Views on Colour: finding the filmmakers, technicians and archivists

Sarah Street (University of Bristol), Liz Watkins (University of Leeds), Paul Frith (University of East Anglia), and Carolyn Rickards (University of Bristol)

14 January 2020


Professor Sarah Street:

Since the 1970s oral history has become increasingly accepted as a valuable, even essential methodology in understanding the recent past. Interviewing people who remember events, represent particular communities or who were experts in their particular fields can offer unique insights rarely found in conventional historical documentation. When devising two AHRC-funded research projects on the history of colour filmmaking – The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain, 1900-55 and The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-85 – interviewing practitioners was incorporated into their methodologies as an integral element of the research process. The first project (conducted 2007-2010) covered a period following the arrival of sound cinema in which colour films were the exception to the rule, consisting of a relatively small but highly respected corpus of Technicolor films. The second project (conducted 2016-19) dealt with the mass adoption of colour in British filmmaking by the end of the 1960s, made possible by cheaper Eastmancolor stocks that did not require the special cameras that had been essential to maintaining Technicolor’s monopoly over colour production in previous decades. Both projects provided opportunities to expand the available record of information about colour filmmaking, investigating and interrogating notions of expertise as it pertained to the many people involved, from cinematographers to costume designers and lab technicians, in producing colour films.

The idea to interview surviving practitioners was in part influenced by the availability of an existing archive of interviews conducted for the BECTU Oral History Project (now absorbed and available via the British Entertainment History Project website: https://historyproject.org.uk). For the Technicolor years we found interviews had been conducted with cinematographers such as Oswald Morris and Chris Challis. Jack Cardiff, perhaps the most famous British Technicolor cinematographer, had been interviewed numerous times, while Duncan Petrie interviewed a number of key figures for his book The British Cinematographer (BFI, 1996). Yet we knew that a greater range of opinion could be recovered, in addition to creating a comparative set of interviews in which recollections obtained nearer the events in question could be compared with longer-term memories as practitioners became older, sometimes offering different, even conflicting reflections on the films they helped to create. While technical manuals describe how colour processes work they did not always record practical problems or how inventive practitioners often had to improvise during a shoot in order to deliver a desired effect or look. The interviews were transcribed and published as offering a unique focus on ‘the creative decision-making which goes into the life cycle of a colour film’ (Brown, Street and Watkins, British Colour Cinema: Practices and Theories, BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2013: 2). We aimed to provide an informed sense of the collaborative contexts of colour filmmaking, recording the ingenuity behind working with now obsolete technologies while accessing memories that often ranged beyond technological issues such as studio cultures, gender and class.

Figures 1 – 3: Stills taken from interviews conducted as part of the Eastmancolor Revolution project (Peter Suschitzky, Evangeline Harrison, Alan Masson)

Since The Eastmancolor Revolution project covered later years of colour filmmaking the potential list of participants was more extensive. The issues were however familiar: tracking down individuals who had not previously been interviewed, but also those who were used to repeating well-honed recollections about particular films and technologies. The preparation for each interview had to take into account previous documentation so that as much new information could be gleaned as possible. Being responsive to interviewees’ interests was also important to allow for ‘off-script’ impressions which might not have been anticipated by the interviewer. Awareness of ethical issues involved in conducting interviews was also of paramount importance in setting up the structures and obtaining the necessary documentation. We also sought to make the record more inclusive, when possible interviewing those with expertise in skills less documented than cinematography such as costume, production design and laboratory work.


Dr Liz Watkins:

The interviews discussed in this section were carried out by Liz Watkins with Sarah Street as Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project: ‘The Negotiation of Innovation: Colour Films in Britain 1900-55’ at the University of Bristol.

