The Flags of Someone’s Fathers
Updated: May 13
In this photo, actor, director, and writer, George Seitz, teaches a production assistant how to flag the lens with a cowboy hat, thus protecting the image. In the early cinema days, a flare could ruin the exposure, fog the film, and waste the entire scene because it could take a week to see dailies. Today, we no longer need to wait for the processing to see the film, thanks to the advent of digital cinema. Though flares are still an issue, we are still using lenses. We also have post-production filters that can add any flare you can imagine. But a hundred years ago, it could be catastrophic. Three-time Academy Award nominee, Bert Glennan, looks through the lens. Glennan shot films from 1916-1962. He shot one of my favorite films, Stagecoach, for director John Ford, who he continued to work with on Young Mr. Lincoln and Drums Along the Mohawk. (I believe the cowboy you can see in the photo is Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.)
The C-stand comes from the early days of cinema lighting. About as old as electric lamps but not as old as reflectors, The C-Stand, (the C stands for Century, which was the name of the first company to make custom lighting gear during the silent era.) Over the years, grips and gaffers began to modify the original design and refine it from the earliest welded base version.
The major flaw was that it did not fold up or adjust as they do now. The stands came in various fixed heights in 12" increments from four feet to eight. The original had a genius design that allowed them to be easily nested together and stored against the studio wall or in a truck. Its design persists in all versions manufactured since. You don't mess with perfection.
The term "C-stand" is a popular euphemism for the grip stand made by Matthews Studio Equipment, Inc. C-stands are a crucial component of the cinematographer's tool kit. In 1974, Matthews Studio Equipment perfected the industry's folding base C-Stand. They come in various sizes from 20" to 60" and are adjustable to almost three times the height.
When I first entered the field, the older guys had all kinds of nicknames for our tools. The small C-stand was often called a Barty or sometimes Billy, for actor and little person, Billy Barty. The grip department is not known for its sensitivity.
When I first started shooting, almost all the crews I worked with were considerably older. Even on a commercial where I was the director of photography, the crew would often bark orders at me to get a stand and set the flag or climb a ladder to set that light while they drank coffee and offered their suggestions. Put a sandbag on that, don't forget to secure that light, that's not how to roll a cable, just Hollywood that and use a finger!
Their hazing made me better as I earned their respect. Maybe not respect, but forbearance as I plied and learned my trade and talked my nonsense, which is my artist's path.
Today, Matthews produces a wide range of C-Stands and related accessories to assist motion picture, television, and photographic professionals in not just lighting but in every department of a film set. Every manufacturer of lighting equipment makes its own version. I like the Mathews best. Recently, I considered selling the four steel and aluminum stands I own in favor of the much lighter graphite version. But I didn't do it. I don't care if I can't carry all four at the same time anymore. I like them!