Recording Buckminster Fuller (1963)

This facilities request was found in a 2” videotape box as this program, featuring the renowned architect/inventor Buckminster Fuller, was being dubbed in 2010 to a modern tape format.

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It is rare to come across such a document. It denotes that the show was taped 47 years ago at Stearns Hall at the Museum of Science. This was one of the temporary homes to WGBH television productions after the 1961 fire and during the time the Allston facility was being built.

It appears that 2 VTRs were utilized: one as a master, the other a backup. It is likely they did this for 2 reasons. One is machine failure, the other is tape failure.

Notice this: “After recording, do NET evaluation. If master is good, then wipe the backup. If not, evaluate backup….” The tapes would be technically evaluated before delivery to the National Educational Television Network, for video dropouts and other servo/mechanical discrepancies, specific to the state of the art video recording equipment of that time. One or the other of the tapes were erased for later use.

This document provides a glimpse into production life at an extraordinary time in WGBH history.

4 thoughts on “Recording Buckminster Fuller (1963)

  1. Well, I can add to Joe Pugliesi’s find, which, as he observes, is truly noteworthy (at least for me). I have thought many times of the Buckminster Fuller series, which comprised three one hour programs, and is a high spot among my memories. Joe is right; the shows were taped at the Museum of Science, and as the facilities request shows, it was recorded on two machines simultaneously, for the reasons he details. This was an indication of the importance placed on the production, on the fact that we were actually to have Bucky in the studio in a one-off opportunity, and that there was – for a change – a significant budget.

    The series was for NET, was written and produced by Virginia (Ginny) Kassel, and was directed by yours truly. There was voice-over narration of explanatory graphics and film sequences spoken by Tony Saletan.

    By 1963, Ginny and I had worked in very satisfying partnerships together on a number of productions. We really respected and trusted each other, and we must have been pretty much trusted by management too, as I don’t remember having anyone looking ‘over our shoulders’ at any time during the making. So we had great fun trying out slightly risky ideas to visually match Bucky’s theories.

    I do remember shooting lengthy sequences of matched dissolves (one of my favorite devices, and one I still use today) showing the geometric progressions from point, to line, to triangle, to tetrahedron, to complex polyhedra, to real world structures, and illustrating how they were all nested within each other. These were done in the studio, live to tape, in real time. So, while not as graphically perfect as they might be with today’s technology, they did seem to work rather well.

    Because this show was done on an NET contract, a fairly generous allocation of resources was made, for research, time to devote to shaping the production concepts, interviewing, scripting, finding and securing historic film segments, model making, original filming, videotaping and extensive tape editing.

    Ginny and I traveled to Illinois where Bucky taught design at Southern Illinois University. For several days we audio-recorded, interviews with him at his own geodesic dome home. And it was here that I first became aware of Bucky’s amazing ability to explain his wide ranging visionary concepts, and the history of when and where they had been in put practice. Bucky knew his intellectual/cosmological territory so well, and had given so many lectures, that he was clearly able to package his discourses – however complex – into half hour, one hour, two hour, half day, whole day, several day, and whole week installments (probably even longer, were he given the opportunity). This he did without for an instant breaking stride, or losing track of where he was in the discourse.

    As for geodesic structures: Steve Gilford is also right – we had big and small ‘Tinkertoy-like’ structures in the studio. And we did assemble a fairly large aluminum dome, in the parking lot of the Science Museum, from a kit (I don’t know where it came from, but it was color coded to facilitate the assembly). In fact, it was so easy that we filmed the construction in 16mm time-lapse, and were able to pull off the whole setup and tear-down in, I think, about six hours. Steve did stage manage the production, and he’s undoubtedly in that film sequence among the assembly crew.

    [A personal note: I came away from this production deeply touched by Bucky as a human being.
    He seemed unpredictably hard of hearing, which made working with him a bit difficult. My speculation was that, given the skepticism, derision and dismissal which often greeted his ideas – ideas to which he was profoundly devoted – over time he may simply have tired of listening to others, and enclosed himself in his own, perhaps somewhat lonely, world. In and out of bankruptcy, frequently misunderstood, having suffered bouts of severe depression and, until later in his life, finding little popular favor, Bucky’s life was not an easy one.