Identifying the interviewees (questions, research, context): behind the film images and texts lay a history of materials, technologies and practices: Technicolor’s dye imbibition process (c.1935-55) combined technical innovation with western aesthetics to produce the first full-length feature films in ‘natural colour’. The Technicolor Colour Advisory Service advocated the use of colour design to highlight aspects of the image (costume, make-up), establish a network of connections between characters and locations, and to emphasise the dramatic tone of a scene: the concept of a ‘natural colour’ image was embedded in the ideologically complicit narrative form of classic cinema. Published accounts of the dye imbibition process – from Natalie Kalmus’ ‘Color Consciousness’ to press book essays by Technicolor cinematographers such as Guy Green – attest to the commercial imperative of Technicolor design in the promotion of their colour process through marketing tie-ins (lip-color, dress patterns) and as integral to film narratives, interests which coalesced in the star image.[1] Technical handbooks and industry publications can tell us how the dye imbibition process was intended to work. However, the project interviews with industry personnel were to offer another perspective. The interviews addressed the practicalities and quirks of the process, its materials and technologies, alongside the stylistic and pragmatic interpretation of Advisory Service directives as made by the filmmakers that they worked with. This reminds us that there is of course another dimension to film production behind the spectacle of new technologies. For example, the work of the film laboratory was vital to grading, printing and maintaining control over the Technicolor dye imbibition process. The Technicolor system used a specialist camera to record three ‘colour’ records on reels of black and white filmstock from which matrices were produced and combined – printed in layers – to form a ‘natural colour’ image. The rushes seen by the director and cinematographer were screened in black and white prior to the printing of the colour image in Technicolor’s film laboratory. This history of labour in film production has too often been sublimated in the study of film image and text.[2]

What emerged as we researched and scheduled the interviews was the material history particular to each film, from production to laboratory, cinema screening and archive. The research methodology was to identify connections and overlaps in the production notes, trade papers, scripts, essays and reviews specific to British films that had been made using Technicolor’s three-strip process. This approach allowed us to cross reference information and to understand the theories, technologies and practices that formed a Technicolor movie.

Resources: research for the interviews included working through several decades of Kinematograph Weekly, the British Journal of Photography and American Cinematographer for the international circulation of British films and on Technicolor as a US company. This approach identified essays published in trade papers, such as the Journal of the Association of Cine-Technicians (1935-1956) and the British Guild of Camera Technicians’ Eyepiece Magazine, including some written by the people we were to interview. [3] Publications such as the Monthly Film Bulletin, Picturegoer and newspapers offered reviews contemporary to the initial release of the films. The National Film Theatre Programmes and Journal of Film Preservation indicated information on the conservation and restoration of the three-strip Technicolor productions. The list of potential resources was extensive, thus important to maintain focus on colour films made in Britain between 1900-1955.

The archive of BECTU History Project interviews, were (c.2007-10) accessed via audiotape cassettes and transcribed at the BFI Library when it was still based at Stephen Street. It was a time consuming, yet worthwhile process.[4] Interviews with union members – Syd Wilson, Jack Houshold, Bernard Happé who had worked with black-and-white film, Technicolor and Eastmancolor – detailed the nuances of processing dye-imbibition prints, from the use of registration keys to align the three colour matrices with a grey record to increase contrast to the practicalities of maintaining and cleaning the machines to ensure that a clear image would be projected on screen. The BECTU archive interviews with Directors of Photography, although broad in their scope, assisted in shaping the interviews that Sarah Street and I conducted with Oswald Morris OBE, BSC and Christopher Challis OBE, FRPS: interviews that were dedicated to the question of colour. Oswald Morris was Director of Photography on Technicolor films including Moby Dick (John Huston, 1956) and Moulin Rouge (Huston, 1952) as well as Eastmancolor – The Man Who Never Was (Roger Neame, 1955) and The Odessa File (Sidney Lumet, 1974). Christopher Challis was DoP on Tales of Hoffmann (Michael Powell, 1952), Footsteps in the Fog (Arthur Lubin, 1955), Raising a Riot (Wendy Toye, 1955), and worked as an assistant on Technicolor’s World Windows travelogues (1937-40) and as DoP for Eastmancolor films including The Boy Who Turned Yellow (Michael Powell, 1972).

