This technological revolution has allowed both for the widespread dissemination of news and information around the world and also for small intimate personal films to be made for a low cost.


Fall/Winter 1999

Richard Elson '69
documentary filmmaker
Quebec, Canada

What is the most significant event that has occurred in your profession or field of study during the 20th century? What lesson do you take away from that event?

The most significant event if the 20th Century in my field of documentary film and television production is actually two linked events. The advent of lightweight portable 16mm synchchronous sound cameras at the beginning of the1960s is the first, with their use for the creation of what was called either cinema verite or direct cinema by the first modern group of documentary filmmakers, such as Ricky Leakock and D.A. Pennebacke and the Maysles brothers in the United States and Jean Rouch in France and Michel Brault and Pierre Perrault in Canada at the National Film Board of Canada. This was both a technical and aesthetic revolution which created modern documentary filmmaking.

The second event I participated in approximately 12 years later, three years after leaving Wabash College as a student in January of 1969. It was the invention and use of the first portable videotape cameras and videotape decks called portapaks produced by SONY and PANASONIC and available commercially at a low relative cost in 1972. These first portable cameras and tape decks were part of what made possible the whole video news and documentary revolution which would transform information and also the art of documentary film.

I first used these cameras in Febuary 1972 to film the many political demonstrations against the war in Vietnam in the spring of 1972. At the time video was black and white images recorded on 1/2 inch open reel video tape on a separate videotape recorder which I carried on my back in a specially built back pack frame; the whole unit with batteries weighing about 30 lbs. Miniaturization and technological advances have now brought us digital color cameras of professional quality that weigh perhaps 2 lbs. and fit into the palm of our hand. This technological revolution, which even SONY( they had no idea that these cameras would be used professionally) did not realizewould transform both televison and documentary film, has allowed both for the widespread dissemination of news and information around the world and also for small intimate personal films to be made for a low cost. The continuation of this revolution has also allowed for films and documentary programs to be made for television in ways that allowed access to the profession to many more people so that now the field is experiencing a renaissaance around the world.

If there is a lesson to be learned it is that there are many lessons and implications from major events in this profession, but that it is the conceptual and creative use of the technology that is critical for the profession and its impact on the world. In my field, as in others, even if there is a massive technical revolution, the basis of creation of certain types of work of art may then follow initially, but later may stay as a form that only evolves rather than transforms itself with continuing technical advances.

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