"Filming camera!" he explained, when he could speak. "Bless my soul, whatever next? I'd like to know just what you're going to be up to with it, you puss! Well, well! All in good time, no doubt. I suppose you are anxious to have the box of tricks at once, eh!"
"Oh, please, Goppa!" breathed Joyce fervently, her eyes like stars.
"Then we'll be off to town in the car and buy it first thing tomorrow morning," was the lively verdict that sent the youthful company promoter dancing around the tea-table to drop a kiss on her host's thick and decidedly long hair, that she playfully called his "lion's mane".
(Bertha Leonard, The Star of St Anne's, Cassell, 1930, pp52-3)
Obtaining the Necessary Permission
In order to film the Elinor M. Brent-Dyer centenary celebrations,
it was first necessary to obtain permission from the organisers, Polly
Goerres and Clarissa Cridland, who formed the Friends of the Chalet School
Centenary Committee. Fortunately I had been in contact with Polly Goerres
since 10 December 1992 (archived correspondence), towards the end of my
first term of research. Her details had been passed on to me by Rosemary
Auchmuty, who had been contacted by Goerres following the publication of
Auchmuty's study of girls' school stories, A World of Girls (The
Women's Press, 1992). Auchmuty later told me that the Committee was interested
in having the celebrations filmed, and in my fourth letter to Goerres,
on 1 February 1993 (archived correspondence), I accordingly asked if the
Committee was already working with a production company, and if not whether
they would be interested in exploring the idea further with me.
By 10 February 1993 (archived correspondence) we had discussed
this by phone, and Goerres had had initial discussions with Cridland. On
2 March 1993 (archived correspondence), following a phone conversation
between myself and Cridland, Goerres wrote: "I gather Clarissa has been
in touch with you regarding the documentary. It would be splendid to have
a true Chalet fan like you, especially one with your media experience,
involved in it." Shortly after this, a letter (undated) arrived, endorsing
the planned documentary and giving permission for the centenary events
to be filmed. This meant that I was granted the necessary permission twelve
months before the first of the events to be filmed took place, and this
was extremely helpful in planning the filming.
Exploring Funding Opportunities
Although I eventually made the film by myself, with no
outside funding, I first explored the possibility of obtaining funding
from the BBC, working together with an independent production company.
I had previously worked with a number of television production companies,
but chose to approach Kingfisher Films first with a written proposal.
This was a company owned by producer Ian McAuley, whom I had met when working
at the University of East Anglia student television station, Nexus, in
1980, and whom I had met again whilst working on the Channel 4 Cutting
Edge programme, No Home for Barry,
in 1989. McAuley was immediately enthusiastic, and by 15 April 1993 he
had drawn up a draft proposal for presentation to the commissioning editor
of BBC 2's Bookmark series. This was the only possible "slot" at the time;
one of the problems of programme-making in the UK, particularly in 1990
when satellite and cable broadcasting was still in its infancy, is the
limited number of screening opportunities available compared to a country
like the USA. After some discussion, the final proposal was submitted at
the beginning of May 1993.
On 15 June 1993 the proposal was rejected by the new Bookmark
editor, Roland Keating, on the grounds that: "popular as [Brent-Dyer's]
stories are, I don't really feel there is enough in them to sustain a full-length
documentary. So with some regret I must say no." (archived correspondence)
However, on 28 June McAuley wrote to me that this was: "Very disappointing
for me personally - I really thought this was an excellent proposal with
an excellent chance of production." (archived correspondence), and this
gave me the confidence, on 28 July 1993, to write personally to Keating,
enclosing a copy of my MA thesis and asking him to reconsider his decision
(archived correspondence). As a result, McAuley and I met with Keating
in September 1993, having provided him with some additional information
about the interviewees we could expect to include, and after a successful
hour's meeting the programme was shortlisted for production.
Unfortunately, Keating eventually decided to commission
a programme on the Trollope centenary celebrations which were also taking
place in 1994, since Prime Minister John Major was known to be a Trollope
fan. This programme was felt to be too similar to the premise of our proposed
film for Keating to commission both. At this point McAuley felt that there
was little chance of obtaining funding elsewhere, and withdrew from the
project. I explored the possibility of obtaining British Film Institute
and Arts Council funding, but discovered that my student status prevented
me from applying for these.