Interviews and transcription: The interviews offered a sense of each film as it was in its making, from the connections and negotiations between the Studios, film directors and the Technicolor company and lab that occurred at every stage through to the unexpected and experimental aspects of working with new technologies. Morris, for example, recalled his encounters with Eliot Elisofon, who was stills photographer and Special Colour Consultant on Moulin Rouge (John Huston, 1952) and as a second photographer on set with a stated interest in colour and light. Elisofon’s practice was directed toward publicity outside of the film, yet he assisted in ‘securing the filters’ that Morris needed ‘to capture Toulouse Lautrec’s colours on screen’.[5] Both Morris and Challis emphasised the environments they had worked in – such as the management of fog and smoke as it responded to the movement of workers on set, the effects of extreme temperatures on the filmstock used for the World Windows travelogues, and the interpretation of Advisory Service recommendations regarding the reflection of light from mirrors and white textiles – ‘Tech dipped 1, Tech dipped 2’ – adapted to the making and promotion of a colour image using the dye imbibition process. The interviews included the occasional anecdote – tales of filmmaking 50 years ago – and it was in watching a section of film with Morris that new details of technique or happenstance in photographic practice were recalled. The Directors of Photography themselves were brilliant, astute, humorous and as it turned out knew each other.

The transcription of our project interviews was an intriguing process: finding a balance between perhaps too close an attention to the details of the audio recordings – laughter, hesitations and intonation that nuance conversation – and the process of evolving in to a text for publication. The information is sound – the names, film titles and dates have been cross-referenced with trade and technical papers, but peripheral noises mattered too – Challis’ dog “Swinger” barking and hunting for biscuits in the background and the church bells ringing near Morris’ house and that I could recall from the BECTU tape recording that I’d listened to in the BFI Reading Room.[6] Our aim was to record their notes on film production, which we did, yet there’s a substantial amount of information that remains outside the transcript. Permissions were sought and agreed with each person – with very few amendments requested – for the printed publication of the interviews.

Toward the later stages of the project we found that the interviews with film curators and conservationists took us back to the laboratories and the programming of the Technicolor and Eastmancolor films that now formed part of the BFI National Archive. The insights offered by Paul de Burgh[7], Keiron Webb (BFI), Giovanna Fossati (EYE Filmmuseum) and Paolo Cherchi Usai (at Haghefilm Conservation BV in 2010) on materials and methods, described film conservation and restoration as the continual work of the archive in which the specific characteristics of each process – the nuance of colour in materials images and texts made using Kinemacolor, Dufaycolour, three strip Technicolor, Eastmancolor – affect the ways that analogue and digital forms intersect.

Practicalities: Some questions recurred in each interview (e.g. how would you describe the role of DoP/ Archivist/ curator etc) offering a framework for those lines of enquiry that were tailored to that interviewee (specific films, techniques): a practice that assisted in structuring the meeting. I would recommend sending the questions in advance. It was useful, I found, that the interview scenario was familiar to some of the people that we spoke to. The transcripts were, with the agreement of the interviewees, included in the project publication British Colour Cinema: Theories and Practices (BFI/ Palgrave Macmillan: London 2013) https://www.bloomsbury.com/au/british-colour-cinema-9781844574131/ .

Figure 4: Autobiographies by Challis and Morris with British Colour Cinemas


Dr Paul Frith and Dr Carolyn Rickards:

This section refers to interviews undertaken as part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council- funded project ‘The Eastmancolor Revolution and British Cinema, 1955-8’ which was led by Professor Sarah Street with co-investigator Professor Keith Johnston (University of East Anglia).

Interview questions and publication: To begin the task of formulating interview questions, we initially decided to refer back to the main aims and objectives of our project. In tracking the introduction and development of Eastmancolor across a thirty-year period, what could – or should – the interviews reveal about the issues, challenges and outcomes generated by this colour process during this time? What insights could our interviewees bring to pre-established histories of British cinema? And how could we formulate questions that would evoke memories and invite responses that would resonate with our project themes?

Figures 5-7: Stills taken from interviews conducted as part of the Eastmancolor Revolution project (Brian Pritchard, Chris Menges, Colin Flight)

It required extensive preparation and organisation. We decided to send the interview structure and questions in advance to enable interviewees time to think about their answers beforehand. This also meant that some people were able to prepare collected materials and documents which proved an added bonus when discussing their work. However, what we found was that our well-planned structures did not always follow through on the day! The interviews often drifted on to other topics which although interesting were not always relevant and occasionally films we thought provided exciting examples of colour filmmaking were either skipped over or mentioned in passing. This was no fault of either the interviewee or interviewer, but rather down to the natural process of conversation and our role was to maintain a congenial environment in which to elicit good responses. Adopting a more semi-structured approach encouraged some great insights however, although we factored in plenty of time, it would have been fascinating to ask the interviewees what films they considered to be exemplary in terms of colour production, and particularly within a British cinema context.

