Paul at the camera, photo by Zelda Burnford
Paul Burnford produced or directed over 100 academic films, on subjects ranging from zoology, to history, to art. His films have probably been seen by the majority of the population that attended U.S. elementary and secondary schools in North America since 1960. Many of them were compelling, such as the now out-of-distribution ‘Color’ (1954), in which, in a brief six minutes, magical things occur: broad swaths of abstract colors and shapes coat the screen, to an equally abstract soundtrack, dissonantly played by Werner Bracher moving an object across the piano strings to create an autoharp-like ambiance.
Paul was a filmmaker and executive of a small firm, and was widely liked. His filmography is extensive, but we feel we’re still going to find more, so we consider it a work in progress. Our Burnford Writings page has a wonderful interview conducted by his composer colleague Richard McCurdy, as well as a charming anecdote Paul wrote about his days with Robert Flaherty.
Paul Harrison Maurice Bernstein was born in London, England on July 19, 1914. Shortly after his birth, the family changed its name to Burnford, as anti-Semitism was at that time rife in England.
Paul’s grandmother loved the movies, and she often took Paul with her to the films. At a young age, he bought a 16mm movie camera, and began making small films, the first of which was called “Moods of Nature,” which he made at approximately the age of 18. He couldn’t afford professionally made titles, so he gathered rocks and laid them on the ground to spell out his titles. His inventive mind was always at work. I believe he was about 18 when he made that first film [Zelda Burnford]. A few years later, he entered it in several film festivals, including the Catalan Amateur Film Contest of 1936.
Documentarians John Grierson and Paul Rotha offered Paul his first professional job as a film maker, and became his mentors. His first film was “Rooftops of London”, followed by “Statues of London.” Paul also made a film about the hardships of the miners in Wales, and later worked for MGM in London. Having made a name for himself as a documentary film maker, he was officered a job as head photographer at the London Zoo by Sir Julian Huxley, the famed biologist and scientist, and soon Paul became known for his filming of animals. Many years later, when the San Diego zoo opened, Sir Julian was there to be honored for his work in modernizing zoos, and asked Paul to join him. Burnford later used the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park in Escondido as locations for many of his films.
In the mid-1930s, he edited Sergei Eisenstein’s classic film Qué Viva México. In 1939, when he was 25 years old, Burnford’s book “Filming for Amateurs” was published, and was soon in use as a text book in the film school at the university of Southern California.
In the World War II era, Burnford arrived in the U.S. as a drafted civilian, working for the British Ministry of Agriculture in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Based in Washington D.C., he was soon making films about crop conservation, flying over the Midwest and shooting various farmlands. He was never allowed to edit his film or even see a finished project, but instead was instructed to take his footage to an office in Rockefeller Center. Sometimes he, with film in hand, would board a camouflaged military transport, and be flown back to London, to deposit the film there. He was under strict orders not to contact any friends or family while in England. As later revealed in William Stevenson’s ‘A Man Called Intrepid,’ microdots were placed on such films made by various filmmakers as a means of carrying intelligence between the United States and Great Britain.
Through friend Sidney Solow, Burnford was introduced to Samuel Mayer, and soon began a short tenure as a director of short films at MGM, and worked on George Cukor’s “It Should Happen to You.” He also served a short stint at Columbia Pictures.
Burnford soon realized that he wanted to run his own film company and be more in charge of the end product. Along with teacher Irwin (Irv) Braun, he founded Film Associates, a company specializing in educational films. Every film he made won an award. Paul was now recognized as one of the top educational film producers. Eventually, Film Associated was bought by CBS and merged with Bailey Films to become Bailey Film Associates (BFA). From that point onward, he worked as an independent producer.
In 1974, Burnford married his second wife, Zelda, who was working for the insurance agency responsible for covering his film shoots. Zelda soon became more fully integrated into Paul Burnford’s films world.
Zelda Burnford writes: “When I wasn’t working, I often joined Paul on the set. He was working on his series of how to make films. My major in college was theater, so we had a lot in common, but I was learning a lot more from him. Then Paul made some medical films regarding women. There was “Pre Natal Care”, “Menopause” and “Emergency Childbirth”. I acted in some of them, and with the writer’s permission, I added some female input to the scripts. Paul’s writer moved out of town, and a new writer was needed for the next project, “Background of the Civil War” – Revised. Paul asked me to write it. I had never written before, and thought he was crazy to take such a chance on me. He told me if he didn’t like it, he’d toss it (not me, hopefully) and find someone else. Personally, I think he was just cheap, because he didn’t have to pay me. I did make him write me a check for $1, so I could say I was a professional film writer. He was so very patient and kind. I could never have done it without his confidence in me. That’s were our collaboration started. We worked side by side every day. We had a few artistic disagreements, but he always reminded me he was the producer. I’d never tell him, but he was always right. I learned every phase of film making from him.
“He was a dreamer. He was dreaming of the next scene in his current film, or the next film, or what he could invent from the garage sale camera he bought and was taking apart. In 1992, we retired. Unfortunately, Paul died from complications of a stroke March 28, 1999. I miss that wonderful, kind, sweet genius, who always made me laugh.”
Special thanks to Zelda Burnford, who graciously provided access to the family archives, and gave us valuable assistance in compiling his biography and filmography.