In which I grumble about being an extra in Great Expectations (BBC, 1999), and reflect upon the uses of television history

(This one has nothing to do with zoom lenses…)

Click on the image to open a larger version in a new window

This is a picture of me – far left – and four of my schoolmates. It was taken in November 1998 in Market Place, Oakham, Rutland. In the background – and, indeed, the foreground – are some of the cast and crew of the 1999 BBC adaptation of Great Expectations. I was 13 years old when this photo was taken.

This is the only surviving evidence of my one-day career as a television actor. Continue reading

WMAR-TV’s Zoomar Lens: Serial No. 1

WMAR-TV's Zoomar lens - serial number 1.

WMAR-TV’s Zoomar lens – serial number 1.

What a treat to receive – out of the blue – an email from Rob Brockmeyer, production manager at WMAR-TV in Baltimore, Maryland.

Rob sends photos of the fascinating piece of history on display in WMAR’s lobby: a Zoomar lens bearing the serial number “1”.

Read the rest of this post to see a small gallery of images of this history lens. More information about the history of the Zoomar lens can be found in the relevant section of the Who Invented The Zoom Lens? section of this site.

Continue reading

Early history of the zoom lens: filling in the gaps

At his ShadowPlay blog, David Cairns reports that:

In a service to cinephiles/nerds everywhere, guest-Shadowplayer Mark Medin has created a pre-history of pre-code films that used the recently developed zoom lens. The list at bottom doesn’t claim to be complete — neither of us has seen every film from this period — but with your help, we can make it more so. Write in if you’ve seen a zoom in any Hollywood films of the period not listed below. And by all means spread the list around — we’d like to build up as complete a picture as possible of zoom use at the time.

Click here to read the full post.

“The most useless gadget in a lazy cinematographer’s toolbox”?

Scott Marks, at the San Diego Reader, doesn’t mince his words when it comes to the zoom lens.

The zoom lens is the most useless gadget in a lazy cinematographer’s toolbox. Why hand crank a lens when you can move a camera? So what it you have to hire grips, lay and level track, rehearse the movement, use more lighting instruments to cover the space, and that a dolly shot costs a lot more money to execute? It looks and feels so much more natural because you’re physically moving through space and constantly changing perspective as compared to simply enlarging an image.

Read the rest of his article, “To Zoom Or Not To Zoom?” at

Billy Wilder on the zoom lens


I.A.L. Diamond: I think most young directors today, if you offered them the choice between a  good script and a zoom lens, would take the zoom lens.
Take away the zoom lens. Just don’t let them have it.

– in conversation at the American Film Institute, 1976. In Billy Wilder: Interviews, edited by Robert Horton. University of Mississippi Press, 2001.

Museum of Broadcast Communications: what’s happening?

As Television Obscurities have noted over on their blog, and as I have been grumbling about for a while, the Museum of Broadcast Communication’s free online archive of historic broadcasts is currently offline – and has been since at least early June.

The MBC say this is a temporary state of affairs. One of their people told me on July 5 that things would be restored to normal ‘in a few weeks’.

The Museum funded partly by public donations, and is currently undertaking an ambitious effort to open a new physical museum in Chicago, so let’s hope that the outage isn’t a result of a drop in donations. It would be real shame if the incredibly useful resources that were once accessible to all became unavailable.

In the meantime, some updates on the news page of the MBC website wouldn’t go amiss.

Update December 2011: The MBC Archive is now back online. This site’s new directory page has details of this and other free resources.

Translating Sobchack on the zoom

I try as hard as I can to write in plain, straightforward English. If it’s good practice for banks and supermarkets, it’s surely good practice for academics.

This is Vivian Sobchack, on the zoom, in “The Active Eye: A Phenomenology of Cinematic Vision” (Quarterly Review of Film and Video 12.3: 21-36):

“As we all know (whether consciously or pre-consciously), there is a radical difference between the movement of a ‘zoom-in’ on an object and a ‘forward track’ toward it. In the former, the film’s ‘viewing view’ is compelled by the object; in the latter, the film’s material ‘body’ and its ‘viewing view’ literally move toward the object. The one is an intrasubjective visual gesture, experienced only introceptively as im-pressive. The other, while also experienced intrasubjectively and introceptively, is intersubjectively availabe as visible gesture, as ex-pressive.” (25)


Or, in other words:

“A zoom-in is like concentrating on an image. A track-in is like taking a step towards that image. The former is only experienced by the person doing the concentrating, in their own mind. The latter is experienced in the mind of that person, but also by anyone else around them, who can see their movement in relation to the image.”

In reducing this to what I fondly imagine to be Plain English, have I missed some essential nuance of Sobchack’s interpretation? Yes, it elides the concept of the ‘viewing view’. But since Sobchack’s definition of that is fairly well synonymous with ‘vision’, I’m not sure it matters.

Ain’t Misbehavin’… ain’t available?

I’m looking for a copy, on any format and in any quality, of a 1955 film called Ain’t Misbehavin’ (IMDb) – starring Rory Calhoun and Piper Laurie.

Poster for Ain't Misbehavin' (1955), starring Rory Calhoun and Piper Laurie, directed by Edward Buzzell

As I discovered recently, this apparently obscure movie – directed by Edward Buzzell – includes a sequence in which

“an inventor demonstrates his newest television attachment, which allows viewers to zoom in on individuals during live programs” (from the AFI Catalog)

I haven’t seen the film, but I reckon the ‘inventor’ character is probably based on the somewhat mysterious real-life zoom lens inventor Dr Frank Back.

Dr Back, as I’ve written before, was one of the men behind the astonishing popularity of the Zoomar company during the 1940s and 1950s. Though Back was a fascinating and at times rather colourful character, he died in relative obscurity in 1983. His biography is hardly central to my research, but the more I learn about him, the more interesting he seems to become – his life and inventions certainly deserve far more attention than they’ve ever been given.

As a result I’m very keen to get hold of a copy of Ain’t Misbehavin’ – but it’s proving tricky to locate: not only has it apparently never had a commercial release on DVD or VHS (or any other format I can track down), it also isn’t held by any of the major film archives that I’ve been able to check with.

The only place that advertises it for sale is a website called, but I’m fairly sure (judging from online chatter about the site here and here and from the lack of company information on the website) that it’s either a scam or a very poorly managed operation.

So that leaves me at the mercy of you, dear reader. If you happen to possess a copy (or know where one can be obtained), please let me know. I’d be very grateful for your help.

Later this year I’ll be visiting the USA to carry out various bits of archival research, and I’ll be making a stop at UC San Diego to look at their collection of Frank Back’s papers (details here). I’ll also be looking at various court papers in other locations.

I hope to then be able to write a blog post, or perhaps something more substantial, on Dr Back’s life and innovations. His biography is scattered across the internet, and I think it deserves to be brought together somewhere.

Banal considerations

I enjoyed this snippet from Peter Brunette’s (very useful) Roberto Rossellini (Univ. Calif. Press, 1996):

“As Renzo Rossellini insisted quite strongly to me, the zoom and the long take were used in the earlier historical films because they were infinitely faster and therefore infinitely cheaper […] Of course, this does not mean that the zoom does not have any aesthetic effects, only that it use was often dictated by the most banal considerations” (346).

Banal considerations, indeed.