In addition to more standard methods of research dissemination such as print or online publication we also considered alternative approaches which included the creation of several video essays. One of these essays takes the form of a short documentary focusing on key issues relating to the history and legacy of Eastmancolor in British cinema, combining new interview footage with stills and clips of relevant films. Given that the total duration of our recorded interviews runs at over fourteen hours, the documentary format presented the opportunity to focus on the most significant themes concurrent throughout the responses from our interviewees. While excerpts from each of the interviews have contributed significantly to other project outputs, the documentary format provided a concise narrative from the perspective of the industry personnel themselves. With the understanding that the project interviews would be incorporated into a number of audio-visual outputs, it therefore became essential to maintain broadcast quality recording throughout; a factor not typically a pre-requisite of interviews conducted as part of a larger research project. This decision was also significant in determining the legacy of these interviews beyond the lifetime of our project. The relationship established between the Eastmancolor Revolution project and the British Entertainment History Project (BEHP) ensured that each of these in-depth interviews would remain available to future researchers via the BEHP website (historyproject.org.uk). As a record of key personnel discussing one of the most significant developments within the British film industry, these interviews provide unique insights into a technology previously neglected within accounts of British cinema.


[1] Natalie Kalmus, ‘Color Consciousness’, Journal of the Society for Motion Picture Engineers 25:2 (August 1935) pp.139-147. Guy Green, ‘Colour heightens splendours of Blanche Fury’, Blanche Fury (Marc Allegret, 1948) press book, 1948.

[2] Peter Wollen, ‘Cinema and Technology: A Historical Overview’, eds. Teresa de Lauretis and Stephen Heath, The Cinematic Apparatus (Macmillan: New York, 1980), pp.18-19.

[3] For context see Bernard Knowles, ‘COLOUR- The New Technique’ Cine-Technician Nov-Dec 1938, vol.4, no.18, pp.110-111. For interviewees see Paul de Burgh ‘Optical Printing: a talk given by Paul de Burgh of Denlabs on A.C.T’s own Lecture Course’ in A.E. Jenkins (ed.) Cine-Technician vol.18, no. 96 (1952), pp.66-68.

[4] Many of the BECTU interviews have been transcribed by other people and are now available online. See BECTU History Project https://www.uea.ac.uk/film-television-media/research/research-themes/british-film-and-tv-studies/british-cinema/oral-history-project and the British Entertainment History Project https://historyproject.org.uk/content/about-collection both accessed 22nd November 2019.

[5] Oswald Morris, Huston, We Have a Problem, A Kaleidoscope of Filmmaking Memories (The Scarecrow Press, Inc: Oxford 2006), p.69. Elisofon ‘Reflections on Color’, The New York Times, 17 November 1957, p.x7. Elisofon’s photographs were published in LIFE Magazine. The connection between Morris and Elisofon and the concepts of colour harmony and control inform my research fellowship at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas, Austin.

[6] Oswald Morris, interviewed by Alan Lawson, BECTU Tape 9 recorded 1987. Oswald Morris, interviewed by Liz Watkins and Sarah Street recorded 6th August 2008. Both interviews were at the same address. The tenure and duration of Morris’ career can be read from his filmography and autobiography, but that sense of time past – born in 1915 working in the film industry for 55 years – is something that I realised most acutely in the peripheral sound of the church bells ringing 20 years apart.

[7] Paul de Burgh worked on the BFI National Film Archive conservation and restoration of three-strip Technicolor films in the 1980s-90s. This interview (18th February 2009) was conducted by Liz Watkins and Dr Simon Brown (Kingston University). I also interviewed de Burgh for the BECTU History Project with Kieron Webb (BFI).


