Finding my way by shooting film

By: Leon Smith - Contributing columnist

I had one prospect for a job after college, shooting 16mm film to be used in an agriculture TV program which ran at 7:45 on Saturday mornings in a nearby state. I must have been the only candidate from UNC who had been a member of the 4-H Club, had planted loblolly pines on family land, and had raised Hampshire hogs in his back yard. Leaving my ‘58 Opel station wagon running on the day I left town for good, I plunked a coin into a pay phone in Chapel Hill and called the Agricultural Communications department at the college where I hoped to work.

“Call us back next week,” they said.

A good idea — for if they called me, they would have to call a pay phone, too.

At school, I had produced a radio documentary and worked as a crew member on studio TV programs, and on 8mm student film projects. I inspected and spliced the films which the UNC Audio Visual Bureau lent out to public schools across the state. I had run camera once for a football game.

Lesson: I had a lot to learn.

So after the job came through, I showed up for work having never even loaded a 16mm movie camera. I practiced on the Bolex I found in a brown leather case in my office. Although there was no manual for the camera, the film paths were the same as our AV Bureau film projectors. I also found a Weston light meter, which I needed to set the aperture on the Bolex, because in those days film cameras had no exposure meters.

My boss must have let me shoot some stuff around campus before we drove the two hours to the studio where my film would be turned in to videotape. When I viewed my first film footage, I learned editing rule No. 1: “Film that your mama would love will not please your viewers.” Rule two: “If you have the slightest doubt about a shot, it’s trash, throw it out.”

I never showed my film to mama, so I threw lots of shots away — some too dark, others too light, some out of focus, others too shaky, some with trees growing out of folks’ heads. Though I was regularly dismayed at the editing table, somehow I always had just enough footage to get by.

Lesson: Someone is looking out for me.

I also began to learn something about people. At that time, a movie camera gave you permission to ask silly questions of people who knew much more than you did. At the edge of the mountains, I shot film of an orchard of newly planted apple trees. After we finished, the orchardist told me he was 85 years old.

I wondered to myself: “Why did he even plant those trees?”

“I won’t live to see them bear,” he said. “But that was not the reason I planted these apple trees.” He looked toward the young trees and smiled, “I planted these for my grandkids.”

Lesson: A wise person is not selfish.

In the college town, I shot a gorgeously green terraced backyard of a landscape designer who taught horticulture, and later from an entomologist — heard of fire ants for the very first time, perhaps 20 years before we ever saw one of them in North Carolina. I shot the process of making blue cheese with students raking in the curd from a vat filled with water, and gaining a taste for their product in the process. In the sandy country, I shot watermelon farms, where the research director asked a young helper to thump the Charleston Greys, saying, “That high school sophomore can read ripeness better that I can.”

Lesson: A good leader uses the talents of all his workers.

I made friends with agricultural engineers who showed me a device they were testing: an apple harvester with a hydraulic device to encircle the tree trunk with a rubber blanket, and a mechanical rod which bumped the trunk just hard enough to make the apples fall. The ripe ones fell the same way they do when you shake the tree, but they don’t bounce on the ground.

Lesson: Most of the time simpler is better.

I shot film at a pecan processing facility, where Stewart pecans dropped end up into shallow conveyor cups, then another set of cups descended over them so they cracked, letting the meat fall out in perfect halves — most of the time — at the rate of 50 pecans per minute.

Once, I took along a borrowed Rolleiflex still camera because our office needed a photo of a dairy cow for a new brochure. In my hurry to get all my movie equipment together before leaving town, I neglected to learn how to operate the still camera. When I got to the farm, I shot my movie film first, ending with the cattle feeding from a trough. After I packed the Bolex away, I came back to the same trough with the still camera, but after I loaded it with 120 film, I could not get the crank on the side to cock the shutter. The lever just tuned round and round, until it moved the entire roll through the camera without clicking once. I tried another roll with the same result.

“This cow’s about to finish her meal and head for the barn,” the voice in my head observed.

So I tried feeding the third roll of film under a thin chrome roller I must have missed before; at last the shutter cocked.

The Rollei had automatic exposure, and by total accident, one of the knobs I twisted set the shutter speed fast enough to stop a speeding bullet. After that the film ran out, so I took the disaster home, warning Dot she might not find a single exposure she could use. But she did find one, a shot that stopped the feed falling from that Holstein’s mouth, and she used that shot in her brochure.

Lesson: Someone’s looking out for me.

Once I had almost finished filming snouts, heads and bodies which were standing on the concrete floor of a hog lot, when I realized I needed a multi-hog shot as well. So I looked around, saw a good vantage point outside the fence, and ran toward it, aiming my brand new boots at the mound of solid earth just below me and bounded over. As things turned out, the solid earth was actually wood shavings, and the earth under it was not earth at all. I came to rest on solid earth only after I mired my boots up just below the pull-straps in hoggie poo . Some of the swine that worked with the animals on that farm thought my situation droll. I did not agree.

Lesson: What you see is not necessarily what you get. Look before you leap.

I loved making movies and thought I would try to pick the brain of Cecil, who had been with the department for years. Widely known as the best 16mm cinematographer in the state, he made award-winning films for our department, using a battery powered Arriflex 16mm camera, and Nagra sync-sound recorder. My little Bolex, which only shot film for TV, was spring wound and mute.

If Cece was working on a film, I went down to watch as often as I could. When I showed up, he would stop work and listen to me, but he answered my questions with few words, and cast sidelong glances at the strip of film in the viewer in front of him. It took a while for me to realize that Cece needed to get on with his work, and that I was only hindering him.

Lesson: Don’t be a pest.

Then, it came to me that I was living on a university campus; surely someone there would help me to grow. But where to look? Communications was my interest and the closest thing there was not an exact match. But I went to talk with the chairman of the English Department anyway, and that Department eventually admitted me into its program. I never found a person to take me under wing, but I did find many excellent teachers eager to share their love of the written word with me, and delighted to help me to find my way.

Lesson: Someone has kept watching out for me.

But all that’s another story.

Leon Smith, a resident of Wingate who grew up in Polkton, believes the truth in stories and that his native Anson County is very near the center of the universe.

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Leon Smith

Contributing columnist