It inspired a nation, and introduced the technological wonders that would transform the lives of generations of Americans. For more than a century, the World’s Fair was a fixture of American culture. It ushered in the industrial revolution and brought the most exotic corners of the world together in a peaceful celebration of how we are the same, and how we are different. It was an event with scale and grandeur unequaled in American history.
And then it disappeared…or did it?
In 2008 a chance series of events rekindled the magic of the World’s Fair and launched one man on a journey of personal discovery. Where’s the Fair? is the story of that journey, and exploration of the extinction of an American cultural icon.
Where’s the Fair? is the unraveling of a great American tragedy. It is the story of the loss of not only the worlds greatest celebration of culture, art, and science, but also of American exceptionalism, and perhaps even the American dream.
However, Where’s the Fair? is not a history film. It is a raw, critical, contemporary exploration of the policy decisions that continue to isolate and disconnect the United States from the international community. It is the story of what happens when a nation stops dreaming. It is the surprising answer that you find when you ask…Where’s the Fair?
Bringing the Past to Life
Today, in the United States, the World’s Fair is an obscure cultural reference. As a result, researching the Fair can be a challenge. Locating films of past Fairs is an even greater challenge. One of the main reasons for this is the way that Fairs have traditionally been organized. The model goes something like this: a city forms a World’s Fair Company to fundraise, build and run a Fair. Following the Fair, the company is dissolved. The company has very few real assets. The pavilions are demolished. The land where the Fair was hosted is usually turned over to the city in which it was held. And any profits are returned to bond holders. After that, all that is left is a few cardboard boxes of pictures, and maybe a few films. Over the past hundred years, those films have had fates ranging from preservation in libraries or museums, to being thrown in the trash, never to be seen again.
When we began production of Where’s the Fair?, we quickly fell in love with the idea of a World’s Fair. And when we realized just how little of the history of the Fairs remained, we decided that helping to preserve that history was something that was important to us. In part out of necessity, and in part driven by that desire to help save Worlds Fair history, we began working to locate and acquire original Fair films. A few of the films were easy to come by. Others took more than three years to find. And some films remain elusive. It is safe to assume that the vast majority of professionally shot film by and of America’s World’s Fairs is forever lost. These films were viewed as disposable marketing materials for an event that, once it closed, was certain to never reopen. And so most were simply thrown away.
However, we have managed to locate films ranging from 1915 to 1982. Some of them are relatively common. We believe that others are unique, one of a kind records of America’s greatest celebrations. These films have been professionally scanned using a process known as telecine. This allows the film to be photographed frame by frame, at a resolution of up to 2000 pixels. This frame series is then reassembled into a video sequence. As a part of this process, the film is color corrected to remove as much evidence of aging as possible. The original color saturation is restored, and a new, high definition video master is created. The result of this process is the protection of fragile films that serve as a snapshot of a nation’s dreams and aspirations.
Pavilion Pictures is partnering with a university library archive to provide a permanent home for these restored films. Additionally, raw footage of interviews with some of the world’s leading experts on World’s Fair and Expositions will be archived, serving as a valuable research tool for future generations that will, hopefully, rediscover the magic of the World’s Fair.
Making Where’s the Fair?
Where’s the Fair? was filmed between 2008 and 2012 in seven countries and more than three dozen cities. When we set out to make this film, we wanted to do just that — make a true film-based motion picture. Members of our team were experienced in 35mm and Super16mm film production for commercial clients. Around 2008, the production community began to switch from film to high definition acquisition. That change, made possible by the recent availability of inexpensive cameras with great picture quality, has opened up the production world to many, many more people. As a result, more and more important stories are being told.
Once we had decided that this would be a true film, we set about determining the camera platform to make this dream a reality. We settled on the Aaton XTR system, in large part because of its relative small size and light weight. The core of our film stock was Kodak Vision 2 and Vision 3. There were several appealing things about shooting on film. First, nearly all of the archival footage that we would be using for Where’s the Fair? had originally been shot on film. We wanted to match the tonal feel of that film as closely as possible. Another important consideration was the forced efficiency that comes with shooting on film. A 400ft reel of Super16mm film stock allows you to shoot for around 11 minutes. When you know that there is a very real limit to the amount of footage you can capture, you begin to put much more consideration into what you shoot. Shots are composed more carefully. With that more intense focus on what is being exposed on your film comes a greater awareness of light, angles and action. And lastly, there is still a fundamental magic that comes with film shooting. Anyone who has ever hit the run button and heard the sweet mechanical symphony of sprockets, guides and film will be forever charmed by it.
Throughout 2008 and 2009, we shot Super16mm film for interviews and b-roll. As 2010 neared, several things forced us to reconsider our production format. The first was the very high cost of film acquisition. As the number of people shooting on film decreased, the cost of film stock, processing and transfer started going up. This is particularly important in a documentary where you are usually shooting very long interview segments. The cost of production starts to add up quickly. However, we were willing to bear the expense to preserve the art of the production. The factor that pushed us over the edge was when the environmental impact of motion picture production was brought to our attention. Once it is exposed, large volumes of liquid chemicals are used to fix the image to the film backing, creating a useable negative.
The negative is then scanned on a telecine to deliver high definition video files for editing. Once used, these chemicals must be disposed of. And, while we had no doubts that the partners we were using to process our film were adhering to the highest standards of safety and responsibility, we felt that is was time to merge high definition digital cinema into the production.
In 2010, our primary production format changed to SONY HDCAM. We continued to shoot some additional scenes on ARRI 35mm cameras and the ARRI Alexa. However, we believe that the change to digital acquisition aligns with our deeply held views on filmmaker social responsibility. The visual consistency that we have achieved, while merging materials spanning more than a hundred years and a dozen formats, is a testament to our editor’s hard work on Where’s the Fair?.