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The Magic Mountain: The ballroom scene


Processing problems
Walter Lassally Film-maker
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Each time I shot a film in black and white it became more difficult. Then I did a workshop in Berlin, again in black and white, and the same mistake was made there that I already encountered in... a problem in the labs I already encountered on Engel aus Eisen, happened again a few years later. I think 10 years later in a workshop that I did in Berlin. I said to the same guy in the lab, who was still there, I said, 'Don't you remember, we had this same problem, we solved it then. We just have to do the same thing again'. Because, there was a mismatch between the negative and the positive. The negative was Kodak and the positive was Agfa, and if you don't adjust it in a certain way, you get rock-hard images, you know, contrasty to a degree you wouldn't believe. Exactly the same thing happened. They hadn't learnt anything, or they'd forgotten about it because black and white has become something of an experiment.

Every time you make a film in black and white, either commercially or for the students, you have to consider it like an experiment. Everything has to be set up and tested, thoroughly. Because, with colour, which is now the norm, you can hand your stuff in, usually in the evening, and next day you get it back and there's no problems, normally. You can't do that with black and white. You have to test it all. Is the negative development all right, is the temperature... that's a big problem... is the temperature of the developer correct? I'll tell you a story about that which is linked to this. Because they cut corners. If the temperature of the developer is slightly raised you can get... instead of a development time of eight minutes, you only need six minutes, but the result isn't the same. You get more grain.

Exactly the same thing happened to me in colour, in Hollywood, in a major Hollywood laboratory. I was working with the students in the American Film Institute, which is not like the British Film Institute, it's more like a film school. They were using Eastman colour, whatever, at the time in 16 mm, and it was dreadful. The results were terrible. Terribly grainy. I said, I don't understand this. We use the same material in 16 mm, in England, and there isn't any problem. So with some difficulty I penetrated the holy sanctum, you know, the holy inner sanctum of this laboratory and lo and behold, there was a very interesting hand-written notice pinned on the side of the machine, which said something like, 'Push one, push two, push three', which means forcing the development. Then it said, 'Pull one, pull two', which means pushing it a stop, pushing it two stops, pushing it three stops, pulling it a stop, pulling it two stops. Interestingly enough, on the 16 mm machine, the changes were made by changing the development time. But on the 35 mm machine they were made by changing the temperature of the developer. You can't do that because it alters the granularity. So there was this... and the upshot of all that was that there was this major, and I really mean major, Hollywood laboratory, regularly processing Eastman colour, a whole degree centigrade too hot. Where the law, the norm, that Kodak lay down, is plus or minus two tenths of one degree, that is the leeway, because that process, which is known as the hot process, has a leeway of two tenths of one percent... two-tenths of one degree. And they were processing a whole degree hotter than it should've been. As a result, of course, the results were dreadful. And when I went into it a bit further, I realised neither Kodak nor the laboratory, nobody has any interest in correcting this. Because, if people say, 'Oh, this stuff is terrible, I'll use Fuji', you know, 'I'm not going to use that film, it's dreadful'. If they use Fuji they get the same result because the fault is not with the material, the fault is with the development. If you go to Kodak, as it were, if the people say, you know, that material is fine on 35 mm, but in 16 it's terrible, so they say, 'Why don't you shoot on 35'.

Born in Germany, cinematographer Walter Lassally (1926-2017) was best known for his Oscar-winning work on 'Zorba the Greek'. He was greatly respected in the film industry for his ability to take the best of his work in one area and apply it to another, from mainstream to international art films to documentary. He was associated with the Free Cinema movement in the 1950s, and the British New Wave in the early 1960s. In 1987 he published his autobiography called 'Itinerant Cameraman'.

Listeners: Peter Bowen

Peter Bowen is a Canadian who came to Europe to study and never got round to heading back home. He did his undergraduate work at Carleton University (in Biology) in Ottawa, and then did graduate work at the University of Western Ontario (in Zoology). After completing his doctorate at Oxford (in the Department of Zoology), followed with a year of postdoc at the University of London, he moved to the University's newly-established Audio-Visual Centre (under the direction of Michael Clarke) where he spent four years in production (of primarily science programs) and began to teach film. In 1974 Bowden became Director of the new Audio-Visual Centre at the University of Warwick, which was then in the process of introducing film studies into the curriculum and where his interest in the academic study of film was promoted and encouraged by scholars such as Victor Perkins, Robin Wood, and Richard Dyer. In 1983, his partner and he moved to Greece, and the following year he began to teach for the University of Maryland (European Division), for which he has taught (and continues to teach) biology and film courses in Crete, Bosnia, and the Middle East.

Tags: Engel aus Eisen

Duration: 4 minutes, 37 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2004

Date story went live: 24 January 2008