TECHNICAL

Jean Rouch shooting with his Bell & Howell Filmo 70 in Ghana, 1954-55. This 16mm camera was also used by John Marshall in southern Africa and Harald Schultz in Brazil around the same period.

Please note that this website is still a ‘work in progress’ and that a definitive version will not be available until the end of 2020. Until then all posts should be regarded as provisional and subject to correction or development.

Film types and gauges

Film speed and duration

Film speed in the silent cinema era is the subject of an excellent article by Kevin Brownlow (1980)

A website providing a very useful table for converting physical length into duration can be accessed here

There are various useful discussions on the web of issues related to frame rate, including this one.

Cameras

Namkiabuing, the Naga interpreter of Ursula Graham Bower, with her Bell & Howell Filmo 70, probably late 1930s, Manipur, India. (Image courtesy of Catriona Child).

From the 1920s, cameras driven either by spring-wound clockwork mechanisms or even by electric motors began to appear. However, cameras with electric motors were not only very expensive, but they also required a power source. In remote locations, this usually meant a very heavy battery as well as a generator to charge it.

While some commercial travelogue film-makers started to use cameras with electric motors as early as the 1920s, most ethnographic film-makers went on using clockwork-driven cameras until the 1950s, when batteries eventually became light and stable enough to be easily portable.

Although the clockwork motors represented a considerable improvement on hand-cranking, they also had their own problems. One of these was that the maximum duration of a shot was limited to 20-25 seconds, which was the time that it took for the spring to unwind. Also, as the spring came towards the end of its unwinding, the film began to move through the gate more slowly, which in effect speeded up the movements when the film was projected.

Even if the effect was relatively minor, it was this incapacity of the clockwork-driven motor to maintain an absolutely constant speed that undermined early attempts to achieve perfect lip synchronicity.

Sound Recorders

The Archiv-Phonograph developed by the Austrian Imperial Academy of Sciences is used by Rudolf Pöch to record a group of Baifa singers during his expedition to Papua New Guinea, 1904-1906.

The early years of the sound recording industry in the last quarter of the nineteen century were characterised by fierce competition between two competing technologies, one of which was based on recording onto wax-coated cylinders, the other onto flat discs.

By the early years of the twentieth century, this competition had largely been resolved in favour of discs. Although the quality of the recording may have been higher on cylinders, the maximum length of the recording time on discs was significantly greater and they were more easily reproduced and stored. By this time also, ‘gramophone’ was starting to replace ‘phonograph’ as the most commonly used term to describe a machine capable of reproducing sound.

While some early ethnographic film-makers used cylinder-based recorders others, used disc-based models. In 1929, the Photophone optical sound system, which involved recording sound, via a mixer, onto the same film negative onto which the images were being captured, was launched by RCA Victor (see below). But this system was complex and very expensive and used only by commercial travelogue film-makers.

The film-making team on Matto Grosso, the Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931) using the RCA Photophone system: on the left front, the actor George Rawls and principal cinematographer David Crosby. The sound recordist Ainslie Davis crouches behind operating the audio mixer attached by cable to the Mitchell camera operated by camera assistant Arthur Rossi on the right. The absence of a sound-proofing blimp on the Mitchell indicates that this shot is posed. The identity of the other operator is uncertain but the camera is a Debrie Parvo Model L. The unattended camera in the middle behind Davis appears to be a Bell & Howell Eyemo with a telephoto lens attached. The group is flanked on both sides by two still cameras.

Specialist Technical Terms

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