Camera in Action brings history to life

Granada’s new series uses old photographs to recall history

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From the TVTimes for week commencing 7 August 1965

CONFEDERATE cannons blaze a trail of death across your TV screen. Frenzied Union cavalry horses totter in the turmoil. The air is rent by the cries of the dying and the smell of burnt cordite.

The scene is Gettysburg, bloodbath of the American Civil War, the savage, heroic conflict in which brother slew brother. An indelible chapter in American history written long before the movie camera was invented.

Yet in Camera in Action, a series of programmes (starting on Tuesday) which covers aspects of life and the world in the second half of the 19th century, the scene is reconstructed as accurately and dramatically as the day it happened.

How is it done? By painstakingly piecing together a jigsaw of still photographs taken at the time. Granada have made them come to life by using the “action stills” technique which they pioneered in Britain five years ago.

The idea is to take still photographs and drawings and range a stop-motion camera over them. The cameraman will start with a shot of the entire picture, then zoom in on a detail, pan across to another corner of the picture, and so on.

The film is shot frame by frame, re-positioning the camera after each exposure. When linked at speed, the pictures from the past become a dramatic moving story straight from the pages of history.

Why is the technique so effective? said director Peter Jones: “Because the photographers of the day did their job so well. In the ‘Prospect of Whitby,’ the second programme, for instance, I think viewers will be staggered by the beauty and quality of Frank Sutcliffe’s photography.

“And in each programme we have had access to the original negatives or a new set of prints.”

The first in the series, “The Uprooted,” is the story of the vast European migration to American in the 19th century.

The “Prospect of Whitby,” is the story of the birth of the Yorkshire holiday resort; “The War of Brothers,” dealing with the American Civil War; and “Fashion Photographers,” a look at fashion photography down the years.

All the events will be seen as they happened, using photographs from museums, private collections, magazine libraries and family albums.

More than 250 photographs used in Tuesday’s programme came from pictures by Jacob Rüs and Lewis Hine. They were shot from different angles more than 90,000 times and then edited to make up the half-hour programme.

Action stills cameraman Ray Goode, who shot each one of those 90,000 frames separately, told me: “At first it was decided to write the script and then fit the photographs to it. But it was too stilted.

“Finally we decided to write the script to fit the photographs. There was a great deal of experimenting to be done.

“We have tried to make the stills come alive with the minimum amount of animation.”

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