3 Days of Peace, Music and Camera Jams
Film Crew Flashes Back to the Making of 'Woodstock'
by Michael Kunkes
In late October, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Beverly Hills staged one of the most entertaining events in its “Oscar’s Docs” series: a two-night tribute to Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, the 1970 Best Documentary Feature winner. Woodstock also marked the first and only time in Academy Awards history that a documentary was nominated for Best Sound (Dan Wallin, Larry Johnson), and one of just two feature documentaries nominated for Best Editing (Thelma Schoonmaker), the other being 1994’s Hoop Dreams.
The first night’s screening was followed on the next by a pair of cast and crew reunions that crowded the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre stage from end to end with more than a dozen panelists. The first panel was devoted to the concept, promotion and logistics of putting on a three-day-plus rock festival; the other featured the cameramen, editors, recordists, mixers and assistants who shot, screened, synched and cut their way through a quarter-million feet of 16mm film.
Going by the job titles they had in Bethel, New York that now-historic weekend of August 15-18, 1969, the list of attendees was a compendium of the best young filmmaking talent in Hollywood: among them editor/cameraman Stan Warnow, editor/assistant director Schoonmaker, cameramen Richard Chew and Richard Pearce, assistant editors Tina Hirsch and Elen Orson, re-recording mixers Wallin and Johnson (also assistant director), sound person Jeanne Field; re-recording supervisor Graham Lee Mahin, production manager Lewis Teague and associate producer Dale Bell. The group also included promoter Michael Lang, concert producer Joel Rosenman and operations director Mel Lawrence; then-Warners executive Fred Wein-traub, performers Michael Shrieve (Santana); Country Joe McDonald (who introduced himself with three words: “Gimme an F!”); and Hog Farm leader Wavy Gravy (self-described hippie icon, flower geezer and head of the “Please Force” concert security). Notable among the missing: director Wadleigh and editor/assistant director Martin Scorsese.
One thing that was clear in talking about the “three days of peace, music and hell,” as location music engineer Eddie Kramer put it, was that there was no separating the event from the production. Everyone was making it up as they went along, creating a social and filmmaking experiment that can never be repeated. And among some Rashomon-like conflicting recollections (must have been that brown acid) were some eye-opening revelations.
Performer Joe Cocker at Woodstock. Both courtesy Warner Bros./Photofest ©Warner Bros.
A crew of 80 worked on the film, mostly around the clock, catching sleep when they could. According to Bell, “Nothing was really planned until five days before the show. On the Saturday before the festival, a batch of us went up to Bethel, and we saw this huge site with construction under way, and these narrow farm roads. I said, ‘My goodness, they’re looking at having 50,000 people here; we better get a crew up here real soon.’ No one [thought to] add a zero to that number. We were both fascinated and threatened by it at the same time.”
By the following Thursday, most of the crew and gear––including a slew of Éclair 16mm cameras and dozens of 400-foot magazines––had arrived but, according to Bell, “We had cameras but nothing to put in them. Kodak told us they had plenty of raw stock, but by the time we were ready to buy it, they had nothing. The rest of the time we had was spent flying in stock from Toronto, Los Angeles and Rochester.”
“Wadleigh’s original plan was to do coordinated camera moves, with six cameramen on the stage,” admitted Schoonmaker. “But the cameramen started getting these terrible electronic jolts through the headsets from something on the stage––and that was the end of the coordinated camera moves.”
Chew was a young documentary cameraman in Seattle when he was flown in the day before the festival opened––taking the job despite his impending wedding the following week––and found himself in a maelstrom. While the cameramen worked onstage, a gang of film loaders in a pit beneath the stage frantically reloaded magazines and passed them up to the cameramen––often in the middle of a song.
“Usually, you’d have a two-person team and one person would slate, so there would be a common place for the sound and picture to match up,” said Chew. “We stopped doing that probably after the first three rolls. It was the first and last time that I ever shot where I was handed a camera back with a magazine loaded, just turned it on and let it run for 11 minutes until the film ran out. There were then no slates, and I knew the editors were going to have a nightmare trying to match the sound with these rolls.”
“Magazines were jamming, it was humid, it rained,” related Schoonmaker. “You’d see someone screaming for another magazine and they would throw theirs down and we’d try and fix the jam. So you’d have half a Grateful Dead song on one magazine and half of Janis Joplin on another, and we didn’t know what they were singing or which part of a song it was… So all our great plans just went to hell. To me, it was a nightmare, and it was only when I got back to New York and saw what we had that I could think about it any other way.”
Woodstock's Oscar nominees Thelma Schoonmaker and Larry Johnson. Photo © AMPAS
Back in the city, the mass of dailies were screened with three Graflex 16mm interlock projectors running simultaneously, so that even in the rushes, there was the triple split-screen effect that was used so effectively in the completed film. Woodstock was also notable for the first use on an American feature of the KEM flatbed, which director Wadleigh brought back from Foto-KEM in Frankfurt.
