Lessons of Television

P re-television documentary films consisted of images, music, and narrative text (titles in silent film). Reenactments and staging were just about the only way to film people. The 35 mm technology was too bulky, heavy, and immobile. By the mid-1960s we started using 16 mm cameras. I remember my pleasure when I held the small Arriflex for the first time. It was like a toy, weighing only 2.2 kilograms (about 5 pounds). It was easy to work with—we could run with it, climb the highest spots, and film without a tripod in a moving car. The very first day I got my hands on the camera, I climbed onto the hood of a Volga sedan and made a marvelous traveling shot through the neighborhood. I watched that sequence many times on the editing table and was always impressed by the smoothness of motion. It looked as it had been made with a dolly.

But even more important, we could film and record synchronous sound with that camera. The camera itself was noisy. That wasn't an obstacle outdoors, but indoors the camera had to be muffled. We would use a big cassette for ten minutes of filming, then put the camera in a blimp, then put it on a tripod and connect a battery; another cable joined the camera with the tape recorder. This complex construction weighed around 70 kilograms (about 150 pounds), but at least we could do an interview with sync sound.

It seems ridiculous now when I recall how long it took to make the necessary preparations, getting the lights ready and setting up the camera on the tripod. We would place the subject in front of the camera and say, ''Please pay no attention to us. Make believe we're not here and speak calmly. Just say what you want to say.''

Then we would clap our hands in front of the subject's face (instead of a clapper), to synchronize film and audio in editing, and the person would start speaking, pretending not to know we were filming. The interview was usually shot three times: once in a close-up, another in a medium shot, and the third in a wide shot. This was done to allow smooth editing. These interviews would seem horrible today, forced, stiff, lacking natural expression. Of course, in those days it was an achievement when a person could speak his or her own words and not read a prepared text, as it was done before.

With the appearance of portable synchronous film cameras, the entire world turned into a set. The need for live reporting grew organically from the very nature of television. As a consequence the documentary genres started to develop swiftly in the mid-1960s. This was happening in the United States, in Europe, and in the Soviet Union.

In 1968 a new studio called Ekran emerged as a special division within the State Committee for Television and Radio. Ekran included four separate units —for narrative, musical, animation, and documentary films. The documentary unit very quickly became the largest producer of documentary films in the Soviet Union. Ekran Studio hired young, talented directors, scriptwriters, and cinematographers, all graduates of vgik. Several outstanding directors from the provinces were also invited to join Ekran. This invitation was something special in itself. In those days it was almost impossible to get permission to live and work in Moscow if you didn't already live in the city, but Ekran was able to get permits for its employees. The studio hired the cream of the crop; rapid enhancement of documentary films was the most important goal of Ekran.

Thirty-year-old Viktor Lisakovich became the artistic director of the studio. The wonderful cinematographer Sergei Medynsky became chief cameraman. He and a few of his colleagues came from the Documentary Film Studio, realizing that television was going to be the place of the future. All the camera people who had worked on television before 1968 were automatically transferred to Ekran. And so I ended up there as well.

Father was right: it's great to be in at the beginning of any undertaking. That was the case in television when I started there; it was the first day of creation. There was a lot of work, everybody was enthused, and the atmosphere was friendly and creative.

But those days were not without clouds. The period of the Thaw was coming to an end, heralding a long time of stagnation. Russian tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia in September 1968, the war started in Afghanistan, we had problems with Poland, and other bleak events clouded the sky. However, everyone lives his or her own life, and everyone tries to find something good in it. I'm not idealizing Soviet television, but I had a great time working there.

Being a cinematographer, I had many opportunities and could make documentaries, as well as news reports and television programs for various departments, such as literary drama, youth, and popular science.

No other profession would have allowed me to travel as much as I did when I was working as a cameraperson. I was in the North of Russia, in the Far East, in all fifteen republics of the ussr, and even in Antarctica. I was in villages and tiny towns—I filmed everywhere. I met the most diverse people, which gave me a good sense of the country and an understanding of the real problems of real life.

At school and even at the institute I was painfully shy. It was hard for me to talk to people, to start a conversation. I spent months going over what I had said to people and always had doubts afterward. I was overly sensitive and self-critical. However, my professional life changed my personality. Working in television meant dealing with all kinds of people, from farmworkers to academicians and government officials.

I became more sociable. I forced myself to change my personality as my work demanded. It wasn't easy, and it wasn't instantaneous. But gradually, step by step and year after year, I grew different, and even I could see the difference. Calling someone, introducing myself, making contact, talking to strangers and getting them to respond with sincerity and frankness—everything that had been a problem was now so easy that I marveled at the change in me. And if I did have misgivings, they would not be over trifles but to the point: Is the film working or not? Am I headed in the right direction?

The rhythm of my life changed too. I can't say that I was sluggish as a teenager, but I preferred to sit and read and take care of my own things rather than work too hard on the job. But as I became more involved professionally, my obligations started to take over. In the beginning I was a little lazy. Who wants to be out in the freezing cold? I had to protect the camera from snow when the car got stuck in snowdrifts, and I had to drag all the stuff two kilometers through the woods. It was hard even with an assistant. Sometimes, stuck in the mud and the slush, I'd think, ''God! Am I going to be doing this all my life?'' But gradually there came a sense of satisfaction from the smallest trifles of work—a nicely framed shot, an interesting moment captured, a ray of light falling just as I wanted it. Not to mention the rare joy that came from filming details that I couldn't even notice without a camera. The camera is a sensitive organ that sees and captures many things. It makes me more observant.

In the end the profession turned me into an absolute workaholic, a person totally consumed by her work, unable to find comparable satisfaction anywhere else. I've been like that my whole life. I sometimes think, ''Well, isn't it time to stop? Why do I keep filming? How much can one do? It's time to live . . .'' But then it turns out that I am truly alive when I'm with my camera. Without it, I'm bored.

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment