Life as a BBC TK Operator
Best summed up as periods of extreme activity interspersed with spells of boredom. The first problem, had you loaded the film correctly?
If the film had a leader on the start and titles at the beginning, there was no difficulty. However in the early days of Lime Grove you might land yourself with an insert to a studio with a piece of unknown film. Which was the head or tail and which way was it wound?
35mm film was alright, sprocket holes both sides and a sound track beside the picture, even if the film had no sound track there was still the position for one. 16mm could be trickier. If you had a sound track there would be sprocket holes on one side only, if no sound track and sprocket hole on both edges you had a choice. Firstly had you identified the start of the film? The image in the film gate should be inverted, head to the bottom of the gate. So you looked at the first few frames, was there any sky, were there any people to give you a clue to the top of picture. Then all you could do was to load the film the normal way with the emulsion towards the gate.
16mm film could vary from the normal due to a number of reasons, so you would run the film and watch carefully. Were there shots with writing? Which side of clothing were the buttons on? (Depending if the wearer was male or female). Then listen to the sound, (this would be a separate reel) if it was a wild life film and the commentator said “the tiger appears on the left of screen!" Does it? Only if you got the film in the correct way round.
Loading the film in a hurry could be interesting. Before Television News, there was a copy of the cinema news reels called the BBC Television News Reel. It opened with the words appearing rotating around the AP transmitter aerial. These were one each evening during the week and at the weekend all five were shown. Each day’s was about 15 mins, and, on the weekly compilation you were required to edit out the captions around the aerial. Reel 1 would start off and the last news item was cued to change to Reel 2 which had been run in to a certain letter around the aerial so by the time the telecine had run up and duplexed (changed over) you were now on the first story of Reel 2.
Now it got interesting, Reel 1 operator had to wait until the first film reel had run out through the telecine before he could load Reel 3 and cue it up ready for the next duplex. And so on, quite a busy hour and a quarter for both operators!
Then it was decided to start a version for Children, one episode a week, four weeks compilation once a month. However there was a difference to the adult version as this was shorter, only about 10 mins. Now the telecine operators were really pushed; because of the space around the telecine, it was not possible for any extra help, so you would find yourself reloading as fast as you could without misloading or breaking the film whilst the operator of the other channel was shouting “2 mins to go”, “1 min”, and “Anytime now!”
Negative film presented a new range of problems. Negative film stock is matched to the positive film on which it would normally have been printed. The tonal range on the negative is situated around the mid-grey of the telecine signal which is now reversed to show a positive image. The gain control increases the signal to the white end which is now the black part of the picture and the lift control blackens the darker tones which now become the whites of the picture. This roughly results in the two telecine controls working almost opposite to normal and far more interdepently than normal. Add all this to the fact that the operator has not seen this film before and almost certainly the picture is on the “air”.
Multi reel working required “change-over” dots on the film, sometimes printed on or scratched in the corner of the frame. Later metallic dots made the operation easier. Reel sizes were increased so that they ran for longer, 35mm 20 - 30 mins per reel, 16mm finally up to as long as 75 mins. Larger reels were heavier and could present handling problems and so it went on.
A high proportion of commercial features were produced in a widescreen format that would involve varying degrees of blanking on a standard 4:3 ratio television screen. Network decreed that we were only allowed to show pictures with blanking during the opening title sequence if they required it. Consequently the rest of the film required panning and scanning to show a full height picture. The telecine’s raster could easily be switched to show different parts of the picture. The film required preparing, each shot adjusted for optimum viewing with a metallic dot stuck on the print’s edge to denote a change of scan information. This dot was read by a pickup in the telecine to fire off a change of pan and scan. The information that determined the exact scan detail was held in a ribbon of punch paper tape that was advanced with each new dot from the film. This made for a complicated Cinemascope operation with an operator on each telecine to cover the film and mag loading, a senior operator watching the punch paper tape operation with a script and another senior operator to TARIF the picture. An AS/Tel/E oversaw the loading of reels (double checking for loading and reel errors). During the rehearsal of the film, generally earlier the same day, Derek Fisher would attend as well. He prepared the panning and scanning, produced the punch paper tape and applied the metallic dots to the print, obviously he was referred to, with some affection, as “Derek the Dot”. There was a major issue with this operation, that, if the punch paper tape lost sync with the film, the scan settings were then wrongly applied. This could be caused by the loss of a metallic dot, as they did occasionally just detached themselves, but also when reversing the film after rehearsing the intro to check the sync of the film, mag, punch paper tape and of course TARIF. If this occurred it required prompt action by the Senior Operator to know which way to recover the operation. It made for some exciting transmissions !
Operations didn’t always go according to plan - Transmissions always had an AS/Tel/E to over see the loading of film reels especially for multi-reel programmes. He would be there with the operator to check for errors and be there while the reel was being run in to set up TARIF settings prior to that reel running on air or being changed over to during duplexes.
On one occasion after the TARIF was checked, the operator reversed the telecine as usual and the AS/Tel/E disappeared, satisfied that the load was correct, and everything was running smoothly. Unfortunately the operator reversed the film slightly too far such that the front end of the film was released from the take up reel but was still fully laced through the telecine. The duplex change-over happened smoothly and the reel of film ran its course. When the operator opened the door to the mechanism to extract the reel of film, to his great surprise he found no film only an empty take up spool ! What had happened was when the film was run for real, the loose end of film somehow managed to find the only gap in the floor of the telecine and gravity fed the whole 1800 feet of 35mm film underneath the raised flooring. Later a flooring panel had to be removed, the film carefully extracted and painstakingly hand cleaned!
Technical advances sometimes produced minor problems for the operators, until now it looks as though telecine and film will disappear altogether apart from archive and restoration.
January 2011