“We decided to see if we could take it apart and put it together,” Johnson said. “We broke it, and since it was the only one in the country, we had to wait weeks for the spare parts to fix it.” Schoonmaker added, “Because of the split screens, we would sometimes duplicate the image by flipping it and using the same piece on the right and on the left [see Ten Years After’s performance of “I’m Going Home”]. Michael knew that the widescreen frame would allow the 16mm images to fit directly into that frame without having to use that widescreen frame for a single image.”
In post, every 16mm image had to be painstakingly re-photographed in 35mm technoscope two-perf for the anamorphic widescreen release prints, as opposed to normal 35mm 4-perf. Through the end of 1969 and into 1970, a half dozen optical houses in New York were kept busy day and night. The 16mm negative has to be bi-packed and matched to the workprint in an effort to get a scratch-free and hair-free image. Extensive use was also made of Cinema Research’s then-new liquid gate travelling matte process. “Woodstock was a film that swam in grain,” said Johnson. “We are not going to ever see that again; it’s something to tell your kids about.”
Though not present himself, director Wadleigh appeared in a brief 1970 TV documentary on the production that was screened between panels, and talked about the newfangled KEM. “The editing machine shows three images simultaneously, so the editors are able to edit with relationships and not have to plot things out and remember what was here and what was there; they can see it right in front of them,” he said. “The age of the director doing one thing and the production people doing [another] and the post production being done by a separate group of people no longer exists...” It almost sounds like a contemporary discussion of multi-camera nonlinear editing systems.
Tina Hirsch was an assistant editor on Woodstock. Photo © AMPAS
All through September and October 1969, seven days a week in three eight-hour shifts each day, assistants labored to sync up picture to tons of track. Hirsch was given the assignment of synching up the dailies, diagnosing what each performer was singing, then putting the track on the Moviola so that everyone’s camera would have the same common track. “I got to see every single piece of footage because I was the final check in sync,” she recalled. “I set up a coding system based on everyone’s initials––and it was the biggest puzzle in the world. When the Éclairs were turned on, there was a beep, so sometimes you had a clue when the camera was turning on and off; most times you didn’t. But after Woodstock, I made a good living synching dailies.”
The film was mixed in eight-track stereo, and material was prepared for the mix by taking each individual musician’s track and piping it into one of eight channels. Then, at the Record Plant in Los Angeles, the crew would take all of these tracks––with all their flaws and spontaneity intact––and equalize and transfer them onto other tracks that would be used in the final mix at the Warners stage in Burbank, California.
Woodstock was the first film produced under the Steve Ross-Ted Ashley regime at Warner Bros. According to Johnson, there was a bit of a culture clash at the sound mix in Burbank. “The guy running the sound department at Warners [George Groves] had been one of the mixers on The Jazz Singer in 1927,” Johnson recalls. “They really got into it, though. When we started preparing the tracks, they got us to add sound effects of sails from Mutiny on the Bounty and wind tracks from Land of the Pharaohs.” Warnow added, “They were very cooperative. I was having trouble getting something in sync and one of the old guys showed me some tricks about slipping perfs. It was just a real thrill to be with [people from] old Hollywood working on this.”
“It was not all that idyllic,” remembers Schoonmaker. [Groves] was freaked out by us and didn’t see how we could mix anything at those levels. One time, Joe Cocker was on the screen and he said, ‘Why are you making fun of people with cerebral palsy?’ He never got it––but he was a very sweet guy and never blocked what we were doing.”
Woodstock's editor Stan Warnow, left, assistant editor Elen Orson and sound person Jeanne Field.
Photo © AMPAS
By the time Woodstock was released in the US on March 26, 1970, things were going from bad to worse for the counterculture. Los Angeles was terrorized by the Manson Family; the Altamont festival had headlined the Hell’s Angels and a fatal stabbing, in addition to the Rolling Stones; Kent State was five weeks away.
According to Bell, “A lot of people were battered and beaten and felt hosed upon by a country that had probably gone mad. When we made Woodstock, we were allowed to do what we had to do to replicate on film what was done with the festival. We were messengers, allowing the feeling of the ‘60s to breathe through us and through this material, and all of the individuals who helped make this movie possible contributed mightily to what it represents and symbolizes.”
And although Jimi Hendrix closed the festival, he was not promoter Lang’s first choice. “I grew up watching Roy Rogers and Dale Evans on television, and at the end of that show, Roy would always sing ‘Happy Trails,’ Lang revealed. “And I thought, ‘What a perfect way to end Woodstock.’ Well, he turned us down.”
Michael Kunkes is a freelance editor and writer specializing in animation, production and post-production. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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