I was therefore left with the choice of abandoning the
project, or of developing a means by which I could continue with the project
alone and unfunded. Since I had always intended to include a video with
my final thesis,
and since I believed it was important that the celebrations were recorded,
I decided to continue alone. (Low-budget, lone film-making has been brought
within the reach of many more film-makers in recent years by new technological
developments. Given that the British film industry is both extremely small
and dominated by white men, this is often the only viable option available.
Choosing a Format
The first decision which I made was that I would strive to produce a film which was technically of as high a quality as possible, and as close to broadcast standard as could be achieved - otherwise, its potential uses would be severely limited, and it would not meet the PhD definition of "publishable quality". I then had to consider what equipment I could use to achieve this, given the limitations posed both by my impairment and by working alone, as well as by the lack of funding. Shooting on film was immediately ruled out, partly because the sound would need to be recorded separately and so would require more than one person (I could not afford to pay a volunteer's expenses), and partly because of the cost of developing and printing film stock. Video was therefore the only option which I could consider seriously, leaving me with a choice of formats.
S-VHS (pal), a semi-professional format used largely in the UK for wedding and corporate videos, would have provided an acceptable alternative, being almost broadcast-quality. It would also have been relatively easy to obtain free access to a camera, since many colleges and universities owned them at the time, as did a fellow student. However, it was impossible to obtain a camera which was light enough for me to use.
Pal VHS, the domestic standard in the UK, was ruled out on the grounds of unacceptably low quality. This was unfortunate, since the cameras are cheap and easy to obtain, and I already owned a miniature VHS "palmcorder" with multiple features which was light enough for me to use comfortably.
Hi8 & 8mm were the remaining choices. At the time these were a relatively new format, using 8mm wide tapes which appear similar to domestic audio tapes, with 8mm providing a similar quality to VHS and Hi8 to S-VHS. Because of the small size of the tape, many of the cameras in this range were light enough for me to use comfortably. I was also aware from film-maker Adi Tantimedh that students at the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, a leading international film school, were considering using Hi8 as an alternative to 16mm film. I therefore decided to opt for Hi8.
Today, the other alternative would have been to use a
digital video camcorder (DVC), and this is likely to have been my
choice if it had been available at the time. DVC is a more stable format
than Hi8 and generally performs better; it is the format which I will opt
for as soon as I can afford it and a miniaturised model is released. However,
at the time of writing (1997) it is still considerably cheaper to use Hi8,
and this will continue to be a viable alternative for many researchers.
Putting Together a Shooting Kit
Having opted to use Hi8, I purchased a number of video
magazines, all of which tested and recommended equipment (I would always
recommend this course of action when purchasing electronics equipment,
both in terms of quality and of price guides). At the top of the range,
the semi-professional Hi8 cameras cost between £2,000 and £3,000,
and as such were beyond my budget. Perhaps fortunately, they were also
too heavy for me to use comfortably, and so were ruled out on the grounds
of inaccessibility. This left cameras with an average price of £1200,
which I discovered from the magazines were generally obtainable from electronics
warehouses for around £1000.
I opted for the Sony CCDTR1E, because it was the lightest
Hi8 camera available on the market and, unlike other Hi8 cameras, it used
lithium batteries which were both very light and long-lasting. Its picture
fell short of the optimum quality achievable with Hi8, but this was inevitable
because of the miniature nature of the camera. I chose to pay the additional
£100 for a model with a colour viewfinder, and I would strongly recommend
this course to other researchers. (Although conventional wisdom dictates
that it is easier to set the focus and exposure using a black-and-white
viewfinder, I find the opposite to be the case with LCD screens.) The camera
had few features aside from the option of manual control over exposure
and focus, but this was typical of the Hi8 cameras available at the time.
Its biggest design fault was in the remote control, which was switched
off by pushing the switch forward, when I felt instinctively that this
should switch it on.
In terms of accessories, I purchased four additional batteries,
since one battery would power only approximately 50 minutes of shooting
and would then need an hour and a half to recharge (manufacturers' estimates).
