First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces

First Motion Picture Unit: Army Air Forces


This is the Army Air Force’s First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. Here are produced training, operational, and inspirational films. Films which graphically illustrate what we’re fighting for, what we’re fighting against, and what we’re fighting with. Today the Army Air Forces faces a tremendous task. The task of training men by the millions to man and maintain the air armadas it’s hurling in ever-increasing numbers against the enemy. To instruct the maximum number of men in the minimum amount of time. And to inspire as well as to instruct them. The Army Air Forces has adopted many novel educational methods, and has activated many specialized organizations such as this. Mainly from the motion picture industry come the men of the First Motion Picture Unit. They are men of all crafts: writers, directors, cutters, electricians, cameramen, sound recorders. Men who have been carefully chosen from among the most proficient film technicians available. Men who have had long years of training and experience in the art and science of the motion picture. And while these men are making movies for the army, the army is making soldiers out of them. They are specialists, yes. But first and foremost they are soldiers. So they’ve got to do their job the army way. They’ve got to be strictly GI. From directive to finished film, the course of an Air Force motion picture project is charted and checked by the production office. Here the shooting script is broken down, converted into terms of money and minutes, men and materials. It is the production office which coordinates and expedites the operations of the many different departments that make up the First Motion Picture Unit. Of all the weapons of World War II, none has proved more effective than words. And words are particularly potent when used by the Army motion picture writer. For his medium is a young and vital and compelling force. One whose possibilities for visual education are endless, still virtually unexplored. These soldier-writers of the First Motion Picture Unit work in close contact with technical collaborating agencies, secure authentic on-the-scene information at air bases and training centers throughout the country. The camera department. It supplies all types of motion picture and still cameras needed by the various production and combat units, and daily inspects and services all photographic equipment on the post. These massive structures are the sound stages of the First Motion Picture Unit. Especially designed and constructed for motion picture purposes, sound proofed and air conditioned, their aggregate floor space covers an area of 78,000 square feet. On a single one of these stages, measuring 236 feet long, 148 feet wide and 60 feet high, as many as four separate production units can operate simultaneously. And here in one section of stage five, filming is about to begin on training film project #226: Instrument Flight. Technicians give their equipment a final check and the director calls, “Quiet please. Here we go. Roll ’em.” “Action!” “Sargent, get this to the next mail will you?” “Yes sir.” “Alright cut it.” That’s what happens when a project reaches the shooting stage. And these are some of the things that happen before it gets there. The art department is an excellent example of how the arts of peace are turned to the arts of war. These Army artists and architects translate the printed pages of a training film’s script into practical terms of detailed sketches and architectural floor plans and blueprints. Often they make up miniature models of sets build to scale, and exact replicas in every respect. Here’s a model of the set you saw on stage five, an operations base in North Africa. With these models the director and camera man can lay out the action and select the best camera angles in advance of production. They can detect and correct any mistakes in physical movement, and thus prevent costly delays on the actual set. And this is a realistic replica in miniature of a heavenly hangout for knuckleheaded pilots in training film project #10-4: Learn and Live. This is how it looked in the art department. This is how it finally appeared on the screen. “Hello Joe.” “Now look Peter, I’m a busy guy. I’m teaching men how to fly and you call me up here again.” “I don’t like to bother you, Joe. But I’m pretty busy myself. That’s why I sent for you.” “Pilots heaven is getting to crowded. I can’t accommodate them all. This place is getting as bad as a Washington hotel.” This precise pre-production planning in the art department saves precious man hours and materials, and enables the First Motion Picture Unit to turn out training films that are economical as well as effective. And here’s another model. A squadron headquarters somewhere in the South Pacific. One of the sets in project #10-24: Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter. “Reporting for duty sir.” “Glad to have you with us, lieutenant.” “Glad to be here, major.” “We can certainly use you. Sit down. Cigarette?” “Thank you sir.” “How was the flight over?” “Well I made it sir with the