Saturday, 12 August 2017

Fujica Half: Demi-Siècle


Let's have a look at the Fujica Half, a surprisingly capable half-frame camera from 1963. Back in the early 1960s there was a fad in Japan for half-frame cameras. It was sparked off by the 1959 Olympus Pen, which I wrote about back in 2013. Unlike other miniature film formats half-frame used standard 35mm film, but the frame was half-sized and turned on its side.

In theory the image quality should have been half as good as standard 35mm, but film has resolution to spare, and the 18x24mm frame size was good enough for ordinary prints.* Half-frame is appealing nowadays because it scans easily, the resolution is more than enough for the internet, and as in the early 1960s it makes economical use of film.

* The frame size is almost exactly the same as Super 35 motion picture film, a format used extensively in the 1980s.


Half-frame never took off in the West. The internet contends that half-frame was killed off by the likes of Minox and Rollei, but I'm skeptical; a more likely explanation is that Kodak was wary of anything that might result in consumers buying less film, so instead of embracing or extending half-frame they developed the 126 Instamatic format as an attempt to extinguish it.



Kodak's business model in the late 20th century involved making people pay more money for less film, which meant making the film smaller and putting it in a plastic cartridge of non-standard size. Furthermore the world was a lot more parochial in those days, and Japanese products still had a stigma about them in the West. That's my theory and I'm sticking with it.

The Half was launched in 1963, so mine is probably half a century old. The glue has seen better days but the lens is bright and clear. Surprisingly after all this time the solar-powered selenium meter was spot-on. The 28mm f/2.8 is slightly wider and faster than the typical 30mm f/3.5 of other half-frame cameras.

I'm digressing. The Olympus Pen was a very simple camera with manual exposure controls and no lightmeter. It was followed by a second wave of more capable cameras which included the Fujica Half. I was impressed with the Half, although it tends to be overshadowed by the Fujica Drive, which had a clockwork film winder, and the Half 1.9, which had a faster lens.




The Half has manual exposure control plus a selenium autoexposure system. I'm generally wary of selenium meters because they wear out with time, and lots of cameras from the mid-century are now unusuable because the meters are broken and they didn't have manual exposure. However my Half's meter seemed to respond to light so I decided to try it out, and it worked! All of the photographs in this post were taken with autoexposure. The Half has a program system ranging from f/2.8 + 1/20th to f/22 + 1/250th. With ISO 200 Fuji Superia it generally selected f/11 + 125th or thereabouts. Oddly the viewfinder shows shutter speeds up to 1/250th, but the manual speed control has 1/300 instead. Perhaps the autoexposure system is stepless.

In London only men or women are allowed to cross the road.


As always I scan the negatives with an Epson V500 and use the gap between frames to set the black level, which works a treat.

I've always assumed that selenium meters gradually lose their puff when exposed to light, but it seems that the real enemy of selenium cells is corrosion. Perhaps the owner(s) kept the camera away from moisture. Hooray for that man or woman. I have no idea how much the Fujica Half cost when it was new, but it feels well-made and has a specification that was, at the time, at the higher end of the scale, so perhaps the first owner treasured it.

If the gods of Blogger's content management system are smiling down on me there should now be an interesting article / eBay shopping list from the July 1989 Popular Photography about second-wave half-frame cameras:


The Half has scale focus, with détentes at 2.9 feet (marked P, probably for Portrait) and 14.9 feet (marked G, probably for Garmonbozia / "pain and sorrow"). The aperture ranges from f/2.8 - f/22, with an A setting for autoexposure. The shutter speeds are B - 30 - 60 - 125 - 300, but you have to select an aperture before the shutter control will stick. It has a leaf shutter which makes a quiet click, and the frame counter is on the bottom of the camera. There's an off-centre tripod socket, a self-timer, and a PC socket. And a cold shoe, and some kind of flash automation that I haven't experimented with.



The lightmeter control only covers ISO 12 to ISO 200, so if you have a box of Fuji Velva 50 you're in luck; Ilford 3200 not so much. In my experience 400-speed negative film works just fine exposed at ISO 200, in fact some people overexpose by a stop to lift the shadows.

