Thursday, September 18, 2014

Why don't Baba's hands match what is being dictated in films?

This is a subject that is of some importance because people don't know. It is about the syncing of Baba's hands and the narrator's voice in the three sound films of Baba we have.

There are three sync sound films of Baba that I am aware of.

1. Baba with Charles Purdom on the sofa in the yard next to Kitty Davy's house in London, Parmount News, 1932. (Full video)

2. Baba with Meredith Starr on a bench outside the home of Graham and Lettice Stokes in New York, Movietone News, 1932. (Video Clip)

3. Baba under a tree near Meherazad, India, Spectrum Film, 1967. (Vdeo clip)

The point is often made, sometimes with alarm, that Baba's finger pointing to his alphabet board or his unique hand gestures do not seem to correspond to the words being spoken by the translator into the microphone. I'll give an example from the YouTube comments on the 1932 Paramount film that is typical. You can still find it there, and others like it.
Just an observation but the speaker is obviously speaking far faster than Baba is able to spell out with one finger on his board the words the speaker is saying. (YouTube comment)
As I have a background in filmmaking, including professional filmmaking in the days before digital, I thought I would explain and lay this problem to rest for good.

There are two reasons actually. But the first is technical. Film (as in Kodak and Fuji) is still used on many famous modern full length films, but more and more digital filmmaking is replacing it. If these three documentaries were shot today, they would all have definitely been shot digitally and the problems that cause this syncing issue would not come up.

What I'm going to describe is the ninety year old method of producing synchonous sound films. This did defintely apply to the three Baba films under discussion.

Clapperboard for sound synchronization
Exactly synchronizing picture and sound only became an issue when talkies began, for it is extremely noticable when the mouths on screen don't go perfectly with the words one hears. However, these had to be recorded separately. The picture was recorded on celluloid film, while the sound was recorded on a tape deck. Later, in the editing room, the first order of business (if there was dialogue in the scene) was to sync these two up. In order to do that, there needed to be a cue in both that one could match. This was done with a clapperboard.

Each day, as the previous day's film came in from the development lab, the editing assistant would laboriously match up a cue in the sound (the sound of the clap of the board) with the image of the top and bottom of the board meeting. Then he would lock these together and this causes 'sync-sound.' However, this was tedious and time consuming, and in film (due to expensive equipment and expensive technicians) time means money. So to save time, whenever a scene did not contain any mouth movements, they shot without running sound at all. This was especially true when shooting an "insert," a shot that would be cut into a sound sequence, but was not essential to be exactly timed. Examples of insert shots might be a clock on the wall or a dog lifting its head to hear its master. Sync-sound was not necessary.

As no one at the time had ever filmed an alphabet board before, or likely seen one, the newsreel directors considered it an insert shot, to show people what Baba was pointing to. One can actually see the 1932 Greenwich Village original film that includes the shot of the alphabet board and see for themselves that no dialogue was shot with it. It was shot without sound. It was shot as an insert shot.

The same would definitely have also been true of the London film, for these practices were standard and industry-wide. These were also shot as mere one minute newsreel pieces that no one would have time to or interest to study over and over as we can today on YouTube.

Now when the film was edited, the vocal shots would have been sunk with the sound, but the insert of the alphabet board would have simply been 'inserted' (thus gaining its name) where it seemed to look good. But the sound was allowed to play over the insert of the board, to give a natural look. In other words the illusion that the board pointing should sync with the voice was preserved by this method, but it actually did not.

Now, before discussing the more modern 1967 Meherabad syn-sound film, I need to add the other problem that affected the apparent sync of the board to the spoken word in the two 1930s films.

Neither Charles Purdom nor Meredith Starr (the "translators" in the two 1930s newsreels) were known to have enough proficiency to read Baba's alphabet board. Only certain mandali could. Baba had begun to train Eruch to do so as early as 12 years old, before he came to live with him, and Purdom and Starr had basically both just met Meher Baba.

So what was done in both cases was that the messages to be delivered were prepared in advance, and the two basically memorized the text before going on camera. It was apparently considered useful to have English accented Western men in suits read the messages from the already odd (at that time) man from the East. An Eastern translator would have been more authentic, but just too much for western audiences.

So now, for two reasons, actual synchronization of alphabet board and spoken message was simply not even possible, given the realities of the time.

1967 Meherazad, Spectrum Film
Now we come to Van Gasteren's 1967 film of Baba in synchonous sound. Some have been concerned with the synchonization here of Baba's hand movements and the translator Eruch's voice translating for the camera. They feel they do not always correspond. This is very possible and I'll explain why.

