Shooting Hole in the Head - Part 1: Pain in the Hole
Hole in the Head was captured across numerous formats and cameras, all of which had to appear as fully functional props on screen. A significant amount of the film was shot using a Bolex H16 EBM, the 16mm motion picture camera popular in the 1970s.
In the development phase, a portion of time was spent researching prosumer cameras and their popularity throughout the period(s) in which our story is set. One particular model of Bolex recurred in the back pages of MovieMaker and Make Better Movies magazines, the Bolex EBM.
The Bolex H16 EBM Electric is a 16mm film camera designed for sync-sound production. Upon its release in 1971, it became popular with news reportage and run-and-gun documentary productions. As of 2020, functional EBM cameras were difficult to find and a fully functional package could easily cost upwards of five thousand dollars, excluding freight. With this in mind, I made a compromise and decided to acquire a REX-5 with a Tobin crystal-sync motor. While searching for the appropriate Tobin accessories reseller, I discovered a random Irish seller pushing an EBM online. A deal was made and I acquired the EBM for next to nothing due to an electronics issue. Naturally, the electronics problem was far more complex than I had anticipated…
To start, I had the battery re-celled and a new housing fabricated to replace the 1971 case. Unfortunately, I would still have to use the original power unit which took sixteen hours to deliver a full charge. As a contingency, I had a new power unit fabricated with a more economic recharge time in mind as well as a separate cord and power switch. At that stage, I could determine that the power supply functioned but the came was dead; the issue was deeper inside the electronics. I reached out to Bolex in Switzerland who requested that I ship the camera to their laboratory for an exam, however, since this was mid-2020 pandemic, the process would take an undefined period of time, in fact, the unit may sit in their factory for many months post-accession.
I reached out to EBM owners on European, American and Canadian Bolex forums, asking for advice. I was surprised by the level of support among 16mm enthusiasts- there is a real sense of community out there. One such advocate, Jesse Chambless, was very generous with his time and expertise. I was sad to learn that he passed away last year.
Over a six month period, the camera was sent by freight across Ireland and the UK in search of solutions. Due to the pandemic, communications were generally very slow and the entire process became a patient gamble. As the freight times grew more unpredictable, I devised a potential solution that did not require shipping the camera. This would involve completely dismantling the internal electronics, detaching the internal drive motor and attaching an external motor via the 1:1 drive shaft. This adjustment could potentially serve as a sync solution in addition to applying an intervalometer. Unfortunately, the EBM chassis differ from other classic H16 cameras and the distance between the locking screws and the external motor, in addition to the shape of the side panel, would require a very customised build. So, it would seem that shipping the camera was inevitable in all scenarios.
Somewhere along the way, I was given the Irish phone number of a camera repair technician who only served private collectors. I learned that his expertise is highly sought after and he operates the business entirely by word-of-mouth, from client to client. While his work typically involves the refurbishment of mechanical and optical parts, I managed to convince him to take a look. I met him in an empty car park one evening, as per his request. He drove up with Merle Haggard's Swinging Doors faintly playing through his radio; he introduced himself; he looked at the camera; he packed it up and drove off. That was it- I didn't hear from him for one month. When he did get back in touch, it turns out he made progress in identifying where the issues might be as well as assessing the internal mechanisms and servicing the lenses. From there, I contacted specialist electricians, sending them circuit maps of the camera motor, courtesy of Bolex. With their feedback, I could determine what might need replacement or repair.
A filmmaker friend in Northern Ireland, the great Roy Spence, mentioned that a friend of his had grown curious about my plight. It turns out that this friend, a septuagenarian with an electronic engineering background, would set aside some time to help me. With nothing to lose, I shipped the camera and after two weeks of radio silence, I received a phone call that began with a whirring motor at interchanging speeds.
Once the camera was fully-functional, I conducted several test shoots for stock and sound. The schedule was tight with the scans arriving just one month prior to principal photography but, thankfully, everything was in order and refurbishing the EBM worked out far more cost-effective than acquiring a fully functional EBM package (not that there was one available at the time), obtaining an external motor to custom fit, or hiring another package for the shoot itself.
Clockwise: Michael Higgins and Dean Kavanagh on the set.
Thank you for reading this post as part of Hole in the Head: A Filmmaking Blog, charting the making of a low-budget feature film from development through to exhibition.