The MOVIE CAMERAS

Dziga Vertov’s masterpiece is a staple of film courses and has been analysed and written about countless times. What has had no attention, surprisingly, is the actual equipment used on and in the film. Surprisingly, because it is the only film where the camera plays such a central role (even ‘coming to life’ towards the end), and ‘the mechanical eye’ was a vital part of Vertov’s theories. In most of the analyses of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ there is little or no discussion of the cameras, or they are mentioned inaccurately. This section looks at the film from the Movie Camera’s point of view.

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‘Man with a Movie Camera’ ‘….is an experimental documentary in which a cameraman (Kaufman) and a moving-picture camera (the French-made Debrie Parvo ‘L’) become a single entity, an ubiquitous, omniscient and quasi God-like eye capable of recording a new kind of social and political reality. Not only is this mechanical eye able to perceive things that the human eye cannot, but the camera itself has become a ‘Constructivist’ object in its own right, a sleek blend of silver, metal design and utilitarian, ideological purpose.’ [1]. 

Dziga Vertov and his friend and collaborator the Constructivist artist and photographer Alexander Rodchenko shared an interest in cameras. The latter spent over 6,000 francs (around 3,000 euros today) on photographic equipment during his trip to Paris in 1925, including a camera for Vertov (a Debrie Sept). The choice of cameras for a film about a cameraman would have been carefully considered by the ‘Author-Supervisor’ and his brother. Particularly the latter as Mikhail Kaufman was a mechanical and electrical engineer with an expert knowledge of the cine camera, as well as a director making innovative films in his own right [2]. In an article in the November 1926 edition of the journal Kino it was announced that “At the last Kino meeting, cameraman and Kinok  [3] member M. Kaufman held a lecture about the first Soviet film camera with a motor drive designed along entirely new lines, which he constructed together with film technician Userdov. The camera can be used for single frame animation, normal and slow motion shooting. The design of the camera is so simple that it presents no obstacles to the commencement of mass production. The camera is equipped with technically superior shooting devices, and will be distinguished by its comparative light weight. The first Soviet film camera will carry the name of Kinoglaz.” This sounds like an advanced camera for the time, particularly as the Soviet camera industry only began in earnest in the early 1930s [4]. There is no evidence that it ever went into production, or was used in the making of  ‘Man with a Movie Camera’.

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Mikhail Kaufman looking pleased to be surrounded by (some of) the equipment used on the film in 1928. On the left is a rare Debrie GV Model F on a Debrie tripod, an Ica or Zeiss Ikon Kinamo being held above a Debrie Parvo Model L, and a Debrie Interview (wooden body panels) on the right. The latter two are supported by a makeshift mount and clamp on another Debrie tripod. Missing is the Parvo Model K, and possibly a Debrie Sept. This photograph is usually shown the wrong way round.

The most prominent camera used by Kaufman in the film is the Parvo Model L, made by André Debrie in Paris, introduced in 1926. An obvious choice as it was the most sophisticated and advanced movie camera of its day, widely used by European [5] film-makers including Sergei Eisenstein, Abel Gance, Fritz Lang, Joris Ivens, and many others. Importantly, apart from being technically superior to its contemporaries, it is very photogenic, a simple silver and black metal box on a beautifully designed wood and aluminium tripod. The classic all black Mitchell or Bell & Howell movie cameras with their protruding ‘Mickey Mouse ears’ film magazines and ugly tripods would not have looked as good on screen, and would have been awkward to carry around.  The Debrie cameras are compact and (relatively) light enough to be carried by Kaufman up a chimney, into the back of cars, on a motorcycle, across a bridge, along a beach, down a mine, in a foundry, and in many of the other challenging locations demanded by his brother. 

As it is so prominent in many of the well known scenes many commentators assume that the Parvo Model L is the only camera that appears with Kaufman in the film, but in fact there were four. A total of 5 or 6 cameras were involved in the making of ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, perhaps more, as follows:

Debrie Parvo Model L – in the film

Debrie Parvo Model K – in the film

Debrie Interview (simplified wooden bodied version of the Parvo) – in the film

ICA or Zeiss Ikon ‘Kinamo’ – in the film (traffic control policeman sequence)

Debrie GV [Grande Vitesse] high speed camera (presumably used for special effects, not seen in the film)

Debrie Sept (no evidence found so far for this but Vertov owned one and Kaufman was portrayed with one on the front cover of the first 1927 edition of ‘Soviet Cinema’ on roller skates [see later notes] so quite likely it was used for some of the hand-held shooting as a tougher alternative to the Kinamo). To be confirmed!

Apart from the Kinamo and Sept (likely Vertov’s own) the cameras would have belonged to the All-Ukrainian Photo Cinema Administration (VUFKU), a state monopoly that controlled the film industry there (the Russian version was Sovkino). Despite the dire financial state of the Soviet Union at the time, its film-makers still had access to the latest and most expensive equipment, such as the Debrie Parvo Model L and high speed (240 fps) Debrie GV.

 

DEBRIE ‘PARVO’ MODEL L 35MM HAND-CRANKED CINE CAMERA (1926)

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The Australian photographer and explorer Frank Hurley’s Model L in remarkable condition after its Antarctic and wartime adventures. The handle and external viewfinder have been removed.

The Model L was the latest in a series of Parvo cine cameras going back to the early 1900s. Joseph Debrie founded his company in Paris in 1898 to make film perforating machines for the rapidly developing cinematography industry.  This had been born in the city in 1895 when the Lumière brothers held the first public screening of a motion picture. With the help of his 17 year old son André he designed the first ‘Parvo’ in 1908 at the request of the English partner of a Parisian film distribution company, Charles Raleigh, who wanted a compact, lightweight, but tough 35mm cine camera for African film expeditions. The new camera design was based around a strong engine turned aluminium frame which supports the hand cranked mechanism (for picture see section on Model K). The separate, simple box-like casing is made of thin varnished mahogany faced plywood panels. Rather than the external film container(s) customary at the time, the magazines are mounted within the casing on each side of the frame which makes the camera very compact. The film comes out of one magazine and is looped around the film gate to return into the other one. This arrangement also allows direct viewing through the lens between the magazines, for focusing before the film is fed through the gate. There is also a side mounted ‘Newton’ type viewfinder (negative power plano-concave lens) for use during filming. Debrie named the new camera ‘Parvo’, Latin for ‘small’. And indeed it is, the body measuring 242 x 175 x 147mm, and weighing only 6.5kg (actual measurements of National Science & Media Museum 1908 camera).

