I shot this movie with a Bolex RX5 that was made in 1967. It’s an entirely mechanical camera that operates off a spring driven motor, similar to the way an old wind up clock works.
My Bolex uses 16mm motion picture film. About a third of the way into production, I decided to convert my camera to Super 16, which just means the film gate is widened(my cousin filed it out by hand), and thus you get a wider native image on the film. So the final movie is going to be a combination of regular 16mm footage cropped in on the top and bottom to fill a Super 16 aspect ratio, and a majority of the footage will be native Super 16.
The rough black borders on the edges of the images are a result of dust, dirt, film emulsion and whatever else happens to get stuck on the edges of the film gate, thus blocking light from exposing the film behind it. So the rough organic edges in the footage are actually from the images on the original film negative.
Early on when embarking on this project I decided to sell my video camera and buy this Bolex after seeing Jack Johnson’s The September Sessions. I felt like the footage had something tangible to it, something I could feel. Something a bit more dreamlike too. I began searching Ebay, took a chance on a camera I found on there, and when I got it it looked like it had never been used. It worked perfectly.
What I love about Bolexes is that they are simple, they can take a thrashing, and they are extremely versatile. They are not a top of the line camera from their time period, and I actually like that. Bolex footage is not usually perfect, it has some randomness to it. In an age where all new cameras shoot rather perfect footage, I appreciate footage from old cameras even more. There’s something about it that feels more human.
The time-lapse footage in this project was all shot frame by frame, manually pressing the trigger button on the camera, and counting off the time between shots, often with the aid of a watch.
There are some major challenges in shooting a movie with a Bolex. Each 100 foot roll of film is slightly less than 3 minutes of footage. So I shoot with a mindset like I’m editing while I shoot. I try to only pull the trigger when I see something happening that can make it into the final movie. The cool thing about this is that when the footage comes back from the film lab, it often feels like a decent edit already.
Film is not cheap, and neither is processing, and then transferring that footage to digital at post houses that deal with feature films and commercials….it’s all a little daunting to navigate, and pay for! Then there’s trying to travel with film, sometimes a lot of it. That can be an adventure in itself, especially when trying to avoid x-ray damage.
I’ve traveled far by bus, solo, with my film, to avoid the chance of getting x-ray damage. I did this once and only once, and ended up lost in a completely different city than I was trying to get to, hundreds of miles from my intended destination. I didn’t speak their language, they didn’t speak mine, and I had to buy another bus ticket after which I ended up seemingly doing circles on a small local bus. I met a university student who spoke good English, and him and his friends took me in like family for an evening, and they helped me eventually get on my way to the capital, where I did find the film lab. Before I met this student, the local bus I was on passed by a McDonalds and I seriously thought of trying to get off there, go into the McDonalds, and try to call corporate headquarters so I could talk to someone who might be able to help me find my way. The golden arches looked heavenly for a few split seconds, as if the sky parted and shined light down, complete with choir music. The arches reminded me of…home. I was running out of ideas.
On the next bus, I was crammed between the toilet and a feisty old lady with a family next to her. My feet were up on their luggage, and there was a guy sleeping above/behind us. I had to hold the toilet door shut every time a passenger used the bathroom, and nearly every time they exited, I ended up with bus bathroom water from the bucket dripping down on me. This old lady had a head scarf of sorts, in a land where a lot of women wear something similar for religious reasons, but she wore it more like a biker woman wears a bandana. It didn’t completely cover her hair and neck. I could tell she was a bit of a free soul. She really took a liking to me, and she had her hand on my thigh for about 12 hours straight, like I was her boyfriend. I didn’t understand much she said, but she earnestly conversed with me. She’d fall asleep, her hand would slip off, then that’d wake her up and she’d put her hand right back on my leg and fall asleep again. I just went with it.
After a day and a half, I made it to the lab. And this was just my first batch of film of this trip! There are some challenges when it comes to deciding to make a self funded 16mm surf film. Nothing is going to come easy. The best thing about all these trips I took just to process or reload on film is that I met some really cool people, and made some friends who I still keep in touch with.
I’m not sure if I’ll attempt to make another feature length movie with 16mm film. If I don’t use 16mm again, I bet I’ll miss a few things about the medium though. Such as this: not many new cameras would survive what my Bolex has been through. It’s been dunked in the ocean when a boat I was on nose dived. I picked it up and saltwater literally drained out of it. The next day the camera completely locked up. I was on a remote atoll. I sprayed WD40 and some other oil into every opening and let it drain out. It came back to life, and my Bolex is still working years later.