Bolex, The Last Employee. An Interview With Alexandre Favre.
Bolex is an anachronism; a maker of clockwork cameras in the digital age. Though mass production has long ceased, the company still builds spring and motor driven versions of its famous H16 camera; hand-built to order.
Bolex was once the largest employer in French Switzerland but operations have been scaled down somewhat in recent years. Although officially retired and now working part-time, Otello Diotallevi is the company’s last employee.
What inspired you to start this project?
“In 2011, I visited the Bolex International workshops in Yverdon, Switzerland. The workshop had an old-fashioned feel. I met Otello Diotallevi and his boss Marc Ueter. I wanted to tell their story, and so I made the short film Bolex, The Last Employee.
I discovered the Bolex Reporter at the Canton of Vaud archives. The magazine was more than just an advertising tool. It discussed the craft of various filmmakers such as Haroun Tazieff and Gregory Markopoulos – Bolex users. It inspired me to embark on the feature length project.”
Did you have any connections with Bolex before you began the film?
“I had no particular connection with Bolex before I started working on this documentary (aside from an interest in filmmakers of the American avant-garde who were mostly using Bolex cameras). I was not driven by nostalgia; no one in my family had owned a mechanical camera.
I’m not a Bolex fanatic, so to speak. Which is a good thing, as I can approach the subject objectively. But I am of course passionate about the subject. Over the past five years, I’ve spent most of my free time working on the project.”
Was Bolex involved from the beginning? How did you approach the company?
“Bolex International SA is not involved in the project in any way. My documentary focuses only on Paillard.”
[Alexandre explains the history of the company:]
“The Bolex company has been in the hands of many people. The ‘Bol’ company was first founded in December 1923 by Jacques Bogopolsky a genius inventor and Ukrainian exile living in Geneva. (He later changed his name to Bolsky and then Bolsey when living in America.) The Bol company used to manufacture 35mm cameras.
In 1927, Jacques Bogoposlky with the financial support of Charles Haccius, created the Bolex company and designed two 16mm film cameras; models A and B. However Bolex did not manufacture the cameras. They were made by the watch company Longines, based in Saint Imier. The projectors were manufactured by Stoppani in Bern.
In 1930 Bolex was bought by Paillard. Founded in 1840, Paillard was known for producing watches, music boxes, gramophones and metronomes but was looking to diversify. However, the A and B models were not fit for the international market.
Following five years of reasearch and development the H16 camera was born. The first H16 used the same spring as Paillard’s gramaphone.”
“In my opinion, the success of the Bolex cameras is mostly due to Paillard’s watch-maker expertise. This is why my documentary focuses only on the Paillard Bolex company from 1930 to 1970. It is during that period that Paillard produced the iconic H16 and the whole family of cameras and projectors: the H8, B8, C8, D8L, 150 Super; and the projectors G, M8, S221, Multimatic to name a few.
In 1970, the Austrian company Eumig bought the Bolex Paillard brand and created Bolex international SA. The H16 is the only Bolex device still being manufactured. Eumig went bankrupt in 1981. Bolex International SA is now owned by the Ueter family.”
You credit Yves Bornand. What is his contribution?
“Yves Bornand is a collector and enthusiast. He was of great help; able to answer my technical and historical questions and explain all the functionalities of the camera to me. He has lived all his life in Ste-Croix – the hometown of Paillard – and he is passionate about preserving the industrial heritage of his hometown.”
You use archive footage in the trailer. Where was this sourced from?
“The footage comes from the Serge Oulevay foundation. Oulevay was an executive at Paillard-Bolex. Throughtout his life, he collected an impressive amount of products and devices from Paillard and its competitors.
The collection is housed near the Paillard factory and is open for visits upon request. The film archive is housed at the Swiss Film Library, Penthaz.”
The Bolex building looks quite large. (I count seven floors.) Is Bolex the only company to have offices in it?
“Paillard used to own several factories: in Switzerland, Germany and the United States. The Paillard cameras were manufactured in Ste-Croix and the typewriters were manufactured in Yverdon. In 1959, the company built a factory in Orbe specifically for the production of optical elements.”
“The building which is featured in the film was built in 1964 to house the agency for the French part of Switzerland. This is where Bolex took its headquarters after the resale to Eumig.
As of today, it is home to a couple of other companies: a kindergarten and a supermarket. Bolex is located on the first floor. The company uses four rooms: a storage room, the directors office, Mr Diotallevi’s workshop and a darkroom.”
Did you shoot the documentary in any formats other than 16mm? What cameras did you use?
“The film is shot in the following formats ; 16mm, 8mm, super 8 and super 16.
When possible I aim to shoot the interviews with cameras I borrow from the protagonists themselves. For instance I shot Walter Zurcher – who was responsible for the Kern optics – with a lens that he designed (Kern Vario-Switar). I also shot Richard Authier, designer of the 150, 155 and 160 cameras1, with his own super 8 camera.”
“Shooting on film introduces a lot of constraints. I cannot, for example, shoot talking-head interviews as I am unable to shoot synchronous audio with the cameras. More than a hindrance however, it is a way to work differently than a traditional production. The cameras’ limitations are an integral part of my project. All of the cameras’ functions are utilized in the film. Animations, frame by frame, superimpositions, slow motion, fade in, etc…”
Are you editing on film or digital?
“The film is edited digitally. I aim to release the film at first on 16mm and then maybe some blow ups on 35mm. The cost of editing on film would be extremely expensive and unaffordable.”
How are you funding the film? Are you backed by a production company?
“The films is, as of now, strictly self produced. I do not wish to have a production company as I want to make this film in the purest Bolex cinema tradition. I am financing the film myself.”
Is the film finished? What work is there to be done?
“The film is seventy percent done. I would like to complete it with specific interviewees and archive material. There is currently another project focusing on the creator of the first Bolex cameras which should be released soon. Although the focus and story is different from my project, I will have to wait a year or two before releasing my film. The difference in release dates will actually respect the chronological timeline of the events and will bring a new point of view on the creation and use of those cameras.”
Given the film’s title ‘The Last Employee’ it sounds like the company is at the end of its life. Do you think it has much future?
“I am not qualified to predict whether the company has a future or not. What is certain however, is that the mechanical industry has long since been replaced by a digital one.
Richard Authier said to me:
‘You have CEOs who do not wish to embark on new endeavors. Especially when it concerns fundamental core changes such as the shift from mechanical cameras to electronic ones. This field was at the time not perceived as the future. “What are those new things? That is not for us…” and slowly the company loses its drive and energy.
And this is what happens to all the industries. Once a company director told me: “But what can we do in order for this not to happen to us?”
To which I answered: “Everything that is created, dies one day.” This is human destiny.’”
“To celebrate its 150th anniversary, Paillard wanted to release a new 8mm camera called the 150. The concept of the camera was developed by industrial designer Richard Authier. The special design allowed the loading of 8mm film without the need to open the camera in the middle. Unfortunately for Paillard, Kodak announced the Super 8 format. It took Paillard a long time to adapt the camera to this new gauge. The company went bankrupt soon after.
At this time, Paillard was the largest employer in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Many people became unemployed. For this reason, Paillard is not necessarily remembered positively in Switzerland.” ↩