A Weekend with Bolex

A Bolex H16 REX-5 spring-wound clockwork 16 mm camera (picture copied from Wikipedia site)

Over the course of a weekend I have learned to operate a 16 mm Bolex cine camera.   Of course I haven’t completely mastered the technique in such a short time but it has got me scanning ebay to see where I might buy such a beautiful – albeit weighty by today’s standards – piece of Swiss engineering.  At £400 for a working model, it won’t be anytime soon.

This is the motion picture camera that was used for television news and documentaries since the 1930's, and still used today by enthusiasts for it's unique 'hands on' feel.
Notice the lens needs to be focused manually.  This is the motion capture camera that was originally used for television news and documentaries, including some of David Attenborough’s famous time-lapse sequences.  The motor needs re-winding after just a few seconds of filming.

The workshop was delivered by Cinestar (a newly formed, not-for-profit artist run organisation in Cornwall) and led by James Holcombe from No.w.here, an artist’s run project space in London.


James brought three cameras with him from London, plus all the developing equipment and chemical powders – on the train!  The group of 12 participants was composed of either film makers, tutors or researchers (and fair to say, possibly all with leanings towards the ‘geek’ counter?).  Split into 3 groups of 4, we dispersed onto a blustery St. Ives Island to shoot some footage.  ‘For a standard, motion picture film runs at 24 frames per second (fps), meaning the discs that makes up the camera shutter rotates 24 times per second. Filming at speeds faster that 24 fps creates a slow motion effect when the film is projected normally‘ (Wiki).

Developing the ‘sellotape’ footage

With just a few moments of footage allocated to each of us, once safely in the ‘can’, we returned to base to watch James, now the ‘chemist’, work his alchemy with the celluloid, using different developing methods for each of the three films and the ladies loo as makeshift darkroom.  Our section of footage was developed using instant coffee granules (not de-caff), soda crystals and vitamin C (ascorbic acid).   Here is a short snippet of the ‘coffee’ developed footage as it was being projected (taken with my phone).  This small section shows the double exposure of grid shapes I wanted to try out.  Coincidentally, you might just be able to pick out a conversation going on about the coffee process in the background chatter.  Another distinctive feature of the sound is the whirr of the running projector…..not something a younger audience would be familiar with but brings back nostalgic memories for me.

(See the full version here)

At the viewing on the Saturday evening gathering of friends and interested individuals, James chose to show us Kurt Kren’s film ASYL (31/75 Asylum) 8:26 min from the Structural film series.  I’m making mental notes on how I could appropriate this technique for my own practice.  Just how many exposures could you get onto any one strip of film before it disintegrated I wonder?  I’m going to have another look at Tacita Dean’s,Tate installation, and check out Guy Sherwin’s Optical Sound Films, Norman McLaren’s Pen Point Precussian, and Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight, (1963).

felt-tipped pens and Letraset digits worked directly onto already exposed film
The similar bit of footage now 'exposed' onto new film and developed in the dark room in the normal way.
A similar bit of footage now ‘exposed’ onto new film and developed in the dark room in the normal way becoming a kind of permanent print of the original.

On Sunday morning, we hand-printed 100 feet of exposed footage by covering it with tiny strips of sellotape.  The resulting imagery was staggering.  (I am hoping to be able to post more ‘digital’ versions of some of the films we made that other participants took once we have the necessary permissions.  I’m dying to see them again myself).

This whole analogue way of making things seems to fit into the current craze for nostalgia and this is the kind of vintage I like.     Thanks again to both Cinestar for putting on the event and a massive thanks to No.w.here and James who put in 110% effort and enthusiasm with no question too trivial to answer, to make it a truly wondrous week-end.  An ocular delight in 16mm.  With a follow-up session pencilled in for September, I can’t wait.