Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Two Traditions

Middlebury College of Vermont celebrates a precarious tradition.

Fifty years ago a Middlebury athlete escorted Butch Varno to a football game for the first time. Varno, then a young teen, was disabled by cerebral palsy and could not attend on his own. Now in his 60s, Varno continues to attend Middlebury football and basketball games, escorted by generation after generation of varsity athletes in a ritual of compassion and love.

Senior Producer Ben Houser wondered how to do visual justice to the tradition. How to convey its timeless values? How to convey its inherent fragility?

On a drive through Vermont, Houser and his wife stopped at an antique shop. They spotted an old film camera, a Keystone 8mm, made in the late 1930s by a now-defunct Boston company. An idea took shape.

“No real film existed from the 60s. I thought, if I can shoot something in old film, and something in HD, and place the two next to each other, it would give a sense of the passage of time, visually,” Houser recalled.

Houser bought the Keystone. Film for it no longer is made, but he found a hobbyist in California who owned an old supply of ASA 50 color film – tiny spools in a metal disk. The Keystone has settings from ASA 10 to ASA 40. He bought five rolls of the ASA 50 color.

“Those old cameras don’t have iris control (which regulates light), so you hit-and-run and you get whatever image you get,” Houser said. “I got the ASA 50 knowing I could fix a little of the brightness or darkness in post-edit.”

Wielding the Keystone, Houser and production assistant Megan Anderson shot the nursing home where Varno lives, a campus archway, and the football field.

“It was hard – I had never used anything like that before,” Anderson said. “Luckily I had a cameraman – Jim Greico – who knew how to work with it.

“Each roll of film was only about eight minutes, and you had to crank the camera, and it would only roll for seven or eight minutes. So you roll, and crank it, and then roll and crank it again. You were constantly getting one shot and stopping and trying to reset.”

At a climactic moment honoring Varno at Middlebury’s homecoming ceremony, film ran out.

“It’s not something you can easily replace,” Anderson said. “You have to go somewhere out of direct sunlight and reload and re-string it through – it took like 15 minutes.”

Developing the film was the next hurdle – and not a small one.

“Old 8mm has two sides to it – when you run it through the first time, you take it out of the spool on the bottom and put it back at the top and run it through again,” Houser said. “Because if you think of an old film strip, think of two images next to each other, and that’s what old 8mm is.

“We had to find a guy who could take that film, split it down the middle, so now there’s two separate rolls. The rolls are 25 feet long, so you get 50 feet out of it because it runs through twice.”

Houser found a small studio in Seattle that pulled off the feat. The developed film then was sent to a New York studio, where the images were transferred onto digital beta tape. With that, Houser completed the journey by converting the digital beta into the 4x3 HD format used by E:60.

“It took five states – Vermont, California, Washington, New York, and Connecticut – to get 10 shots,” Houser said.

He thinks it was worth the effort. The new ‘old’ film will augment two authentic shots from that era culled from a Middlebury College promotional reel.

“Artistically it made a lot of sense because this is a 50-year-old tradition,” Houser said. “It shows you what it would have looked like in 1960 if he (Varno) had walked on the field, versus today when you see the pretty HD and slo-mo cameras.

For Anderson, the Keystone connected her to her own tradition of film technology. She said it heightened her empathy for producers of that era.

“It made me realize how lucky we are that it’s so easy and how hard it must have been for them,” she said. “It made me feel sorry for them.”

posted by Steve Marantz, November 3, 2010

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