1.2 Calypso

While I intend to continue discussing the life and work of Margaret Tait, from hereon in I shall do so with reference to the hand-painted and hand-drawn films she produced throughout her career as a filmmaker. 1)For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979. These films are:

Calypso (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 4:29, 1955)

John MacFadyen (The Stripes in The Tartan) (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 3:30, 1970)

Painted Eightsome (35mm/16mm, colour, sound, 6:16, 1970)

Numen of the Boughs (35mm/16mm, colour, silent, 2:07, 1974)

Colour Poems (16mm, colour, sound, 11:20, 1974 – includes Numen)

Garden Pieces (16mm, colour, sound, 11:30, 1998)

Calypso was Tait’s first hand-painted film and although it often carries the date of 1955, it was painted in Italy three years earlier. Hollander recalls:

Margaret somehow made contact with the technical guy at the office of the British Information Service in Rome. They were making an Italian version of a film called, I think, Jamaica in which there is a scene of a cricket match accompanied by a melange of calypso music. It was still in the days of 35mm and a print of the sound track was considered not quite good enough for the mix. This BIS man gave the print to Margaret who used it to paint her film on.” 2)Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.

It is no coincidence that Tait and Hollander would make a film called Calypso at this time. In 1950, the West Indies cricket team triumphed at Lords. The win was also a symbolic victory over their colonisers and immediately celebrated by Calypso legend, Lord Beginner who led an impromtu song, ‘Cricket, Lovely Cricket’ through the West-end of London. It became the anthem of 1950 and found its way to Tait in Italy who must have found its celebratory tune irresistible.

Calypso was hand painted onto clear 35mm film stock with an optical soundtrack running down the side. Greater technical detail will be given in Section Two but here I want to briefly identify the connection between Tait and the New Zealand artist, Len Lye.

Horrocks has written that Lye had experimented with scratching on the film surface in the 1920s and took it up in earnest several years later while in London. By 1934, unaware of any precedents, he was wrestling with the practical problem of finding suitable paints which would sufficiently adhere to the film stock. Finally settling on a set of ‘lacquer paints’, he used a variety of domestic tools with which to improvise his new art.

Seeing Lye’s initial efforts, John Grierson of the GPO Film Unit, recognised the possibilities of making colourful films within an industry still largely dominated by black and white and comissioned Lye to produce “an abstract colour film.” 3)Horrocks, 2001, 136. For this he was paid £30 which was not enough to hire a composer. So he and a friend, Jack Ellitt, began listening to hundreds of records before deciding on ‘La Belle Creole’, a lively dance piece (at the time described as a ‘rumba’) by Don Baretto and his Cuban Orchestra. Ellitt drew up an analysis of the music and Lye made various cue marks along side the soundtrack where he painted. A Colour Box was completed over two months and was a striking contrast to many of the avant-garde films of the time.4

Its reception was mixed at first but by late 1935 cinemas were paying to show it because of the public interest it had created. Lye went on to make several other hand-painted and stenciled films influencing another Scottish painter-film maker, Norman McLaren who, when seeing A Colour Box for the first time, “was electrified and ecstatic.”

I wanted to see it over and over again…. Here was the pioneer of the hand-painted film. Apart from the sheer exhilaration of the film, what intrigued me was that it was a kinetic abstraction of the spirit of the music, and that it was painted directly onto the film. On both these counts it was for me a dream come true. I had dabbled with drawing and painting on film (because I couldn’t afford a camera) and had turned out a small amount of footage but I had never succeeded in making a film. Len Lye had shown the way, and shown it in a masterly and brilliant fashion. 4)Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.

Much has been written about both of these film makers and any detailed history of hand-painted film could go on at length about each individual’s output and working styles. Here, I want to emphasise the similarities between Lye and Tait’s first hand-painted films and that she was certainly aware of his work by the time she painted Calypso.

I found [Lye’s films] highly entertaining and imaginative in themselves, as well as stimulating, suggesting further development. Something about the editing to a musical beat or using a musical length to determine an in-film length was in accord with some thoughts of my own at the time… I had always enjoyed the Len Lye films which used to appear in the cinemas in the ’30s… The use of sheer colour, screen-wide, coloured my idea of film (and perhaps colour) from then on. 5)Leggett, 1979.

The basic similarities between Calypso and A Colour Box are obvious: bold, vibrant colours, painted confidently with quick strokes and set to lively dance music. The movement of colour shows an attempt to synchronise with the music yet not be governed by it. Frame lines are painted in quick, single strokes and the jitter of the animation is used to an advantage, generating an energetic and playful effect. In practical terms, both Lye and Tait were drawn to painting on film because it was cheap, not requiring a camera nor very much film stock. In this sense, both were able to experiment without too much concern for budgeting the film and it has been suggested that she saw it more as a kind of ‘sketchbook’, using it to test new ideas while in intimate contact with the film material. 6)Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).

