Warren Everote remembers PSSC (Physical Science Study Committee) films
Encyclopaedia Britannica Films’ (EBF) executive Warren Everote wrote about his experience in helping to create the PSSC film series. His reminiscences are taken from his book My Odyssey: a Life in Educational Media, 1946-1971. Information in brackets was supplied by Geoff Alexander.
Mitch [EB Films president Maurice Mitchell] has learned that Professor Gerrold Zacharias (Zach) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is said to have declared that our Harvey White physics course is uninspiring, partly out of date and taught by an ineffective professor. I do not know how he arrived at these conclusions since, as far as we can ascertain, he has not actually seen any of the lessons in the series. My guess is he launched that attack as a straw man in order to focus attention on a program he will now direct, a so-called “very modern” physics year course. It will include films, filmstrips, and a textbook. A film studio will be set up in the Cambridge area where films and filmstrips will be produced. EBF’s competitors will presumably vie for the opportunity to produce the audiovisual parts of the program and distribute them to schools. It behooves EBF to enter the contest.
I fly to MIT to meet professor Zacharias (Zach) and learn what I can about his proposed program. At MIT I fail to meet Zach because he is ill but I do talk with Bert Little, who is in charge of organizing the program. He and I look at possible studio spaces but do not find a suitable one. I return to Wilmette [Illinois, where EB Film offices were located] to attend our June Advisory Board meeting, which, for the first time, will be held in Wilmette instead of the Britannica boardroom in downtown Chicago. The Zacharias project is the focus of attention. The consensus is that we should make a serious effort to be chosen to produce the audiovisual components of his program and then distribute them. Oddly enough our members do not want us to take on the book part of the package. I would think that exception would be unacceptable to Zacharias.
Mitch wants me to move to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the summer to represent EBF in the planning stage of the Zacharias project. I am already enrolled in the Aspen Institute’s program in Colorado that is about to begin. Mitch thinks the MIT project can’t wait if we are to participate. He says I can go to the Aspen Institute next year. (As it turns out, I never find time to attend the Institute). I agree with Mitch to move to Cambridge with June and our daughter Jan. Our take off is set for June 13th. That morning we are ready to leave when we discover that Jan has chicken pox. Since I am expected tomorrow at MIT I will travel there by car and my family will follow by plane as soon as Jan recovers. Bert Little has found a house for our use.
I finally meet Dr. Zacharias. He is a “bigger-than-life” character. He has worked on important major projects successfully. One has been establishment of the ‘Dew Line’, an early warning defense system stretching along our Canadian border. It can detect incoming planes or rockets entering the U.S. from the north. Zach also claims to be a leader in the study of time. Scientists have already devised means to measure extremely small units of time. He believes that eventually the units may be divided into bits so small that they will become something other than time. It’s work in progress.
Zach is said to be able to get financial grants quite easily from government agencies or other sources, and usually gets what he asks for, to further his research projects. He tells me he asks for generous grants, to quote Zach. “No small stuff.” His colleagues say he measures grant money in terms of Zachs. A Zach is a million dollars. Larger or smaller amounts are in fractions of a Zach. His reputation at MIT is impressive. Presently he has assembled a team of about 60 persons to work on his program during this summer and calls the group The Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC). Just about everyone here calls him Zach and he seems to enjoy that appellation.
A few days into the project Zach says he likes my attitude so I’m to take charge of whatever film production unit is finally assembled. Harvey Gross has come on board to represent McGraw Hill’s interests. He is a friendly young man who doesn’t seem to know much about physics or this program. I assume his role is just to gather information. Another member of the unit is John Coe, formerly with the local educational television station. Finally there is J. Halpern, an outgoing, brash but likeable, up-front type who says he has had considerable experience producing films in NYC. He seems to be an outsider in the field of science.
There is one other person, Steve White. I thought he was to be a member or our film unit but I am told he is not interested in working with us. He seems to be a kind of sideman for Zach much as Donald Hoffman [EB Films Vice President] was for Walter Colmes [former EB Films president]. There seems to be a reason for his aloofness but I do not know what it is. My guess is he does not want to work in a unit where he is not the leader. His real motive doesn’t emerge until months later.
