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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Sweetest Sound

The Nagra IV-L
Beauty shot by Matt Blaze via Flickr
Polish-born inventor Stefan Kudelski died early this year.  His death (and life) were newsworthy enough that  both NPR and the New York Times ran stories about him and how his invention, the Nagra ¼” professional  tape recorder, revolutionized sound recording in the 1960s and ‘70s. The costly Nagra, (Polish for “to  record”), in its multiple models was highly coveted by all sorts of movie sound people and won a 1978 Oscar for its inventor.  The Human Studies Film Archives has several of these wonderfully crafted  machines. 

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 
So what are Kudelski’s creations doing in the Human Studies Film Archives?  The answer lies in the production history of many of the founding collections of the HSFA  - a history in which the Nagra plays  a starring role.

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 Morningwas 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.

 "The SN solves film-makers' synchronous sound recording problems: it can easily be concealed during filming and strict synchronisation is guaranteed. Data can be recorded on board propelled craft of all kinds for scientific research."
- Kudelski Nagra SN spec sheet
NAFC cameraman Ragpa Dorjee in Kathmandu, 1981.
He's using the single person camera with sync-sound set up
The SN uses ⅛”  tape (about the same size as in an audio cassette) on a small metallic reel but is fully capable of capturing high quality sync sound.

 National Anthropological Film Center film crews were outfitted with the SN recorder attached directly to the body of the 16mm camera and a microphone positioned above. The recorder turned off and on with the camera.  One person could more easily blend into the action, letting life flow around the filmmaker. 

The sound in this clip taken in Bylakuppe, India in 1980, was recorded using the Nagra SN attached to the camera.  In post production, when the sound bleep is lined up with fogged film frame, the shot's picture and sound will be in sync.

Nagra SN (with Vark audio label
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.

Fehling, April. (January 29, 2013). Stefan Kudelski, Who Made Sound Recording Portable, Dies. In The Two-Way: Breaking News from NPR. Retrieved Feburary 18, 2013, from

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

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