Herb Farmer: screen saver
For the late Herb Farmer, the mission of ensuring and maintaining the instruments of film — from its early beginnings to the modern day — has created a legacy through a treasured collection that showcases the history of technology in movies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts.
“From very early on, Herb Farmer recognized the importance of the technological side of making movies,” said Dino Everett, USC’s archivist in the Hugh M. Hefner Moving Picture Archive and curator of the Herb Farmer Motion Picture Technology Collection. “He began building a collection here at USC with his own materials and a few notable donations, such as the Sol Lesser camera collection in 1968 and some early Vitaphone equipment from [movie mogul] Jack Warner. He was always pleased to state that he never purchased anything for the collection, as it was either donated or acquired through studio contacts who were throwing material away.”
Some of the rarest pieces in the collection include an 1890s Lumiere Cinematographe (a device that could record, develop and project motion pictures), the third camera made by manufacturers Bell & Howell in 1906, an experimental 3mm outfit designed in 1960 for NASA and the mixing board used to record 1927’s The Jazz Singer, the first film to feature synchronized dialogue.
Farmer began his classes at USC in 1938 while also finding time to shoot coaching films for the football team and play sousaphone in the university’s Trojan Marching Band.
A few months shy of his graduation in 1942, Farmer took over as the teacher in a motion picture history class from a professor who had been called to active duty in World War II. Farmer, who also served in the war, returned to USC in 1954 and began teaching classes in basic film technology and distribution.
At the time of his death in 2009, Farmer was still dedicated to overseeing his extensive archive of historical films and equipment, which he had gifted to the university. These materials are part of a rotating collection that is regularly put on display.
“In many ways, the most valuable piece in the collection is Herb’s old Bell & Howell 16mm camera,” Everett noted. “Besides bearing the serial number of USC000001, this camera represents Herb’s devotion to USC. When he arrived as a student and realized the department was borrowing equipment for students to shoot with, he donated his personal camera to be the official one for the department.
“He gave 71 years of his life to USC,” Everett added, “and along the way built the archive to preserve the legacy of USC, and when he passed, what does he do? Make sure that he also gives money to take care of that legacy. This is who he was.”