusement park. Although the job was strict, during the quiet moments I could wander the studio halls and stages. Although some of the sets were closed, e.g. "The Devils" most were not and at every opportunity I would witness the shooting and make friends at the same time. As I had mentioned in a previous post, I had seen "Lawrence of Arabia" in 70mm many times at the Metropole, Victoria in London and "Doctor Zhivago" at least twice in 70mm at the Empire, Leicester Square. The next Lean film was announced and was to be shot in Ireland. Months and weeks went by and "Michael's Day" as it was known then (later to be "Ryans Daughter"), was coming to the end of it's shooting schedule. There was no thought in my mind that the film would come to Pinewood for Post Production, I thought Shepperton would get the job as his last British based production ("Lawrence") was done there. It was early - mid 1970 and I was now working in Theatre 5 which dealt with the recording of dialog and sound effects. (I started as a Boom Assistant on the shooting stages and in late '69 moved into Theatre 5). One day, quite out of the blue it was announced that Pinewood would be handling all the Post Production chores. This meant that the editing crew would move into the studios' cutting rooms. David Lean and his editor Norman Savage had one room and the first and second assistants had the other. There were several sound editors headed by the legendary Winston Ryder. He and Lean went back many years together.

In a matter of days, appointments were made for the recording of the sound effects and post dialog or ADR. We called it the virgin loop system, 'looping'. This consisted of a small amount of the picture cut into a loop. The corresponding production soundtrack was cut to match match. A piece of 35mm unrecorded magnetic film was also cut into a loop and the three pieces of film ran syncronised or interlocked together. The actor would look at the picture loop projected up on the screen while listening to the 'guide track' on a headphone. He will then record his voice onto the magnetic film and try to match it to his lips on the screen. The sound editor, who is supervising the session will tell the actor when he has succeeded in getting the 'sync' and the performance right. The sound editor will then take the newly recorded sound back to the cutting room and refine the sync further with the picture.

The music, it was decided, would be recorded at Denham Studios. There were no music recording facilities at Pinewood. Cyril Crowhurst, who was Pinewood's Sound Department superviser oversaw the installation of a proper scoring stage at Denham in 1946. Denham and Pinewood were two massive studios built in the mid thirties and during the second world war Denham continued to shoot films while Pinewood war used more for storage and other war related missions. After the war in 1945 the two studios used each others facilities and the credit on many productions displayed the D and P logo. The Denham scoring stage, in 1966, was taken over by Ken Cameron's company Anvil, who were formerly at a small studio by the name of Beaconsfield. Ken Cameron was an expert in recording, especially in music. He made his name in the forties and fifties creating soundtracks for many shorts and documentaries. Among his many clients were Hammer Films of which all the classic gothic soundtracks were created there at Beaconsfield. As Ken was drawing close to retiring age he hired Eric Tomlinson who was at the time working at CTS in Bayswater London. Eric was the scoring mixer on "Ryan's Daughter" scheduled to be recorded in July, 1970.

By this time I had met David Lean and all the cutting crew. I wanted to be as close to every aspect of the production as possible, knowing it would probably be years before he decided on making another film. (Thanks to the mouth of critic Pauline Kael, little did I know just how long that would be!) When I heard that the scoring sessions were scheduled I approached editor Norman Savage and asked him if it was possible to attend. A few days later he came to me and said that he spoke to David and said that it would be okay. I then proceeded to book my vacation/holiday time to correspond with the sessions. I spent a whole week over at Anvil, Denham. I had a chair immediately behind the podium. Prior to this I had heard that Jarre was doing the score and that he was to conduct. It was a thrilling experience. I spent five days on the stage. Behind me was the recording room where I could see Eric Tomlinson, the mixer. David Lean attended every day. He always took the time to smile and say good morning to me. The orchestra was overwhelming. Immediately in front of the orchestra were nine harpists a mike hung over groups of three, representing left, center and right, when it came to record the Overture. Monique Rollin, a very attractive blonde lady, played the zither. I made a point of introducing myself to her as her playing was a big part of "Lawrence" and "Zhivago". One day one of the nine harpists left at lunch and didn't return, this was the only time I saw Maurice lose his temper! He was very pleasant toward me and expressed amazement that I would want to spend all my vacation time on a recording stage.

