Interview with Curator Michal Večeřa

“One box does not equal one film source”

I met Michal Večeřa near the Konvikt building housing the National Film Archive in the quiet club Zázemí. Despite the club’s being rather cold that evening, he patiently answered my questions and enthusiastically described the special technological processes employed by Laterna magika which he encounters when reconstructing the individual acts and performances.

What can we picture under the position of Curator of Collection Funds at Laterna magika?
Together with restorer Tereza Frodlová, I process all the film materials that the National Film Archive (NFA) took over from the National Theatre in 2010. That is about four and a half thousand boxes with films. My task is to watch the films, describe their content and identify which performances they might belong to. We will put together all the film materials belonging to the performances so that we always have a block of copies, preferably including duplicating materials and negatives,  if available, plus the things that might “peek at us” from unlabelled or unclearly labelled boxes. While Tereza takes care of the technological aspects, I am in charge of the content; what is on the film strip and how the film strips go together. I also deal with the form in which the given performances were played at various times of their staging.

What is in the boxes with films?
One film box does not equal one film source. The box can contain five or six short film strips and it may be unclear how they are to be described and what performance they belong to. All the labels we create will be listed in an electronic database and the whole project aims at developing a method of describing a multimedia work like Laterna magika. At the same time, however, the preservation of digital archives, whether digitized or digital-born ones, can be perceived as a problem. It is rather problematic that the collections do not communicate with each other, they are not interconnected, although there are many links between them. For instance, we have an animated film at Laterna magika that was used for projection and that actually belongs to a collection of animated films. One of the aims of the project is to create a new digital collection of Laterna magika that will include both the film strips taken over from the National Theatre and information about other sources stored outside the NFA. Film sources will be interlinked with non-film sources and documents that the researchers will be able to view.

I suppose that it is very complicated to describe the films…
What makes it even more complicated is the fact that these are not feature-length fiction films where we could try to reconstruct their form at the time of their first screening and connect them with non-film sources. On one hand, we have the original length of the performance at the time of its first staging; then there are the particular shows and other variations. It is not only about length but also about the number and type of screens and about the venue, as the performances were staged at other stages as well. The first performances were composed of individual acts that varied so the performance could be different every time. We can say with certainty that this goes for Wonderful Circus which celebrates 40 years since its premiere this year. Available recordings show that the performance used to be a little longer. Moreover, it was originally staged at Adria Palace and the authors had to deal with the change of venue after moving to the New Stage of the National Theatre. Similarly, there could have been short acts out of which the first performances were composed in various years. Laterna magika also went on tours and staged a given set of acts in a combination and number as commissioned. Although we do have the lists, the acts could have been enacted in all kinds of ways. The structure of such performances could be compared to a news shot that could be used in various newsreels.

Moreover, the labelling was rather poor, so it is often problematic to identify what belongs where. For instance, someone may have put an old film strip in an old used box with the original label. A new label may have been stuck there but when we took over the materials and roughly arranged them according to the individual performances, the stickers had often already gotten unstuck and lost. It was a bit of a detective story to find out what belongs where. But we could guess it to a certain degree, as the boxes from different time periods looked different.

How big were the changes and variations of the individual performances and acts?
We found out that there could have been radical differences. For instance, in case of Breakneck Ride, we found a recording from the turn of the 1960s and 1970s when this act was still performed with a right-hand screen and the performance was a little longer while today’s performance has been reduced to a single wide CinemaScope screen. The original version featured a skater who, after riding across all of Prague, rode into the theatre at today’s Adria Palace where Laterna magika had its seat back then. We can assume that the act was shortened after Laterna magika moved to the New Stage of the National Theatre; back then, it would have made no sense for the skater to go back to the original stage. From what I have seen up to now, when a performance or its part is restaged, the stage looks different – the screens are arranged completely differently, the current performance simplifies the original material, the projection is done in a different way. For instance, in Casanova, a big mirror was hung aslant over the stage, mirroring the projection on the floor of the stage while the viewers could see the events taking place on the stage from above. Besides the mirror, projection surfaces were placed on the sides of the stage. Today, the performance Cocktail 012 – The Best Of only uses a regular rectangular screen and a narrow vertical strip.

We currently work on a case study of the act Breakneck Ride where the above mentioned skater rode into a theatre and this part was then cut out. It was staged for the first time in 1963, then in Montreal in 1967 and probably also in the 1970s. Then it was restaged as part of Cocktail 012 – The Best Of in 2012. Due to the fact that it is a short act that is seven to eight minutes long, the initial research is not so complicated and we can follow its development in the course of several decades. In most cases though, that is not possible; with the exception of Wonderful Circus which was premiered in 1977 and is still on today.

