Filming 16mm footage for television

The ADAPT project reunited a crew of retired BBC film camera operators, sound recordists, electricians and production assistants in order to film an historical reenactment of documentary film production in the 1960s.

This page showcases a selection of the activities carried out during that historical reenactment exercise.

Assistant camera operator John Adderley with a clapperboard

Choosing the right camera

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In this video, ex-BBC camera operators David Whitson, John Adderley, and Brian Tufano demonstrate the different cameras available to them during the 1960s and 1970s, and explain how they might have been used.

Brian Tufano with an Eclair NPR film camera

David Whitson is reunited with the “ergonomically superb” Eclair NPR camera that was his workhorse during the 1960s and 1970s. It was, he recalls “jealously guarded in my locker. It went round the world with me several times, and in my view the best 16mm film camera ever.”

Brian Tufano, who started his career as a BBC camera operator before becoming a renowned feature cinematographer, remembered the relief he felt when the lightweight Eclair camera replaced bulkier Arriflexes.

“You suddenly felt a sense of freedom. You were very mobile … I thought of my body as a kind of Steadicam, even before Steadicam came out on the market.”

Preparing to film

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In this video, the film crew sets up camera, lighting, and sound equipment within a simulated domestic space, ready to film a documentary sequence.

Ready to roll: a set prepared by television film veterans

Ray Sutcliffe, who will direct the film sequence and carry out an interview, liaises with lighting cameraman David Whitson. Whitson must then ask his colleagues – including sound engineer Bill Chesneau and electrician Alan Muhley – to rig microphones and lights.

Each person on the set has a specific set of tasks and responsibilities. While sound, lighting and camera equipment is rigged up, Whitson and Sutcliffe discuss how they will approach the task of carrying out an interview in this domestic space.

The work of the production assistant

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In this video, ex-BBC production assistant Alex Branson explains the centrality of her role to a 16mm documentary television shoot.

Nobody on a television film shoot had a broader set of responsibilities than a production assistant. They were often responsible for identifying filming locations and securing access to them. While the camera rolled, they were responsible for timing the sequences filmed and faithfully logging their content for later reference. At the end of a day’s filming they remained ‘on duty’, their task now to ensure that the rest of the crew had been able to eat a meal at a hotel – troubleshooting any problems with accommodation or hospitality on the way.

Former BBC production assistant Alex Branson, with the stopwatch she used to time film sequences.

As camera operator David Whitson explains: “It took me time to realise just how much is going on behind the scenes. [Production assistants] were often working long after we’d wrapped. They’d be sitting in the hotel typing out shotlists, endless typing out of shotlists, all being done in the hotel after we’d gone off for our meal.”

During the 1960s and 1970s most production assistants were women, and a production assistant was frequently the only woman on a film crew.

Further Viewing

The videos listed below can provide a detailed insight into the preparation processes, the production team members’ roles and responsibilities, and the equipment used in filming 16mm footage.

For short sneak-peaks into working with 16mm, have a look through our short videos on lighting, loading a magazine with 16mm film, and recording sound:

Lighting (2mins)

Loading magazines (1:46 mins)

Sound (1:15 mins)

For a more comprehensive insight into the preparation and filming process, refer to the interviews below:

Filming 16mm footage on Eclair NPR camera: David Whitson and Brian Trufano reflect on their experiences working with Eclair NPR camera and point out the challenges of using this camera model and its typical uses in filming.

Loading magazines: here we see a demonstration of the method of loading a roll of 16mm film and the level of dexterity and familiarity with the equipment that this process involves.

Lighting: David Whitson and Alan Muhley explain the uses of the Color Tran Cineking lights and the main problems they encountered when trying to provide enough light for 16mm cameras.

You can find more videos of our 16mm filming recreations in our Figshare collection. The same videos can also be found in this playlist on our YouTube channel.