CAMERAS: Reloading a 90-Year-Old Film Camera

I forgot how much fun it is to touch film and thread it through a camera movement and I'm glad I had a chance to do it one last time, before film is gone for good...
Art Adams
By Art Adams 10.04.12

There's something special about threading film through a camera and watching it run through perfectly. There's also a lot that can go wrong on the way. Read on to see what's involved in loading a 90-year-old film camera...

In this article I wrote about why I'm going to miss film, and one of the main reasons I cited is that working in film requires a tremendous amount of discipline: you won't see the results of a day's work until it's too late to fix mistakes, so you can't make any. This weighs heavily on the DP, as they must know their film stocks, trust their exposures and keep a lot of variables--filter compensation, shutter angle, frame rate, etc.--in their heads, but camera assistants are on the firing line as well: if a shot is soft, or the film is scratched, or the camera fails mechanically, they may not know right away. For every member of the camera department dailies can be both an exhilarating and lonely experience.

As I've mentioned before, I'm taking a step down from DP to camera assistant to help the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum shoot their own silent film. I haven't worked professionally as a camera assistant in 20 years but it's amazing how all that knowledge came flooding back. That's partially because I still use a lot of my camera assistant training as a DP as not every project budgets for a camera assistant when shooting HD and I often have to do two jobs at once; but it's also because camera assisting is a very intense job and it's hard to forget those experiences.

One thought that struck me is that this might be the last time I'll be able to handle film. That alone makes volunteering on this project worthwhile.

This is the first of several articles I'm going to write about what it's like to physically work with film, as well as how to work "film style." The film industry is over 100 years old and there's a lot of knowledge out there that can young filmmakers can benefit from, but as cameras get cheaper and more people opt not to work their way up the traditional rungs of the camera department that knowledge is being lost. What I'm going to write about in this article isn't going to help the modern indie filmmaker much, as they most likely won't be shooting black-and-white negative film with a 90-year-old camera, but the attention to detail when ensuring a 90-year-old machine will function properly is not terribly different from making an HD camera do what it's supposed to do. There are still mistakes that can be made in HD that will only make themselves known in post, so a certain amount of paranoia is a good thing.

The camera is a Bell & Howell 2709, the first film camera in history not made of wood. If you've ever seen a Mitchell camera, the Bell & Howell is very similar. There's a distinct possibility that Mitchell cameras "borrowed" a lot of design elements from Bell & Howell as the cameras share a number of features, such as basic body type and magazine design. This was the first camera to have a lens turret, and also the first to allow the cameraman to look through the lens to frame a shot--although not while actually shooting. I'll go into more of that in a later article.

The first step is to load the mags. I don't have any pictures of the process, but I can describe it reasonably well. I loaded film in a changing bag, which is a big black bag with a zippered top and sleeves. Unzipping the top allows me to put the film and a magazine into the bag, and after zipping it back up I put my arms into the sleeves to do the actual work of loading the magazine. I can't see what I'm doing at all, but that doesn't matter--I spent the first five years of my career loading film in total darkness, either in a darkroom or in a bag on location, and I've developed an exceptional sense of touch. (I can also find my way around dark rooms especially well.)

A can containing exposed film. The changing bag is the big black blob at the bottom of the frame. Those who "get" my obscure T-shirt will receive extra credit.

The film is wrapped in a black bag, so I take it out of the bag and then remove the piece of tape that prevents the film from unraveling in the can. I immediately stick this piece of tape to the inside of the can lid as I don't want it floating around inside the changing bag. A sticky piece of tape can wreak havoc inside a camera, so it's best to make sure I know where it is by putting it somewhere safe.

I've already removed the magazine lids by unscrewing them and placing them to one side, typically on the far side of the magazine to get them out of the way. (The film can is closest to me in the bag, then the magazine, then the lids.) The film has to be wound through light traps on its way out of and into the magazine, and it's impossible to put the roll into the feed side of the magazine and have enough finger room to poke the film through the light trap, so I have to get the film through the light trap before I put the roll in the mag. While my left hand holds the roll of film above the mag, my right hand feeds the film through the light trap on the feed side of the magazine.

The Bell & Howell magazine is different from any other magazine I've loaded in that it has an actual light trap, and not baffles. Baffles are typically overlapping layers of black velvet through which film can travel but light cannot, so that when the magazine is loaded film can stick out the bottom of it without the rest of a roll being fogged by stray light. The Bell & Howell magazines have physical doors that must be open when threading the magazine, and open when the mag is mounted on the camera, but closed at every other time.