Biographies:

Sarah Street is Professor of Film at the University of Bristol. Her publications on colour films include Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation, 1900-55 (2012) and two co-edited (with Simon Brown and Liz Watkins) collections, Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive (2012) and British Colour Cinema: Practices and Theories (2013). Her latest books are Deborah Kerr (2018) and Chromatic Modernity: Color, Cinema, and Media of the 1920s (2019, co-authored with Joshua Yumibe). Her latest project is as Principal Investigator on STUDIOTEC: Film Studios: Infrastructure, Culture, Innovation in Britain, France, Germany and Italy, 1930-60, a European Research Council-funded Advanced Grant.

Dr Liz Watkins, University of Leeds. Her research interests include colour – its theories, technologies, and materiality – in cinema; the history and ethics of colourisation; gender and representation; the imbrication of fiction/nonfiction in early 1900s polar expedition films, photography and their exhibition. Liz has published essays on Eastmancolor, Technicolor, early colour photography, film and archives in Screen, Journal for Cultural Research and Parallax. Her co-edited collections include Gesture and Film (2017) with Nicholas Chare and British Colour Cinema (2013) and Color and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive (2013) with Simon Brown and Sarah Street. Her book project, with Routledge, is on colour and cinema, analysing the converse effects and counterpoints of colour design that track the gendered and social structures of narrative cinemas (gothic, melodrama, horror and experimental film forms).

Dr Paul Frith is an Associate Tutor at the University of East Anglia. His research specialism is in British cinema with an emphasis upon colour, censorship and horror. His work on these subjects has appeared in a number of publications including the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the Journal of British Cinema and Television and he is also the co-author of Colour Films in Britain: The Eastmancolor Revolution to be published by Bloomsbury in 2021.

Dr Carolyn Rickards is a researcher based at the University of Bristol. She has published in the Journal of British Cinema and Television, Screen, Fantasy / Animation: Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (Routledge, 2018) and is also the co-author of Colour Films in Britain: The Eastmancolor Revolution to be published by Bloomsbury in 2021.


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

Working with Oral Sources in media history: A personal view

Nicholas J. Cull, University of Southern California (USC)

15 July 2019


The IAMHIST Blog to date has considered issues around study in specific archives and particular kinds of media evidence.  This post concerns a different kind of evidence which I’ve found to be simultaneously the most rewarding even as it is also the most fragile and fallible: oral sources.  This post is not offered as a how-to manual but rather as a frank other-view of my experience, allowing me to reflect on my own practice and share some of the things I’ve learned since first including the method in my research work in 1985.  I do not restrict myself to oral sources.  My research in media history has used oral sources together with written archives and the usual audio visual materials of our field as part of a multifaceted approach.

For me, as I expect for most people, oral sources were my first source.  As a child I was drawn to history through long conversations about the past with my parents and grandparents which often revealed a fascinating divergence from the received wisdom of mainstream media.  At secondary school I did a short media history project on the social history of cinema going in the locality where I grew up, mixing material from documents with interviews.  As an undergraduate in International History at University of Leeds it seemed logical to use a similar approach for my bachelor’s dissertation, which examined the career of Lord Halifax as the Churchill government’s wartime ambassador to Washington DC.  My undergraduate supervisor – diplomatic historian David Dilks – was a particular enthusiast for the value and ‘fun’ of engaging directly with survivors of Whitehall.  I started by comparing Who’s Who and the old diplomatic list and mailing the remaining diplomats from the embassy, forty years on from their service.  To my surprise found a number of people still alive and both willing and able to speak about their services.  The experience was wholly positive.  I found the cross generational dynamic between a much older person and a young scholar to be a natural once which was conducive not only to a frank recollection and helpful direction but also to further study.  My interviewees always recommended further people or further written sources to help.  Memorable witnesses at this stage included the great philosopher (and wartime opinion analyst) Sir Isaiah Berlin and the retired head of the British Foreign Office, Lord Inchyra.  That experience established oral sources as part of my standard way of operating.  It was central to my PhD thesis, first book, and all subsequent projects.  Over the years I’ve done interviews with a rich galaxy of sources including diplomats, filmmakers, journalists, politicians, soldiers and spies, in the US, UK, Canada, South Africa and points between to build up a picture of what would now be called public diplomacy in action.

