|The Nagra IV-L|
Beauty shot by Matt Blaze via Flickr
The Nagra alternately fascinates and terrifies me with its gleaming titanium body, finely tooled dials, switches, and mysterious plugs. And it’s an unusual machine to find in an archives, even an audiovisual archives. After all, the Nagra is/was designed for capturing live sound. It’s a bit of overkill to use a Nagra for simple playback (and possibly quite dangerous given the unnerving proximity of the “Playback” switch to “Record”).
|The HSFA has a couple of these - the Nagra 4.2|
It really isn’t an exaggeration to say that the Nagra was revolutionary for making 16mm ethnographic and documentary films. Before the 1960s the sound tracks for documentary films were mostly built from “wild sound” (non- synchronous sound) recorded in the field, music, and voice over narration. Synchronous sound equipment was too cumbersome, specialized and intrusive to use with ease in the field.
The advent of a portable, durable, battery-powered sound recorder that reproduced at very high quality allowed filmmakers for the first time to shoot with simultaneously recorded sound (synchronous sound, or “sync” sound) in spontaneous situations, virtually anywhere in the world.
|NAFC cameraman Mathias Maradol filming in Mundgod, India in 1979. Note monk carrying Nagra and mic.|
The ability to capture both image and sound, in an intimate setting, to be almost one with the action, gave rise to a genre of actuality film variously called cinema verité, observational cinema, or direct cinema whose pioneers in the U.S. included Richard Leacock, Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker. Direct cinema had a profound impact on the development of ethnographic films and vice versa. Rapid technological advances in conjunction with generous government and foundation support for humanities and science curriculum development in the mid 1960s and early 1970s led to the most exciting and innovative period for documentary film in general and ethnographic film in particular. The HSFA hold several important ethnographic film projects from this period - such as the John Marshall Ju/’hoan Bushman Collection and the Yanomamo films of Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon.
The sound in the film clip from below, from Ladakh Village Morning, was recorded using a Nagra 4.2. Even though the house is small and full of people, the filming crew doesn't seem to be cramping anyone's style. I love how everyone is conscious of the film crew and yet quite unconscious in getting on with the business of the morning...
The Nagra came into its own again just before the advent of highly portable video tape equipment. In the late 1970s the National Anthropological Film Center, a film production unit under the aegis of the Smithsonian Institution, and predecessor to the Human Studies Film Archives, worked with Vark Audio in Washington DC, to create one person sync sound filming system using the adorable Nagra SN. The “SN” stands for Série Noire, the “black,” or “dark” series (think black as in “black ops”). This miniature Nagra was durable, compact and extremely lightweight which made it quite popular with western intelligence services during the Cold War.
|NAFC cameraman Ragpa Dorjee in Kathmandu, 1981.|
He's using the single person camera with sync-sound set up
and Smithsonian property tag) is
comparable in size to today's smartphones.
Kudelski may not have been the first or the only sound engineer to work on the problem of portable, high quality sound recording, but he was one of the best. Nagra brand recording systems were a standard in the movie making business for at least 30 years. The beautiful machines in this archive are a reminder of what must have been heady times for documentary filmmakers and NAFC staff!
|Nagra 4.2 - showing signs of use but still pretty amazing.|
Nagra Audio website: http://www.nagraaudio.com/pro/index.php
Hurbis-Cherrier, M. (2007). Voice & Vision: A creative approach to narrative film and DV Production. Amsterdam: Focal Press.
Loizos, P. (1993). Innovation in ethnographic film: From innocence to self-consciousness, 1955-85. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Vittello, Paul. (January 31, 2013). Stefan Kudelski, Polish Inventor of Recorder That Changed Hollywood, Dies at 83. In The New York Times: Business Day. Retrieved February 18, 2013, from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/01/business/stefan-kuldelski-inventor-of-the-nagra-dies-at-83.html?_r=0