The Cinematographer

8 Apr

Hugh Hall was a happy man when he heard the news on the radio on May 3, 1948.

He hurried to Kelty’s Bar on Santa Monica Blvd. to share the report from Washington with the rest of his Hollywood friends and fellow professionals from the movie industry.

Nearly intoxicated by the prospects he was able to foresee, Hugh spoke with uncharacteristic exuberance.

“There has never been anything like this happen to the studios,” he declared, perched on a bar stool. “The Supreme Court has broken up the strangle hold that Paramount and the four other majors had over film distribution through their theater chains from coast to coast. They have to sell their movie houses because it has been the foundation of their monopoly over our industry.

“I predict that the independent producers will now have room to make and sell much improved feature films. There will be a lot more opportunity and free expression in this town now.”

Maybe you will be able to get some outfit to make use of your invention, Hugh,” laughed the fat man sitting next to him, a studio photographer at Warner Brothers.

The skeleton-thin unemployed cinematographer all of a sudden turned silent. He realized that he had been gloating at the legal defeat of his former employer, Paramount Pictures.

The bar became silent, until Hugh finished his high-ball and sauntered out of the joint without a word of good-bye to anyone there.

He had been struck by the notion that his hopes of work and success were unrealistic, even if the system of studio giants eventually was compelled to change.

Caught in a spell of unforeseen despair, Hugh found himself headed for the apartment of Ludvig Brot, an independent film director who had experienced better times when first coming to Hollywood as an exile from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.

The refugee opened his door, saw who it was, and ushered Hugh into his living room. The two friends sat down and looked at each other.

“You know what has happened at the Supreme Court?” inquired the visitor.

“Indeed, I do, dear fellow. It may mean, I hope, that someone outside the five main studios decides to gave me a movie to make for them.

“What about you, my boy? Is there going to be any demand to put to use your advanced focus lens? And who will be the director courageous enough to shoot with it?

“I tell you this: if I had a picture assignment, I would insist on camera work with your invention in it. I would choose no one but you to be my cinematographer, Hugh.”

The latter smiled. “It is good to have close friends like you who trust and believe in your future. Thank you for your kind words, Ludvig.”

The younger man’s eyes grew misty as he began to reminisce. He had learned his craft as an assistant of the famous cinematic pioneer Gregg Toland. As a novice in 1940, he had worked for Toland in the filming of John Ford’s “The Long Voyage Home”. Then, in 1941 Hugh had helped the cinematographic pioneer in the revolutionary advances of Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane”.

Like his master, he intended to become an innovator in the art of filming.

The next morning Hugh received a call from Ludvig that caused him a great deal of surprise.

“I have some very good news, my boy. After you left last night, I had an unexpected visitor here. You could never guess who it was, so I’ll tell you. From R.K.O., I had the Vice-President of Production, Mr. Marvin Prost himself. He wanted to see me about a film script I sent him some time ago. It was more an outline than a full shooting script, but he told me that it impressed him and he thinks that he can win approval to have it produced.

“The script is an idea that I had about a year ago to dramatize an early American classic, the novel by Charles Brockden Brown called “Wieland”. It is a strange, Gothic kind of novel published back in 1798. It has often been called the first serious American novel and had influence on a number of later writers in this country.

“Mr. Prost is coming over this afternoon to talk terms with me. I mentioned that I want you to be my cinematographer and want you in on all important business. He agreed with me that you should be present for all important planning and decisions, starting later today.

“Can you make it here by one, Hugh?”

“Certainly,” gulped the latter. “I would like to be involved from the start,” said the shaken filming expert.

Hugh was the first to arrive. “I have never had the opportunity to read this novel upon which you based the script that you submitted to R.K.O.” he informed the older man.

“I must give you both the book and my film version before you leave,” said Ludvig, smiling with anticipation of future success. “You will find the novel somewhat confusing. My film story line promises to clear up a great deal of the unexplained and irrational in the original plot.

“The theme of Brown’s work seems to be that things are not what they appear or claim to be.

“There are disembodied voices thrown out by ventriloquism. Mindless murder occurs and is connected to insanity in some of the characters. Spontaneous combustion is a tool of murder and completely destroys the intended victim

“The narrative is of a weird nature and is sure to bring horror and terror to those who view a film based on the early American novel, often called our first real mystery.”

“I am very interested in the cinematic possibilities,” noted Hugh.

The doorbell rang, causing Ludvig to rise to answer it.

Marvin Prost proved to be a surprisingly enormous giant, taller and heavier than either the director or the cinematographer. He wore an expensive white silk suit that looked pre-war and was meant to be super-impressive. Once he was in the apartment of Ludvig, he dominated all the conversation between the three.

“I am impressed with your basic theme and the working script you sent me,” he said to Ludvig omce the latter had introduced him to Hugh Hall and identified what his future role would be in the actual filming of “Wieland.”.

“Both of us are raring to start, Marvin,” grinned the director from Germany. “We are, both of us, brimming with new, exciting ideas.”

“I like the concept of adapting this old classic to the modern horror and terror movie that is so popular and successful at the present time,” said the studio executive. “I am so enthusiastic about it that I plan to volunteer myself to act as the film’s active producer. That way I can keep my eyes on the day-to-day progress and help to solve any problem that might arise.”

“Hugh has developed an advanced camera lens that he can contribute as a solution to some of the standard visual problems that are common to all our Hollywood studios. He can provide a new, astounding way of combining the near and background focusing of multiple images. It will be an extension of what Gregg Tolson provided for both John Ford and Orson Welles just before the war.”

