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Hitting the Books: Smaller cameras and projectors helped the Allies win WWII

Andrew Tarantola
·Senior Editor
·9 min read

Modern cameras exist in high definition ubiquity — they’re in our laptops and phones; strapped onto our helmets and dangling from our drones — heck, you’d be hard pressed to find someone on the street without a video capture-capable device in their pocket these days. In the early era of cinema, however, cameras and projectors were anything but that. Bulky, temperamental and prone to catching fire, early motion picture technology would require decades of innovation to migrate from their gilded movie palaces to American living rooms and classrooms — even the front lines. In Everyday Movies: Portable Film Projectors and the Transformation of American Culture, Haidee Wasson explores this technological evolution and, in the excerpt below, examines the symbiotic (and quite lucrative) relationship between camera makers and the US Department of Defense during the second World War.

Everyday Movies
Everyday Movies

Excerpted from Everyday Movies: Portable Film Projectors and the Transformation of American Culture by Haidee Wasson, published by the University of California Press. © 2020 by the Regents of the University of California.

During the 1940s, the tools of photography and filmmaking were boldly militarized. Cameras became housed in military planes, attached to weapon mounts and outright shaped like guns. Film and photography equipment came finished in army green or navy blue. Projectors, like movie cameras, became standard operating equipment, encouraging a series of innovations involving materials that were lighter in weight, more durable, and resistant to environmental factors (hot, cold, wet, dry) that caused corrosion, mold, or inoperable parts. New protective cases helped to preserve this equipment as it was transported across all manner of terrain. Simplified control knobs and inner mechanisms expedited operation and repairs. Camera and projector innovations also responded to the needs generated by swiftly expanding aerospace and munitions fields, growth areas that demanded specialized recording and display equipment. During the 1930s, film recording and analysis had become important tools of an ascendant industrial research and development culture. This led to faster shutter speeds, precise electronic flashes, increasingly sensitive film emulsions, and more powerful lenses that ushered in military and industrial applications of high-speed photography to machine analysis, ordinance testing, aerial surveillance, reconnaissance, and flight and instrumentation assessment, to name but a few. Film technologies served in the design of new information environments, comprised of film projection, three-dimensional terrain models, epidiascopes (opaque projectors), and other devices aimed at new modes of visualizing data and strategic analysis in multiple dimensions using multimedia displays. Celluloid and projectors became experiments within new conceptualizations of information storage, retrieval, display, and analysis. Vannevar Bush’s much-heralded Memex, essential to what became the computer, included film projections that created flexible data interfaces within nonlinear information environments. Film camera, stock, and projector together evinced distinct and multiple technical capacities — to record, store, access, project, display, and be moved from place to place — making film technologies uniquely useful to the military. This utility extended the role of film to research and development and information processing, forging new models to create and execute strategy, all of which continued to grow throughout the postwar period with strong military support.

Many of these aspects of film technologies and their utility (and transformation) by the military are readily evident in the pages of the Journal of the Society for Motion Picture Engineers. During the war, SMPE meetings regularly hosted participants active in the military who reported about military film use. Presentations also featured information on film use by other national militaries. Before and throughout the war, American captains, lieutenants, majors, and corporals alike presented to the SMPE on military film activities. Topics covered specific aspects of camera or projector operation or film processing; the varied uses and functional elements of the military’s film program, including the challenges of combat camera work; the daunting logistics of global film distribution; and the enormous task of cataloging the spiraling number of films. Reports on special uses for film equipment such as flight training and data analysis also appeared on journal pages. During the war years, multiple issues of the journal were devoted solely to military practices, wherein all manner of military activity and needs were discussed.

Early-on in the conflict, a joint military-SMPE committee formed, along with members of the American Standards Association, to advise on and establish technical standards for military equipment for all relevant arms of service. Members of the Signal Corps, the Army, and the Navy participated. First reporting in 1944, this committee focused on 16 mm rather than the film industry standard 35 mm film format. The smaller gauge appealed to the military precisely for its portability, adaptability, reduced cost, and capacity to serve multiple functions. Thus, war accelerated and amplified the relationship between the military and the technical constituents of the broader film industry, not only Hollywood. By the war’s end, major and minor manufacturers of motion picture materials and equipment had turned over significant portions of their activities to serving military need. Alice Lovejoy has recently documented the sizable contracts for film stock between Eastman Kodak and various branches of the military. Bell and Howell, just one of the major manufacturers with military contracts, totaled over $100 million worth of military optical and camera equipment production during the war.

