A Noted Newsreel Cameraman Writes About His Experiences in Photographing
News Events That Have Made History
by RAY FERNSTROM
from an American Cimematographer Magazine Dec 1930
FEW PEOPLE realize the amount of time, work and money expended in securing the few minutes entertainment on the screen known as the newsreel. The newsreel is sort of taken for granted, as it were, by the theatre audiences—just a few interesting shots to fill space before the feature picture. In a newsreel of one thousand feet, not more than nine or ten subjects (or stories, as we call them) are shown. However, often as many as twenty or thirty assignments have been “covered” or photographed—the limited footage crowding out all but nine or ten. Perhaps cameramen have gone through untold suffering and hardship to get those not used; but the audience doesn’t know—has no way of knowing about it — about the heartaches of the men who have shot those subjects not used.
There are many reasons why “stories” are not used even after they are shot, sometimes at great expense. The chief one is that they may arrive too late to be “hot news;” or, perhaps, some technical accident has ruined the shot. One newsreel man, for example, covering the dynamiting of a huge brick smoke stack in a heavy rain, had protected his lens with a handkerchief. When the charge finally went off and the smoke stack crashed to the ground the newsreel man ground away only to discover later that his handkerchief had been sticking out of his lens hood. No picture. Luckily, another man from his office was also covering, so he got it.
Then, take the case of Dick Sears, one of the most famous news reel men of New England. Dick went down to a little ship yard on the Essex River in Massachusetts to get a picture of the launching of a fishing schooner that was to compete with a Canadian schooner for the championship of the Atlantic fishing boats. Dick wanted to get a good shot, so he secured a row boat and on it placed a couple of boxes. On top of that he climbed with his camera and was set to get a wonderful shot of the schooner coming down to the water. He forgot that the river was small and when the boat hit the water the river rose. So did Dick. The last we saw of him he and his camera were heading for the bottom of the river. That assignment was over for Dick.
The writer once had what one might call a tough break. It was some four years ago. I was to cover a story at Mt. Rainier, Washington. With a party of climbers we set out to climb to the summit and make a newsreel picture of our efforts.
This was a really tough assignment, from the physical point of view. The old mountain is 14,408 feet high. If you think it is an easy task to carry a camera and film up and down that peak, go out and try it. We shot scenes every two thousand feet of the ascent. At eleven o’clock that night we reached the half-way mark and stopped for a few hours rest. At daybreak we had reached the ten-thousand-foot mark and photographed a magnificent sunrise. At last, we reached the summit. It was zero and a sixty-mile wind was blowing. Here we finished the picture and started back down. It was more difficult than the ascent. Finally, we staggered into the hotel at the foot of the mountain. With great pride the “story” was shipped to our lab. A week later I was notified that it had been “thrown out” because a shaky tripod had spoiled it all.
Generally speaking, however, one does have the satisfaction of seeing most of his work on the screen—and it is a satisfaction, especially if you have suffered in getting the subject. Henry De Siena and I were assigned to cover one of the famous Madison Square Garden six-day bicycle races. Our boss wanted something different than anyone else had ever shot. Henry was sure we could get an Akeley shot following the riders continuously around the track. “Now,” he said, “See those girders up there near the roof?” “Yeah!” I answered.
“Well, if you go up to the top balcony, go out by the fire escape and in another window, then up that other fire ladder and I am sure you can crawl out onto the girders behind the ventillating fans. There you will come to a small door. Open it and you will come to a small platform. See it way up there? Well, get up onto it and shoot with the Akeley.” So saying, he added that we might need a flashlight, and gave us one. Good thing he did, for when my assistant and I had finally reached the top of the last fire ladder we found ourselves in pitch darkness with nothing but girders on which to walk. We decided to keep going. A few steps in the darkness and our heads banged against another girder. My assistant slipped and stuck his foot out. It hit a piece of beaver board and went through. Why he didn’t fall I don’t know. But—through that hole in the beaver board we could see the track down below us. We crawled the remainder of the way to the platform and fortunately got a good shot of the races. Few in a theatre audience ever even thought about what the newsreel men might have had to do to get that shot when they saw it flash by.