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Part of the Parvo patent filing in the USA in 1909

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Debrie Offices and Factory, Rue Saint-Maur, Paris, early 1900s

In 1919 André Debrie took over the company after his father’s death which by that time had expanded into manufacturing all types of cinematography equipment including darkroom, editing and printing apparatus, film projectors and devices for special effects. From 1920 the Parvo outer casing was made of cast aluminium (though some wooden bodies were still produced as ‘Tropical’ versions, and in 1924 for the new basic ‘Interview’ model), occasionally painted black or grey, but mostly left in its natural finish. The shutter was also fitted with an ingenious auto-dissolve mechanism in 1921. The camera had been slightly larger since the 1913 Model A, still very compact for a professional 35mm cine camera at 270 x 200 x 150mm, with a film capacity of 120 metres (390 ft). However, the weight had increased considerably to 10.1 kg (with 7,5cm lens) due to the all metal construction and additional components. The Parvo became the most widely used cine camera for silent films in the 1920s particularly in Europe, and most notably in Russia. The renowned Berlin photographic dealer Schatzow proclaimed that it was the ‘Sole Representative for Germany and Russia’ on the maker’s plate and so the firm would have sold the cameras for some of the greatest films ever made!

1924 PARVO MODEL K (2)a

The 3,000th camera left the Rue Saint-Maur in 1924, and over 9,000 Parvos were eventually manufactured. Virtually all the great directors [6] outside the USA used the camera as well as Dziga Vertov, particularly Sergei Eisenstein and Abel Gance (see section on the Model K). The Australian Antarctic explorer and photographer Frank Hurley described his Parvo Model L (above) as “a glorious piece of mechanism, and ideal for my work” . This photograph shows Hurley with his motorised Model L on the deck of the RRS ‘Discovery’ during Douglas Mawson’s 1929-31 BANZARE* Antarctic expeditions. He filmed his acclaimed documentary ‘Siege of the South’ with the camera. He also used it extensively in the Middle East during WW2.

[*British, Australian, and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition]

Frank Hurley

A series of minor improvements throughout the 1920s were signified by the ever changing letter codes of E,* G, H, * JK, K, KL, until the L was introduced in 1926. There was also a simpler ‘amateur’ range called the ‘Interview’ which ran concurrently with the professional cameras from 1924. Some of the models had a long life as the Model E (the basic Parvo) and Model K were still shown in the 1931 catalogue that mainly featured the Model L. There was also a Model LS in the catalogue, identical to the L but with the body made of ebonite (a hardened rubber material) to deaden the sound of the mechanism for ‘talking pictures’.  

*I have not come across a Model ‘F’ ‘I’ or ‘J’. I have recently seen a ‘Model P’ for sale but I believe this is an error (there was no model designation on this camera).

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The Model “L” PARVO, “Parvo” model L, or “Parvo Debrie” model L (as it was inconsistently called in the handbooks and sales catalogues) had significant advantages over the previous versions with, among other additional features, an ingenious way of allowing focusing through the lens on to ground glass when a film was loaded (above), and a quicker method of changing lenses (see notes on Krauss Zeiss lens). As with the Model K an electric motor drive could easily be attached (though many camera operators still preferred the hand crank at this time). The magazine capacity remained at 120 metres (390 ft), giving six minutes of exposed film at the standard silent film hand-cranked speed of 16 frames/second. Debrie had already introduced a special tripod for the Parvo around 1922, incorporating geared pan and tilt mechanisms. Beautifully made in aluminium and beech, it also has a prominent role in ‘Man with a Movie Camera’, whether being carried on Kaufman’s shoulder or performing acrobatics with the camera in a stop-motion sequence. The tripod and camera (as a mechanical eye) are graphically (and accurately) rendered in another superb Stenberg brothers’ poster for the film (1929). Their other poster is illustrated in THE MOVIE section.

Poster for Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1928)

The Model L was made for several years, becoming Debrie’s most popular camera, until the advent of sound films in the early 1930s when it was superseded by the larger (300m) capacity ‘Super Parvo’ with a built-in motor drive and sound-proofing. An intermediate Model T was available around 1930 which was a modified Model L with the casing enlarged to fit the 300m magazines. Both the National Science & Media Museum and the Cinémathèque française have good examples of this rather ugly camera (the NS&MM have the date for their camera as 1925 which is incorrect).

However, because it was still one of the most compact and reliable cameras, significant film-makers such as Eduard Tisse (Eisenstein’s cinematographer) [7] and Leni Riefenstahl [8] were still using (motorised) Model Ls throughout the 1930s. Carol Reed used a Model L and Model K for shooting some of the scenes of his 1949 film ‘The Third Man’ [9]. Presumably due to financial constraints Agnès Varda used an old motorised Model L to shoot her first film in 1954, ‘La Pointe Courte’ (below). The thirty years old design still managed to produce the beautiful black and white cinematography of this pioneering film. Right up to date, a Model L features in the delightful 2016 short film ‘Dancin’ the Camera’ by Pieter-Rim de Kroon.

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A selection of scenes with the Parvo Model L

[Note: figures in brackets show in hours, minutes & seconds approximately when the scene appears in the 2014 Lobster Films restoration of Vertov’s own print (the images are taken from another version of the film) – see Notes below. The scene can extend before and after the time shown which is just meant as a guide to locate it. The approximate times would apply to most versions of the film].