help of a P-40.” “You like our P-40s?” “Oh yes sir, it’s a nice airplane.” “Good, then maybe we can count on you not to shoot any of them down.” “Well I didn’t have any plans along that line, sir.” “It’s been done, you know.” “You mean Jap pilots?” “I mean American pilots. Men with as much enthusiasm for the P-40 as you have.” “But with an unfortunate lack of ability to tell a friend from an enemy.” Here members of a bomber crew are being made up for crash scenes in training film project #10-10, Emergency Care of Aircrew Casualties. First the makeup expert applies a foundation of heavy grease paint. Then with liquid latex and other chemicals, and a few deft strokes of his blending brush, he makes them look like this on the screen. Not many months ago, these serious soldier-artists were the merry men whose pens put life and laughter into Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and Barney Bear. Today they’ve turned their talents to technical things. Things like thrust and torque. The trajectory of a bomb, the inter-workings of intricate flight instruments. Things which the student airman must know, and which the animated sequence in a training film can best help to teach him. Complex operations or minute mechanical details that the camera cannot capture in actuality are graphically and authentically illustrated in the drawings of these artists. When the drawings are put through the animation process, a highly technical operation whereby the original sketches are reproduced with painstaking precision on thousands of transparent celluloid sheets, and when eventually they are photographed in stop motion frame by frame against any background desired, they effectively simulate live action. The adaptability of the animated sequence to the most complicated technical subjects is best shown in this scene from project #389: Straight and Level Flight and Effective Controls. Here the animators have recruited their funny little peacetime pals to explain the theory of flight in a simple, amusing, easily understandable manner. “Air resistance brings drag into the picture. Drag’s not a bad little guy, just sort of a windbag, that’s all.” “And now lift appears. Generated by the movement of the wing through the air.” “Last, but far from least, is the ever-present force of gravity. The gross weight of the plane and load.” “Well there they are, all with us. Even in straight and level flight.” “So you see, you’re never really flying solo. We always have the four musketeers.” “Thrust and drag, lift and gravity.” Long famed for his resourcefulness and ingenuity has been the Motion Picture Property Man. No matter how unusual may be the article or prop needed for a film, the property man has got it in stock, knows where to get it, or how to make it. His department, a combination warehouse and museum, houses thousands of odd and assorted objects. At a moment’s notice he can provide a B-4 bag or a boomerang, a B-26 pedestal or a bunch of bananas. An antiquated wall telephone or the latest portable radio transmitter. A musical instrument or a flying instrument. Everything and anything that might conceivably be required to lend authenticity and atmosphere to a film setting. Models of all types of aircraft: our own, our allies, and our enemies, are produced in the miniature department. Replicas of the real thing in every detail, they reflect precise, painstaking workmanship, are invaluable aids to visual education. Moving the men and equipment that make the movies, moving them to the right place at the right time and right away, that’s the task of the motor pool. Its personnel and rolling stock must be ever-ready to move and move fast, for production units are constantly going on location trips throughout the country and combat camera crews are always leaving for maneuvers. The flow of traffic through these gates never ends, and neither does the job of the men who keep that traffic moving. This is the back lot, one of the most valuable of all the physical facilities acquired by the Army Air Forces from a famous film studio when the First Motion Picture Unit was organized. Sprawling over several acres, it contains countless movie sets of all descriptions, represents a tremendous investment in building materials and highly-skilled labor. Many of the same construction experts who built these sets in peacetime are now, as members of the First Motion Picture Unit, converting them into the variety of exterior settings needed for Air Force films. The sounds of war in the mill are the sounds of band saws and rip saws and sanders and planers. There’s a din almost as deafening as a B-17 warming up, as machines manned by master craftsmen rapidly transform raw materials into settings for Air Force films. In civilian life these men were tops at their trade, so the First Motion Picture Unit recruited them to work at that same trade, but on a bigger, more important job. Some of these soldiers are accomplished sculptors, have had their work exhibited in art galleries and museums. Now they’re in the Army Air Forces, round pegs in round holes. And their talents are concentrated not on objects of art, but on more practical objects. Like this section of a brick wall, which these