2.1 Notes On Research Methods

My research began in earnest during a work placement at the Scottish Film And Television Archive during April and May 2002. Prior to this, in November 2002, I had been to the British Artist’s Film & Video Collection (BAFVC) at Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design to go through their Margaret Tait files. With a better idea of how this paper would be written, I returned to Saint Martins again in June 2002. The BAFVC holds several of Tait’s films on video and has a unique collection of paper documents, largely consisting of correspondence between David Curtis and Tait since the early 1980s.

The SFTVA has also begun collecting documents relating to the Tait collection which includes some recent correspondence from Tait’s husband, a copy of the BFI’s database records relating to Tait, and other miscellaneous items. I did not contact Pirie during my research since the Archive had already approached him concerning the technical details of Tait’s film making and could answer any initial questions I had for him. It is the Archive’s responsibility to engage in any ‘real-world’ work on the films and I hope that this paper might provoke further questions which they will then put to Pirie.

Although I have only discussed five complete films up to now, there are twenty-five cans in the collection relating to these titles and I will address each one below. My method of working with each can was fairly systematic: Working at a winding bench, I carefully ran each element through once and noted details such as stock dates, codes, splices, and condition. At all times, I had a video camera positioned beside me at the bench in order to make an accurate record which I could review after I had left the archive. I also made written records and drawings of the film stock for a quick reference later. Having looked at each element in the can, I photocopied any documentation included and also the can label. Having done all of this, I compared my observations with the Archive’s Technical Records of which I possess a full printed set for each can.

Besides technical books and articles I have used, I contacted several professionals who are known experts in film printing, digital restoration and colour dyes and presented my observations and queries to them. I was also able to find and contact Peter Hollander in the USA who had been out of touch with Tait for many years. 1)I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA. My correspondence with him turned out to be critical to my understanding of the dyes Tait used. With that understanding, I searched for information on the appropriate dyes and eventually contacted a Histotechnologist who had created an excellent record of dyes used in medical procedures and published it on the internet. At all times, people were intrigued by the bizarre turns my research was taking and were eager to help me in my detective work.

References   [ + ]

1. I am pleased to report that this correspondence has led to Hollander donating his original 16mm copy of Calypso to the SFTVA.

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.