Image of the State Australian Newsreel Theatre. Image courtesy NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE OF AUSTRALIA (https://www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/curated/australian-vintage-cinemas-and-theatres)

A Movietone News Family

My father William James Pearson and I shared the exact same name, and (by co-incidence), the same jobs in film, with the same company, and the same role path within it.

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My father William James Pearson (WJPIII) and I shared the exact same name, and (by co-incidence), the same jobs in film, with the same company, and the same role path within it.

Letter from Australasian Movietone News, addressed to Jim Pearson regarding his new job as a film cutter, dated 14th May, 1931. Image courtesy, Bill Pearson.

WJPIII got his foot in the door in this fledgling industry as a film cutter, a basic position matching negatives to edited workprints. From this he quickly progressed to film editor, becoming the person editing the workprints in both image and sound. Sound cameras in these days were extremely heavy and cumbersome, rarely being used in the rush and bustle of newsreel photography. Small, compact and much lighter silent cameras were preferred, which meant all sound had to be added from optical film libraries (magnetic audio tape recording not having been invented yet). So the editor cut the image to tell the story, then edited a sound track to match with effects, music, and lastly a commentary recorded to the workprint.

There was no television at all, so these weekly newsreels were the only way people could see the news, flocking to picture theatres every week to see them with a feature film. They were so popular that capital cities in most countries (Sydney and Melbourne in Australia), had their own newsreel theatres, which screened little else in short sessions. Newsreel cameramen were the face of these companies out in the community, and as a result they became a type of celebrity, being granted access to all areas by everyone who dreamed of getting their product, cause or faces onto the big screen.

Image of the State Australian Newsreel Theatre. Image courtesy NATIONAL FILM AND SOUND ARCHIVE OF AUSTRALIA

From editing, my dad moved two rooms down within the Movietone premises, to become one of their cameraman, and in so doing brought all his adventures to our dinner table. I grew up from infancy with stories of his exploits, battles to outwit the Cinesound opposition, and the tricks employed to get big stories out before them.

“Jim Pearson filming Don Bradman’s ‘Cricket In the Backyard’, a road safety campaign to stop kids playing cricket on the road.”
Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

Dad’s job also meant there was always 35mm film equipment close at hand, an opportunity he seized to immortalise our family in home movies as we all grew up. Our family films starting from 1932 are almost certainly among the oldest ones in Australia, and probably worldwide as well. Every birthday, christening and milestone of myself and my five older sisters were all captured onscreen, extraordinary for the time – but normal for the Pearsons. We all understandably grew up as “performers”, who relished the spotlight, and as leaders who would take charge before being invited to do so. This was because we were just used to being directed, and knew that this leadership, modelled for us by our father, was how you got the best results. Most of my sisters would go on to become quite accomplished in acting, performing, and stage directing.

There were two theatre newsreel companies in Australia from the 1930s to the 1970s – Cinesound being the opposition to Movietone. Rivalry between them was friendly, but intense, as they strived each week to beat each other to the screens with both speed and better coverage of the important events of their time. Natural disasters like droughts, floods and bush fires pushed them out into the country. My dad commandeered a rowboat to float down the main street of Maitland in 1955 to get exclusive footage of the submerged shops. The two companies crews would do anything to one-up the other, and this often included innovation and trickery.

Montage of images of Fox Movietone cameraman, Jim Pearson. Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

The event above all others where this competition climaxed was with our annual Melbourne Cup – a horse race that still “stops the nation.” Apart from being at the track, the only way most Aussies could see it was by the cinema newsreels. Dad told me one year they beat Cinesound to the screen by two days, thanks to Movietone hiring a Douglas DC4 aeroplane which flew from Melbourne to Sydney. My father (who had shot the race), hung out the door to throw out screen copies in hessian bags for country theatres, as they flew low over rural sports grounds in a non-stop drop exercise along the route. But next year Cinesound got them back – bribing all the gate keepers at the Melbourne race track to lock all the gates to trap Dad inside.

