The Camera that Changed the World

2011, Technology  -  62 min Leave a Comment
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Prior to 1960, cameras capable of capturing the moving image were cumbersome and clunky, devoid of the ability to capture anything more than staged drama in a studio. As the 1950s wound down, filmmakers in the U.S. and France had a burning desire to capture real life at the moment and as it happened, and that desire sparked an innovation that revolutionized the audience experience. The Camera That Changed the World is the story behind that innovation.

Cameras were massive and delicate instruments that omnipotently sat atop tripods at the time, and sounds capture equipment was even more rigid. Enter Moi, un noir in 1958, a French documentary from Jean Rouch, which was shot in Abidjan, Ivory Coast on a small handheld camera considered to be "amateur." The physical freedom the camera allowed Rouch to infuse into the cinematography created a kind of life to the film that had never been seen before, and it sparked a desire in the minds of artists everywhere to emulate the results. It was a seed planted, one that would grow into everything documentary film production has become in the half-century after it.

As mind-blowing as the film was, Rouch had a number of gripes about the wind-up handheld camera that made it possible. For one, you had to wind it up. The action was missed while you were doing this. Once wound, it could only record for about twenty seconds. It also made a great deal of noise while recording, so synced sound recording (at least a kind where you couldn't hear the camera) was not possible. Another camera was needed to appease filmmakers, as revolutionary an experience as Moi may have been.

Robert Drew worked as a writer and editor for Life Magazine at the time, and he convinced the money people at the company to give him a million dollars to create a camera that would meet all these desires. The camera they created was a four-pound prototype that allowed for unprecedented mobility in filmmaking. The first film shot on it was Primary, which followed then-senator John F. Kennedy in his presidential primary campaign efforts. In four short days of filming, they changed filmmaking forever.