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[00:02:23] Opening sequence (reversed image) – the ‘miniature’ camera on top is a Parvo Model L (also reversed)

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[00:22:25] The car and carriage sequence around Odessa

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[00:26:27] The camera over the City sequence

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[00:55:11] Motorcycle around the track sequence

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[01:01:26] The camera and tripod animation sequence

Other scenes with the Parvo Model L

[00:10:05] On the railway tracks (the camera isn’t very clear, and this is part of the ‘Interview’ sequence but it looks like an aluminium body – could also be Model K)

[00:11.11] Lens changing sequence (mirrored image)

[00:11:23] [00:11:27] [00:11:31] Cranking sequence (mirrored image) 

[00:11:34] & [00:11:46] Lens (mirrored image)

[00:12:39] & [00:12:42] 15cm lens (mirrored image)

[00:12:59] & [00:13:04] 15cm lens with iris (mirrored image)

[00:13:58] Bridge/trams sequence (unclear, could be Model K)

[00:16:10] Taking out camera from case at top of chimney  (unclear, could be Model K)

[00:17:30] Carts over camera sequence (unclear, could be Model K)

[00:19:57] Reflection of camera panning in window (unclear, could be Model K)

[00:20:47] Filming from side step of train sequence

[00:21:19 on] Car and carriage sequence around Odessa

[00:33:56] Traffic policeman at intersection sequence

[00:34:58] Cranking camera (mirrored image)

[00:35:03] Filming into mirrored shopfront (Specialist Shoe Shine, Paris)

[00:37:57] Cranking camera in reverse (non-mirrored image)

[00:38:03] Cranking camera in reverse (mirrored image)

[00:42:59] Model L appears in traffic intersection sequence with Kinamo

[00:43:10] Model L on its own at the traffic signal with spreadeagled tripod

[00:54:18 on] Camera on a motorcycle around the track sequence

[00:54:29] Close up of camera on motorcycle handlebars in a special cradle (not in Lobster Films version; timing from Wikimedia Michael Nyman version) 

[00:55:28] On the carousel sequence (partly shown ‘mirrored’ – see Notes)

[01:00:38 on] Animated tripod and camera sequence

[01:03:30] Second camera on a motorcycle sequence

[01:05:33 on] Camera in the back of a speeding car through Odessa sequence

 

E. KRAUSS TESSAR ZEISS 21cm f4,5 TELEPHOTO LENS #156458

This lens appears regularly in the film with the Model L, sometimes in reflection [10]. Krauss was a Paris based optical manufacturer founded in the late 1880s that made Zeiss lenses under licence. The Tessar (from the Greek Tessares = four) was designed by Paul Rudolph of Carl Zeiss in 1902, and is the most successful lens configuration of all, licensed to many manufacturers. 116 years on the name is still used for Zeiss’ four element mobile phone camera lenses. The Tessar design consists of four lens elements in two groups, the front pair separated by an air space and the rear pair cemented together as a ‘doublet’.

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  [00:33:48] The only non-reversed image of the lens

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[00:26:27] The camera over the City sequence (enlargement)

A 15cm version of the lens appears briefly at the ‘out-of-focus flowers’ sequence [00:12:40]& [00:12:44], and shortly afterwards at the end of Part 1 [00:12:59] and the beginning of Part 2 [00:13:04] using a closing and opening iris to show this changeover symbolically. Debrie made a 90mm iris to fit in front of the lens, and a 140mm iris for the accessory carrier on the tripod, but these images may be a double exposure. The image of the lens is reversed. This lens does not appear anywhere else in the film. The outer rim with the protruding lugs is for attaching accessories such as a lens hood and filter holder.

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A new interchangeable lens mount was designed for the Model L to allow for very fast lens changes, ‘in one second as a maximum’ boasted the handbook. There was a large choice of lenses for this mount from a variety of manufacturers including Taylor Hobson, Zeiss, and Bausch & Lomb. The lenses below are all fitted into the Le Parvo mount (in the centre of the handbook illustration below).

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Quoting from the instructions (illustration above):

‘Attachment of lenses on “Parvo” Model L with new style mount

The following explanations, which are rather lengthy and require a great deal of attention, permit of attaching or removing a lens in one second as a maximum.

….Take the desired lens; turn sunshade (I) from left to right and push it on its mount as far as it will go. In this way focusing flange (J) will face ball (K) on apparatus. Set this lens of the camera in such a way that button (L) of lens sunshade will engage notch (E) of camera at the same time that the three notches (M) on lens will engage the 3 lugs on camera. Hold the lens completely in and push tightening lever (C) to the left. The lens will then be attached…’

The operation is indeed a lot quicker and simpler than the instructions would suggest as can be seen in the film [00:11:11] when Mikhail Kaufman swaps lenses just before swinging the camera around for a profile view.

 

DEBRIE ‘INTERVIEW’ TYPE ‘a’ 35MM HAND-CRANKED CINE CAMERA (1924)

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Harking back to the basic design of the first Parvo, intended for the ‘Amateur and Reporter’ according to the brochure, the wood bodied Interview is essentially the same as the aluminium models but without the auto-dissolve mechanism. It was lighter than the Parvo K and L (8.4kg), which is probably a good reason why it features in most of the scenes where the camera and tripod are being carried around by Mikhail Kaufman. It was also the least valuable Debrie of the three seen in the film, and the wood absorbs knocks better than aluminium! In any case, the more advanced ‘L’, ‘K’, and ‘GV’ would have been the preferred cameras for filming. Various iterations of the basic type ‘a’ Interview added accessory mounts, bayonet lens mount, reverse cranking, the Parvo tachometer, up to type ‘f’ which added motor drive and the facility to use it with a shoulder harness mount instead of a tripod.

