The joys of analogue

As digital technology takes over, so our affection for analogue grows. Like Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man, Joseph Ernst’s short film Londoners delights in the textures of archaic camera technology to document street life in the modern capital.

Catherine McGahan
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Trailer for Londoners (2012)

Technological innovations, like the arrival of film sound in the 1930s or video in the 1970s, are almost invariably accompanied by a renewed infatuation with the methods and formats being replaced. Look at how Quentin Tarantino and others are currently fighting the corner for 35mm celluloid as it gradually loses out to digital.

But older formats can quite comfortably sit alongside the new, as the recent resurrection of vinyl shows. Perhaps it’s the ephemeral nature of digital that makes its comparatively cumbersome analogue predecessors – whether it’s vinyl LP, aluminium 35mm film can, or 16mm spring-wound Bolex camera – more appealing as a tangible artefact? 

Hand-cranked, wooden Ertel Filmette camera

Hand-cranked, wooden Ertel Filmette camera

The ongoing digital vs celluloid argument is largely an irrelevance for documentary filmmakers, who are used to working with comparatively few resources and seizing the cheapest bit of kit they can get their hands on. For them the new affordability of good quality digital cameras has been a godsend and has informed the massive resurgence that theatrical documentary is enjoying.

Many of the sessions in the forthcoming two-day Documentary Summit 2013, which I’m looking forward to attending on 18-19 May, will no doubt touch upon filmmaking with smaller digital devices and be advising on the latest DSLR iterations. 

That said, not all documentary newcomers are in a hurry to jump on board the digital train. Instead of using the latest Canon HD camera or his smartphone – as Malik Bendjelloul did for part of his Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man (2012) – Joseph Ernst opted for a 100-year-old, hand-cranked, wooden Ertel Filmette model, replete with an original uncoated 50mm lens, to shoot his second short Londoners (2012).

Mitchell & Kenyon's Employees Leaving Storey’s Moor Lane Mill, Lancaster (1902)

Mitchell & Kenyon's Employees Leaving Storey’s Moor Lane Mill, Lancaster (1902)

Heavily inspired by the work of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon, who famously roamed Edwardian Britain documenting people at work and play, Ernst’s film conjures life on the streets of the capital in 2012.

Londoners (2012)

Londoners (2012)

2012 was of course a fine year for such a project, what with the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. A small crew of two, or at best three, hefted the monumental camera, along with a heavy Ronford tripod (loaded on a trolley because it was too heavy to carry), a changing tent (in which to safely load and unload the camera magazines) and a sack-load of black and white 35mm Kodak 5222 film stock, over a period of five months. I’m sure their herculean efforts were captured on many an onlooker’s iPhone!

Londoners (2012)

Londoners (2012)

While there’s hardly a shortage of footage of London during this period, the prism of Ernst’s vintage camera and the particular attributes of the process make otherwise familiar images of contemporary life somehow more nuanced.

Interestingly, Malik Bendjelloul shot those iPhone sections of Searching for Sugar Man using Nexvio’s 8mm app (downloadable for less than £2) to achieve the vintage Super 8 quality he wanted. And it’s interesting that technologists, having made huge advances in improving the resolution of digitally-generated images over the past decade, are now striving to soften that high-res crispness with that elusive ‘classic’ grainy warmth that 35mm die-hards yearn for.

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

Searching for Sugar Man (2012)

But while it’s easy to obsess about technology, what most filmgoers respond to is a good story – in fact storytelling is the focus of the London Doc Summit. When I asked the event’s host Andrew Zinnes (producer and co-author of The Documentary Film Makers Handbook: A Guerilla Guide) what he thought about smartphone/tablet-generated filmmaking, he replied:

I feel that as long as you can make something shot on an iPhone or tablet look good, but more importantly sound professional and understandable, then go for it. And sometimes using those devices is the difference between getting the shot and not and if so, then also go for it… but the filmmaker still needs to know how to use those devices professionally and even more important, know how to tell a good story. Without the latter, it doesn’t matter what they shoot on.

Some will look no further than their pocket for an HD camera and nifty editing app, especially given the plethora of mobile phone-camera film festivals that have sprung up of late, but perhaps a few others will continue to head to the likes of David French Photographic Hire (who supplied Ernst’s equipment) for that wooden hand-cranked job or particular Polaroid land camera? Hurry, while film stocks last….

Londoners (2012)

Londoners (2012)

By the way, the commendably painstaking approach to shooting Londoners wasn’t a one-off for Ernst. For his first short film, Feeder (2009) – like Londoners, being acquired for the BFI National Archive – he commissioned the construction of a micro-digital camera that would be practical for the film’s unusually confined location: a human mouth.

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