Even when the center of gravity of a project is archival I have learned that it is worth pursuing contact with survivors of the period or events.  The different kinds of sources support each other.  The archives direct me to interesting people and some of my most helpful written sources were obtained as a result of interviews.  Every now and again an interviewee pulled out a dusty old suitcase and produced their late husband’s diary or a sheaf of photographs; regularly an interviewee alluded to a newspaper story, film or other source they considered influential and worth examining.  The process of repeating my ideas about the story in question and running them multiple survivors becomes an almost imperceptible process of honing and polishing, with each idea becoming like a pebble rubbed smooth through circulation in wave upon wave, hour upon hour of conversation.

I found that it is important not to prejudge who will be useful and who will not.  One of my most important witnesses for my PhD work was Janet Murrow, widow of the legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow who was introduced to me by the veteran BBC broadcaster Leonard Miall.  Some historians would have considered her perspective on media coverage of the London Blitz to be a low priority but not only did she offer a unique view of journalists’ living conditions during the Blitz, and the day to day stresses of that time, she proved to be a person of undiminished authority within the network of surviving Murrow-era journalists who was happy to allow me to use her name in writing to some half dozen of her husband’s colleagues including such legends in their own right as Walter Cronkite, who all proved happy to help too.  I owe her much.

In the process of integrating oral sources into my work I have certainly had to learn the limits of oral testimony. It was of greatest value not as a substitute for written or audio visual sources but as a supplement to it.  It provided an added dimension: adding color to a picture or perhaps flesh to a skeleton.  When researching a workplace like the British Information Services office in New York or the National Film Board of Canada it certainly helped to have insight into the relationships within that environment.  Who was hated; who was loved; what morale was (or recalled as being) at a particular moment or during the creation of a particular media text.   It was always especially fascinating to learn of the humdrum realities behind a choice in a propaganda documentary that I’d assumed to be aesthetic or artistic.  Sometimes the United States Information Agency (USIA) shot a documentary film in black and white because they didn’t have a budget for color.

I discovered sometimes the oral source up-turned the meaning of a document or audio-visual text.  I was fascinated, for example, by a story I’d seen in the March of Time newsreel about an apparently anti-war organization launched in 1936 by Princeton University students called ‘Veterans of Future Wars’.  When based on campus as a visiting fellow in 1989 I managed to track down a founder member, but his account of the organization was not what I expected.  I had understood that the group members were motivated by pacifism, ironically demanding war bonuses while they were still alive to enjoy them.  His account – in contrast — emphasized the way in which the group was not so much protesting the next war from a position of its future victims as much as mocking the survivors of the former war (who had in 1935 demanded early payment of the promised war bonus scheduled for 1945) as representatives of a privileged elite who were stuck with the bill.  The student’s salute was an ‘itchy palm’ outstretched in the direction of DC appealing for taxpayer money.  Even more cynically the prompt for creating the movement was not simply a prank or satire but to create a story on campus so that the stringer for the New York Times could earn a few extra bucks after a slow semester.  The same newsreel clip – and student politics in the ‘ivy league’ — suddenly looked very different.

My interviews have tended to follow a fairly lose format.  A lot of work is done in the letter requesting the interview.  This letter (or in recent years email) should succinctly communicate the nature of the project, one’s home institution and clearly reference either the person who suggested contacting them or the mechanism by which you obtained their name.  It is a little creepy for a recipient to be guessing how you came to contact them or what your purpose might be.

My next stage is then to prepare by reading or viewing as much as I can about the interviewee so I am familiar at a minimum with any memoir they might have written, with their artistic output or with major interviews about the subject.  This helps me to ensure that I am informed and am steering the interviewee to fresh territory rather than just dropping a coin in the slot to hear a much rehearsed story told one more time.  It can be a nerve-racking process.  I have a recurring nightmare in which I realize I forgot that Sir Winston Churchill was still alive and am due to meet him without having prepared properly.  I wake in a cold sweat from that one!  If something comes up which you don’t understand or recognize, perhaps a technical term or a name, it is fine to stop or double back to that point to clarify.  It can help the interviewee to match their account to your understanding of the event or the place or process in which they were involved.  I am a great believer in the power of a follow up request for detail to help the interviewee unlock further levels of recollection.  I once asked the deputy director of USIA what he was eating for breakfast when a journalist friend leaked news to him of the up-coming Bay of Pigs invasion.  I wish I’d asked the African-American public diplomat John Twitty exact which spirituals he’d sung in Nigeria when an audience demanded a musical prelude to his planned lecture on the Apollo space program.