A selection of scenes with the Interview

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[00:02:37] Opening sequence

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[00:18:17] Through the market crowd sequence

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[00:31:44] Following the ambulance sequence

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[00:42:47] Machinery and camera sequence

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[00:50:51] On the beach sequence

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[00:56:24] The beer glass sequence

Other scenes with the Interview

[00:09:05] Through the glass doors to the waiting car sequence

[00:09:24] Under the bridge sequence

[00:09:49] Across the railway line

[00:09:58] On the railway tracks (the camera isn’t very clear, and although this is part of the ‘Interview’ sequence it looks like an aluminium body – Model L or K?)

[00:10:43] Back across the railway line (camera being removed from tripod)

[00:15:06] Through the street sequence (The ‘Awakening Woman’ poster)

[00:25:38] Walking along the street

[00:29:15] Filming balconies sequence

[00:30:30] In the lift lobby 

[00:31:32] Climbing into the back of the car

[00:33:25] On the fire engine

[00:43:12] Between the trams sequence

[00:50:15] Coming off the ship down the steps

[00:51:11] Lying in the sea sequence (mirrored)

[00:56:03] The camera looks over the city

[00: 58:30] Coming out of the drinks shop

[00:58:39] Going into the Workers Club

[01:04:56] Two cameras above the crowd

[01:07:37] Carrying camera and tripod (last camera image in the film)

 

DEBRIE ‘PARVO’ MODEL K 35MM HAND-CRANKED CINE CAMERA (1924)

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Dials and controls from top: crank handle turn counter, metres of film counter, direct viewfinder through lens (with optional red filter), opening for electric motor attachment with dark slide, tachometer showing frames per second speed while cranking (0 to 24 fps, arrow on 16 fps), threaded lug for motor (bottom rhs). The top loop toggle is for marking the negative (when you pull it a small hole is cut into the film); the bottom one is for disengaging the crank handle and changing gear to one frame per turn (rather than eight).

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The front and side panels open up to allow full access. Note the beautiful engine-turned finish on the frame (the screws are ‘blued’ like a fine watch). A film magazine is in place on the opposite side.

The penultimate version before the Model L (there was a Model KL), this was the most popular Parvo in the mid Twenties. Abel Gance used a number of Ks and JKs to film his 1927 epic Napoleon, and Debrie collaborated with him on the extraordinary ‘Polyvision’ split (three) screen panoramic sequences in the final reel of the film [11]. A special rig was made to mount three Parvos with synchronized motors on top of one another, facing in different directions to achieve the effect.

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‘Napoleon’ Film Crew with Model Ks on Debrie tripods 

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Rudolph Valentino, an enthusiastic photographer, also owned a 1924 Model K. This camera was in the auction of his property following his early death in 1926 at a guide price of $850, more than $11,500 today!

A selection of scenes with the Parvo Model K

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[00:17:44] Across the moving gantry

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[00:38:27] In the mine sequence

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[00:40:08] In the foundry sequence

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[00:40:50] The Volkhov dam sequence

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[00:41:21] Over the Volkhov dam sequence (note modified tripod head)

Other scenes with the Parvo Model K

[00:10:05] On the railway tracks (the camera isn’t very clear, and this is part of the ‘Interview’ sequence, but it looks like an aluminium body – could also be Model L)

[00:13:58] Bridge/trams sequence (unclear, could be Model L)

[00:16:10] Taking out the camera from its case at the top of the chimney  (unclear, could be Model L)

[00:17:30] Carts over the cameraman sequence (unclear, could be Model L)

[00:19:57] Reflection of camera panning in window (unclear, could be Model L)

 

DEBRIE TRIPOD MODEL ‘C’ (1920s)

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The aluminium and beech tripod was available with the wood-bodied Parvo Model A but it seems that the version of the tripod (with an improved head design) that appears in the film was introduced in 1922 with the first aluminium bodied Parvo (I have not been able to find any catalogues for this period). It is the most beautiful and finely engineered design, the cast aluminium head assembly alone weighing over 9kg (overall weight is 12.6kg!). This contains the (high) geared pan and tilt mechanism controlled with removable handles. These are very evident during the car and carriage sequence [00:22:26 on] with Mikhail Kaufman rapidly adjusting the pan and tilt standing precariously on the edge of the car body. Tiny spirit levels on the side and rear ensure exact levelling when required. There is a large knurled knob on the side to lock the tilt with a finely engraved dial showing degrees of tilt; panning is locked into gear with a brass switch at the rear, otherwise the head swings freely. Every movement of this example is precise and accurate, even after 95 years.  A nicely made leather and canvas case with a shoulder strap protects the tripod when stored or carried on its own.

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The two holes in the front of the head are for the accessory support rods (fully utilised in this photograph of Sergei Eisenstein).

Mikhail Kaufman’s engineering skill is evident in the adapted head on the tripod when filming the Volkhov Dam sequence (more than likely he made it as it is not a standard Debrie tripod accessory). It only appears here and might have been fitted to allow for a steeper tilt filming down from the aerial platform (note: the dam, near Leningrad, was also filmed, probably at the same time, for Vertov’s 1928 film ‘The Eleventh Year’).

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The sturdy legs comprise three sections of 32mm varnished beech bound with brass strips. The central section pulls out to increase the height and is locked at the bottom with screw clamps on the lower two brass bindings. There is a double metal spike for grip at the end. 

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The legs are removable, fixed with a 9mm diameter steel rod retained with a loose T-bar clamping nut. An adjustable ‘spider’ was provided to restrain the spread of the legs (see above), but I have not noticed this being used in the film.  There is a leather handle for carrying the tripod (visible in the screenshot below) but with the camera attached it is rather unbalanced and Kaufman’s familiar over the shoulder method of transport is the best way. The metal bodied cameras and tripod together weigh nearly 23kg, the wood bodied camera and tripod not much less at 21kg, and he must have endured much to carry them up and across bridges and gantries, down a mine, in a foundry, through crowds and streets, and along the beach!

