Playing The Thing

How The Restoration Was Done

"Playing The Thing" (PTT) is a remarkable film documentary about harmonicas and harmonica players. It was shot in 1971/72 by Chris Morphet assisted by a small group of friends. They were all young camera and sound professionals. It was a labour of love by a harmonica player for his favourite instrument. They filmed top performers and events in England, Holland, Germany and the USA. The resulting 30 min film was premiered at the Electric Cinema in Notting Hill London in 1973.

Starting in 2000, I built up a large archive of harmonica 78s, EPs, LPs, CDs, cassettes, audio tapes, and VHS cassettes. Some of the VHS tapes had video material which I tracked down to the film PTT, and I eventually I found a VHS tape of the film. In 2004, this led me to another member of the NHL, Gautam Choudhury, who had been involved with the making of the film. Gautam had a copy of the original 16mm film ( a video and an audio reel) which had been shown in cinemas and a VHS tape of the film which had been given to him by the film's director, Chris Morphet, in the 1970s. When Gautam heard about my wish to restore this film he gave them to me in 2005. I wanted to know more about the making of the film as it was obvious that a lot of important material must have been left on the editing floor. Gautam remembered the editing but had no idea what had happened to the film afterwards. In 2006 I made a DVD of the film from the VHS tape.

I have no training in computor graphics and video production but I was learning fast. I looked around and found Larry Jamieson at VideoStation and he did a telecine transfer of the 16mm reel to DVD. The film was damaged and had been repaired in a couple of places but now I had a secure backup - but I still wanted the outtakes!

I finally made contact with Chris Morphet in 2007 and gave him a copy of the DVD. I asked him what had inspired him to make the film. Chris was a successful cameraman and he had moved on - PTT had been made 35 years earlier - but he was intrigued at my interest. After we talked about the interviews he had carried out, he promised to see if he could locate any more film. A few days later after a searching in his loft he returned with a cardboard box filled with small dusty reels of 16mm film. Chris decided that he should pass everything over to me; cans with reels of the PTT film and the optical audio sound track, all the Nagra 1/4" sound reels and lots of letters, invoices and documents. The project was finally taking off.

I contacted Graham Sharpe a sound archivist who worked for Ace Records in London. I asked him to digitise the Nagra tapes which appeared to be in good condition, having been stored untouched in their cans and cardboard boxes since the film was edited in 1972. There was also a 1/4" reel of the film soundtrack. Graham did a great job and he produced data CDs with wav files for all of the audio plus a database identifying the artists and clapper board information. I now had high quality audio files for all the interviews. All I had to do now was find the video to sync with it!

I needed access to some telecine equipment so I could find out what was on the reels of films in the box. They were mainly negatives which made it difficult to identify the contents. None of the Film Schools were interested in an analogue project now everything is digital, and commercial companies would not touch it until the reels of film had been checked out. I found that PTT was in The British Film Institute (BFI) archives, but, when I checked, it was the original A/B printing copy acquired when Filmatic, a Soho processing laboratory, closed down. I offered them all the 16mm copies of PTT I had in return for access to a 16mm Steenbeck so I could investigate my outtake clippings. I visited the BFI site at Berkhamsted with Chris and he signed over the ownership of the film to me and we gave a copy of the agreement to the BFI.

The BFI's curators arranged for me to have some time and training on their 16mm Steenbeck flat bed editor. Then I was on my own. There were about 20 film reels of different sizes on 3" bobbins, not film reels, which meant that they had to be handled with care - about 9 hours of material (about 7km of film). The task was not expected to take a long time but three surprises meant that it took much longer than had been thought. The first surprise was that the old splicing tape had become powdery and so the reels had to be repaired joint by joint before they could be run on the machine. The second surprise was that some of the film clips were back to front and others were front to back, meaning they had to be standardised before the clips were spliced together again. The last surprise was that the interviews were mixed up across the reels and so the first job was to separate the clips and reassemble them as dedicated reels of film.

I started on this task in August 2007 but I could only work when the facility was available, so my visits were relatively rare. The single interview film reels were finished in 2010. The next stage was to convert them to video using the equipment attached to the Steenbeck. The quality was unsatisfactory but it enabled me to check out the final stage in the process - the reconstruction of the original interviews using the DVD of PTT, digital files from the outtakes and the film soundtrack, edited together using a Linear Video Editor like Adobe Premiere Pro.

I now had the outtakes organised on reels, ready for telecine, and the BFI supplied a DVD of the best PTT reel and an HD digital file.

In 2113 I was fortunate to be introduced to Keith Wilton, a retired ex-BBC editor with unrivaled expertese and experience in the area of telecine. He converted most of the reels to HD for me and I was able use them and the Nagra sound recordings to make a YouTube video of Cham'ber Huang, and a DVD of Chris's visit to the Hohner Factory which was shown to ex-employees in the Harmonica Museum at Trossingen, Germany, during the 2013 World Harmonica Championships.

Other projects slowed down the progress of this activity, but it is now in its final stages. The web site is now in place and the slow coversion of this previously unseen and unique material is underway. The videos will appear on the restorations page as they are completed.


© Roger Trobridge