    Even so, he was deeply concerned for the future of humanity, powerfully motivated by that concern and, I believe, worried about the way humans were affecting their world. He was a tireless educator and proponent of understandings which he felt would be of benefit to all life. As the New York Times put it in 2008, Bucky’s life actually comprised “an experiment, to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Wikipedia goes further: “Fuller believed human societies would soon rely mainly on renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind-derived electricity. He hoped for an age of “omni-successful education and sustenance of all humanity.” Fuller referred to himself as “the property of universe” and during one radio interview he gave later in life, declared himself and his work “the property of all humanity”. For his lifetime of work, the American Humanist Association named him the 1969 Humanist of the Year.”

    Possibly one of the secrets to ‘understanding Bucky’ is that, as utopian, complex, and outlandish as his envisioned ‘real world projects’ may have seemed (dymaxion cars, immensely tall skyscrapers), the basis of his thinking was so simple as to completely evade the comprehension of many of us ‘moderns’ who worship complexity.

    His insights were taken directly from nature, and from classical mathematical/ architectural/ cosmological theorizings such as those of Pythagoras, the designers of the arch, and the builders of the great pyramids. (As a more general example: Taoism is frequently considered to be ‘outmoded Asian mystical nonsense,’ and too complicated and abstract a philosophy to bother trying to understand. And yet, the basis of Taoism resides in the concept of Yin and Yang, positive and negative, interacting polarities. And here we are today, writing and doing all sorts of amazing things with computers, the foundation of which is an incredibly simple digital reality – namely the juxtapositions of zeros and ones – interacting polarities.)

    In fact, it is only relatively recently, with the advent of fractal geometry and chaos theory, that Bucky’s kinds of understandings have again found some acceptance in science and design. Most of the general public have little grasp of these new cosmological visions – not because, as is generally thought, they are so complicated, but because of their deceptive simplicity.

    If the public knows anything of Mr. Buckminster Fuller, it is likely only as the somewhat whacky inventor of the geodesic dome. He authored over thirty books, and his inventions, too numerous to relate here, apply to an amazing range of fields of endeavor. Though his ‘real world’ applications sometimes appeared impractically visionary, his insights have been vindicated countless times, in ways which may not be immediately apparent, or be credited directly to him. Bucky’s work, seen in historical context, places him firmly in the great traditions of cosmology, design and humanitarianism.

    I’m proud to have worked with him and, hopefully, to have contributed in a very small way to the understanding of his work.]

    And one other reflection – on the discovery of the facilities request: Not to brag, but this sheet was a later version of a requisition form I developed as a cameraman at 84 Mass. Ave., and which I revised several times over several years.

    Rather than having a director come into the studio to rehearse and, as had been the custom, have the crew and engineers start from scratch scrambling to assemble the necessary production tools – which might be in use in the other studio, or worse, in for maintenance, or out of the building on a remote – this form reduced confusion and equipment conflicts, and made it possible to have the studio facilities in readiness in advance.

    I was rather proud of the process, and never thought I would see one of these sheets again. My heart actually skipped a beat when I realized that the referenced production was indeed “The World of Buckminster Fuller,” and the facilities sheet was indeed what it was.

    Profound thanks to Joe Pugliesi for not simply discarding an old sheet of paper, and to Steve Gilford for his remembrances. This was a beautiful gift – the stuff of which memories are not just made, but preserved.

    Don Hallock

  2. Seeing the 1963 facilities request form that was recovered from the Buckminster Fuller tape box reminded me of when they were introduced.

    I believe there were eight copies, each page of the carbon backed form was a different color, blue, green, canary etc. This was t help with the distribution of the information so that appropriate departments would know what was going on, studio call times, number of cameras needed, recordist’ s information and so on.

    Since these were new forms, it was necessary to let the staff know about them and so careful Xerox copies were made of each page and they were assembled into replicas of the new form. The instructions told us about the significance of the color forms and how they were to be filled in and distributed.

    The reactions throughout the station was of puzzlement, though. Reduced to black and white Xerox pages, they were all identical.

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