SHOOTING THE FILM: PART 1
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 with an electronic motor 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, EBM cameras were difficult to find and a fully functional package could easily cost around four thousand Euros, excluding freight. With this in mind, I thought to compromise and 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 camera 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 economical 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 camera was dead; the issue was deeper inside the electronics. I contacted 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 months post-accession. Given the limited timeframe before the proposed shoot date (and the general uncertainty around that even being possible) I decided to plough ahead myself and resolve the problem.
I reached out to EBM owners on European, American and Canadian Bolex forums and 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- we exchanged several emails and he was always pushing for a solution given the great condition of the camera itself. I was sad to learn that he passed away late 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 gamble against the clock. As the freight windows grew more unpredictable, I devised a potential solution that 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 customised build. It became clear that shipping the camera further into Europe or even North America was inevitable in all scenarios.
Somewhere along the way, I was given the phone number of an Irish camera repair technician who operated solely by word-of-mouth and almost exclusively for private collectors. While this work typically involves the refurbishment of mechanical and optical parts, I managed to convince him to take a look at the electronics. As per his request, I met him in a vacant car park late one evening. His car emerged, Merle Haggard's Swinging Doors faintly playing through his radio; he introduced himself, looked at the camera, packed it up and drove off. That was it- I didn't hear from him for nearly four weeks. When he did get back in touch, it was to inform me that he made progress in identifying where the issues might be as well as assessing the internal mechanisms and servicing the lenses. Based on his recommendations, I contacted a specialist electrician and dispatched circuit maps of the camera motor, courtesy of Bolex. With this feedback, I could determine what might need replacement or repair. I packed the camera for dispatch but I had no reply from the technician. Two weeks of radio silence... it turns out he had COVID-19 and all jobs were on hold.
I was about to throw in the towel when a filmmaker friend from 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 my findings. A further two and a half weeks elapsed, during which time I had no luck in hunting down a replacement camera when I received a phone call that began with a whirring motor at interchanging speeds. The problem was solved- it was alive!
Once the camera was fully-functional, I conducted test shoots for stock and sound. The schedule was tight with the scans arriving just one month prior to principal photography but everything was in order and, thankfully, refurbishing the EBM worked out far more cost-effective than acquiring an external motor to custom fit or hiring another package for the shoot itself. The real cost, however, was debited from my sanity.
Stay tuned next time for a special blog post titled "Feeding your Crew!" including a step-by-step guide on how to safely prepare Fugu フグ.
L-R: Michael Higgins and Dean Kavanagh on the set. Portra 400
Thank you for reading this post as part of Hole in the Head: A Filmmaking Blog, charting the production of a low-budget feature film from development through to exhibition.