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[01:00:38] The tripod appears in a solo role at the beginning of the animation sequence

 

ICA OR ZEISS IKON ‘KINAMO’ 35MM CLOCKWORK CINE CAMERA (1923-1925, 1926-1933) 

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Originally designed for Ica (Internationale Camera AG) in Dresden by the scientist and inventor Emanuel Goldberg [11] the clockwork version of the Kinamo was introduced in 1923, the same year as Bell and Howell’s iconic 16mm Filmo 70. Both cameras were meeting the growing need for precision made compact automatic cine cameras for the amateur market. The hand-cranked Kinamo (from Greek Kine and Latin Amo = I love film) was launched two years earlier but the new model soon became very popular with professional film-makers as a hand-held 35mm cine camera. In particular, Joris Ivens, the Dutch documentary film-maker (below, with the camera), made a number of experimental films using his Kinamo in the 1920s and 30s (eg ‘The Bridge’ 1928, ‘Rain’ 1929, ‘Borinage’ 1933). The German artist and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy was also an enthusiastic user of the Kinamo.

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Way ahead of its time, the camera is beautifully made and very compact at only 150 x 130 x 95mm, but heavy for a small camera, weighing 2.5 kg. There is a choice of internal optical viewfinder and external wire type (Ivens is using the former as is Kaufman in the screenshot below). It could also be used as a still camera, and to copy films using a light source through the lens aperture. There was also a microscope attachment (Microphot).

The film is pre-loaded into cassettes which makes changing films in daylight very easy and convenient when on location. The 80 ft (25 metres) of film in each cassette provides around 75 seconds running time at the governed 16 frames per second. The Kinamo also has interchangeable lenses including a 180mm telephoto lens which makes it very versatile. After the merger of Ica into the Zeiss Ikon conglomerate in 1926 the camera continued to be manufactured under the new name in 35mm (N.25) and even smaller 16mm versions (S.10).

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There is little apparent difference other than the embossed maker’s name, the later Ica and the Zeiss Ikon Kinamos both having a small diagonal nickel switch (that locks the shutter release) above the end of the winding handle which you can just spot if you look closely at Kaufman’s camera in the 1928 photograph.

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Exactly which version was used is difficult to ascertain. The state organisation for cinematography, Goskino, had purchased several Ica Kinamos in the mid 1920s, and Lev Kuleshov (the great film director and theorist) had ‘criticized their haphazard distribution within the industry’ [12]. However, Vertov had been sacked by Sovkino, Goskino’s successor, in January 1927 after disputes about his film ‘One Sixth of the World’, and his refusal to provide a script for Man with a Movie Camera, so the Kinamo is unlikely to have been one of these elusive cameras.  He moved to Ukraine later in the same year to work for the film organisation VUFKU and so it could have provided either type of Kinamo. It could equally well have been a Zeiss Ikon version imported by Vertov around this time, as his Debrie Sept had been in 1925 (see later notes). This is one of the few photographs of him posing with a camera (rather than on a set) and it certainly looks as if it belongs to him! Apparently he gave this camera to his brother Boris Kaufman to shoot some of the hand-held scenes in Jean Vigo’s 1930 film ‘À propos de Nice’.

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Dziga Vertov with the Kinamo (photo usually published the wrong way round)

The scenes with the Kinamo

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[00:43:00] The traffic intersection sequence

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[00:43:04] The traffic intersection sequence (note the Parvo Model L)

As the hand-cranked Parvos are normally used on a tripod the clockwork Kinamo would have been used for the scenes requiring a hand-held camera throughout the film (and possibly a Debrie Sept – see later description). 

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There was a growing use of the ‘chest tripod’ shoulder harness which enabled a large cine camera like the Parvo (and Interview) to be used for mobile filming [13]. Note the separate expanding viewfinder (altering the field of view to suit different lenses)  However, there is no evidence that this type of support was used on Man with a Movie Camera, and it must have been rather unwieldy compared to the small Kinamo.

 

DEBRIE LABRÉLY ‘GV’ MODEL F 35MM HIGH SPEED CINE CAMERA (1925)

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Mikhail Kaufman with the Debrie GV Model F cine camera on a Debrie tripod

A rare cine camera made by Debrie for a limited period in the mid 1920s, the Model F was an early version of a series of high speed cameras made from 1921 up to the mid 1960s. Designed around the invention by Emile Labrély of a hand-cranked or motorised film mechanism that could operate from 16 to an astonishing 240 frames per second (the ‘standard’ silent film rate was 16 frames per second [14]). ‘GV’ stands for Grande Vitesse, naturally! Labrély had worked for Pathé in the early 1900s developing high speed cameras and had achieved 400 fps in 1909, and 1200 fps the following year. Extraordinary speeds for the time, but they were not intended as conventional cine cameras being very bulky and producing images only suited to scientific work. The Model F must have been more successful as a studio or location camera but there are few survivors. The National Science & Media Museum has one, and I have seen another that was for sale at a price (commensurate with the high speed) of £45,000! It was perfectly suited to the study of engineering, military, scientific, or medical problems according to the 1925 Debrie catalogue. Kaufman presumably used this camera for some of the special effects in the film in addition to conventional filming.

 

DEBRIE ‘SEPT’ 35MM CLOCKWORK MULTI-FUNCTION CINE CAMERA (1921-26)

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The Debrie Sept is a remarkably innovative device, made of aluminium, comprising a 35mm cine camera (only 16 seconds worth of film @ 16 fps), still camera (250 images), rapid sequence still camera, slide and cine projector, film copier, and enlarger. Seven operations, hence the name. A clockwork motor is housed in a detachable box on the side (a second version had a larger motor inside a more bulbous case). The 5 metres length of film is loaded into cassettes (or ‘boxes’ as they are described in the English language instructions), larger versions of the later Leica type. There is a choice of reflecting viewfinder or Newton type by pulling out the sliding front lens. The Sept started life in Italy just after WW1 as the ‘Autocinephot’ designed and made by Guiseppe Tartara of F.A.C.T. in Turin. Only around 100 were made when the design was licenced to Etablissements André Debrie, in Paris, who started producing a modified version in 1921. The camera was marketed by Société Française SEPT (see below) at the very high price of 2,550 francs (with a Zeiss lens), approximately 1,300 euros today! For comparison the far more sophisticated Kinamo with a f2.7 Zeiss lens was 475 Reichsmarks, or around 1,200 euros. Despite the cost many thousands were sold (I have seen serial # 9049 at auction in 2015).

