The story of the incomparable Bell & Howell Filmo 16mm movie camera
year, 2013, marks the 90th anniversary of the Bell & Howell 70-series
16mm motion picture camera. The Bell & Howell Company was established
in the United States in 1907 by two former theatre projectionists by the
names of Donald Bell and Albert Howell. Their headquarters and factory were
located on Larchmont Avenue in Chicago, IL. One of their first products was
a 35mm studio motion picture camera known as the "#2709 Standard" (see
photo on left) for professional cinematography. First sold in 1912, it would
become the most popular camera of its kind in the early days of movie making
in the US. It was renowned for its rock steady image, removable shuttle and
almost indestructible construction. Shooting movie film still had several
major drawbacks that were keeping it from being enjoyed by the average consumer.
First, the 35mm format was large, heavy and costly. Second, since all
camera stock was negative you had to print it in order to watch
it. Finally, film was nitrate based making it potentially flammable
and, therefore, simply too dangerous for home use. The discovery, by Kodak,
of the process for direct reversal of the camera negative, thereby eliminating
the need for printing, would lead to the invention of 16mm reversal film utilizing
cellulose acetate as a base. Safety film in 16mm was born!
Camera manufacturers were now quick to seize upon what they foresaw as a
burgeoning new market. That of amateur cinematography. In 1923, Bell
&Howell introduced their first
Filmo, the model
70A, a single lens camera marketed to the home movie enthusiast for the "making
of personal motion pictures" as they phrased it in their ads in magazines
like Saturday Evening Post, National Geographic, Harper's and Country Life. The 70A was still quite expensive
for 1923, having a price tag of $180. This, at a time when the average family
income was somewhere around $25 per week. In fact, you could have bought
a basic Ford Model T for less than $300 that same year! It was definitely
a camera for the well to do but, then shooting 16mm home movies in the 1920's
was a hobby pretty much reserved for the rich, anyway. Kodak would not introduce
the less costly 8mm format until 1932. 1925 saw the release of the second
Filmo, the model 70B, a high speed camera that only ran at 128fps and was
primarily designed for motion analysis work. There would be at least ten
other models in the series before production stopped in the 1970's.
What accounted for the
many varied versions had to do, among other things, with the type of viewfinder supplied, the
hand-crank capability and the ability to accept a 200 or 400' magazine with electric
later models were just slightly improved versions of their earlier cousins
retaining the most important features. It is important to remember this cameras
lineage and the fact that the same engineers who were designing the studio
camera that made B&H an industry leader were also working on the Filmo.
The innovative features that would be added over the years, both external
and internal, are the result of this cinematic engineering
excellence. Features like the three lens turret to allow for instant lens change, a seven speed selector that went from 8 to 64 frames per second, a critical focuser device, a twenty two foot film run and the ratchet-type winding key.
The 16mm Filmo actually
pre-dated the infamous B&H 35mm Eyemo by a couple of years. Many years later, in 1979, Cinema Products
would release their super sophisticated GSMO 16mm camera. A model that president
Edmund DiGiulio would later remark was "originally intended to be a modern
day successor to the Filmo camera". By 1983, Bell & Howell would be out
of the photographic business entirely. The Filmo product line would be purchased
by Alan Gordon Enterprises, one of the foremost dealers for the camera and
moved to California. During the 1980's they were still selling new Filmos
and they continue to service them to this day while remaining the sole source
for replacement parts.
Built as tough as the Sherman
Tanks it would be used to film during WWII, the B&H 70 was one of the
most rugged, well designed and thoroughly dependable 16mm motion picture
cameras ever built. Weighing in at six pounds sans lenses, it was one solid
mass of steel and magnesium with hardly a plastic part other than the speed
dial and footage indicator. The simplistic beauty of the camera was its ability
to just run and run. A Filmo that has been locked away for five or ten or more years can be taken out of storage and, after a few drops of oil, put
right back into service. In fact, in a 1933 magazine ad, Bell &
Howell advertised their cameras by stating "... the Filmo you buy this year will serve you for a lifetime ".
had spring driven motors that had to be wound up using a crank or large key
attached to the side. A fully wound camera would allow one to shoot for 35
to 40 seconds at 24fps. Combat and newsreel photographers had to become experts
at quickly winding up their B&H 70 if they expected to get the shot.
They used a technique where they would hold the winding key steady with their
right hand and, using the inertia from the camera's weight,
rotate the body
back and forth in rapid succession to accomplish the winding in just
a few seconds.
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