I also purchased several yards of extension lead, in order that I could
use a mains power supply where this was possible (the camera offered this
option), since much of the shooting would be concentrated over several
days and I was concerned about whether I would have enough power available
to me. In addition, I purchased a shoulder bag which was designed for the
camera, and a head-cleaning tape to prevent problems later on.
Next, I looked at whether the camera's lens could be improved
upon and added an ultraviolet or "daylight" filter; this was essential
to obtain the maximum performance when shooting outside, particularly in
the sunshine. (Otherwise light tends to have a blue tinge and colours become
washed out.) I also purchased a lens cloth and brush, in order to prevent
dirt from interfering with the picture quality.
Next I looked at the camera's
built-in microphone and decided to add an external microphone which I would
use whenever the filming conditions allowed, for the following reasons.
First, it was important that the microphone was placed as close to the
source of the sound as possible in order to obtain the best possible sound
quality, but the camera would often have to be further away than this to
obtain the required picture. Second, testing showed that the built-in microphone
tended to pick up the sound of the camera's motor and zoom mechanism when
filming in quiet conditions. Third, there was no means of filtering out
wind noise from the built-in microphone, and this is generally necessary
when filming outside.
I wanted an omnioid (picks up sound from a wide range),
stereo microphone, since I prefer to work with ambient noise as I feel
that it conveys more of the atmosphere of the place where filming took
place. (Most sound recordists would use a mono microphone with a short
and narrow range, and record the main sound source only.) I therefore purchased
a semi-professional Sennheiser Mike 66, which also had a bass filter to
cut down background noise and a separate wind shield.
While this microphone proved extremely satisfactory, it
became clear that in certain conditions it would have been better to record
interviews using a mono, uni-directional tie-clip microphone with a shorter
range. I was unable to afford this too, but would strongly recommend it
to other researchers. The other problems in practice were that the wind
shield covered the off/on switch to the microphone, meaning that I could
not easily check that the power supply was switched on; and that it proved
possible on occasions to push the connection to the camera in far enough
to cut off the internal microphone, but not far enough to connect the external
microphone properly, resulting in a buzz on the sound track.
Since I would have no assistant to hold the microphone,
I adapted a bulldog clip to attach the microphone to the tripod (see below)
when using it near the camera, although this often fell apart and needed
tightening with the screwdriver. I also purchased a desk stand for when
the microphone was being used away from the camera. One problem which I
had was in changing between the bulldog clip fitting and desk stand, since
the microphone required a different fitting for each.
In addition, I added a pair of headphones or "cans" in
order to monitor the sound, both as it was being recorded and as it was
being played back (the camera not having built-in speakers). In practice,
the headphones needed using with care, since the cable could bang against
the tripod with the sound being picked up by the camera. However, their
use is essential to ensure the quality of the sound track.
Next, I bought a tripod, since this was essential to obtain
steady shots (and would also be easier for me than lifting a camera the
whole time). I looked for one which was both lightweight and stable, with
a built-in spirit level. Unfortunately, a professional tripod with a fluid
head was beyond my budget; the result of this during filming was that pan
shots were difficult to shoot and had to be avoided where possible. However,
it is likely that a professional tripod would in any case have been inaccessible
on the grounds of weight. As with most tripods, the camera was screwed
to a shoe which dropped securely into place on top of the tripod. Although
this shoe was uncomfortable when using the camera for hand-held shots,
leaving it in place meant that I could switch easily between the two types
of shots. Nonetheless, I added a screwdriver to the kit in order that the
shoe could be removed when the tripod was not being used (the tripod's
weight meant that I could not always take it with me when filming, however
desirable this was from a technical point of view).
Next I looked at lighting. Most of my filming would take
place under natural lighting conditions, but I wanted to boost this where
it was both necessary and possible. I already owned a basic studio light,
and I purchased daylight as well as spotlight bulbs for this in order that
it could be used to boost natural lighting conditions too (tungsten bulbs
add a yellow tinge). Later, when I went to Guernsey and was unable to carry
the light with me, I used daylight bulbs in domestic light fittings to
improve interview conditions. I also purchased a mini-reflector, to reduce
shadows on interviewees.