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Although marketed ‘Pour Amateurs’, as a tough, small, hand-held movie camera the Sept was popular with silent film directors including Douglas Fairbanks (Robin Hood), and Abel Gance (Napoleon). It was also a favourite of newsreel photographers who could take a short cine film as well as still photographs of their subject. The diminutive* Sept could also be smuggled into events where their rivals had the sole rights, particularly football matches! It is a very different design compared with the precision-made Kinamo, being more the camera equivalent of a 1920s truck with thick metal construction, over-size controls, coarse helicoil focusing for the various available lenses, and a noise like a machine-gun!

*137 x 100 x 70mm, 1.6kg

In Soviet Russia the Debrie Sept ‘…would appear to have been a prized possession in the 1920s…Iakov Tolchan, a student at the State Film Technical College (GTK) and later a renowned actuality specialist, has recalled being plucked from the obscurity of his studies by Dziga Vertov in 1924 and given the opportunity to join his Ciné-Eye group primarily because he was the owner of a Debrie-Sept, a gift from a relative living in Paris.’ [15]

The following year Dziga Vertov obtained his own Debrie Sept but I can find no evidence that this camera was used in ‘Man with a Movie Camera’; it is not seen in the film and it isn’t included with the equipment surrounding Kaufman in the 1928 photograph. However, Vertov was using the Sept during his travels across Russia in the mid 20s [16] and Mikhail Kaufman is pictured below by Alexander Rodchenko’s wife, Varvara Stepanova, on roller skates with a Sept on her cover of the first 1927 edition of Soviet Cinema magazine. As both men obviously liked the camera, there is every reason to suppose that this very versatile device was used for at least some of the hand-held shots in the film (eg the netball and football matches [00:53:05 on] where such a tough camera would have been very suitable). 

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Dziga Vertov’s Sept was bought for him by Alexander Rodchenko on his visit to Paris in 1925 to supervise the design and construction of the Workers’ Club in the USSR Pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition (‘Kino-Glaz’ was shown there, awarded a diploma), and there is some interesting correspondence with his wife about the camera. Rodchenko spent over 6,000 francs on camera equipment during his visit (letter to Stepanova, May 31st 1925).

Rodchenko to Stepanova – Paris, May 2, 1925

“I bought the Sept with a timer, a 6-meter [film magazine], and a Zeiss Tessar f3.5, with eighteen cassettes, with a tripod, film, printing thing, etc. I’m sitting here looking it over. It’s small, smaller than my 9 x 12 photo camera. But unfortunately the lens has a scratch, tomorrow I’ll exchange it. It’s in a good case, and you can shoot photos with it too….I’m terribly happy…I want to shoot the opening [17], when Krasin’s [18] there, and send [it] to Vertov – I’ll be Kino-Pravda’s correspondent in Paris..”

Stepanova to Rodchenko – Moscow, June 1st, 1925

“Dear Rodchenok [sic],  we received your letter no. 28 of May 24, where you wrote that you want to buy a camera for Vertov. He’s very happy and specially asks for a telephoto lens.

As soon as you get the camera, send Dziga a letter that you bought such-and-such camera, no., the factory, and so on – this is necessary to get the license.”

Rodchenko to Stepanova – Paris, June 8, 1925

“I am sending Dziga Vertov a Sept camera, no: 0905, with a Zeiss 1:3.5 lens, in a leather case with six bobbins.”

(‘bobbins’ = film cassettes)

(the serial number is far too low for 1925 so it was probably a second-hand camera)

Rodchenko to Stepanova – Paris, June 10, 1925

“I’ll send Dziga the camera on the 12th. I went and bought a printing machine for the Sept, I’ve got about three suitcases full now. I received permission to photograph at the exhibition, which I am enjoying. I do the developing myself and I’ll print at home.”

“Dziga asked you why I bought a tripod for the Sept. Well, he’s an idiot. I bought it, of course, for photos. I bought another one too – for photographing architecture, inside the rooms, with a long exposure, here the tripods are marvellous and cheap.”

Rodchenko to Stepanova – Around 20th June, 1925 

“Left Paris for Moscow by train. Brought with me a 4 x 6 Ica, a small Sept cine camera, and two tripods. Posted one Sept cine camera for Dziga Vertov together with a telescopic lens and extra cassettes to Goskino” [19]

 

NOTES, COMMENTS, AND ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS 

Fair Use claimed for any copyright material as it is copied for solely research purposes  & commentary only, without financial gain; attribution given where possible.

SEE SECTION ON ‘THE MOVIE’ FOR COMMENTS ON THE SPECIAL EFFECTS IN ‘MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA’

FILM VERSION USED FOR SCREENSHOTS

Film stills were taken from a (Russian) YouTube version posted by ‘DM Amelin’. No music, no adverts, reasonably clear and crisp, and the correct aspect ratio. Total running time 01:07:01, slightly longer than other copies. Running speed unknown. Unfortunately some frames are missing from this version, and it now seems to have disappeared from YouTube, but it is the best free one I found for clear screenshots. It can be played but only downloaded with great difficulty from the Russian Wikimedia Commons page on Человек с кино аппаратом so I have not provided screenshot times from this version. The approximate times are taken from the Lobster Films/Eye Institute version (see below), the best print available but under copyright.

The Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Center (Dovzhenko Center) is the largest Ukrainian State Film Archive. It preserves more than 5000 titles of Ukrainian, Russian, European and American films from 1910. There is a familiar image of the ‘Cine-Eye’ heading the ‘Documentary’ section of its site but a search for Людина з кіноапаратом (Liudyna z Kinoaparatom, Ukrainian for ‘Man with a Movie Camera’) produces no results, surprisingly. However, the Center has restored a copy of the film and DVDs are available from its on-line shop.