Van Gasteren, at 91 years old, is still alive in Amsterdam. In fact, he still makes films. A group of us were lucky enough to go and meet him in his home/studio in Amsterdam in 1987, and we were shown large segments of the original footage, sunk up to the sound in the way described above, and in fact we saw footage that he has still never released.

But one thing struck me as a filmmaker right away in looking at the footage with him on his Steenbeck. He did not seem to have taken time to do proper synchronous sound. In fact, the only true lip-synced scene was Eruch, standing alone away from Baba, reading out a message by Baba for Louis' cameras. In this instance, to make synchronization back in the editing room in Amsterdam possible, Louis himself improvised by stepping into the shot with Eruch, clapping his hands for the camera to see, and then jumping out of the shot.

Louis as a young man in the editing room
with his mentor Alberto Cavalcanti
Louis was not stupid. He knew this would work. As a matter of fact Louis began his career as a sound man and knew synchronization inside and out. But as Louis even admits later, he did not intend to shoot nearly as much 35mm footage (which is wildly expensive) as he did. And so he began to improvise as opportunities for synchronous footage arose on the spot.

It is extremely possible that Louis did not actually synchronize with a slate (clapperboard as shown above) the scenes of Baba's giving him messages. Some of the footage I saw in his editing suite in Amsterdam, filmed for him by Jan de Bont, was clearly extemporaneous, experimental, shot entirely without sound, and was never used.

When I and my group sat with Louis at his flatbed looking at the footage, it was clear Louis was himself mesmerized with the beauty of Baba's hand gestures themselves, and far less with what he said. Many times he froze the frame on Baba's hands and said to us, "Look! They are like birds! His hands are like birds!" Louis said he had picked stills of Baba's hands that he loved to one day include in his film, and sure enough a few years ago, an add-on in the extended cut of Beyond Words does indeed include these stills of Baba's hands that Louis so loved.

So I would not look for perfect sync in Louis' film, except in the short scene of Eruch reading out a message by Baba that was prepared. In motion picture, sound and picture are not locked, so the director has the choice to overlap them in any way he chooses. And Louis did.

I hope this post has been of some help to those who may have been concerned with the interrelation of sound and image in these now very old films. As I already said, if shot today digitally, even the alphabet board would be in perfect sync to the voice that narrated it — given the narrator was actually reading the board and not reciting a memorized message in imitation of it for cameras.

See also Meher Baba's Message to the West and Beyond Words.

Chris Ott has his degree from USC School of Cinema Arts. He was lead camera assistant on the 1983 George Lucas-produced animated film Twice Upon a Time. He has worked in numerous capacities on other films, including directing. Most notably he directed for K2 writer Patrick Myers in NY in 1985, and directed 35mm films in North Carolina until the late 80s. Today he does not make films, but his daughter plans to begin filmschool in New York in 2015. 

Update 9-19-14:

Someone asked me about the footage that was taken by Louis' crew in 1967 that does not yet appear in any film. This was my answer. If I have any facts wrong I hope someone closer to the facts will correct me.

Louis is 91. All the footage of Baba he took, both used and unused, seen and unseen, is all perfectly preserved in the Dutch equivalent of AFI. It is scanned digitally from the original footage and kept at Eye Institute, as Louis is considered a national treasure by the Dutch government. They did this as a gift to him in 2011 in preparation for a gala celebration of his 90th birthday, now passed. There Louis showed his final film, Nema Aviona Za Zagreb, and was interviewed by press. So nothing at all is lost, nor will it be. It is now in archival conditions in perpetuity.

Update 9-20-14

I have learned that there is a fourth sound-film of Baba shot in the 1930s in Croton, NY. It also has a segment of narration that does not appear to conform with the alphabet board. However, that portion of video is not available at the moment on YouTube.

Update 9-21-14:

A comment below reminded me of a scene from The Great Dictator, the movie that was the subject of my most previous post. To get the allusion to the film, one must watch at least up to minute 1:14 in the timeline.


  1. Wasn't it the film with Meredith (your #2 above) in which the audience always laughs after Baba's finger points to what appears to be a lengthy answer on the board, followed by Meredith's interpretation: "Yes."

    1. Probably. It reminds me of the dictator speech in "The Great Dictator" by Charlie Chaplin, that Baba loved so much. During the scene his "Tomainian" is translated by an overly-concise English-speaking news voice-over.

    2. the "yes' answer is in the 1932 Harmon-On-Hudson film.....

    3. Thank you Sufi17. I need to look that one up. That must be the fourth film of Baba with sound.

    4. edited version of that newsreel is on youtube.....cuts off before the question with the 'yes' answer...