Colin Ross's American film materials
Thirteen reels of 35mm positive nitrate footage shot by Colin Ross and his family in America were deposited at the Austrian Film Museum, in Vienna, in the late 1980s. These reels, with an average length of c. 10’, were made between October 1938 and March 1939. They came, together with a few incomplete versions of Ross’s feature-length films made between the 1920s and 1940, out of the estate of Colin Ross’ daughter, Renate Ross-Rahte (1915-2004). Along with the film reels she provided a typescript that listed times and locations of the scenes recorded. But as these are memories of events that had occurred decades earlier, in most of which she hadn’t participated, she warned that one could not expect them to be always accurate. Indeed, the reels contain as yet unidentified locations, while the archive titles then given to them were only partly correct (the archive titles we use in this website are corrected titles; they have also been changed in the catalogue of the Austrian Film Museum). This applies most emphatically to the American reels, for which no release titles were made, the simple reason being that this footage was never shown commercially and theatrically. To date only one event has been retrieved in which these materials might have been used in a non-theatrical setting, i.e. as moving image illustrations to one of Ross’s lectures.1
This is an emphatic “might”, because the American footage was flawed by a malfunctioning of the cameras the Ross family—Colin Ross, his wife Lisa, and their son Ralph Colin—had brought along. From an internal memo of production company Tobis we learn that the cameras’ transport mechanism had failed and made the footage look undercranked (that is to say, when screened at its recorded speed filmed objects moved much too quickly) and was therefore practically unusable.2 That may well be the reason that the materials have hardy been arranged in meaningfully geographic, chronological and/or narrative sequences. Some scenes shot at one location at one particular time (for example, the footage of Colonial Williamsburg, in Virginia) have been distributed over two or more reels; and while some reels are more coherent, others jump back and forth between places far apart and in defiance of any underlying itinerary. What is confusing is that these jumps often occur without a splice, or even a copied splice (i.e. spots where two strips of films either have or had been joined) in the material.3 The assumption that places visited in between were filmed by one or more other cameras may partly explain these leaps. Indeed, confirmation comes from discontinuities in the edge marks after the odd (copied) splice within a scene.4
In reconstructing this American journey we have selected relevant scenes for a representation of its itinerary—see Map + Timeline. We have not trimmed the material, but left all of its footage in, including blank and uncontrolled shots. Their speeds have been adjusted to make the reels more user-friendly. However, as technical contraints forced us to select only one speed per reel, movements may here and there still be quick or abrupt.
Nico de Klerk
1 See the announcement of a scheduled appearance of Ross with a lecture titled ‘Das junge Europa – das alte Amerika’, at the popular education institute Urania, in Vienna: Neues Wiener Tagblatt: 1944 January 26; 25; 3, http://anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?aid=nwg&datum=19440126&seite=3&zoom=47&query=%22colin%22&ref=anno-search; see also Volks-Zeitung. 1944 February 1; 3, http://anno.onb.ac.at/cgi-content/anno?aid=ovz&datum=19440201&query=%22eolin%22&provider=P03&ref=anno-search&seite=3.
2 See Shooting trouble.
3 A splice is made by partially overlapping the frames at each end of two strips of film, which are then glued or taped together. When such a spot was copied onto a next generation print, the splice can still be seen in a positive as a white, horizontal line below the frame line, a result of the light deflected by the overlap during the duplication process.
4 Edge marks, or date codes, can take the form of symbols, letters, trade names or combinations thereof. These identification codes are printed along the edge of a reel of film by film stock manufacturers at the moment raw sheets of film are cut and perforated; see e.g. https://documentation.apple.com/en/cinematools/usermanual/index.html#chapter=A%26section=1%26tasks=true.