craftsmen can mold of clay and cast in plaster in a fraction of the time it would take to build it the hard way. The uniforms and insignia of all armed forces, American, Allied, and Axis, are supplied by the wardrobe men. They can provide authentic outfits for any scene the training film script requires, including a rookie receiving the traditional GI fit. After scenes are photographed, after they’re in the can, they go to the editorial department. The editing, or cutting, of a film is a vitally important phase of picture production. The cutter can make or break the picture, for it’s his job to assemble the hundreds of separate scenes to cut and piece them together to form a fluid film. That machine there is a moviola. Through it, in miniature size, the cutter can see the action as it will appear on the screen. By inserting a scene here, deleting one there, the cutter can heighten the dramatic value of a story, can stress the instructional points more effectively. Miracle men of the movies are the members of the special effects department, where by means of special cameras, precision instruments, and various technical processes, they can crash airplanes into flaming wreckage without risk to personnel or property. Blast an Axis convoy to bits with a dime’s worth of powder. Simulate overcast skies, though actually the sun may be shining. And not alone for dramatic effect do they perform their mechanical marvels. More important, by creating scenes too difficult, too dangerous, or too expensive to film in the conventional way, they conserve men, money and materiel, speed the completion of films urgently needed to train the ever expanding personnel of our Air Forces. “How’s the transmitter look to you, sergeant?” “Well it was alright when we started, sir, but in the scramble …” “Besides that the kite and antenna balloon are gone too.” “Maybe I can fix it.” This is just one of the many sections of the sound department. Here the dialog recorded on the set, the sound effects, the narration, the music, all of which have been reproduced on separate sound tracks, are synchronized with the action projected on the screen and perfectly blended into one composite track. And now the most important sound of all, the music. The music that sets the mood, creates and maintains suspense, and provides punctuation and emphasis. This too is thrilling music to the soldier, mess call. At 11:30 hours promptly, very promptly, the men of the First Motion Picture Unit stop their morning’s work and line up for chow. Like American soldiers anywhere they grumble about the food and loudly demand second and third helpings. The cooks and butchers and bakers are experts at their trades, too. And they’re no less important to the efficient operation of this unit than the camera man or the writers or the electricians. This is another vital function of the First Motion Picture Unit, the training on combat camera crews to photograph the Army Air Forces in action in the air and on the ground, in all theaters of war. These men are hand picked, both for their ability as soldiers and their skill as motion picture technicians. To perfect their camera technique they receive advanced instruction in all phases of aerial and ground photography, with all types of equipment. And to condition them physically for combat duty, they’re given a modified form of commando training. Under simulated battle conditions they are put through exhausted maneuvers designed to teach them how to keep their cameras turning no matter how tough the going. They’ve got to be crack troops as well as crack technicians, able to fight the war as well as film it. Today in Tunisia, Egypt, Alaska, New Zealand, the First Motion Picture Unit is represented by an ever-increasing number of these combat units, these fighting photographers who are covering the conflict with a camera on all of the flying fronts of the world. These are men with wings as well as cameras. Members of the First Motion Picture Unit’s flight echelon, who provide all the aerial photography for the unit’s films. They’re as expert at flying all types of aircraft as they are at operating all types of aerial cameras. Many of these men worked at the film as you fly trade long before there was ever a thought of war. And since they’ve joined the First Motion Picture Unit, they’ve perfected that trade under wartime conditions. No matter how difficult or dangerous may be the aerial sequence required for a training film, the flight echelon can supply the camera, planes, and flying photographers necessary to shoot that scene quickly, authentically, realistically. The quality and effectiveness of the flight echelon’s work is illustrated in these air scenes from recent training films. These are the men of the First Motion Picture Unit. Though they are specialists, though their duties are unusual even in this modern streamlined war, They are first and foremost and always soldiers. Their specialized knowledge, their technical know-how, is at your service. At the service of all Air Force commands who have instructional or inspirational messages that can best be presented through the medium of motion pictures.

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