Often a newsreel man will get what might be a world-beater of a “story,” but loses out because it reaches the laboratory too late to be news. For example, Russ Muther and I were in Lapland covering a special reindeer story. We were just two hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle. The thermometer registered 58 below zero when we dropped off the train at the nearest point to where we were to work. Was it cold! We piled into a sleigh and set out for the spot where the natives were pulling off what might be called a reindeer roundup. They were separating the animals ready for driving south in search of moss for food. There were about ten thousand animals in the roundup, and our bosses figured it would make a spectacular story. We finally reached our destination, set up the cameras. And then came the reindeer—looked like millions coming straight at us. We ground for dear life, wondering what would happen when the animals reached us. It was too good a picture to lose, so we stuck. As a matter of fact, we had no place to go, anyway. And then as the head of the drove reached us the drove split. There we were in the center while reindeer dashed by at express-train speed. It finally ended, and we had a magnificent story. He shipped his to his company. I shipped mine. But mine got lost en route—and it never did reach the screen. The luck of the newsreel game!
It sometimes takes weeks to get a picture that will last but five minutes on the screen. One such was the lucky assignment I had given me when those daring German fliers, with an Irish companion, made the first airplane flight westward across the Atlantic and landed in the frozen wilds of an island off the Labrador coast. We flew in a plane through fog and snow that threatened to bring us to ruin every minute. After many forced landings we finally reached them and brought back a “scoop” for our company. But it lasted only six minutes on the screen. Few newsreel cameramen are ever lost, but often have close calls. Back in 1925 Lieutenant Holm of the Norwegian Navy and I were flying along the northern tip of Spitzbergen looking for signs of Amundsen and Ellsworth who had set out for the North Pole in a couple of Dornier Wahls, and whose continued silence had the world worrying. As we were flying along the ice barrier I felt a pressure on my foot. I looked down and discovered that one leg of the camera tripod had pushed through the fuselage. In a moment the camera came slapping back and jammed me fast. I was fast and the leg of the tripod was sticking out for a half hour while I struggled to get matters fixed. At last we pulled the tripod leg back and—later we got the story we were after and all was well.
Another time, I was over at Coney Island as it was opening for the Summer business. I wanted to get a good shot of the place, so climbed into one of the cars of the big Ferris Wheel. Up went the car. When it reached the top of the circle the machinery went bad and there was I at the top of the wheel, with no way to get down and the mechanics unable to start the darned thing. It was only 150 feet from the ground. I climbed down after an hour of waiting. Got a rope and climbed back up and lowered the camera to the ground. Good thing I did, for the wheel was stuck for two days.
Those things are all in the day’s work with the newsreel men, who are like newspaper reporters in that you can hardly pry them loose from their game.
Newsreel cameramen are just as proud of their work as are the cameramen in any studio. Sometimes this is overlooked in the minds of some people who think they just set up a camera and “shoot.” They do more than that. They shoot in a hurry, but they try to secure the most artistic pictures possible under, many times, the most trying conditions imaginable. Often they are hurried because the event they are after will be history within a few seconds. But the feat of Rucker and Van Der Veer, the two newsreel men who went to the South Pole with Commander Byrd, in making the picture which was given the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ award for the most outstanding cinematographic achievement of the year, proves what a newsreel man can do. “With Byrd at the South Pole” is a master-piece of camera work, and the newsreel men are happy that the industry recognized it as such and gave it just reward.
With Byrd At The South Pole — (Movie Clip) First Sentinel
After an on camera spoken introduction by Admiral Byrd himself, Paramount’s silent documentary begins, cameramen Willard Van Der Weer and Joseph T. Rucker featured, tracking the actual expedition, in With Byrd At The South Pole, 1930.