Hollywood Without the Ulcers

May 1, 1960

Quiet on the set!”

“Roll ’em!”



The reels are in motion on another moving picture—but one significantly different from most Hollywood productions. The producer, in this case, is the United States Air Force.

Almost from his first day in the service, the recruit sees Air Force films. Throughout his military career, he gains much of his total knowledge of his job, his responsibilities, and the mission of the Air Force via this medium.

The complex job of planning and writing most Air Force films is handled by a small group of experienced writers, animators, and technicians. They are the men of the 1365th Photographic Group, USAF Air Photographic and Charting Service ( APCS ), headed by Lt. Col. James P. Warndorf, USAF.

Colonel Warndorf makes his headquarters at Orlando AFB, Fla. The Group is divided into three divisions: Projects, Art and Animation, and Scenario.

The Group turns out more than 400 reels a year for the Air Force. It is not an easy job. The subject matter varies from “Abdominal Colostomy Closure” to “The Zero Reader,” and runs the gamut of security classifications from Unclassified, which can be shown to civilian audiences, to Top Secret, NOFORN ( No Foreign Nationals), which can be shown only to American military personnel with the highest kind of need to know.

“We have many, many problems that the private producers never have to face,” APCS’s Maj. Peter Boyko says, “and yet we enjoy a freedom from the pressure of ‘box-office draw’ which gives Hollywood its biggest headaches. Our writers can work in comparative relaxation here in Orlando. Yet, we still have schedules to meet, and we must please the commanders who asked for the films in the first place. You might say it’s Hollywood without the ulcers.”

Major Boyko, an old hand at film production, until recently headed APCS’s Commercial Projects Division. While there may be a few similarities between the Air Force’s “Hollywood” and the movie capital, these similarities do not include working conditions. The divisions of the Group occupy several one-story buildings on the base, all of which were built during World War II. The writers of the Scenario Division, for example, are assigned a series of “cells” in an E-shaped building. In these cubicles, recently renovated, are born excellent motion pictures that vastly influence the quality of the widespread global Air Force.

The process of getting a training film made for the Air Force is uncomplicated but requires a good deal of work by a number of people.

Production of a film, from conception by a potential Air Force user to final preapproval screening in the Pentagon, takes about a year. The films average some thirty minutes each and are produced in both color and black-and-white.

“As soon as we get the requirement for a film we assign the project to one of our stable of twenty-eight writers,” Major Boyko explains “We call in the technical adviser, usually from the command that originated the request, to explain the technical aspects of the subject matter. The writer then translates the purpose of the film and the technical points into a screenplay, always remembering the type of audience for which the film is intended.”

“The job is not always as simple as it sounds,” says one script writer who is a prolific author of short stories in his off-duty time. “Sometimes the purpose of the film is not clear. Sometimes the technical adviser wants to keep things too technical for film purposes. Or sometimes we writers have a rough time finding a story line that we can build on.”

“More often than not,” he continues, “after many hours of discussion with the technical adviser, the writer can see several ways to portray the basic idea and we then choose the best one.”

After a script is written and approved by the Group, it goes through a series of reviews. The command that requested the film reviews it to make sure it gets the point across. It is next reviewed by members of the Group staff, then APCS Headquarters, and finally by interested Pentagon staff offices. At any one of these reviews, someone may suggest a change or two or, in fact, flatly disapprove of the whole presentation.

When a script is finally approved, it is scheduled into production and Invitations for Bids ( IFBs ) are sent out by the Air Materiel Command. Motion picture companies look over the script, figure costs, gauge profit margins, and submit bids. About 200 bona fide producers are considered qualified to bid on Air Force films. The lowest bidder gets the contract. He is invited to a conference at Orlando, where the entire script is carefully reviewed by the Projects Division, the “buyers” from AMC, requesting-command representatives, and the private producer. At this time, also, the Air Force makes arrangements for the concern’s crew to visit bases or missile sites necessary to film the story. A shooting schedule is then set.

The next step, if the film requires professional actors, is to call the technical adviser to the producer’s studio to choose those who will play the parts listed in the script. At least three actors are sent from a casting agency for each part. This done, scripts are given to the ones chosen, and the shooting sequence is announced.

On the appointed day the producer’s studio, which he may own himself or have leased from another firm, is alive with noisy activity. Sets have already been built, “grips” wrestle with props and dolly tracks, the director makes last-minute arrangements, and actors stand by mumbling their lines to themselves —just as on any movie set anywhere.

Then, a few familiar commands from the director . . . cameras begin to turn. . . actors move through their paces. . . and a film is on the way to “the can.”

At the completion of each day’s shooting, the exposed film is rushed off for processing, and the “rushes” are viewed as soon as possible to see how they turned out. Scenes unsatisfactory to the Air Force representatives are scheduled for reshooting immediately.

Shooting and rush viewing finished, the producer usually releases his crews and actors. They have probably been hired only for the specific purpose of producing that one film. Very few of the moviemaking firms retain staffs on a fulltime basis.

A few weeks after shooting, technical advisers and command representatives are called to Orlando to see the “rough cut” of the film. To a layman, this is sometimes a shocking experience because the film is in its rawest form. Although scenes are in proper sequence, there are no “opticals” (fades, dissolves, or superimposures) and no music.

If the rough-cut screening is satisfactory to all parties, the order is given to the producer to complete the film as called for in his contract. Not long afterward, a final screening is scheduled for the Pentagon where it is again reviewed by the technical adviser, his command representative, APCS experts, and officers of Headquarters USAF responsible for training films. Final approval here gives the Air Materiel Command the green light to make a contract with a film laboratory and run off the number of prints needed. In a few weeks, Air Force film libraries receive the prints for showing.

While the process for the average film is simple enough, an objection by anyone in authority can send the film back to the producer for refilming. This has occasionally happened.

One producer gives this opinion: “At first, it might appear that we would object to having the Air Force do part of our job for us, but it just isn’t so. The scripts are well written, the technical advisers are well chosen, and we have no quarrel with the contracts. This makes our job easier. We don’t have to keep a big stable of writers on our payroll just so we can bid on Air Force films. In short, we like the arrangement and wouldn’t want it any other way.”

So far as the Air Force as a whole is concerned, these training films meet an important requirement. And the “moving-picture magnates” of Orlando contribute directly, through the exercise of their considerable talents, to the defense of the nation.

The author, Lt. Col. Carroll V. Glines, now is Chief, Planning Team, Monitoring System Group; Directorate of Operational Requirements, Hq. USAF. He was formerly stationed at Hq. AMC, Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio. Colonel Glines is also the coauthor of a new book on the DC-3, Grand Old Lady. His most recent article for us was “Have Show.. .Will Travel.”