I have found that it is helpful to agree at the outset how long the interview will be, so I don’t feel compelled to hurry towards a soundbite to justify the train fare.  I also think it helps to establish whether or not you hope to quote the person, which is to say, are they ‘on the record,’ ‘on background’ or on ‘deep background’.   If ‘on the record’ everything can be quoted, if ‘on background’ the substance can be quoted but not attributed and on ‘deep background’ neither quoted or attributed but it can be acted on in looking for further sources.  A good off the record tip can guide future research and sometimes be proven by archive material without any mention of the help that go the scholar to that point.

My first step is always to explain exactly what my project is as succinctly as possible.  If someone has agreed to be interviewed they generally want to help you and explaining the nature of your interest will promote efficient communication and avoid a practiced or generic response.  I find it helpful to have a skeleton script of what I want to know, sometimes asking about broad issues like turning points, sometimes specific people, places or events.  Like many interviewers I sometimes find that it helps to ask about something commonplace, like a work place or location rather than jumping in with a big historical conundrum or controversy.

Some of my interlocutors have been more comfortable talking over food.  A number have smoked throughout our conversation.  Trust me – if the likes of Pik Botha asks you if you mind if they smoke, the answer is ‘feel free…’ Drinks have most often come at the end and are doubtless a seal on the feeling of ‘being on the same page’ with the events in question.

My style as an interviewer is to create a space for testimony rather than badger my interlocutors.  I would ask ‘help me understand how…’ rather than ‘how can you justify…’  An interviewer dealing with controversial matters like crime or prejudice will have to come to their own position on allowing their own judgement to be known.  For my part I have looked for areas of shared experience or outlook to build rapport with a subject early on and held back issues likely to be divisive or controversial till later in the interview lest they prematurely end things.  I have found it useful to guide witnesses away from stories that they have told a hundred times before.  Interviewing Alger Hiss, convicted of perjury for denying that he spied for the Soviet Union, I got very interesting material by asking him his opinion on cases OTHER than his own.  I began that conversation by saying quite honestly I was convinced of his innocence, but by the end of our talk he had told me enough to convince me that that if he hadn’t actually spied for Moscow he certainly believed that that would be the morally justifiable course to take.  I have found it rare that interviewees ask me point blank what I think of an incident or personality to which they were connected and have never felt it wise or necessary to lie.  That said, I have sometimes chosen my words carefully.   When an old anti-Communist witch-hunter asked me point blank what I thought about Senator Joseph McCarthy I thought it wise to answer tactfully that anti-Communism was too important an issue to be trusted to a person like that.

When I began interviewing in 1985 an early witness asked me not to bring a recording device and so I for some years I only took notes in long-hand, pausing and drawing attention to my writing from time to time to confirm a thought or statement.  I’ve found that the best interviews develop as a kind of co-creation where the interviewer is checking back that they have understood correctly, sometimes agreeing at that moment what a final quote or sound bite might be.   I would type up an account of the interview at the end of each day, which extra impressions about manner or environment or exact words used were fresh in my mind.   From 1995 or so I would bring a tape recorder to all interviews with senior figures.  Now I bring a digital recorder to everything.  I never use only a recorder just in case the device fails.  I have never attempted to film an interview as I think this adds another level of concern or self-consciousness for the interviewee.  I have found that sometimes in mid-interview a subject might ask me to turn off the recorder for a particularly sensitive part of the interview or conversely ask me to stop taking notes.  I am happy to oblige.  Strangely perhaps, I have never been asked to cease both.

