U.S. Government Enters Film Industry

The U.S. Government began its entrance into the motion picture industry as early (if not earlier) as 1908. Early on, Government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and others began their foray into this arena. In the beginning, Government offices relied on outside commercial studios for their productions, but early on they realized in order to control costs, maintain creative control and eventually set up their own distribution systems, it was in their best interests to set up their own production units.

The Department of Agriculture began producing films officially as a motion picture unit late in 1913. They had even purchased processing equipment and cameras and had the first Government motion picture lab initially hidden away in an 8 x 12 room as it had yet to be funded. In 1917 the U.S. Signal Corps began training soldiers in cinematography at Columbia University in New York. The U.S. Reclamation Service (Department of the Interior) began filming in 1908-09 using the medium to document their efforts in irrigation in the Midwest. The list goes on and on: the Bureau of War Risk Insurance , the National Forest Service, Bureau of Mines, etc. all utilized this medium in an effort to educate and inform the masses. It is a long neglected segment of film history which is well worth a new look.

The Written Word

Today I was looking over an article I located from the Illustrated London News dated August 19, 1922. The title of the piece is “The Birth of the Cinematograph: From Still to Moving Pictures”. This particular article was written by Will Day. Day was an enthusiastic collector of many things, among them some of the early apparatus of pre-cinema and moving pictures. The article is a very interesting document in that it relates much of the pre-cinema history as opposed to traditional moving images. It also has me reflecting on another group of individuals in motion picture history. People such as Day, Merritt Crawford, Earl Thiesen and countless others spent an inordinate amount of time and energy in the attempt to document moving image history. When you think about it, if not for these men, much sole source data such as first person interviews and correspondence might not exist. In many cases actual footage, and equipment is no longer available, so this turns out to be our only method of providing a sense of the history of the Industry. I have found it fascinating in the course of my own research; be it by design or by accident to locate and find written histories left by many more people who played a part in the development of the film industry.

Ah, the Nuts and Bolts

One of the long neglected areas of film scholarship has been the technology developements over time. From the earliest days of the industry, cameramen, etc, had to come up with methods to handle film, shoot at different speeds, film from the air, and on and on. When archives first broached the idea of film preservation, for the most part film itself was the object of our affection. It wasn’t until much later that we realized the importance of this cinemachinery in the industry. From early cameras, lighting, and printers, the developments came fast and furious. Some were monsters in size and shape, like the original Mutoscope Camera of A, M & B. Carl Gregory developed a practical optical printer in 1927-28.

These and devlopments like them were one of the things responsible for the technical improvements in film production that made it to the screen. I have always found this period to be a treasure trove of technological development, and look forward to seeing much more research into this area of the early film industry.

Unknown Behind the Lens

Having recently spent a day digging through the historic motion picture records of the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the National Archives, I was constantly coming across the name of George R. Goergens. Mr. Goergens began his career as a still photographer and then transitioned into the position of motion picture cameraman when the Moton Picture Division began in 1914. I have found over 80 titles in existence that he lensed from 1914 through 1936. He shot every type of film: industrial, training, and educational films for the Department of Agriculture Federal Extension Service. With titles such as Cotton Manufacturing (1919), Last Days of the Prairie Dog (1920), Dynamite-Concentrated Power (1926), Highways of Peru (1930), his experience in the area of non-fiction film was unparalleled. He was severely injured at least twice in his career, once while filming an explosion at a grain elevator, and once in a biplane crash about the time of WWI. He was not only an accomplished cameraman, but he also held a patent for a high speed motion picture camera. He produced some animation sequences as well as developed time lapse work to show plant and germ growth. He retired in the mid 1940s, and passed away in 1952. George Goergens is another of the pioneering cameramen who while time has long since forgotten, shows us the film industry was developed in many ways, by many people, some famous, some not, but all left their mark.