Transmission 15: Charter Weeks

Charter Weeks film_still

Film still from “Tow Boat,” courtesy of Charter Weeks and the SS United States Conservancy.

Our principal interest was documentary filmmaking, and in order to get hired to do this, we had to have a sample. So, we decided to film a day in the life of a tow boat in New York Harbor. Moran Towing agreed – honestly, we were hoping they’d give us some money! We spent about six or eight weeks shooting the material, then we put together the film. When we presented it to Moran, they came back to us and said: “Nah, we’re not really interested in spending money on this.”

It was a terribly fun project. One interesting thing that happened was that we had rented a helicopter to film the sequence of maneuvering the SS United States into the harbor. Well, the guy who was in the helicopter accidentally tripped a switch that made the film run backward. What was should be half and hour of footage ended up as less than six minutes. We looked it at like, we have to incorporate this into the finished piece, so with editing, what we did was edit it so when the helicopter video zooms in, it segues into a zoom in along the engine room, then cuts to the coffee cups. That sequence of shots, it was a way to use the limited video we had. The ending, with the shot zooming in on the boat out on the river, that resulted from that complication, too.

The film, what’s called a work print, was largely shot on color negative, which was superimposed on a color positive to create the edited version. You shot thousands of feet of film of which you only use a portion, a typical shooting ratio was about 20:1, meaning for every 20 feet you shot, you used 1. In those days, we cut film on a machine called a Moviola. We didn’t just piece together the film, but also the soundtrack. For Tow Boat, there were eight different tracks for music, voice over, effects, and so on. It took six weeks to cut a twelve-minute film.

One of the ways you can transition from point to point in a film is with a wipe, when the image shifts from one side of the screen to the other. In Tow Boat, during the undocking, the Buena Ventura is pushed from the left to the right, then the footage immediately cuts to the SS United States, almost like a wipe. Moments like that, they’re visual treats.

When we shot the footage, the intended purpose was to raise money! We hoped to get paid, which we did not, but we did get a product to use for future presentation so our company, Chicago Films, could get work. Over time, the project has matured in its connection to the world. I married Marie Harris, whose grandfather, Basil Harris, was the president of United States Lines. Now, I see the footage as a means of preserving the history of the ship in some small way.

— Charter Weeks, photographer and filmmaker, and restorer of the “Tow Boat” footage