One of the pleasurable aspects for me of being here at MIT is that I meet very talented and well-known people. Today I lunched with Dr. [Harold] Edgerton. One of his special accomplishments is photographing fast moving objects, like a bullet in flight. In his laboratory he demonstrates for me this kind of photography using an ultra high-speed camera that tracks the trajectory of a bullet fired from a pistol.
Zach’s first assignment for me is to write a script on Time. How can I win on that subject when Zach, my critic, is a super specialist on the subject? He offers no clues as to what he expects the film should include. I think of Zach, as I believe he thinks of himself, as the alpha figure in whatever he undertakes. He certainly owns that role on this Physics program. Within a few days I present a draft of Time to Zach. He promptly turns it over to Professor Phil Morrison, a well-known scholar from Cornell, who is here this summer to collaborate with Zach on this physics project.
After reading my script, Phil excoriates me for what he terms my unenlightened approach to the subject. He says I rely on pushing buttons to make scientific procedures work rather than analyzing the underlying science involved. In my Time script I include only one scene that involves use of a push button but I understand Phil’s basic point. He believes that we are becoming increasingly unaware of the science involved in operating machines and devices we control because we simply push buttons or turn dials.
For the sake of argument, a person may question why he should make an effort to learn the underlying science that supports our increasingly complex world. After all, a sea of change is rolling forward so rapidly that what one learns today may quickly be replaced by discoveries of tomorrow. I imagine Phil would respond by pointing out the value of understanding basic scientific principles in order to live a more interesting and rewarding life. At institutions like MIT, understanding science is what most everyone is here for.
Whatever the thrust of Phil’s reasoning and because of some new ideas of my own, I take my script “back to the drawing board.” (I wonder where people went before there were drawing boards?) Two drafts later Phil says it is “relatively okay.” I never get the script completely ready to shoot because Zach keeps thinking up new assignments that he says must be attended to first.
Zach requests that I have EBF send the entire set of the Harvey White films shipped to the PSSC so they can review what White has achieved. At the same time he has invited Academy Award winner, Frank Capra, to come aboard and discuss quality film making techniques and criticize existing physics films, particularly the Harvey White series. Capra’s film making prowess is well established but I wonder what he knows about physics? I don’t think he looked at parts of more than two films before he denounced Professor Harvey White as an exceedingly uninspiring teacher who has no notion of how to provide interesting lessons. He blames EBF for distributing the series.
Occasionally I have visitors. Bill Deneen comes to discuss his future association with EBF and to select and discuss subjects that he may produce for us. Bill is an energetic, enthusiastic, and adventurous cameraman who also does very well as a producer. Like Milan Herzog, one of his many talents is getting people in the field to cooperate enthusiastically with him. Charles Benton visits with me about this PSSC project. Another interesting contact is William Smith, curator of the Egyptian Museum. I don’t see any connection between the local museum and the PSSC project but it might be of interest to EBF as a source of material for some future film.
I stay in touch with production operations in Wilmette. All new scripts and revised ones are received and reviewed. Comments are sent back by mail unless a critical time factor is involved. Those are handled by phone. The amount of mail from Wilmette on some days is a bit overwhelming but I still respond within 24-36 hours of its receipt. No one in production has complained that work is being held up awaiting answers from me.
The time draws near when Zach will select the company he wants to work with on his PSSC project. Something may be moving favorably for EBF because he requests that I prepare a cost estimate of what EBF will expect to be paid if it receives the contract. With help from Wilmette personnel, we prepare and submit the figure of $751,000. Zach says $730,000 is a better number. To keep things moving forward, I agree. Lawyers, of course, will be involved before the amount is finally approved. I present the budget details to the PSSC.