The best available version is the 2014 EYE Film Institute/ Lobster Films HD restoration from Vertov’s original copy of the film left in Amsterdam after his 1931 European trip. The superb score is by the Alloy Orchestra. See THE MOVIE for notes on the music.

NOTE: ‘Man with a Movie Camera’ is in the public domain in Russia according to article 1281 of Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation No. 230-FZ of December 18, 2006 and article 6 of Law No. 231-FZ of the Russian Federation of December 18, 2006 (the Implementation Act for Book IV of the Civil Code of the Russian Federation). This gives a seventy year time limit for copyright protection.

MIRROR OR ‘REVERSED’ IMAGES

A number of the images in the film have been ‘reversed’, particularly the famous opening sequence [00:02:23] where you can clearly see the back to front lettering “LE PARVO”. All of the close-up shots of lenses, except one [00:33:48], and all the cranking side close-ups of the camera, except one [00:37:57 – but this has MK cranking backwards!], have also been ‘reversed’. Some of the lens shots could have been into mirrors, but I have not found out why the others were done in this way. Artistic reasons perhaps, as the reversed images are too consistent to be editing mistakes.   

All the ‘reversed’ images are of the Model L except for the Interview ‘camera in the sea’ sequence [00:51:11].

Most of the sequence on the Carousel is ‘reversed’. Presumably for artistic reasons again, perhaps to contrast with the motorcycles going around the track in the opposite direction. You can easily tell as the crank handle should be on the left in the screenshot below, not the external viewfinder and maker’s plate!

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 [00:55:28]

This ‘reversing’ of scenes and images has never been commented on in all the various sources I have read. Perhaps no one has noticed! Graham Roberts, in ‘The Man with The Movie Camera Film Companion’, p. 58, notes that one cranking view of the camera during the ‘drunk waking up’ scene is ‘upside down’ (BFI version, not in Lobster version) whereas it is actually upside down and mirrored! Incidentally, the image on p. 9 of this book has been printed the wrong way round.

In addition, the 1928 photograph of Mikhail Kaufman and his cameras, the photograph of Kaufman with the Debrie GV, and that of Dziga Vertov with the Kinamo are often reversed when published, even in scholarly publications, through a lack of knowledge of the cameras in the image.

DEBRIE

Research into the various models produced by Etablissements André Debrie is difficult as few catalogues were published, or have survived. I have only come across a couple of early advertisements. The company still exists as a manufacturer of cinematography equipment (no longer cameras) after several iterations (including being owned by the James Bond producer, Harry Saltzmann) as part of the French CTM Group. Unfortunately it is unable to provide any information on the history of the company or its products. Camera dates have been mostly taken from a history of Debrie published by the firm in 1964, kindly provided by Laurent Mannoni of the Cinémathèque française in Paris. Some of these dates conflict with generally accepted ones published elsewhere.

The Cinémathèque française cinema museum in Paris has a lot of Debrie related items, including sales and other literature, and various cameras, but only a Parvo Model T on display. The National Science & Media Museum in Bradford, UK, has an extensive collection of Debrie cameras and equipment with several Parvos (including the original 1908 version) and Septs, a GV Model F, sales literature, and handbooks. Sadly, nothing is on display. I have a 1924 Model K on a Debrie tripod, and a 1923 Debrie Sept. Information on the various models has also been gleaned from other museums, collections, auction catalogues, Ebay, and other internet sources. Although around 9,000 Parvos were made there are few original ones left as many led hard lives in film studios, updated and modified through the years. 

Many thanks to Laurent Mannoni, Directeur Scientifique du Patrimoine of the Cinémathèque française, Paris, for an invaluable dossier of the Debrie literature in the Museum’s collection. A visit to this wonderful museum is a must for film enthusiasts!

Many thanks to Kendra Bean, Emma Hogarth, and Toni Booth of the National Science & Media Museum for enabling me to inspect the Debrie cameras in its collection (all in storage), and for subsequent information. The lack of any early film related exhibits in this museum is inexplicable! 

More information on the Debrie Parvo

Fascinating contemporary film of a Parvo L being manufactured

Parvo Model L brochure

More information on the Debrie Interview

More information on the Debrie Grande Vitesse

More information on the Debrie Sept

Debrie Sept instructions

PHOTO CREDITS

Debrie Parvo Model L – Frank Hurley’s camera: both photos by George Serras, National Museum of  Australia. Many thanks to the NMA for permission to use these images.

Parvo patent drawing from the Debrie document collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris.

J Debrie building photograph from CTM André Debrie (France).

Photograph of Frank Hurley from the State Library of New South Wales, Australia. Many thanks to the Library for permission to use this photograph.

Photograph of Agnès Varda (permission sought but no response as yet!)

Debrie Interview photograph with the kind permission of Sam Dodge who has a wonderful collection of antique movie cameras on his website.

Debrie Parvo Model K photographs with the kind permission of Jake’s Cameras, Colorado, USA.

Rudolph Valentino photograph from ‘Old Hollywood in Color’ blog

Period photographs are from multiple sources so no specific attribution can be made. Contemporary Soviet photographs are in the public domain (Russia has a seventy year copyright limit).

See above for screenshots source.

REFERENCES (see Bibliography for more detailed descriptions)

[1] ‘The Men with the Movie Camera, The Poetics of Visual Style in Soviet Avant-Garde Cinema of the 1920s’, p. 19.

[2] Mikhail Kaufman studied at the VGIK film school in Moscow and became a mechanic during the Civil War. Vertov described his skills: ‘…works in motion picture and still photography; knows cars; has knowledge of electrical engineering, blacksmithing, and metalwork; given to experimentation’. On the Organisation of a Film Experiment Station,  ‘Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov’, p. 23.