These stories were what we grew up with around the family dinner table, from the days when people would let the film crews do whatever they wanted just so they could get themselves or their region and cause on the big silver screen. Dad’s often repeated motto, “We’re Movietone – we go anywhere!”, was ingrained into me. Through my teens I grew up with a 20 seat home cinema, an image & sound editing room full of splicers and recorders, a huge film library of both 35 & 16mm films, a fridge just for extending the date of film stock (frequently raided by me), and several tele-cine machines – all made by my dad. To me that was a normal home.

Bill Pearson with still camera.
Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

In due time as a 15 year old I was progressively given access to all dad’s camera gear, and indulged myself in photography of the motor sport I had instantly become addicted to. This caused me to capture much unique color footage of this sport just before television could be bothered covering it, footage which is now highly valued historically. Recently uploading it to my WJP004 YouTube channel has now ensured everyone gets to see it. I took that Movietone motto whenever I went to photograph or videotape car racing over fifty years, sneaking into every area where cameramen had not gone before, or were not supposed to go. But I got the shots no-one else did. Even today in my seventies, I still cause panic attacks for car track directors. “Better to apologise afterwards than get refused permission beforehand”. I still live by that whenever I pick up a camera. It’s ingrained into me.

It turned out I was as good as my dad with a movie camera – and even better with stills, becoming a regular contributor to the top Australian car racing magazines, scoring many colour covers, and shots in the “Best of the Year” selections. This experience unknowingly gave me a foot in the door when a film editor position was advertised. As I went of on the bus to apply mum recognised the phone number and phoned dad, who immediately rang Movietone to say he didn’t want me given any favoured treatment. So I got the job on my own merits, and after two years when a cameraman’s position came up, I asked the boss if I could have it. He though it was a step down, but my dad’s advice if (I wanted to become a film director), was to get experience on both sides of the camera. Before long I was actually using the exact same film equipment my father had. All by coincidence.

My dad (and I in due turn), also both worked as film librarians with Movietone. Their policy (and Cinesound’s too), was to throw out all their footage every six months. Nitrate film deteriorated rapidly, and would self ignite in the can. So fireproof vaults were needed, room was limited, and so of to the rubbish tp it would go to be thrown away. Those reels of film were as valued as yesterday’s newspapers in the fish & chip shop. Nothing as stale as yesterday’s news, right? Except to my dad. He realised one day it would all have immeasurable value, and started hoarding all the best throw out stories at home. This grew to a unique and giant collection, meticulously catalogued by him, and then in retirement he transferred it all to modern “safety” (non flammable) 16mm film.

He had to make the equipment himself, because much of his collection was too fragile for fast copying. I can remember seeing him doing it at about a frame a second. He also had collected many films with non-standard sprockets and frame spacings. Once he showed me some with triangular sprocket holes! Then off he went into his “Glory Hole” to work out how to make something on which he could copy it.

Frame still from the Australian film, “Henley on the Yarra”.
Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

As well as newsreel films, Dad also actively pursued old nitrate films as a hobby. His greatest discovery was footage of “Henley on the Yarra”, with women all dressed up in the highest fashions & parasols of the 1930s. This is the oldest Australian movie footage – period, and he found it rotting away in a hessian bag under the staircase of a projectionists’s widow, who just wanted it all gone. Freebie!

He lucratively sold it by the foot to TV stations in his old age (funding overseas holidays with mum), but eventually donated it all to the Australian National Film & Sound Archives. They posthumously declared him a “Pioneer of Australian Film & Cinema”, and have just finished transferring all he donated onto digital video. Now thanks to computerised software, it is having dust & scratches removed, and the definition improved better than the originals. More than forty years after his death, in documentaries and major news flashback stories on TV, I still regularly see the classic archival footage that he either filmed himself, or saved. My wife and kids long ago got sick of me yelling, “That’s dad’s! That’s dad’s too.”

“1935 line-up of Movietone staff. On the camera car: Wally Bird, Bill Terise, Ross Wood. Standing, left to right: Syd Wood, Hugh McInnes, Jim Pearson, Wal Scully, Harry Guiness, Col Hell, Eric Bierre, Kel Vaughan, Ted Martin.”
Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

That’s what it was like to grow up in a Fox Movietone News family in Australia before nightly television bulletins killed the theatre newsreel. What an adventure it was!

Thirty five years after this crew shot (of my father) I am a film & sound editor (front left). Image courtesy Bill Pearson.

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