A Visit to Kartemquin Films: Uncovering a Documentary Technology Trove

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Camera 1, a crystal sync sound camera used by Kartemquin in its early days

Camera 1, a crystal sync sound camera used by Kartemquin Films in its early days. (Photo Courtesy of Kartemquin Films)

Note: This post is the second in a short series about my August 2012 visit to Kartemquin Films, the documentary production powerhouse located in Chicago. Kartemquin was founded in 1966 by University of Chicago graduates Gordon Quinn, Stan Karter, and Jerry Temaner with the mission of producing social issue documentaries, which the collective continues making 46 years later. This post offers some of my impressions of visiting a film production collective, something I had never done before.

In my previous post about visiting Kartemquin, I marveled a bit about the character of the building located at 1901 Wellington in Chicago and how the company had made the space its own. The age of the office created an interesting backdrop for not only the activities occurring there, but also for the range of technologies, both old and new, in use and in storage throughout the building. Some of those older technologies, in particular, represent important markers in documentary production history.

When sound developed in the late 1920s and early 1930s, Hollywood responded with musicals, but sound technologies had an immediate impact on the development of documentary as well. Documentaries now afforded the opportunity for people to speak on camera, which we can see in 1935′s Housing Problems. The equipment needed to record these interviews was heavy and cumbersome, and that problem persisted throughout the 1940s and into the 1950s. Late in the 1950s and into the early 1960s, new innovations helped make filmmaking more accessible. Microphone “blimps” helped reduce the noise coming from film cameras, while replacing metal bodies with plastic ones reduced the camera’s weight and noise. Portable synchronous sound (“sync sound”) equipment may have tethered the camera operator to the sound recordist, but at the same time it enabled an innovation in documentary — cinéma vérité.

With the sound operator and the camera operator tied together, the two were required to work in tandem. Where one went, the other went. What one recorded, the other recorded. But part of Kartemquin’s style included getting reactions, either in sound or on camera, to events happening, and sometimes that required the two operators to pursue different subjects. This situation posed a unique problem, and in the basement was the company’s solution, Camera 1.

Camera 1 is a 16mm, 10-minute reel film camera used at Kartemquin in the 1960s and 1970s. While most synchronous sound was made possible by a wire (“cable sync”), this camera was modified by a friend of Kartemquin who worked as an electronics engineer at Fermilab to have a crystal sync sound connection. Both the cameras and the audio recorders were synchronized to their own on-board crystals and thus ran in perfect sync with no need for a wire between the camera and the audio recorder. It was the only such “cable-less” 16mm double system sync sound camera system in the Midwest at the time.

The camera had non-essential parts removed to help reduce its weight. (I tried to pick the camera up and failed, so I think I might need to work on my strength training routines.)

In another corner of the Kartemquin house was a behemoth lurking under a tarp. All I could see was a 1960s sea foam green base, so of course I was curious as to what, exactly, it was. It turns out the behemoth was a Steenbeck flatbed editing suite. Now, we can edit video using nonlinear editing software on a laptop computer, but linear editing was much more hands-on and required different kinds of tools.

This Steenbeck was donated by Notre Dame, but according to Kartemquin communications head Tim Horsburgh, the group owned five of them in the 1970s and rented them out for extra income. When video became viable, the company sold the Steenbecks.

Either way, technology is a fundamental part of talking about the documentary form’s development. It is also a key part of considering how institutions develop. That said, with everything transitioning to digital, I was a bit tickled to see canisters on the floor containing a 35mm print of the classic Hoop Dreams (which is ironic because that film was originally shot on Betacam video, but that’s another technology story for another time).

While equipment is an integral part of making documentaries, people are even more important. More on that subject in the next and final column about my visit to Kartemquin.

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Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh
Heather McIntosh started Documentary Site as a resource for documentary media and has greatly enjoyed the connections it has fostered over the years.