Like many academic filmmakers, Paul Burnford had opinions about what
constituted a film of exceptional educational value. In common with other
notable academic filmmakers, he had a high regard for his subject matter and
a tremendous amount of respect for learners of all ages. On this page,
you'll find a wonderful interview conducted with Burnford by his colleague and
friend Richard McCurdy, who provided the music for many of Paul's films.
Below that, read a
anecdote told by Burnford regarding his days working with Documentary
luminary Robert Flaherty. Also, visit Burnford's
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Burnford on Filmmaking: an Interview with Paul Burnford
by film composer Richard McCurdy, in the 'Music Tracks' newsletter,
Paul Burnford is very well-known in the documentary and educational film
business, having been one of the co-founders of Film Associates which
subsequently became BFA Educational Media. His film work is characterized by
inventive and exciting camera angles, enhanced by highly imaginative editing. He
is also an excellent director. For many years he directed at the Pasadena
Playhouse. Paul's credits include hundreds of educational and documentary films
with well over a hundred awards. His teaching series on various phases of art
such as "Discovering Color," "Discovering Perspective," etc. rank as some of the
highest-grossing educational films on record. He has also produced a very
popular series on many phases of filmmaking for young people and adults. His
film "Operation Headstart," narrated by Burt Lancaster, won a commendation from
President Johnson. Paul was born in England and possesses amusing man and like
most highly creative people, a delight to be with. Recently we were talking
about his early experiences with a camera.
Tell me about your early background in film and how you got your start.
I started out in my mid-teens in England, where I was born. I had saved up for a
16mm camera and made some films about the beauties of the world around us
hinging on nature, such as the wind, the sea, rivers, streams, leaves blowing in
the wind, this sort of thing. Then I entered them into an amateur film festival
and won first 'prize. This gave me a little encouragement so I entered them into
many film festivals in Spain, France and Italy,
always winning the first award.
These started out with topics like nature, man's philosophy of life and various
social problems. Finally, I was approached by John Grierson and Paul Rotha. They
were the founders of the documentary movement in England; documentary literally
being defined as the taking of real life situations, and dramatizing these facts
in film. They wanted me to work for them, so I was given a 35mm camera and told
to make a series about London. But I told them I didn't know enough, that I
couldn't write and I hadn't had much experience with a camera but they said to
me, "Go out and learn and come back with a film. You're allowed to shoot on a
ratio of 1˝ to1!" So, the first film I came back with was a film called
"Rooftops of 'London" about what went on in London rooftops. Then with this
whole series completed, I got tied up with MGM of London on a series of short
films and was then approached by Professor Julian Huxley, the eminent biologist
and scientist. He was director of the London zoo, and wanted me to be the camera
man. One of the first things he said to me was, "My boy, if ever you see the
mating of the Galapagos turtles be sure to photograph them, as it has never been
recorded before and it would be of incredible value to science." As a young kid,
in my late teens, I was out to impress him, so one day I'm about to go home and
one of these massive Galapagos turtles, easily 6-8 feet long, was on top of the
other and I thought, "Fame has descended upon me." I grabbed the camera and shot
and I shot and I shot --- thousands of feet of 35mm film. I immediately called
Huxley and told him the incredible news, that I'd successfully photographed the
mating of the turtle. The next morning Huxley had arranged a meeting at the
Royal College of Science in London, for the top scientists of the day to see the
film, and among them was H.G. Wells. When we started to run the film, H.G. Wells
said "What a waste of time!” and rushed out, followed by some of the other
scientists. Huxley started to laugh and practically roiled in the aisles. I
asked, "What's the matter?” and he replied, "My boy, they were two males." Well,
I made a damned fool of myself and I was terribly embarrassed but Huxley was
warm and understanding about it. He taught me to laugh about such situations.
This was an incredible learning experience for me, and it taught me to laugh at
How did you get your start in America?
During World War Two, I was making war films for the Department of Agriculture
in the United States, and the Ministry of Agriculture in England. It sounds
funny, agriculture in war, but these were films to enable farmers to conserve
crops and adjust to the war situation, since the food shortage in England was
very serious. With so much traveling back and forth between the U.S. and
Britain, I decided to stay in America and eventually became a citizen. At the
age of 21, I got into MGM as a director of shorts and later, as a director of
features at Columbia Pictures.
With my documentary background, I later decided I would rather enjoy switching
into the field of education. So, on weekends with a teacher friend of mine, I
started to make educational films, just to see if they would go. Films on
science for middle-elementary grades started to sell very well. This led into
what became Film Associates, which eventually became BFA.
Which of your films is your favorite?
Well, I have several. "The Great Bubble Conspiracy" and "Castles Made of Sand".
Favorites on terms of what they say and in terms of artistry. In terms of my
favorite 'fun' films, I'd pick "Basic Film Photography" and "Basic Film
Editing". I think both 'The Great Bubble Conspiracy" and "Castles Made of Sand"
have profound meaning. "Great Bubble Conspiracy" is a satire dealing with man's
intolerance. "Castles Made of Sand" was a poetic statement on man's life and
death. Life, like a castle, is ephemeral. Even though you die, I don't believe
you cease to exist. On "Basic Film Photography" and "Basic Film Editing", (which
are ghastly titles by the way), I enjoyed the fun approach to teaching...and
they taught! I think to educate properly with film you have to create a
combination of stimulating Visuals, music and sound effects. You can't just go
through a dull boring lecture. These films were great fun to do, particularly
working with you on the music, which added tremendously to the quality of the
films. And of course, my associate Jerry Samuelson's contributions were
tremendous, also. This ties into my whole philosophy of film making. It's really
not a one man thing, but a sort of Gestalt, where all the separate parts --- the
script, photography, acting, editing, directing the music, etc., are all far
bigger than the sum total of the whole. Pure Gestalt.
