Five Minutes with John Ellis

johnellis2You were recently awarded £1,334,522 for the project ‘The Adoption of New Technological Arrays in the Production of Broadcast Media’. Tell us about that project.

The project is to research and tell an untold story, which is the story of technological development in television, particularly how technology encounters and films the world. The team is drawn from people working in the Media Arts Department. James Bennett is doing a piece of work on file based broadcasting; Martin Wilson, who teaches on our ‘Multi-platform’ course is an experienced producer of tape, advertising and film; we also have a post-doctoral research student Nick Hall.

The project is a general history, but one of the key aspects is a series of reconstructions in which we bring original teams of people together with the machines that they used to use. They demonstrate how the equipment was used, how the team related to one another and so on. All of that footage will be edited in such a way as to complement existing archive television footage.  We are starting in 1960, because that was a really key moment when, technologically, television was able to move out of the studio in a very big way through the increased use of lightweight film for the first time. From the production revolution at the end of the fifties, we come right the way through the various changes, ending up at file based broadcasting – not a single tape in sight!

How did you come to be interested in this area?

I started off teaching film studies in the late 1970s, during a period of theoretical revolution in the world of film and TV. My background is also as a television producer, which is really how I came about this idea, because I lived through some of the changes that were taking place. When I started at Channel 4 in 1982, we were making programmes about movies and decided to use tape, which a lot of people thought was a strange decision – if you are making a documentary about movies then surely you should be using film! But using tape gave us flexibility. I then saw how tape formats changed, how editing went from linear – copying from one tape to another – to digital, and how that caused problems for people working in the business. So the project is also concerned with the everyday difficulties encountered by film crews and post-production teams, and the way in which technology has been adapted by people working in television to try to make things work under specific circumstances. So the story we are trying to tell is of the people, the machines, and the organisations that put them in place.

Given your research commitments, what teaching are you still involved in?

I used to teach a lot of undergraduate courses, but now that I’ve got this project someone is replacing me on undergraduate teaching. It’s not so much that teaching at undergraduate level whilst researching is incompatible – I took an undergraduate lecture just yesterday! – and indeed you are always learning from students; but it is a question of workload. The main teaching I do now is on the new MA International Broadcasting programme. We have an on-going partnership with the Communication University in Beijing, which is China’s premier university for broadcasting. It’s a dual MA agreement, so students study for one year in China and one year at Royal Holloway. That’s a good relationship to have because broadcasting is really booming in China at the moment.

MediaArtsStudioWhat are your ambitions for the future?

I’ve been here 12 years now and have seen some changes, but I think that we are on the right track now. In the department, we need to redesign our undergraduate degree to make it clearer that it is 50% practice and 50% theory, which puts it in quite a small group in terms of our competitors. There is a plan in the Estate strategy for a new building, so we need to define what we are doing strategically before that building can be designed. The key question is: what kind of courses will we be enabled to do by a new building? It’s time for a change – we’ve been teaching the same programmes for a while and the media has moved on.

About John

John is a Professor of Media Arts, a media theorist, television producer and historian of moving image and sound. He was awarded a BA in English Literature from Cambridge, followed by an MA, which was published in Screen in 1975. After teaching for four years at one of the UK’s first Film Studies departments at the University of Kent, John started working at Channel Four in 1982, producing a series on world cinema for the new channel. John returned to the world of academia with a visiting professorship at the University of Bergen, followed by a professorship at Bournemouth Media School. He joined Royal Holloway as the Head of Media Arts in 2002. In his spare time he enjoys tending to his allotment, which keeps him ‘in touch with the rhythms of existence’.