This industrial flurry was foundationally linked to a scope and scale of film use that is difficult to fully chart. Consider an emblematic case: the Army Pictorial Service (APS). Operational from 1942 until 1970, the Army bought and occupied a major film studio and post-production facility in Queens, New York, formerly owned by Paramount Pictures. Richard Koszarski has declared this studio the single busiest motion picture production center in the world during the war, with forty-five editing rooms and twenty-four screening rooms. The organization also had West Coast operations in Hollywood. Head of the APS during the war, Edward Munson claimed that as of 1946 its film library had over thirteen million feet of combat and production footage. The films made from this footage were in near-constant circulation to the eight million active soldiers enlisted overseas. Its V-mail units, charged with transforming letters written on paper into microfilm before delivery, had photographed more than a billion letters.

everyday movies
everyday movies

The APS was not just a filmmaking operation. Its activities also encompassed an active research and development unit (Pictorial Engineering and Research Laboratory: PERL). “Pictorial engineers,” as they were called, completed over one thousand separate projects to design, test, and perfect film and photography equipment. Among the many activities, for instance, military specialists successfully intensified the brightness of portable projectors, which helped to improve the operation of daylight-cinema-viewing units. Some of PERL’s technical experiments were run out of Fort Monmouth in New Jersey. Other branches of the military carried out research as well. The Air Force was especially active in using film and photography as tools of measurement, required for many aspects of its operations, particularly flight paths and bombing dynamics. In these experiments, specialized cameras, high-speed flashes, and precise viewing devices became essential instruments for assessing and strengthening aerial weaponry.

In addition to the APS, the American military maintained a sprawling film production system, with all major bases housing smaller and more basic filmmaking facilities. While the Army headquartered its post-production and studio-based shooting in Queens, in truth, the need for military films was so great that facilities throughout the country were in near-constant use. Operating under its Bureau of Aeronautics, the Navy had its own Training Film and Motion Picture Branch with an estimated one thousand enlisted and civilian men and women working under its purview. The more specialized Photographic Science Laboratory Branch handled highly specific and often classified films, with hundreds of dedicated personnel. For more specialized and sensitive training needs, the Army Air Force built elaborate film processing facilities in order to maintain secrecy. Highly developed facilities supporting animation and special effects took root in Wright Field, Ohio (now called Wright-Patterson Air Force Base). Hundreds of personnel worked on films at this one facility alone. In addition, industrial filmmakers such as Burton Holmes, Jam Handy, Audio Productions, and many others reported hundreds of titles made on behalf of military and war manufacturers. Because such companies observed strict controls over film stock issued by the War Production Board, only military films and those subjects that made a “useful contribution to the war effort” were permissible. For instance, films that instructed about war products, as well as worker-recruitment films for strategic war plants, were numerous. These industrial filmmakers complained bitterly about the ways that their film use was restricted while Hollywood retained advantageous access to the industry’s raw materials.

everyday movies
everyday movies

Clearly, by World War II, film technologies had become institutional necessities for the American military. While the expanse and depth of film use during the war was unquestionably unprecedented, earlier examples can be identified. During World War I, figures such as Frank Gilbreth and John Randolph Bray made military training films to assist enlisted men in mastering map reading, rifle operation, and battlefield survival. Gilbreth, along with his wife, Lillian, was a well-known industrial efficiency expert and advocate of time-motion studies that employed film in the task of analyzing and improving human movements in the age of scientific management. So eager was Gilbreth to market his business solutions and apply them to military need that in addition to negotiating with the American military, he also traveled to Germany in an effort to sell his techniques to the Kaiser. Reports suggest that films were ultimately of minor significance as regards training, research, and intraorganizational communication during World War I, though their role as propaganda had plainly been established. One source indicated that World War I entailed a total output of up to one hundred reels of training films. During World War I, films were occasionally shown as entertainment in training camp theaters. Films and film stars were used to raise money for the war. Newsreels addressing the war were a regular feature of military and civilian filmgoing. Throughout the interwar period, various military branches gradually institutionalized film use. For instance, as early as 1922 the US Navy issued a sixty-three-page guide instructing sailors in all aspects of its film program, including procurement and projection, maintenance, and safety. Similar guides were issued in subsequent years (figure 20). Select Hollywood studios also made films for the military during the 1930s. Many other national militaries used film well before World War II.