There's a knob on top of the magazine that controls the light trap doors. When the magazine is bolted onto the camera by turning this knob the light traps open to let the film pass unhindered. The problem is that the light traps have to be open during the film loading process, and the light traps don't normally open unless the mag is on the camera. Sprague Anderson, motion picture historian and owner of this camera, says the most precious piece of this camera package is a small silver device with a screw hole in it: by holding it at the base of the magazine and turning the knob on top of the magazine, the magazine bolts itself to this piece of metal and is tricked into thinking it is mounted on a camera. The light traps then open and film can be pushed through. Without this small piece of metal it's impossible to load a Bell & Howell film magazine.

We take very good care of it.

Once I have the film threaded through the feed-side light trap I can put the roll of film into the magazine. It sits on a spindle, and the spindle has a key that fits into a slot in the film core so that the film core moves when the spindle does. To get the film in the magazine I have to match the slot on the plastic film core with the key on the spindle entirely by touch. This can take a few seconds.

After this is done I grab the end of the film sticking through the feed side light trap and push it through the open light trap on the take-up side of the magazine. I attach it to the empty plastic core that I've previously put on the take-up spindle. There's a small slot in the surface of the core that's meant to grab the film and hold it onto the core, so I bend about 1/4" of the film back on itself and shove it into that slot to ensure a nice tight fit. I then wind a couple of feet of film around the core just to make sure it doesn't let go. (There's nothing worse than hearing the sound of crumpling film coming from a magazine that's not taking up the film properly because the film didn't stay attached to the core.)

At this point I can screw the lids back onto the magazine and remove the light trap opening device. I loaded a LOT of Mitchell magazines early in my career, either for visual effects work or while working on sitcoms, and I'd always screwed the covers on until they were nice and tight. Sprague told me not to do that with these magazines as they can expand in the heat of the sun and effectively weld the lid into its threads. He told me he always unscrews the lids 1/4 turn to make sure the metal lid has room to expand. This made me nervous so I only unscrewed them 1/8 turn. They were still tight enough to block light but not quite enough to avoid clanking periodically, and it's disconcerting to pick up a camera and hear a sound that you're only used to hearing from inside a changing bag!

When the magazine is closed up and removed from the bag, I run a piece of tape across it to hold the lids in place and make it impossible for them to loosen on their own. (If possible I use the tape seal from the original can as an added aesthetic touch.) I then add an ID tag, written on cloth camera tape, indicating the film stock type, roll length, production name, date, magazine number and roll number. The film stock type and length are the most important pieces of information, followed by the roll number as that makes it easy to match the magazine to the camera report. There are times when the magazine is downloaded and the exposed film is in a can but the camera report is elsewhere, such as when the script supervisor confirms which takes are circled takes, so the ID tape often follows the can of exposed film. (Circling take numbers on the camera reports tells the lab to print those take numbers.)

The last step is to write up a camera report and attach it to the mag with tape. The camera report contains the production name, production company name, film stock type, magazine number (if film is found to be scratched or damaged in any way this is an important thing to know!), date loaded and processing instructions. When it goes onto the camera it will get a roll number.

This is typical ID tag. In this case there's no film length on the tape, which is an oversight on my part, but hey--it's a full load, that's a 400' magazine, and I haven't worked as an assistant in 20 years so I have an excuse. The most important items are film stock type ( which is "5222", along with the extra numbers that identify the emulsion batch), so the DP can verify which stock is loaded, and the roll number (in this case "A2") which will match this roll to its camera report. The letter indicates which camera the roll is mounted on. "A", in this case, indicates the Bell & Howell 2709. On later shoot days we'll be using a Mitchell camera as well as an Eyemo, so those will become "B" and "C" cameras. It's important to indicate which camera shot which roll not only to make it easier to track down problems if a roll is scratched or damaged but also so the script supervisor can tell the editors what shots are on what roll.

Tape color has meaning as well: white indicates a slow speed stock, red indicates high speed, and other colors, such as blue and yellow, can indicate daylight-balanced stock or a special visual effects film stock. In this case the red tape indicates the mag contains our "high speed' ASA 250 stock, Double-X, as opposed to Plus-X, our 100 ASA slow speed stock. Black tape always denotes exposed film and is only seen on film cans.

You should start to sense a theme here: everything possible is done to ensure that technical mistakes and errors in communication do not happen. Mistakes can ruin film and result in costly reshoots, and errors in communication can cause the assistant editors to waste time and money hunting through rolls of film for shots that they need to complete a scene.

The camera report is taped to the magazine, and when the magazine is loaded onto the camera the report is transferred to the back of the slate, which provides a hard writing surface and ensures the report is always near the camera.

The real fun, with lots more pictures, happens on the next page...

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