Bill Wages recently told me a story that stuck in my mind. The story touches on of Bill’s first steps as a filmmaker, the beginnings of sophisticated video switching, effects and color correction, and some interesting precursors to the music video.
Last year, right around the same time he found out Bill would receive the ASC Career Achievement in Television Award, he got a call from an old friend he hadn’t seen in 40 years, Ken Chambliss. Chambliss played a key role in Bill’s early career, and went on to invent what become the da Vinci color correction system. Chambliss asked Bill if he still had any of the images he shot for The Now Explosion!, a show that aired on weekends on a local VHF TV station in the 1970s.
The Now Explosion! began at WATL-TV in Atlanta. On weekends, a lack of programming meant that Top 40 radio hits were broadcast, usually accompanied by a variety of images, including dancing teenagers and psychedelic graphics, as well as some other films set to the music. Grass Valley switchers, the latest in video production technology, were an important part of the look, which combined video effects, stock footage, performance footage, and dancers, often with plenty of zooming. Other techniques were being invented — sometimes videotape was recorded and simultaneously fed into another machine to create weird effects.
Eventually The Now Explosion! was syndicated around the country and produced at a number of local TV stations around the country. In New York City, for example, the show was run before and after Yankee games with reportedly good ratings.
In Atlanta, the show was on for 28 hours every weekend, so there was an insatiable need for content. The young Bill Wages had shot and assembled an 8mm film designed to work with the Simon & Garfunkel song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” He brought the film, a projector, and the record to the show’s headquarters, and started everything running in approximate sync.
“At the time, I had just bought a little Bolex with a 25mm lens, but I couldn’t afford film to put in it,” Bill recalls. “They liked my little movie, so they gave me three three-minute rolls of film, and told me to pick a song. If they liked it, they’d give me $25. I was in the film business!”
For the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Wages made films for The Now Explosion! “By the end of that first summer, I had a Miller tripod, a 12:120 mm zoom lens and $25 dollars in my pocket,” says Wages. “We would cut A and B rolls, and transfer the A roll to two-inch tape because we didn’t have two film chains,” Bill recalls. “We would sit there and dissolve by hand. We were inventing this stuff as we went. We had complete freedom to make up anything we thought would work, and that shows in the films.”
Fast-forward to late 2013. Bill dug through his “archives” and came up with some of those early efforts. “I found a reel with a dozen or so songs and the films I had made to go with them,” he says. “Fortunately the material, which was shot on reversal stock, had not faded as much as I expected. On the outside of the reel, where light hit all these years, it was faded, but when you went into it a little bit, it looked pretty good. Still, many of those films were done on EF Ektachrome film, which was designed for news cinematography — to be shot, processed very quickly and discarded, so the images have not aged well.”
Bill and Ken hope to transfer some of Bill’s Now Explosion films. Original video produced in 1970 has been recovered by archivists at the University of Georgia. Bill’s footage will join this material. One of Bill’s earliest films for the show, set to Simon & Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair, can be seen on The Now Explosion’s website at thenowexplosion.com.
“Looking at some of those films after 40-plus years really brought the memories flooding back,” says Bill. “But it occurred to me that the thrill that capturing those images gave me as a kid is intact. Over the years, I have become jaded about the business side of filmmaking, but I still feel the same thrill, just as strong, when I get the chance to tell a story with images today.”