Making the Camera Lie 

16 February 2017

From the Radio Times for 29 August – 4 September 1937

A couple of months or so ago an article published in an American periodical said that a certain television concern in the U.S.A. was trying to solve some of its scenery problems by the use of miniature ‘sets’.

This means that first, say, the outside of a miniature cottage is televised in close-up, complete with a gate dwarfed to scale. In the next ‘shot’ by a different camera the screen shows a girl unlatching a gate exactly like the miniature one in detail and proportions, but made full-size to correspond with the human figure. The innocent viewer imagines the girl is opening the gate belonging to the cottage, and not a gate behind which is merely a simple backcloth.

Not So New

This technique, now apparently being eagerly explored in America, has been employed at Alexandra Palace since November. It would be nice to say that the BBC first thought of the idea, but actually it has been part and parcel of film technique for several years.

In the past the most outstanding examples of its use were, I think, in the Armistice Day programme and in Murder in the Cathedral.

The man who is responsible for all artistic studio considerations such as this is Peter Bax. He has been assistant stage-manager at Drury Lane, and has been connected with stage lighting and scenery since 1919.

But the theatre is not television. Eight different ‘sets’ in the afternoon and ten different ‘sets’ in the evening transmission is not unusual in a day at Alexandra Palace.

Peter Bax has made a very good job out of a pretty bad job by assembling a unit ‘set’ of about fifty pieces, all of them interchangeable. In five or six minutes four studio hands can turn a Gothic cathedral into the facade of a New York hotel; and with perhaps a simple addition here and there, anything can be made in the way of scenery, from the promenade deck of a ship to the interior of a Continental café.

Speed — and Reality

Do you remember the televising of Capital Punishment a week or two ago? The rather elaborate set for this play was turned into Juliet’s bedchamber, complete with bed and balcony, in a fraction over eight minutes. There was nothing on the television screen to suggest any similarity in the settings. Reality and ease of manœuvre — these are the two all-important factors.

Most of the scenery is ordered about a month before the day. The producer first tells Peter Bax his requirements roughly, and in some cases gives him a script. If the requirements are at all elaborate Peter Bax gets to work on the floor of his miniature stage, like a child’s toy, where he manipulates small blocks of wood, cardboard, and paper until the practical details are settled. He then paints and lights the model so that the six carpenters and the three scenic artists employed at Alexandra Palace know exactly how to carry on.

Paint Still Wet

Scenery ordered a month before. It sounds a long time. But prolonged research for accuracy of period and of locale, and change of plans at rehearsal often entail a last-minute rush in the carpenter’s shop.

Now and again, if you are unlucky, you may brush against a piece of scenery in the studio and find wet grey paint on your clothes.

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