Packed With Action and Incident

Like many workplaces around the world, the Archive has a wee informal sweepstake on the go, where we compete to pick the results of the FIFA World Cup 2014 match by match. Complete with scoreboard positioned at the staffroom entry, even those with little interest in sport like to see where they sit alongside those hardened fans.

Diane McAllen (Film Archive Project Developer, currently positioned 5th on the scoreboard) reflects on the changing world of sport coverage. 

Since the very beginnings of cinema, sport events have been recorded on film.

The earliest types of sport to be filmed were boxing matches—“fight films” as they were commonly called—along with horse racing. One of Thomas Edison’s first filmic experiments recorded men boxing and in July 1894, the match between Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing was filmed at Edison’s “Black Maria” New Jersey studio.

Some of the earliest surviving New Zealand-related sports films includes a fight between James Corbett and New Zealander Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897 and a rugby test match between ‘the Original’ All Black team and England at Crystal Palace, London, in 1905.

Sports films made during this early period of filmmaking were shown in peep–shows and vaudeville halls. But the development of cinemas created new audiences that demanded more sophisticated narratives.  A film of a real event, if it was to screen alongside Hollywood productions, needed to be structured rather than left unedited.

In Europe and Britain, competition between newsreel production companies (like Pathe Animated Gazette, Gaumont Graphic, and the British Topical Budget) and between different cinema chains, created a situation where exclusive rights to cover major sporting events were shopped around. ‘Pirates’ and ‘pinchers’ would endeavour to get footage for rival companies and sometimes it was hard to differentiate between footage gained legitimately or by piracy.

However, the sports film industry in New Zealand was itself far smaller than those in Europe, Britain and America. The rise of the independent film-maker during the 1920s saw enthusiasts keen to document local events for local audiences, and significant sporting events were a popular topic. These films needed to be short – typically one or two reels of film or up to twenty minutes in duration – to be programmed.

Vannie Vinsen of Wellington successfully screened three ‘two-reeler’ films of boxing matches staged between Tommy Donovan from Waitara and American Pete Sarron, Victory Thrown Away, The Big Fight  and The Hat Trick.

The Empire De Luxe News series of the late-1920s exemplifies the kind of regional newsreels which also covered sporting events. Empire De Luxe News was produced by Jack Welsh and James Gault as a weekly newsreel containing up to ten items of local interest. Clips which survive cover a variety of sporting events: fun races at organised picnics, the opening of the bowling season, sports meetings of the Amateur Athletics Association, an Australia vs. Otago cricket match at Carisbrook, the St. Clair Golf Club final, whippet and motorcycle racing, the Vauxhall regatta, tennis championships, athletics, and Ranfurly Shield matches.

By 1933, most cinemas were fitted for sound film and, in this year, the first national sound newsreel New Zealand Soundscenes began to be produced. It appeared weekly and ran for a total of 23 weeks. This newsreel used correspondent cameramen, including Rudall Hayward in Auckland, Vannie Vinsen in Wellington, and Lee Hill and Jack Welsh in Dunedin.

Sports regularly featured in the Soundscenes series. A variety of codes were covered, with an emphasis on events of national significance or visiting international sportspeople: lawn tennis player Fred Perry from Britain, Australian swimmers Frances Bult and Claire Dennis, ladies and men’s golf championships, girls national basketball (netball) championships.

Early film coverage of sporting events were far more constrained by technological and economic factors, compared with today.  Camera positioning, correct exposure levels and making best use of the expensive film-stock, were some of the constant considerations for the cameraman. Outdoor events were easier to achieve the exposure levels required for film, but were more weather-dependent.

Some codes must have been easier to film than others: athletic events, motor racing, boxing, whippet and horse racing, all have more obvious camera positions to capture the most action. The filming of a soccer or rugby game on a muddy field, with a heavy camera fixed to a tripod, would have been more challenging. A successful format was to show the team going onto the field, the toss, and then selected highlights of the game, followed by the score, as demonstrated in this film of two Auckland soccer games.

The context in which these films were viewed has also changed considerably. It would have taken about a week to process the film, submit it to the Censors Office and secure a venue for screening. Often the information, if you really had wanted to know, would have been printed in the newspapers or heard on the radio on the day of the event. Ultimately the aim of sport reporting during this period was to entertain, and engage rather than inform.

Indeed, some coverage appeared less concerned with sporting results and more on capturing the atmosphere of the occasion, including ample footage of the crowds and spectators. The advertisement for a J.S. Vinsen athletics film screened at the New Princess Theatre, Wellington, even invited cinema-goers to ‘Come and see yourself in the crowd’. Watching coverage of the current 2014 World Cup, with its music, dazzling graphics, and footage of the crowd antics, perhaps things haven’t changed that much.

Spectators at the rugby game between Kings College and Auckland Grammar. Featured in New Zealand Soundscenes: Egmont Calling! Camera: Rudall Hayward (1933). [Film Archive Ref: F4487]
Spectators at the rugby game between Kings College and Auckland Grammar. Featured in New Zealand Soundscenes: Egmont Calling! Camera: Rudall Hayward (1933). [Film Archive Ref: F4487]
Soccer game in play. Featured in Auckland Topical News: Association Football.  (1924) [Film Archive Ref: F10480]
Soccer game in play. Featured in Auckland Topical News: Association Football. (1924) [Film Archive Ref: F10480]
Alhambra Footballers Club Day - a school rugby team (1929). Featured in Empire De Luxe News. [Film Archive Ref: F8572]
Alhambra Footballers Club Day – a school rugby team (1929). Featured in Empire De Luxe News. [Film Archive Ref: F8572]