I have found that using the same skeleton structure of questions with multiple witnesses can bring interesting results, allowing directly comparative answers that can clearly point up the ways in which individual perspective is subjective and memory is partial.  I’ve found asking witnesses to identify a turning point in a historical process to be an especially fertile avenue.  It can be fascinating to note the informal methods used to fix a date in a stream of recollections: ‘that would be around the time that X happened’ or ‘soon after Y happened.’  In fact, the use of a particular event in fixing the date has served as an excellent indicator of the salience of the event, which is of its own value.

Thinking about media history specifically I’ve found it helpful to speak to technicians ‘in the trenches’ as well as star ‘auteurs’.  Documentary film makers and radio journalists have proven especially helpful in part because they haven’t had the same exposure to scholars as fiction film makers or TV journalists.  Interviews with fiction film makers have been some of the most jaded and least revealing.  They have been asked it all before.  It is, however, an amazing experience to ask a question of an artist which is wholly new and unexpected to them and which triggers a moment of self-revelation or a new insight on their part.    Sometimes showing a filmmaker one of the documents you’ve found can be a revelation to them.  The great American government filmmaker Bruce Herschensohn was stunned when I showed him a letter Jackie Kennedy had written in the days following her husband’s murder in which she mentioned that she and the President’s father had viewed Herschensohn’s films in order to feel close to JFK once more.  It seemed all the more appropriate that Herschensohn had been commissioned by USIA to create the president’s official obituary film.

My dealings with sources are not always limited to an hour.  The experience of sharing an interest in a historical moment or experience can be powerful and some witnesses have initiated multiple visits and many conversations and become genuine friends.  To be honest, I have sometimes been criticized for becoming too friendly with my sources.  The criticism has some merit.  One can easily take on the prejudice or institutional perspective of ones sources, written or oral, even without realizing it.  When working on the history of Voice of America radio I was introduced to a succession of veterans of the service who styled themselves the ROMEOs (an acronym for Retired Old Men Eating Out).  I found an easy rapport with them and knew my interest in their careers provided a welcome external validation.   In this process I missed the extent to which the network was essentially masculine and skewed my account of VOA away from a female experience.  This was a significant omission given that the Voice was cited in a massive anti-discrimination class action law suit called the Hartman case.  My ultimate take-away from this is that a researcher must consider how exhilarating the process of being passed from one interviewee to another can skew perspective, and maybe seek additional witnesses as a corrective.  Yet the most carefully constructed interview program can be skewed.  Ultimately we will always need others to identify our biases for us and the corrective may not come from a supervisor or a peer reviewer but from a critic of the published text.  Ouch.  Despite the danger of human contact skewing the work, I feel that can happen with any set of sources.  As with the stock market it pays to have a diverse portfolio!  I have found my emphasis on oral work has helped me to remain aware of the subjective nature of my research and the way in which scholars are, like the oral sources, mortal prisoners of a flow of time.  Knowing that my sources will not last forever has at some points given my work an urgency that an exclusively archive-based project would not have had.  Needless to say the eventual loss of witnesses is a sad reality of the work – some deaths have been considerable blows — but one feels a sense of pride when one was part of their leaving something more of their story behind.

If you are going to bring oral sources into your work it is important to check your institution’s ground rules.  Some regard oral sources as a form of ‘human subject’ work and require formal preparations and legal disclaimers for participants.  Others have no formal requirements.  It is important to ensure you are in compliance.  Some publishers – including one of my own, Palgrave – will only allow an oral source to be quoted if they have a waiver signed by that source.  This can cause problems if the source has died since the interview, which is not uncommon when one is interviewing people because of their historical value who necessarily are much nearer their end than their beginning.  In one case I was able to get round the problem only by using the quote in a blog post and then citing the blog as my source rather than the interview.

One final rule I have is always to make a point of writing to thank my interlocutors.  It helps for them to know that their time has been appreciated and I would hate to think that my neglect closed them off as a source for future historians.


Nicholas J. Cull is a Professor in the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles.  He is president of IAMHIST.  His archive-based study of Meader’s First Family  and the White House reaction appeared as ‘No Laughing Matter: Vaughn Meader, the Kennedy Administration and Presidential Impersonation on the radio’ The Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 3, August 1997, pp. 383-400


Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.

 


 

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