At this time Ken Cameron was taking care of administrative duties relating to the stage and as a consultant. He had a tiny office. He was a Scotsman and always wore a kilt. He also loved his whiskey! Like the rest of the 'old school gentlemen' of the British Film Industry, they were always well educated and well dressed and always had time to talk to you if they knew you were genuinely interested. Several days were spent recording the sound effects and footsteps (foley). We were informed by the editors that this was to be a stereo soundtrack as the procedures for recording are very different to a mono film. No stereo or multiple miking was used. All the main foreground characters on the screen were recorded separately so that during the final mix there could be total control on each character's footsteps as they moved across the three speaker positions on the screen. The background crowd footsteps were done in two ways. Groups of feet movement for the left, center and right side of the screen. Also a track of footsteps would be recorded that would be panned back and forth between speakers. Sound effects and crowd voices were recorded in the same manner. This particular soundtrack was to be a four-track stereo mix, three channels behind the screen and the fourth channel would be for the mono surrounds.

During this time two events happened involving "Lawrence of Arabia". In England, the film was re-issued in it's cut 202 minute UK version at the Dominion, Tottenham Court Road. David and I had a brief discussion about the color of this revival print in the men's toilet of all places outside Theatre 2's dubbing theatre! The other 'event' was that while he was cutting "Ryan" he spent several days over at Shepperton Studios, at the request of Columbia Pictures, removing a further 30 minutes out of "Lawrence" for the US only. The main mixing of "Ryan's Daughter" went very smoothly. By this time I knew Gordon McCallum, the dubbing mixer, very well and spent every available moment I had in the theatre during the pre-mixing of the dialog, efx and music. David Lean came in often and the two of them had many quite discussions on how he wanted the film to sound like. (Lean and McCallum were not strangers to each other. McCallum's career stretches back to the 40's and he had dubbed several of Lean's films). Often it would be just the three of us, other times many of the sound editors would be in attendance when their work was being mixed.

I think that during all this time I only once went into David Lean's editing room and this was to collect some LP's of David's films that I asked Norman if he would have him sign. It took several days and often when I would return from the studio bar at lunchtime, after a drink, I would take a short cut through the executive restaurant and there at a table by the window David would be sitting on his own having his lunch, and as I passed by he would say hello and remind me that he had not forgotten to sign my LP's. Moments like these I will never forget.
Here is Stephen's copy of the Lawrence of Arabia script that David Lean signed for him:
On one Sunday morning, a week or two before the premiere, I attended the Empire, Leicester Square for a test run for sound. Gordon McCallum was present and requested some equalisation of the theatre's sound system. The four-track mix had been artificially spread by Technicolor London's special technique as this was a 70mm roadshow release.This brought to an end my personal relationship with "Ryan's Daughter". The film, now, was ready to be presented to the world.

By this time I was a member of ACTT, and had ambitions to get involved in the more creative side of film-making, which was the cutting rooms. During my time in Theatre 5, I knew many picture and sound editors and assistants. Once again I had hit another kind of brick wall. Most editors, all which are free-lance, usually keep their assistants when they move from film to film. So I ended up seeking a trainee assistant editor's position in a company, probably based in London. This, of course meant me leaving pinewood, which I knew would have to happen at some point. I wanted to be a second assistant picture editor, free-lance which would involve the opportunity to work at any of the major studios such as ABPC and Shepperton.

Eventually, luck came my way. A position opened up in early 1974, around the time that "The Man With The Golden Gun" started shooting, at a company called De Lane Lea in Wardour Street, London. The company was started by french producer Jacques De Lane Lea. So I left the vast studio behind me to work in the top floor offices which were converted into cutting rooms.
As always, a big thank you to Stephen for sharing his memories of his career with us.

Monday, 21 June 2010

Frank Sidebottom - R.I.P

I was sorry to hear that Frank Sidebottom died this morning, aged just 54. It was only in May that Frank (real name Chris Sievey) found out he had cancer, he was treated quickly, but alas it didn't help him. I see from his MySpace page that he was still gigging right up to the end (incredibly, he was due to play my home town of Leigh-on-Sea at the end of this week), and had even updated his blog yesterday (sadly I note he'd changed his status to 'very poorly').

