CAMERAS: Hands-on with the RED ONE of 1922

This camera shocked the world when it came out 90 years ago. And... it still works like a charm.
Art Adams
By Art Adams 07.31.12

The Bell & Howell 2709 is a very old camera. In this case, the one I'm looking through turned 90 last May. It still works perfectly, something that I don't think I'll be able to say of many modern cameras in 10 or 20 years time. I don't have anything against modern cameras--I like most of them, and they've become much more filmic over the years so I have much less to complain about than I used to--but there's something about handling a precision-made mechanical camera that's just magical.

It's also terrifying.

I'm touching this camera because I've volunteered to participate in a silent film production produced by the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, CA. The camera is owned by film historian and former video engineer Sprague Anderson, who is an expert at hand-cranking the camera at its silent film standard speed of 16fps. The director of photography is Steve Kotten, director of multimedia at the Academy of Art College in San Francisco. He and Sprague have worked together a lot over the years on a wide variety of projects, and I knew them both when I freelanced for Pacific Video Resources, a production/post facility they both worked at back in the '90s.

When I volunteered for the project I decided that I would offer my skills as camera assistant. I haven't assisted professionally in 20 years, but some things you never forget. My training as a camera assistant taught me to constantly scan the camera for anything that might be set wrong, or for anything that I might have missed, and that kind of awareness has served me well as I transitioned from film into digital. Today, instead of checking "focus/aperture/shutter/tachometer" (FAST, which is a great way of remembering the immediate things that must be checked on a film camera as it starts to roll on a take) to "focus/waveform/shutter/codec" (or FWSC, which makes no sense at all). My earliest video projects, and even some modern ones, see me being a one man camera department, and that kind of consistent paranoia ensures that everything I shoot is usable in the edit.

As a DP I've turned those skills into what I call "cinematographer zen": I can stand on a set and be aware of everything that's going on around me, particularly in regard to lighting. At home I'm hopeless and have no clue what's happening around me, but you can't get anything past me on a film set.

When I first set hands on Sprague's 2709 he told me there are 21 things to do or check before rolling the camera for a take, and number 21 is to scream "Arrrrrrrrrrgh!" at the end of doing all of it. Honestly, I started to wonder how silent movies got made. The camera is amazingly complex, and yet camera persons of the era were consistently able to capture amazing imagery. When I mentioned this to Sprague he said, "If you use the camera every day for weeks on end you get pretty good with it." Sure, but how do you learn to be good with it without making rookie mistakes than cost you the opportunity to work with it again?

Just loading the mag was a bit of a challenge. In my early days I loaded hundreds of Mitchell mags when I assisted on both visual effects shoots and sitcoms (many sitcoms in the early '90s were still being shot on studio-owned Mitchell BNCR cameras) and the Bell & Howell mag is similar except for one detail: there's a light trap in the throat of the mag that has to be opened in order to pass film into and out of the mag. Oh, and it can't be opened except in total darkness because--you guessed it--the light trap keeps light from fogging the film. Later magazines, like Mitchell and Panavision mags, had light traps that didn't have an actual door: they consisted of staggered black velvet edges that the film wound through but that light couldn't penetrate. Those mags are easy to load. The Bell & Howell has a tool that must be employed in a changing bag or darkroom to open the light traps and allow film to be threaded. It was a pain to learn to do this.

I was quite surprised when Sprague showed me that the mag doors had to be screwed all the way shut--and then unscrewed by 1/8 turn. This is to prevent them from welding themselves shut when they expand in the summer heat.

The camera itself is vastly more complex. Seating the film in the gate is a bit of a task as one has to wiggle it around until the spring-loaded registration pins fall into place. There are no guides as to how far into the gate the film must be inserted, and the movement doesn't retract from the gate to give one a view of what's going on. Panavision cameras have a pin above the film gate that helps align the film with the registration pins when you stick it through a film perf, but this camera doesn't.

The most interesting, and terrifying, part of this camera is the optical system. The lenses are on a turret, and one must constantly rotate the lenses from one side of the turret to the other because the camera does not have a reflex viewfinder. This means that during the take the operator can see only through the side finder that sits on the side of the camera, and this must be calibrated horizontally so that it's looking at the same thing that the taking lens is.

More about that on page 2...

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