'Beyond the Bolex': a Kickstarter Documentary About Jacques Bolsey, Inventor of the Bolex Film Camera
This is a guest post by Alyssa Bolsey.
First things first, you want to make a movie and you need a camera, right? The options are endless and it feels like there is a new camera coming out every couple of months! What to do? After you’ve done all your research, you either buy one, rent one, or most likely (as in my case) you beg until someone will let you borrow theirs for a few days. Ahhh… Such is the life of an indie filmmaker. Now, imagine a time when there wasn’t an affordable camera to buy, borrow or rent because independent filmmaking didn’t exist and therefore, a camera for the independent filmmaker didn’t exist. This is Beyond the Bolex, the story of the man responsible for the beginning of independent filmmaking and the inventor of the Bolex motion picture film camera, Jacques Bolsey.
No Camera? What?!
100 years ago, 18 year-old still photography fanatic/medical student/artist Jacques Bolsey wanted to make a movie. Problem was, it was 1913 and motion picture cameras were not accessible for budding filmmakers like himself. So what did he do? He invented a series of cameras for amateurs, culminating in the revolutionary Bolex camera in the late 1920’s. Bolsey’s dream was that one day in the future, everyone would be able to make movies, and he spent his life innovating towards that end. Little did he know that one day his dream would come true, and that his story would be revealed at the same time, in a documentary using his own films.
Several years ago, on a break from film school to attend a family memorial, I stumbled upon the inventor’s forgotten archive mixed in with my grandfather’s belongings. It was at that moment that I discovered that my grandfather’s father, my great-grandfather, Jacques Bolsey, had invented the Bolex. Talk about a family secret! Although Bolsey the man had largely been forgotten to history, the Bolex camera had completely transformed the industry and led the way to cinéma vérité filmmaking. Later, it would be the camera of choice for a surge of young independent filmmakers, including such luminaries as Steven Spielberg, Jonas Mekas, Maya Deren, Peter Jackson, Spike Lee and David Lynch. Over the decades, millions of people would learn their craft on this camera. It would also be the camera that my generation, which appears these days to be the last generation to learn intro to film with actual film, would be using in film school as well.
How was I, a lowly film student at the time, going to use this material to fill this gaping hole in film history? I was going to make a goddamn documentary to uncover my great-grandfather’s story, that’s what I was going to do! Using what money? Heck if I knew… Jacques Bolsey had died unknown and practically bankrupt. But looking on the bright side, I knew where I could get a camera!
Ever since the moment I picked up his 1927 Bolex camera, I have researched and set out to tell Jacques Bolsey’s story of technological innovation, personal reinvention, and to uncover a forgotten chapter in independent filmmaking. In doing so, the scope of the project has changed tremendously. Rather than simply being a bio piece, the documentary Beyond the Bolex will now trace the Bolex camera’s trajectory from Bolsey’s original archival materials to the camera’s current reincarnation in the digital age, through the still developing story of the Digital Bolex. The way I see it, the idea behind the Bolex camera was just a seed of an idea. An idea to create a tool that was simple yet flexible. A tool that the everyday person could use to experiment and create on the level of professionals. This idea has been shaped and transformed for generations, long after it left Bolsey’s hands, but that is what I want to track. How an idea can outlive its inventor to continue to grow indefinitely through the ideas of others. And this, my friends, is one advantage to the never-ending task of fundraising for a documentary. Sometimes, during the seemingly endless lulls of fundraising, unexpected twists to your story smack you right upside the head!
Ahhh… the Digital Bolex. I’m sure you have heard of it! A couple of young filmmakers wishing for greater access to professional filmmaking tools and deciding rather than to wait for someone else to invent it, they would innovate a solution themselves. The goal -- a camera that resembles the experience of shooting 16mm film, but for a digital filmmaking community.
The Digital Bolex storyline quite frankly walked itself right into the narrative of my documentary and unabashedly invited itself to the party. After having already spent years, off and on, researching for Beyond the Bolex, there I was January 2012 in Switzerland at Bolex International, interviewing the current operations manager. He kindly showed me around the place and informed me that although he constantly gets requests for information on the early development of the Bolex camera, all of the materials had vanished and he, unfortunately, had no further information on my great-grandfather or the early development of the H16. Gahhh! I had found some information in my great-grandfather’s archive but I had hoped to fill in some gaps! After uncomfortably shuffling in place, trying to figure out where to go from there, I spontaneously asked, “Well, you know Kodak declared bankruptcy last week, so what’s next for Bolex? Are you guys going digital?” A smirk crossed his lips and he said, “Well, it is certainly a possibility, but nothing I can discuss at this moment.” One month later, I was back at my home in Los Angeles and one morning, was suddenly inundated by emails about the new Digital Bolex that had been announced at SXSW. And you know what? They had been quietly developing this camera only miles from my house in LA for over a year and I had no idea!
So what’s next? Well, we’ll be finishing our Kickstarter campaign in just a few days. Then, assuming we reach our goal, we can finally begin the “fun” stuff, actually traveling and shooting interviews with people who knew Jacques Bolsey, documenting Digital Bolex’s journey towards completing and releasing their camera, connecting with filmmakers who have fond memories of their experiences with the original Bolex camera, and talking to people who are using it to this day. Not too shabby a harvest to reap from that original seed of an idea so many years ago!
To learn more about Beyond the Bolex and to help bring it to the screen, please visit our Kickstarter page and consider pledging and spreading the word! The campaign ends this Friday, April 19th, at 7PM PST/10PM EST.