Chris had a brief dabble with fame in the early 1980's with his pop punk band The Freshies (remember their songs "I'm In Love With The Girl On A Certain Manchester Megastore Checkout Desk" or "I Can't Get 'Bouncing Babies' By The Teardrop Explodes"?? Both these titles remind me of classic era Smash Hits magazine!). But from 1984 onwards he wore the papier-mâché head of Frank Sidebottom and became one of those odd cult phenomenons that nobody can quite work out. Chris invented a whole world for Frank, and it was incredible how he remained 'in character' throughout. Even his blog posts about his illness were written as Frank... Having being diagnosed with a tumour close to his oesophagus he said "At first I thought I had a tape worm in me. Have you seen them? They're ace, like a monster from another world but live in you and nick all your food. I tried 300 quids worth of Gaviscon, but that was bobbins. I'll just go with whatever they say after trying that".

I've been a festival go-er from the 80's right up to the 2000's. Bands come and go and perhaps 'define' a year, but when I look back on my years of festival going, it's people like Malcolm Hardee, Charlie Chuck and Frank Sidebottom who evoke the real memories of those times. People who played there year after year in the comedy tents and side stages. Old friends who it was traditional to catch every year - all 3 were ideal late night ways to finish a 'busy' day.

I only interviewed Frank last year (here). We did it remotely but he came across as a really nice down to earth guy. He even sent me a little package with a signed CD and flyer shortly after.

R.I.P Chris.


Tuesday, 15 June 2010

The Plant Lovers...

Be honest, when we were kids, who didn't want a tree house?? I bet this person did... and now they have one!

I spotted this house the other day whilst searching in vain for a parking space in the back roads of Southend. I wonder if it's a complete role reversal, and all the family are budged up in the greenhouse, whilst the plants and shrubs are slobbing out on the sofa with the Sky Plus remote?

These pictures really don't do the place justice! The rooms upstairs look like they must be jam packed to the rafter with shrubs, and they are all squashed up against the window gasping for a bit of space! Weird!


Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Wilson.... finally!

Well, true to their word, to help make amends for my disastrous day last Monday, those good people at Gosh! did indeed send me a complimentary signed copy of the new Dan Clowes graphic novel 'Wilson' (as well as a few gift vouchers too). So although I never got to meet the man, I did at least get my personalised copy of the new book. Thanks Gosh!
I have to say that it was worth the six year wait for this new Clowes book. It is beautifully done, and right up there with some of his very best work. The book has been designed a bit like a classic old annual from when you were a kid.... it's the same size, and has the same kind of feel. At first flick, even the content looks like an old annual too, as it appears to be full of one page stories. Clowes has cleverly changed his style of art on each page too, to give the impression of completely unrelated strips. Indeed, initially the strips even read as 'one-pagers', as we lurch from one pun to the next. But as you read on, the funny one-liners start to dry up a little, and it all starts to get a little more serious. At this point all the previous pages rather cleverly start to entwine and tell the story of Wilson.
waddya mean you really thought my name was Piley???!
Wilson is a complex character, he really seems to believe that he is a happy-go-lucky people person, and is oblivious to the fact that he isn't.... This is despite his continual disastrous attempts at striking up conversation and small talk with strangers, who he always seems to end up offending. He's not a particularly likeable character, he's a loner, and rather too opinionated for his own good. As the story moves on you dig deeper and deeper, finding out more and more about him and what makes him tick. And despite not liking him very much, there are moments when your heart aches for the man... a scene where he is desperately trying to strike up a relationship via a webcam with the grandson he never knew he had is heart wrenching... the last panel of that page still haunts me!
But characterisation is where Clowes is better than just about anyone else in the game... and his ability to create complicated, dysfunctional, and above all, believable individuals of such incredible depth remains impressive. As this mans world twists, turns and unravels, you are exposed to yet more of his layers. I almost felt like his psychoanalyst by the end of it!

I don't want to give any of the story away (which makes reviewing it kind of tricky!), but safe to say it's touching, disturbing, riveting, intelligent, laugh-out-loud funny and compulsive reading. The quality of the story is even matched by the book itself - It's beautifully designed, and I don't think I've ever seen such luxurious, thick paper stock used in a book like this before.

If you've enjoyed Clowes classics such as David Boring and Ghost World, then you are in for a treat with this. If you've never read any of his titles before, then Wilson is the perfect introduction to his world.