Sound Moving Pictures : Science : Exploration
Floyd Crosby, hired as cinematographer, was the best known member of the crew. He was fresh from the photography of the film Tabu (1931) co-directed by F.W. Murnau and Robert Flaherty (and for which Crosby won an Academy Award on return). He also brought his new bride Aliph, who acted as the un-official pharmacist in this unusual and unplanned honeymoon.
Crosby was dismissive of the pre-production planning of Matto Grosso, as well as the expertise of the initial directors, and did not have much confidence in how the project would turn out. Because of his experience with Flaherty, he had a better idea how to construct a narrative than other members of the expedition. He took charge of directing the project after the jaguar spearing plan fell apart, and after director John Clarke and several crew members were injured or became ill and decamped.
Author Nick Pasquariello’s oral history with cinematographer Floyd Crosby contains this reference to the production: “we were thousands of miles from everything, everything we needed we had to take with us, all the camera equipment, the film, we had no lighting equipment as it was all exteriors; we took two refrigerators there, we took a little electric generating plant…” It is not known whether the film was developed in the field, but it is likely that the refrigerators kept the 35mm nitrate film stock cool before and after exposure. According to two New York Times articles, they brought either 60,000 or 80,000 feet of raw film stock, very little of which ended up in the final release.
The dauntless Hollywood film crew were working under hot and humid conditions for months on end, and the conditions were equally tough on the gear. Mention was made of the stalwart character of soundman, Ainslee Davis, who is praised by Johnson as having nursed one remaining microphone through encroaching mold and mildew to the bitter end of the trip, all of the others having succumbed to moisture damage. (NYT 1932). Petrullo notes that the mics in fact had began to be taken over by mold even in the larger town of Descalvado, before entering the jungle.
E.R.F. Johnson’s engineering background and his connection to the RCA company is the probable origin for his enthusiasm for using sync sound in the field, quite early in the history of sound for film. To provide historic context, the RCA Photophone system was developed in 1925 by Bell Laboratories and released in 1929. As of 1930 when the expedition departed from New York harbor, fewer than thirty RCA Photophone system films had been made in a controlled studio environment, most of these at RKO Studios, and very few outdoors. What follows is a description of the basics of the RCA system at the time.
Under RCA Photophone’s variable area studio system, in addition to a photographic film camera, there was one additional sound camera that recorded the signal from the microphones via mixer on to the sound camera’s film. The two cameras (film and sound) were slaved together with a governing cable to keep them running in sync. In studio double system use, the picture camera had to be blimped (covered with soundproofing material) so that the microphones did not pick up the sound of its mechanism. The sound person could listen through (recently invented) headsets to the recording as it came through the amplification system.
For Matto Grosso, it seems that the crew used a Mitchell camera with a mounted sound head for single system film sound recording, much as a video or ENG crew works today. This camera set up came with an amplifier panel, a direct current battery for the camera, and a sound attachment mounted on the camera just below the magazine, using the same drive mechanism. At 70 pounds, the system was then considered “a compact camera, adaptable for news pictures, (and) uses an especially robust galvanometer with uniform response up to 5500 cycles for variable area recording” (Hanna SMPE 1929) or an auxiliary Kerr cell for variable density recording.
Vincenzo Petrullo mentions briefly in his manuscript; “We were well equipped.. with the most expensive cameras and an expert staff of cameramen. We felt the pride of pioneers in that we were the first group to take to the field a sound-track-on-film recording apparatus, a bulky and expensive affair which induced a feeling of awe in every one but the sound engineer who spent most of his time cursing the designers and makers. It was an experimental set, the second ever built…”
Seven years later, The River (1938) was filmed by Crosby, along the Mississippi, but even this U.S. production made no use of sync sound location recording.
See sound timeline http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/8456 , a work in progress.
Floyd Crosby’s colleague, Ralph Sargent, has identified the cameras in the production photos as a Mitchell with a sound head adaptation. There may have only been under ten built altogether and aDebrie-Parvo, which was a wind up camera from the 1920’s. Perhaps the Debrie-Parvo was used to gather secondary or cutaway material.