I've always felt you were noted for your imaginative choice of camera
angles and perspectives. I can think of some shots in some of the early color
films where there was a super extra close-up of the ends of colored chalk, where
one didn't know exactly what it was until the camera pulled back. How do these
ideas occur to you?
I think it's the ability to really see everything around us, be it big or small.
And there are two very important rules as a cameraman: (1) to know when not to
shoot, and (2) get as close as you possibly can to an object... then a little
closer. If I may give you an analogy in your field of music, I think many people
do not have the ability to hear. Whether it's music or the sound of the cricket
chirping or more subtle sounds of the countryside. You could hear a little
delicate sort of shimmering or the rustle of the twigs. It's also true with
visuals; people simply do not see enough. You have to train yourself to see.
Anyone can look closely at the chalk or a crayon with your eye or with a
magnifying glass and suddenly there's all this great beauty to see, just as
there is alt this great beauty to hear. This ties in with another thing--- you
mentioned how we pulled back on that shot of the chalk. This is disclosure, one
of the great dynamic properties of film. You pull back and back and you disclose
more and more and you see more and more. In real life you don't see everything
all at once. Then, there's the editing. I feel that good photography alone is
absolutely meaningless. It’s only good in relation to the final editing and in
how well it brings out the intent of the script. The way in which the scenes are
cut together gives you the flow, and the way the film flows is the way in which
it teaches. Now, when you select music and I listen to it, that music alone is
quite meaningless. It takes on real meaning only in relationship to the visual.
And you can do terrible things with music. You can bring out just the very
worst aspects of a scene if you want to, or you can do comical, absurd things
that would just destroy what a man set out to achieve, by putting in a piece of
music that was just outrageously developing some aspect in the scene.
I think of music as devastatingly powerful. It can truly make or break a film.
What's the most successful film that you've done?
My early elementary science films. Also, a series of films known as "The
Discovering Art" series. They dealt with the basic elements of art. These films
are 17-18 years old, and are now being updated with new scenes, music, and more
They're successful because they have a broad range of appeal. From middle
elementary up to adults, dealing in an area in art that people really wanted to
find out more about.
Right. The films give the teachers a valuable tool to communicate with the
students. These films really hit the basic elements of art.
What is your biggest ambition in filmmaking?
To make enough money to retire! Seriously, to make exceptional films that will
stimulate students in the learning process.
That seems to bear out a philosophy that you have in filmmaking… to
stimulate people, not necessarily just kids, but anyone.
I think education is in a tragic state of dreariness in this country, and
something's got to be done to stimulate the kids to learn. Inspire them
intellectually and let them enjoy what they learn.
I'd like to make a film on the psychology of color. Color affects all of us in
our lives in every conceivable way, and it would be an exciting project. Also, a
film on stress. How we live in a world of great stress and how people are
hurting themselves physically and psychologically with coronaries, high blood
pressure, strokes, and so forth, and how to try and improve this situation.
Another area I'd like to film would be the problem of a family member who is
mentally ill. This leads to a subject which gets me very angry. Very little is
spent on mental illness, treatment and hospitalization. People literally go
broke on medical bills, with very little gain in the process. I'd like to film
more about problems in our society such as drugs, health problems, and the
problem of loneliness. You know, it's truly endless when you think of films to
help society become more sociologically aware of things. I'd like to enlighten
them to these problems and find ways of dealing with them.
One thing that seems apparent to me is the way in which you approach film
work. I've had the privilege of doing the music on most of your films for many
years. They're bright, inventive, and very young in their appeal. Your thinking
seems to be youthful in that it appeals to the younger age groups and isn’t
restricted to adults.
I like to work with the young and I respect them. I may not always agree with
them, but I think you can learn an awful lot by working with youth. You can't be
an old geezer always working and thinking in the past. I'm continually keeping
up to date... studying, researching, going to seminars. I go to discussions, and
read articles on films and involve myself with researching and experimenting,
such as in "Camera Magic." In that film I showed a way to get special effects
very inexpensively and cheaply with an 8mm camera. The creative mind is always
open to inventiveness.
The inventiveness is what will get one's attention.
Right, just like your music, Richard. Be innovative and you get to be a little
bold, a little daring, like we both are. I'd like to stress once more the idea
of selective vision, and selective hearing; to really learn to look and see and
learn to hear. That's terribly important. Observe life. Observe.
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Burnford reminisces on his days with Robert Flaherty
Robert Flaherty, one of the most famous of the documentary directors, was
shooting a film called “The Land.” It was to be a documentary epic about the
development of the land in the history of our country.
In the midst of shooting, he fired his cameraman, and asked me if I would be his
cameraman for about ten days. I was in my early 20s and just thrilled to be
working for the famous R.F. So I said yes, I would love to.
I met him at 4am the next morning to go shooting, and asked to see a copy of the
script. He got absolutely furious, and said the script was no business of mine.
I explained that without a script, I would not know what I was doing. But to no
Anyway, we went shooting amongst the Virginia farmlands, as the first thing we
came across was hundreds of chickens. He said “start shooting those
immediately.” I said “How do you want me to shoot them?” He said “Any way that
is good.” Damn it, start shooting not knowing what he wanted, I proceeded to
shoot hundreds of feet of film in every direction --- high angle, low angle,
close up, long shot, close ups of eyes, noses, etc., until we had enough
chickens to make an entire film.
When we were through, I asked him why. He replied that he never worked from a
script --- it was all in his mind.
Post Script: Not one foot of the chickens was used in the finished film.