Tait did not paint on film again until 1970. During that time, she would leave Italy having had a “very good time” and return to Edinburgh in 1954 where she re-established Ancona Films in a small office at 91 Rose Street. By this time, she had made five films, the three with Hollander mentioned above and Three Portrait Sketches (1951) and Portrait of Ga (1952), a touching portrait of her mother filmed while she was back in Orkney on vacation. The next twenty years were productive, punctuated with locum work until she received a tiny private income in 1960 and could finally finish with medicine altogether. 7)Pirie, letter, 2000. Although she had a base in Edinburgh, she went between the city, Sutherland and Orkney until the early 1970s when it became clear that she would lose her Rose Street office to redevelopment. Her time in Edinburgh is an example of her intention to remain independent just as the smaller Italian film companies had done so. Both used 16mm to their advantage as the cheaper production costs meant greater independence from the industry. In 1995, she wrote a lengthy letter about her choice of working in 16mm. She argued that 16mm film was “the answer” to her desire to work independently (“independent of what?” she once noted, reflecting on the state of the Scottish film industry), partly influenced by the efforts of the American ‘underground’ films and the pre-war avant-garde from Europe. 16mm afforded her professional quality on “laughable budgets”. She defended the format by arguing that much of television was shot on 16mm and was thus well supported by the industry. Some services were even available for 16mm before 35mm, in particular magnetic sound which she took advantage of frequently.

Another thing about 16mm was that you could get film stock in 16 that you couldn’t get in 35. 1) Colour reversal; Kodachrome gave beautiful colour. I used it for Portrait of Ga, Orquil Burn, Happy Bees and The Leaden and The Echo. 2) And there was black and white reversal too, which gave lovely rich blacks and good gradation. That was used for The Drift Back… 3) Ilford at the time sold b/w neg-pos stocks which I used a lot. And I think there was a greater variety there in 16 than in 35. I liked to use both HPS, a very fast and quite grainy one and PanF, quite the opposite, fine grain and slow. The Big Sheep is done entirely in HP5 & PanF, Where I Am Is Here, largely so but using also an intermediate speed. Hugh MacDiarmid is on Kodak b/w neg/pos. 8)Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

References   [ + ]

1. For a more general discussion of her work until the late 1970s, see Leggett, 1979.
2. Email correspondence with Hollander, June 2002.
3. Horrocks, 2001, 136.
4. Quoted in Horrocks, 2001, 145.
5. Leggett, 1979.
6. Leggett suggests this having had conversations with Tait in the 1970s. However, she would later deny this saying, “the hand-painted dance films were made as films not as sketches.” (Letter to Curtis, 1995).
7. Pirie, letter, 2000.
8. Letter to David Curtis, 3rd February, 1995.

1.1 Margaret Tait

Born on Armistice Day in 1918 in Kirkwall, Orkney, Margaret Caroline Tait made her first film in 1951 and her last in 1998. During that time, she made thirty-two films ranging from short hand-painted animations to a feature-length narrative fiction film. All except the feature, Blue-Black Permanent (1992), were independently financed despite periodic attempts to interest sponsors in her work. The financing of her work while she was alive remains significant even today because the collection of film and sound elements donated by her husband Alex Pirie, to the SFTVA very much reflects the unusual circumstances under which she made films for almost forty years.

At the age of nine, she was sent to the Esdaile boarding-school in Edinburgh and remained in the city to study medicine at Edinburgh University, graduating with a MB, CH.B in 1941. In 1943, she joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to military hospitals overseas, first in central India and then in Ceylon. Following the Japanese surrender in August 1945, she was posted to Johore Bahru, Malaya and Singapore. Then, shortly after the war, she went to Perugia for a short time to study Italian. She returned to civilian life in 1946 and except for another spell in Italy, continued to engage in periodic spells of locum work in hospitals and general practices until 1960.

Her interest in film making began early on and while practicing medicine in the Army she wrote scripts for feature films. There is some evidence to suggest that she possessed a cine camera during this period, too. 1)Hollander mentions this in his autobiography. Interest in her scripts was shown towards one or two but they weren’t taken: “I also tried a competition or two, without success. I was told that production companies preferred to receive scripts through an agency; but there was the snag that agencies didn’t want you unless you’d been accepted.” 2)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983, draft script. On the basis of doing research for a script she hoped to sell about St. Francis of Assissi, she returned to Italy in the spring of 1950. By the summer, she had found out that Rossellini had just finished a film about St. Francis (Franceso, Guillare di Dio, 1950), and gave up trying to attract interest in her screenplays for the time being, turning her attention instead to the writing/directing course at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia which started in the autumn. Tuition was free for foreign students and she lived frugally though “without hardship” off her army gratuity and earnings from teaching English.