While waiting for lawyers to segue into the action, I return to Wilmette to bring Mitch up to date on where we stand with PSSC and Zach. He and I then fly to NYC to call upon Al Eurich [Alvin Euric, vice president of the Ford Foundation’s Fund for the Advancement of Education, or FAE]. We expect to learn if he thinks EBF will participate in Zach’s project. Surprisingly we are told he has no special interest in having EBF participate. He has even requested Zach’s approval to select McGraw Hill to produce the films for the project. This all sounds out of character for Al but his attitude may be based on the fact that he is considering giving EBF a grant to produce a chemistry year course and doesn’t want EBF to have more than one Ford Foundation project at the same time. It is also possible that he may not want to be accused of favoring EBF with grants.
Regardless of who finally wins the PSSC contract, I still have assignments here at MIT and I try to fulfill them. By July 23rd we have assembled enough equipment to start work on the fist PSSC film. Some of it is on loan from EBF and part is newly purchased. Helpern has proved to be useful in locating quality equipment at bargain prices in NYC. Maybe he has had production experience in NYC although he never explains what it was. Zach will be featured n our first film, the Pressure of Light, a classic experiment. Since Helpern wants to direct Zach, I officially assign him that duty. He quickly learns that Zach is not someone who takes kindly to direction
Zach’s attitude seems to be I know what I’m doing and you don’t. Let editing take care of any photographic problems. It’s not a very satisfactory start but we are working with Zach and trying to react successfully with his eccentricities. At one point in the filming Helpern calls “cut” to allow for a change of camera angle. Zach explodes! He claims he was in the middle of a key explanation and now it is ruined. Worse yet, he says his mind set is emotionally upset. We finally muddle through the experiment. Our Movieola editing machine has not arrived so Helpern takes the rushes to NYC for editing.
I concentrate on getting Zach’s Pressure of Light film ready to screen for the entire PSSC group. One of my assignments each Tuesday night is to present one or two films on scientific subjects for them. Zach’s Pressure of Light is shown on July 16th and receives ample applause. That was to be expected. After all, it was Zach’s film and his grant money is paying the viewers who are critiquing it. Am I too cynical? I think the film is quite ordinary even though the subject is highly interesting. Some of its problems are, of course, chargeable to photographic and editing problems. We can improve on those for future films.
On the 31st of July rumor has it that McGraw Hill has won the contest and will take over the PSSC project. I begin packing for home. Zach stops me with, “Keep your shirt on.” I decide to do so! I thought the Ford Foundation had ruled us out but Zach can undo its action. He is the ruler in this kingdom. Without any advance notice of intent, on the 23rd of August Zach tells me, “You’re in. You and Mitch made the difference.” Translated that must mean EBF will produce the films and filmstrips that will ultimately be a major part of the PSSC program apart. But stay tuned, there’s more to this story than meets the eye at any given time. Zach’s uncertainty plays an endless game with certainty.
In any case it is time for me to leave MIT for this summer round so I offer my goodbyes and begin my 20½-hour drive to Wilmette. My family has preceded me by plane. After a few days of catch up in the office, Mitch and I return to MIT. Now the lawyers are really embroiled. As I suspected, this is a rough part of the journey. Zach’s side clashes with our lawyers on just about every part of the contract from the procedure for approving individual subjects to the schedule for product deliveries. Mitch decides we are taking it on the chin and leaves the meeting in disgust. I remain to see what will happen. Remarkably, after considerable verbal abuse about EBF’s rigidity on some of the points in the contract, we actually have a contract. Harvey Gross, formerly a member of the summer unit and McGraw Hill’s representative resigns. At one point it had looked as if his company were the winner and he was very pleased. Now he proves to be a good loser.
I have just one day in Wilmette and then it’s back to MIT accompanied by Milan Herzog, Hal Kopel and John Walker. We begin searching for a building we can use as our EBF-PSSC studio. An empty theater is still available. Hal and I check out other facilities but the theater seems best. Larry Yust will soon be joining our EBF producers to work on the program.