How do you proceed when inspecting the film materials?
First, an operator at the Hradištko depository checks how sour they are, whether they are struck by vinegar syndrome and whether they are mouldy. Sometimes it is rather problematic to determine that; when you remove mould from a film, the mould stops growing but it still leaves spots in the image. Sometimes the operators find it hard to determine whether they are traces left by the original, already gone mould, or whether it is a mould that is growing anew. Sometimes it looks like an entertaining abstract avant-garde film when the mould marks look like spots in the image on the noticeably degraded colour material.

We also have to cope with other aspects that distinguish Laterna magika from a collection of feature films. When a regular feature film breaks, you just splice it by cutting out several frames and gluing the strip back together. However, we can’t do that, for if we put those few frames away, the material could never by synchronized with other synchronously screened materials again. So we can only back it with adhesive tape.

How did you start describing the film materials?
We started with the performances that were staged in the first years of Laterna magika from 1956 to the early 1970s. They were not a compact whole with a plot and gradual development but rather simple sketches and revue acts. We would take the materials related to one act and label them. The early ones were simpler for us since there only was a single reel so we didn’t have to keep track of the relations within a long performance and there was no need to determine the order of the materials within the performance. We watch the materials on the editing table. We have the labels that were on the boxes and film strips; they do not necessarily correspond with the materials, however, they are usually very helpful in terms of which performance the material belongs to and what kind of material it is. Already when watching the films, we get an idea of how the individual screens interacted; their mutual interaction can often tell us how they were projected simultaneously and which screen was used to project them on the stage.

But the actors and actresses are missing there…
…so at this moment we are not able to synchronize it all reliably, since we don’t have the screenplays and technical plans. If we do have screenplays, they are usually working versions and god knows whether there was a final version at all. Laterna magika is so non-standard that sometimes there are no head and tail leaders, there can be more of a blank at the beginning than there should be etc. So if we played all the three strips at once, they would be out of sync. Based on the image, we can speculate how it worked, because sometimes it becomes clear based on that.

At the beginning of the act called The Shepherds’ Dance, you could see the left and right screen and it was dark in the middle. The left and right screen would be projected on; after some twenty metres of film being played, the central screen would start playing and follow the plot taking place on the sides. Then the left screen was turned off and only the central and the right one were on. Based on how image and black blank alternate, we are able to guess what it probably looked like. You can easily do that with short, 10-minute acts but not with long performances.

However, we expect that the synchronization of materials will only follow after the digitization of selected materials. After watching all available materials, we will decide which copy to pick for digitization and then the materials will be processed in the digital lab of the NFA. Nevertheless, it will still be problematic; due to the state some of the materials are in, we have to take into consideration that when processing certain acts, we may have materials for the right screen that may be more degraded than the ones for the left screen.

Do you have materials that show what the acting, stage and polyecrans were like?
There is very little documentation. The NFA got the working recordings from the rehearsals of Minotaur from Otto Olejár. That is some twelve to sixteen boxes with 16mm film, however, that is an exception. Then there was a handful of materials we have come across when inspecting the collection. Sometimes we chance upon 16 mm film which signalizes that they are not materials projected during performances, since those were usually on the 35 mm strip with CinemaScope perforation. We have found a recording of three acts – Breakneck Ride, Rich Palette and Rondo, the latter also being presented as Gramocollage – on 16 mm film, however, it is not a quality recording and it does not take in the whole stage. The camera focuses on various objects on the stage so it is not seen as a whole. Reportage films and newsreels only include minimum footage of Laterna magika. They are but several clips that rotate everywhere, such as the hostess entering the stage from the screen at Expo in Brussels. But there is still a plenty of uninspected footage so we still may discover something.

Could you explain what CinemaScope perforation is and why it was used?
There are three kinds of perforation that are mostly used – negative perforation, which is of cask-like shape, positive perforation, which is of rectangular shape, and CinemaScope perforation, which is of square shape. Unfortunately, we still have not arrived at a reliable explanation why they used CinemaScope perforation for all three film strips. In case of the central screen, which was usually a wide screen, they most probably used CinemaScope perforation to save space. Besides the wide image, they had to squeeze four magnetic tracks into the sides of the film strip next to the perforation. However, the left and right screens, which had the standard academic format 1:1,33 and no sound track, also had this type of perforation, although cinema usually uses positive perforation for copies in this format.

How was the thin, vertical image achieved?
(We are looking at one of the photographs in Svatopluk Malý’s book The Birth, Rise and Fall of Multivisual Programmes. Laterna magika and Polyecrans.) For instance by covering a half of the image and lighting only the space that was projected onto the vertical screen. They often used non-standard formats, commonly placing three screens next to each other. However, we have also come across an act where an anamorphic image was projected from one projector onto the screen in a vertical direction while an anamorphic film was projected from another projector horizontally; in the middle of the image, there was a black stripe onto which the image from the second projector was projected. If this act followed an act which used three screens, they had to reset the projector in the middle of the performance so that it faced the space with the black image. That was definitely not an isolated case. Sometimes the projector even had to be reset during one act. The projectionists had a certain length of blank footage for that purpose.

The interview was made by Veronika Zýková.