In this post-war period, Italian directors such as Rossellini, De Sica and Visconti were working during the height of Neo-Realism and these films were always accompanied in cinemas with a short documentario, or corto metraggio (‘short film’) described by Tait as sometimes “more of an essay or poetic evocation of something.”

The editing could be on a different principle, less to do with following action and more to do with creating a continuity… in some of these shorts the film consisted of this sort of shot to shot continuity based on pictorial composition or allusion from detail to detail… 3)Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983, draft script.

While in Rome, impatient to be actually doing something, she and two other foreign students at the Centro began making short films on their own using the “available actuality” associated with neo-realist films. One of those students was Peter Hollander, an American with whom she would start a production company, Ancona Films Ltd (named after the Via Ancona road in Rome) and collaborate on film making projects while in Italy. 4)One is One (1951), The Lion, The Griffin and the Kangaroo (1951) and Calypso (1955 – but made while in Italy) were all produced in Italy under Ancona Films. Hollander remembers the company as “limited indeed. Mainly in the area of operating capital.” 5)Hollander, autobiography. In fact, although always starved of capital, Ancona Films had offices in Rome, New York and Edinburgh, reflecting the cities where it’s partners would eventually reside and its Edinburgh office remained registered until 1973.

While tuition may have been free for foreign students at the Centro, film stock and laboratory costs were not. Tait and Hollander found themselves having to assist the Italian students if they were to gain experience making a 35mm black and white short by the end of the year. Frustrated by this, they decided to make their own films without any help from the school. Whereas the Italian students remained more conservative in their film making, preferring to use the sound-stage instead of locations, Tait, Hollander and an Argentinian called Fernando Birri, 6)Like Hollander, who worked as a documentary filmmaker for the United Nations for 29 years before becoming “Chief of everything visual” at the UN, NYC, Birri also went on to achieve great success after leaving Italy. “Birri is known as the “Father of the New Latin American Cinema”. He studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and after graduating returned to Argentina where he founded in the province of Santa Fe, the first film school specialized in documentalism in Latin America. He was forced to exile due to the Argentinian military coup de etat, and lived in Italy where he shot his three-hour experimental film “Org”. In 1986 he helped to found the International School of Film and Television in Cuba, and was chosen as first principal. He lives in Europe, and has taught in Mexico and Venezuela.” IMDB. http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Birri,+Fernando took to the streets with their 16mm cameras, eager to express what they had learned from the neo-realist directors who taught at the Centro. Their first film was called, One is One (1951).

Margaret had devised an arcane system to indicate the opus numbers of our films in their titles. We named our first-born One is One. For those not in on Margaret’s code, the title was meant to suggest the line “One is one and ever more shall be so…” from the English folk song Green Grow the Rushes-O. We ran out of money well before the film was finished. We did edit what footage we had and used to run the print like a silent movie with Ottorino Resphigi’s Fountains of Rome as the musical accompaniment. 7)Hollander, autobiography.

Tait and Hollander secured funding from Perugia University for their second film having convinced them that “they needed a film to promote their language classes for foreigners in the English speaking world. The American Commission for Cultural Exchange with Italy also saw use in such a film and between them they paid for a large part of the film stock, its developing and printing.” 8)Hollander, autobiography. The film cost almost half a million lire and was called The Lion, the Griffin and the Kangaroo. The title being contrived out of the official symbols of Perugia (the lion and the griffin) and the kangaroo representing all the foreigners studying at the University. The title also suggested that it was their second film referring to the song, ‘The animals are coming, two by two…’ The film was well received by the rectors of the University except for one reservation:

“Why did you make the town look so medieval and old,” they wanted to know, “it looks as though you have to go everywhere on foot. We also have many wide streets. Why, an American student could even bring his car to Perugia!” 9)Hollander, autobiography.

With their partnership established, Tait and Hollander turned to their next project, a hand-painted film they called Calypso.

References   [ + ]

1. Hollander mentions this in his autobiography.
2, 3. Margaret Tait: Filmmaker, 1983, draft script.
4. One is One (1951), The Lion, The Griffin and the Kangaroo (1951) and Calypso (1955 – but made while in Italy) were all produced in Italy under Ancona Films.
5. Hollander, autobiography.
6. Like Hollander, who worked as a documentary filmmaker for the United Nations for 29 years before becoming “Chief of everything visual” at the UN, NYC, Birri also went on to achieve great success after leaving Italy. “Birri is known as the “Father of the New Latin American Cinema”. He studied film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Rome, and after graduating returned to Argentina where he founded in the province of Santa Fe, the first film school specialized in documentalism in Latin America. He was forced to exile due to the Argentinian military coup de etat, and lived in Italy where he shot his three-hour experimental film “Org”. In 1986 he helped to found the International School of Film and Television in Cuba, and was chosen as first principal. He lives in Europe, and has taught in Mexico and Venezuela.” IMDB. http://us.imdb.com/Bio?Birri,+Fernando
7, 8, 9. Hollander, autobiography.