In Boston I confer with Mr. Healy [probably Paul F. Healy] of the Saturday Evening Post. He will write an article about several of EBF’s producers and projects. James Colvin of Encyclopaedia Britannica is working with him. Part of the article is expected to show Milan and Hal getting film production started at PSSC. Lynwood Chace will also appear in the article as will Roman Vishniac. There will be others that Healy has yet to interview.
Zacharias wants to involve some well-known professors from other major universities in his PSSC film program. To test the waters at a few west coast universities, Milan Herzog, Hal Kopel, and Steve White (Zach’s right hand man) meet me in Pasadena. We first visit Cal Tech and meet with Professor Harrison Brown and two of his colleagues. They seem interested. We then visit Berkeley and Stanford. At Stanford we confer with Dr. Al Baez another highly regarded physicist. It is interesting that at this time his daughter Joan is more widely known than he is because of her singing ability and political activism. Quite apart from any connection with the PSSC program, Dr. Baez will later collaborate with EBF to direct production of some of EBF’s science films.
In personal correspondence with Zach in July 1958 he identifies some previously unstated opinions he has about the kinds of films that he will approve for inclusion in his PSSC program. He identifies the film on Mass, an EBF production for his program, as inferior.
These are specific factors involved in his thinking. There is no reason to make believe a film is being shot in a classroom setting. Rather it’s a demonstration for use in classrooms and its location is of no significance. Plain sets are best because the film is not an exercise in how to create a well-constructed set. Nothing but the materials immediately utilized by the instructor should encumber a scene. Zach is even antagonistic to having a door, window, jog in the wall or a backdrop appear in a scene. He calls such things distractions. Each set should be as restricted in size as much as possible. The idea of having carefully matched scenes is of secondary importance.
The action being filmed should be planned so the instructor has no reason to make more than a few simple moves. Breaking the action into short scenes wrecks the sense of immediacy and cools the attack the physicist is making. Scenes should run as long as possible. Only if mistakes are made are inserts to be used. Light intensity is an important factor. The amount of light needed can be controlled most effectively by designing sets that occupy the least amount of space. Backgrounds should approach sterile simplicity. We should not slavishly follow the usual tenants of how films in the past have been made.
Clearly Zach’s prescription for the kind of films he wants produced is unusual. Most producers will probably insist that it is a disinteresting “nuts and bolts” approach. My view is that as long as we are using funds provided by Zach we should make films that observe enough of his rules to receive his approval. His PSSC physics course is experimental. There’s a real challenge for us to see if we can make plainness an attribute rather than a hazard. If we can’t figure out a formula to satisfy PSSC and Zach, we will simply fold our tents and come home.
Zach has requested that Milan Herzog oversee all EBF personnel and any non-EBF directors that Zach wishes to bring to the project. This major assignment means that Milan must move to the Watertown area for the duration of the project. He has agreed to do so. He will continue to be the director and producer on PSSC films assigned directly to him and ‘Director of Technical Operations’ on films assigned to other directors. In the latter situation he will guarantee that required photo equipment, raw stock and crewmembers are available on schedule for the assigned director.
An observer might think that such plans and agreements would greatly improve EBF’s relations with PSSC and Zach. Unfortunately he would never find out because of an unexpected action by Mitch. Our new arrangement is barely in place when I receive a call from Mitch who reveals that he has terminated our relationship with Zacharias and the PSSC project. Although I am not certain what last straw finally broke the camel’s back (our relationship with Professor Zacharias and company), I am not surprised. Ever since Steve White began operating as Zach’s right hand man I have felt that he has been orchestrating a plan to make conditions so difficult for EBF that we would pull out. I can also imagine the many problems that would develop were we to continue.
Dr. Zacharias tells me that the end came because Mitch and I did not devote enough personal time on his project. Mitch and I thought that we were very well represented by having four of our most talented personnel assigned to his PSSC project. Left to my decision-making I’d have stayed with the project despite the problems it was certain to continue generating. Zach is an unusual character and often difficult to work with but for some reason I rather enjoyed jousting with him.