BEAUTIFUL TECH: Bolex H16

There are few gentle mechanical sounds as evocative as the smooth whirr of a wind up Bolex 16mm film camera. I can only presume it is due to the Swiss history of watch making that the country is home to two of the most beautiful technologies associated with film making: Bolex cameras and Nagra reel to reel sound recorders. Apparently as far back as 1790, the city of Geneva alone was exporting 60,000 watches per year – thats 200+ years ago now!

Bolex H16

The film I am working on at the moment, Russian Snark by Stephen Sinclair is about a couple who arrive in Auckland, New Zealand having sailed in a small boat all the way from Russian. The husband is a film maker of evocative black & white art films and he arrives armed with a Bolex H16 camera, with which he shoots his beautiful wife and any local actors they can rope in. Often onscreen we see him setting up his shots and filming, as well as seeing the results throughout the film. It is a great film that confronts just how far people will go to create their art, in terms of mental and physical health…. The byline for the film is “When you’re making the film of your life, it’s easy to lose the plot!”

Russian Snark

The only useable recordings of the Bolex from the shoot were from the above location, a chicken farm, which is fine for that scene but the background chickens aren’t quite so applicable in other scenes so I knew I’d have to track one down to record myself…. and a few calls later I have this beauty to play with for a few days:

Bolex H16

So this is a Model H-16 Bolex which is powered by a hand crank that you wind up – no batteries needed! The H16 has a 3 lens turret mount, variable speed settings for fast or slow motion, hand cranking to reverse exposed footage for super-impositions, and single-frame for stop-motion.

Bolex H16

When I opened the side where the film runs I found the serial number: 128674, which according to this site means it was made in 1956 – you have to wonder how many of our plastic HD video cameras will still be fully functioning 50+ years from now!

Heres a few more photos before I start recording it:

Bolex H16

Bolex H16

Bolex H16

Bolex H16

Bolex H16

In the recordings from the shoot I noticed that apart from the constant whirring there was a periodic click, and after consulting the manual I discovered the meaning of the click:

Bolex H16 manual

For the film I really just needed a good ‘normal’ recording of the Bolex in use, shooting film at 24fps but as soon I got it and had a play with the varispeed (it will shoot from 60fps down to 8fps) I immediately decided that once the normal recording was done I would attach my two contact mics and see what it sounds like. Even listening normally when the Bolex is running at 64fps it fair roars, so I was imagining a heavy industrial mechanism when heard via contact mics… Have a listen, and if you want a copy of the FX go to the soundcloud page & help yourself (I recorded 192k but the .WAV I uploaded to soundcloud is 16bit 44.1k)

BOLEX H16 Film Camera Sound FX by timprebble

Bolex with contact mics

While handling this Bolex I couldn’t but help think about all the film that has been shot with it. Of course all I can do is imagine, but there is one famous local who shot his first feature film on a Bolex…

Peter Jackson's Bolex

Bad Taste was Peter Jackson’s first feature film, shot in weekends over a four year period at a total cost of $25,000, with the NZ Film Commission adding $235,000 to finish the film – for more info on the film see here and if you skip to 8’30” in this video you can hear him discussing his Bolex:

If you are interested for more info on the Bolex H16, there are manuals here, a brochure of accessories for the H16 here, an interview with a Bolex collector here and a far more detailed discussion of the H16 with some beautiful photos of lens here.

And some images from the Bolex manual:

Bolex H16 manual

Bolex H16 manual

Bolex H16 manual

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