“Is ze Lens Happy?”


In my father’s workshop, on his farm in Lincolnshire, tools were hung on the wall. Around each spanner, wrench or hammer the outline of the tool was painted, a bit like the chalk outline drawn around dead bodies by forensic scientists at a murder scene. Each tool had a “home” and should be returned to its rightful place. If there was only an outline on a Friday afternoon, where was the tool? To say that my father was fastidious about his tools would be an understatement. His Deutz-Fahr combine harvester was showroom clean, even after five seasons. Combine harvesters are notoriously complicated machines. Veritable symphonies of moving parts that rattle loose become dust-clogged or simply wear out. The thing is, when the weather is good and you want to get your wheat and barley in, your combine harvester has to work. My father understood engineering and the inner workings of machines. He once said to me that cows were like human beings – they responded to kindness. I think he felt the same way about the farm machinery.

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At the Royal College of Art film school in the late seventies, our equipment was looked after by a congenial German called Karl Mattika. Rumour had it that Karl once commanded a Panzer tank on the Russian front in World War Two, but this may have been a rumour propagated by himself.

 

Somehow Karl managed to instil into us airy-fairy art students, broad-left-thinkers and feminists how to enjoy the sound of an Angenieux lens clicking into the mount of an Éclair ACL sixteen-millimetre camera body, or the satisfying clonk of a film magazine cover of an Arriflex S. The Arri S, Karl told us, was ergonomically designed to allow Luftwaffe pilots, “flying over your beautiful home counties”, to operate the camera with one hand while keeping the other on the joystick. Karl would say after the satisfying click, “you can hear ze lens is happy in ze mount”. Occasionally one was witness to Karl’s withering look (never anger) as he heard tell of a Nagra tape recorder being thrown from the back of a van in the hope that some hapless film student might catch it. They hadn’t, or had dropped it, and the beautifully engineered Swiss machine shattered on the cobbles.

 

What Karl was trying to teach us was that respect for your tools and knowing how to use them would pay dividends. They would work when you wanted them to, they were as important as your script, the performers – they were your lifeline to a finished film. Without your tools working properly, it was all a non-starter.

 

I still can’t put a lens on a camera without thinking of Karl and his, “Is ze lens happy?” Or my father when attaching any kind of screw to a thread, “If it don’t fit, don’t force it”. In this new world of self-shooting and do-it-yourself production we, the filmmakers, are closer to the equipment, the means of production than ever before. We have to understand the engineering and respect the artistry and precision of its manufacture. Be careful with the gear, keep it “happy” and it won’t let you down.

 

Michael


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