Kaufman made several documentary films during the 1920s and 30s, including the critically acclaimed ‘Moscow’ in 1927 and ‘In Spring’ in 1929. The youngest Kaufman brother, Boris, also became a renowned cinematographer, working with Jean Vigo, Sidney Lumet, and Elia Kazan, winning an Oscar for ‘On the Waterfront’ in 1954.

[3] The Kinoks (‘kino-oki’ meaning ‘cine-eyes’) were a collective of film-makers organised by Dziga Vertov in the early 1920s.

[4] The Russian camera industry began with the production of copies of traditional folding cameras in 1930 by the Fototrud Industrial Co-operative in Moscow called EFTE and ARFO. Almost exact copies of the Leica rangefinder camera were made by FED from 1932, completely ignoring the Leitz patents. Link to the fascinating story of these cameras and the Dzerzhinsky Commune. The first semi-professional Soviet cine camera (apart from Mikhail Kaufman’s!) was a 16mm prototype made by NIFKI in 1934 (thanks to Russian camera expert Aidas Piviotas for this information). The first synchronised sound camera was the KS-2 made in 1936 by Lenkinap.

[5] Apart from Rudolph Valentino (see photo) Hollywood preferred home-grown cameras from Bell & Howell or Mitchell because of their greater film capacity, turret lenses, and ease of obtaining spare parts. However, Paramount News used Debrie Parvos extensively.

[6] Some notable examples in addition to Vertov/Kaufman/Troyanski: Michael Curtiz, Alexander Dovzhenko, Carl Dreyer, Sergei Eisenstein/Eduard Tisse, Abel Gance, Joris Ivens, Fritz Lang, Marcel L’Herbier, FW Murnau, Vsevolod Pudovkin, Leni Riefenstahl, Abram Room, Paul Wegener.

[7] Eduard Tisse used a Model L to film the duelling sequence in Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, 1938 (multiple sources).

[8] Leni Riefenstahl used Model Ls to film the Berlin Olympics in 1936.

[9] The two cameras are on display in the Third Man Museum in Vienna.

[10] Graham Roberts, in ‘The Man with The Movie Camera Film Companion’, is one of the few authors who mentions the equipment used on the film in any detail. One camera only is listed in the credits as a ‘Debrie with Zeiss lens (35mm and 70mm)‘, but a ‘standard 28mm’ and ‘telephoto’ are mentioned later in the text. None of the focal lengths mentioned is correct however. In the absence of an equipment list for the film the only lenses that I can be certain of are the 21cm and 15cm Krauss Zeiss ones (NOTE: focal lengths for Krauss lenses of this period are stated in centimetres with commas). Standard (5cm or 7,5cm) and wide angle (3,5cm) lenses would undoubtedly have been used but it is impossible (at least on YouTube) to read the engraved text on any but the two Krauss telephotos. Lenses seem to have been matched to the camera – on my Model K the serial numbers of the three Krauss lenses (5, 3,5 and 7,5cm) that came with the camera are engraved on the distance bar. There are also serial numbers for 10,5cm and 15cm lenses, unfortunately missing from the set. Debrie chose to show these focal lengths on the bar in millimetres for some reason.

[11] ‘The Kinamo Movie Camera, Emanuel Goldberg and Joris Ivens’ – a draft paper by Michael J Buckland, University of Berkeley, California, 2008.

[12] ‘The Delirious Vision: The Vogue for the  Hand-held Camera in Soviet Cinema of the 1920s’ p. 14 .

[13] ‘The Delirious Vision: The Vogue for the  Hand-held Camera in Soviet Cinema of the 1920s’ pp. 15 & 16.

[14] Silent film speeds varied slightly depending on the studio but the usual cranking rate was 16 frames per second [first set by the Lumière Brothers’ Cinématographe in 1896]. The first ‘talkies’ had a speed of 24 fps (The ‘Jazz Singer’ onwards) and synchronised sound cameras were motorised to run at this speed.

Graham Roberts, in The Man with The Movie Camera Film Companion, p. [ix] notes that ‘In general Western scholars have been working on 18 fps (whilst in Moscow I watched the film at 24 fps). It has now become more common to run the film at 24 fps. The British Film Institute video and DVD print – for which the film is run at 24 fps – lasts 66 minutes, 30 seconds’. However, both the Kinamo and Debrie Sept have clockwork motors set at 16 fps and the Debrie Parvo’s tachometer scale is from 0 to 24 fps with a large arrow on the 16 fps mark (below).  The maximum speed was used for slow motion effect (ie filming at 24 fps and playing back at 16 fps) so cranking the camera at full speed all the time would have been difficult and unlikely. Just maintaining a regular 16 fps called for a lot of skill and stamina from the operator; a one eighth turn of the handle = one frame, so two full turns per second = 16 fps. Vertov himself called this ‘the usual rate’ (though wanting it to be abolished in favour of special effects!). ‘Kino-Eye: ‘The Writings of Dziga Vertov’, p. 131.

[15] ‘The Delirious Vision: The Vogue for the  Hand-held Camera in Soviet Cinema of the 1920s’ pp. 12 & 13.

[16] According to Herbert Marshall in Masters of the Soviet Cinema: Crippled Creative Biographies – chapter on Dziga Vertov.

[17] The opening of the Soviet Pavilion. This extraordinary building, designed by Konstantin Mel’nikov, was a showcase for the avant-garde of the young USSR.

[18]  Leonid Krasin, People’s Commissar for Foreign Trade.

[19] Goskino was the State Committee for Cinematography in Moscow. In 1924 it was          succeeded by Sovkino so perhaps Rodchenko was just used to the old name. 

Correspondence (except last letter) from ‘Alexandr Rodchenko, Experiments for the Future’, pp. 167-185. Edited and prefaced by Alexander N Lavrentiev, translated by Jamey Gambrell, introduction by John E Bowlt, The Museum of Modern Art, 2005.

Last letter from ‘Alexander Rodchenko, Revolution in Photography’, catalogue of an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery London, February to April 2008, p. 216. Author Alexander Lavrentiev, Moscow House of Photography Museum, 2008.