Finally, I bought tape stock. Hi8 tape comes in two different
types: Metal E (for Evaporated), which is best for image definition; and
Metal P (for Particle), which is best for colour; I therefore decided to
use Metal E for filming interiors, and Metal P for filming exteriors. As
a result of my limited budget, I purchased Sony Metal E and Maxell Metal
P domestic tapes which I used for most of the filming, limiting professional-quality
Sony Metal E to Helen McClelland's scenes. In the event, the professional-quality
tapes performed the worst.
In terms of carrying the equipment, I needed one bag which
could accompany me on the flights to the celebrations held in Guernsey
and Austria as well as when travelling overland within the UK. I looked
first at purpose-made camera bags, but these were both extremely expensive
- up to £200 each - and generally unsuitable for me (most were heavy
and designed to be carried over a shoulder with the tripod slung underneath,
meaning that they could never be put down). Eventually I opted for a large,
strong, waterproof nylon holdall costing only £18, which I strengthened
further by padding the bottom with foam rubber. This holdall had two wheels
on one end and a handle at the other, meaning that it could be dragged
as well as carried by separate hand straps and a shoulder strap. There
was plenty of space inside for the camera, tripod, microphone, reflector
and power supply, with light if necessary, while two zipped compartments
held smaller accessories. I also purchased a rucksack which could contain
a smaller shooting kit, for when filming conditions made it impossible
for me to take the larger bag.
The kit then contained:
Essentially, the people who appeared in the film The
Chalet School Revisited fall into one of two categories: either they
are a "key character"; or they are a "fan". "Key characters" had become
obvious during my contact with Friends of the Chalet School in 1994: they
included Elinor M. Brent-Dyer's biographer, Helen McClelland; the Centenary
Committee members Polly Goerres and Clarissa Cridland; the bookdealer Gill
Bilski; Sue Sims, a leading collector and co-editor of the fanzine Folly;
and the founder of Friends of the Chalet School, Ann Mackie-Hunter. Fortunately,
all but Mackie-Hunter (who lived in Australia, and who was visiting only
for certain of the celebrations) were already working with me on the Bettany
Press book The Chalet School Revisited,
and were happy to cooperate with the project. Mackie-Hunter I did not approach
until Hereford, but she was also pleased to cooperate and I carried out
an interview while she was staying with Gill Bilski following the Hereford
weekend (FOCS 2).
Due to the fact that I had secured the cooperation of
the Centenary Committee more than twelve months before filming began, finding
fans to interview also proved to be relatively easy. First, at the beginning
of April 1994 the Centenary Committee referred to my plans in a mailing
sent to everyone attending the Hereford weekend - over 150 people - making
it clear that the filming had the committee's full support. Then the committee
provided me with their mailing list, and on 8 April 1994 I sent out a standard
- which I had first cleared with the committee - explaining in detail what
I was doing and asking for volunteers. I also provided a basic schedule,
so that volunteers could suggest when would be most convenient for their
interview to take place, and a time and date when they should phone me
if they were interested. In addition, I asked people to contact me if for
any reason they did not want to appear in the film, in order that
I could avoid them. (I made it clear that they did not have to give a reason.)
I added personal notes to some letters, when it appeared that the addressees
would be particularly interesting (for example, where mothers and daughters
were both attending the weekend).
As a result of this mailing, over 9 & 10 April 1994 I had twenty telephone calls from volunteers, involving twenty-five potential interviewees. Some volunteers turned out to be from Scotland and Guernsey, or were attending the Austrian trip, and I arranged to interview them at these locations; the others I arranged to interview at Hereford. My film diary reads:
The lesson which I learned from the above is that it is
best to be absolutely open with interviewees - "key characters" had already
got to know me before filming commenced, and I included details of my CV
and invited further questions about my background and my work in my letter
- as well as to have the public support of anyone in authority and/or who
is known to potential interviewees. This combination seemed to give volunteers
the confidence to phone me, and generally meant that people cooperated
with the filming. While I did experience hostility from a few people attending
the celebrations, particularly at the beginning, I believe that this would
have been much greater and could potentially have caused me problems if
less had been known about me - since the hostility appeared to be based
on fear - and/or I had had less enthusiastic support from the committee
and other organisers. It should also be noted that, from an ethical point
of view, it is best to be open with interviewees so long as this does not
interfere with the aims of the research.
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