“I plan to leave such technical and artistic matters to professionals like you guys,” chuckled the Vice-President for Production at R.K.O. “My job will be seeing that we do not go too far over budget,” he said with a slight laugh.

It was agreed by the threesome that the casting and scheduling should begin in the immediate future. “I think we should start working on detailed storyboards as soon as we can,” said the designated director, Ludvig Brot.

On May 15, 1948 there occurred a seismic change in the motion picture industry. This was the purchase of R.K.O. studios by the eccentric billionaire playboy, aviator, industrialist and amateur movie producer Howard Hughes.

Hollywood was petrified by his seemingly mad management style, resulting in mass firings and resignations at the film company.

Marvin Prost was one of the handful of top officials left to operate the projects still in motion within the studio system now controlled by the autocratic, self-willed owner.

A phone call summoned Ludvig Brot to the production office of the frightened Vice-President.

The recently hired director listened to the worried, fearful Prost voice his confused apprehensions about what might happen to the “Wieland” film that was still in the planning stage.

“There have been a number of promising films canceled already,” fretted the executive. “We have to cut down all surviving projects to the bone. Every one of them has to be able to pass a test of its budgetary expenses.

“That is the only way that your movie is going to survive under our new management system, Ludvig.”

The latter frowned. “What am I expected to do about the innovations we planned in terms of the camera lenses? The new lens developed by Hugh Hall is ready to go and available for use. It will be an important ingredient in making our “Wieland” a powerful new method for the entire industry.

“Will we be depending on the lens that Hugh has created for a new method of visual focusing?”

“Yes,” answered Marvin Prost. “I believe that Mr. Hughes should be interested in any new lens system that can improve and expand filming. He is an aeronaut with deep interest in technological inventions.”

It was early the next morning that the studio executive called Ludvig to tell him that the new owner wanted to see an example of what was possible with the Ultimate Lens. He also wished to speak with the director and his gifted cinematographist.

Ludvig and Hugh were in the projection room first. The two waited five minutes for Marvin and Howard Hughes to appear.

The Vice-President of R.K.O. introduced his boss to the pair of film-makers.

“I am greatly interested in the possibilities of new methods,” said the tall, slim rich man, known to millions through newsreels and newspaper photographs.

Marvin gave a hand signal to the projectionist in a separate room to begin showing the short demonstration test film.

The room darkened and the screen on its front wall lit up. An outdoors scene of an empty road appeared in front of the small audience of four.

A brightly-colored automobile came down the road, toward where the movie camera was located on the right side of the highway.

The first car quickly disappeared, replaced by another one barreling down the road.

After the second vehicle, a large truck rolled along the same route.

As a finale, two male pedestrians were visible crossing the road and approaching the camera.

The test film ended and the screen became empty. The lights went on once more.

Several seconds of silence then followed, until Howard Hughes spoke in a raw, rough voice.

“I find this new lens to be interesting, but I wonder how it can be put to practical use when a script story is being filmed. That is my main concern in the matter, how to apply this innovation so as to cause an improvement in the process that creates movies.”

Ludvig offered an answer. “As a director with considerable experience, I foresee the application of the new lens in a film like “Wieland” as an instrument in underlining the difference between reality and imagination. Let me explain.

“In conventional filming, foreground and background must appear as separate and different. If foreground is sharply focused, the background cannot be the same. Or vice-versa. The two plains must be unlike each other in terms of focus.

“But when a lens allows a deep focus, the foreground and the background will be equally distinct. Everything on all the planes will be in focus. The foreground will not monopolize the clarity of strong focus. The whole space of a scene will be engaged, without confusion anywhere in the frame.

“This will be of enormous benefit to a director. In filming of “Wieland”, for instance, the real and the imaginary can be combined in a single view or perspective. That can be an aesthetic advantage, indeed.”

“I understand that is possible,” said Howard Hughes. “But I continue to wonder whether the public that sees the film will understand the benefit that they are enjoying due to the new lens.”

The cinematographist spoke up. “My lens resembles what the eye itself is able to achieve, sir. It will provide the viewer a completely natural focus.”

All the eyes of three persons focused on the billionaire, who appeared to be buried in intense thinking on the question of the new camera lens.

Mr. Hughes began to mutter as if from a considerable distance.

“My view of what film does is that it bares the inner reality of things to the audience. It has always to cling to what exists, not to what the filmmaker may be imagining.

“I do not believe in trying to film what everyone knows does not exist in reality.”

Once he was finished saying that, the owner of the studios rose to his feet, turned about, and departed without saying anything more.

Marvin Prost then rose and excused himself. “I have to get to my office, but I will call you when I have information I can share.”

With that, he began to walk out of the projection room.

Hugh and Ludvig exchanged inquiring glances, but neither of them spoke.

That evening, the director received a telephone call from the Vice-President of R.K.O.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you some bad news, Ludvig. Mr. Hughes has decided to cancel all work on six of the films in planning stage. One of them will be “Weiland”. That’s what the man has determined we are to do, or rather not do.

“There will be no application of the ultimate lens at R.K.O., my friend. It is too bad for both you and Hugh Hall. The two of you have my sincere sympathy, I assure you.”

The director said good night and hung up his receiver.

He realized that he had tragic news to relay to the inventor of the totally focused camera lens. It was not to be used in Hollywood in the year of 1948.


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