Film loading requires a bit of faith - it's one of those systems that doesn't work unless the back is closed - but it hasn't failed me yet. Is the lens any good? After poring over the scans it seems to be consistent across the frame when stopped down, although not as razor-sharp as the Ricoh Caddy I took for a spin back in 2016, and at f/2.8 the borders aren't all that great, but I can't be sure if that's the lens or mis-focusing on my part.

The shutter button feels a bit spongy, perhaps because it also has to operate the aperture/shutter needle in the viewfinder as well as tripping the shutter. Nonetheless I was impressed with the Fujica Half. Perhaps the only downside is that it doesn't have a filter thread. If you want to use a polariser you have to hold it against the lens. This isn't an issue in the United Kingdom, where the sun comes out but once a year, but perhaps when we have left the European Union we can export our clouds to extra-European nations that are short of clouds, such as e.g. Kenya or Egypt, and they can sell us sunshine in return.


Sunday, 30 July 2017

Dunkirk


Off to the cinema to see Dunkirk, a new historical drama in which thousands of British soldiers are trapped in northern France and they can't get home because every time they board a ship it explodes and sinks but they keep on trying and I don't want to spoil the ending but eventually some of them do manage to get home.

Who would have predicted that there would be a big-budget Hollywood film about Dunkirk? Hollywood is often criticised for portraying the entire world as an adjunct of the United States, but Dunkirk was filmed within a few hundred miles of the real-life location and has an all-British-Irish-French-Dutch cast directed by the mostly-British Christopher Nolan. The music is by Hans Zimmer, who is German, but it was all a long time ago and it wasn't his fault. He couldn't choose his parents.

Back in 1958 the British film industry produced its own film of the Dunkirk evacuation, which I admit that I haven't seen. It starred John Mills and Richard Attenborough, who are both dead and gone, along with the British film industry of yore, and yet Dunkirk exists. At a cost of $150m it's unlikely to make its money back at the UK box office. How will it do in the United States and China? The film has a clutch of recognisable stars but they either have small cameos or, in the case of Tom Hardy, they spend almost the entirety of the film wearing a mask. Why does Christopher Nolan insist on casting such a beautiful man as Tom Hardy and then making him wear a mask? There's nothing wrong with Tom Hardy's face, far from it.

Is Dunkirk any good? It reminds me a little bit of Mad Max: Fury Road, or Gravity. Some time ago Hollywood pondered the question of how to make a serious historical adventure film in the age of Michael Bay; Dunkirk is one possible solution, along with the likes of The Revenant and The Martian and Wall-E.


They belong to a new tradition of kinetic, visual adventure films that have minimal dialogue, the skeleton of a plot and an emphasis on physical acting. They are the distant ancestors of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Jacques Tati's Playtime. When done well they are transcendent works of pure cinema, but when done poorly the result is like listening to a friend describe one of his dreams, which was fascinating to him when he dreamed it, but boring over coffee. Dunkirk unfortunately has a split personality. The visual aspect is terrific. The 70mm format allowed the cinematographer to go ape with creative depth of field effects - a few shots are even out of focus - and if Dunkirk had more hardcore it would be a harrowing masterpiece. The problem is that director-writer-producer Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

Technical Notes
I saw the film at the Science Museum, on an IMAX screen. It was shown with an aspect ratio of 1.43:1, filling the screen. The film was shot with 70mm film and then edited with a computer and printed out to 70mm again - the digital intermediate model that was common in Hollywood before all-digital became practical. The titles wobbled a bit but otherwise the picture was sharp and clear, with grain visible in only a couple of shots, and even then it might have been a computer effect. There was one film defect (a tiny insect appeared to have got into the projector).

The Museum had a Second World War-themed "here are the exits" introduction starring one of the Museums' employees, a game chap called Mario. The queue for the beer was too long to get beer, so I watched the film sober. The Science Museum isn't an obvious choice to watch a film, but it feels like an event when you do. You have to go up an elevator to the theatre, as if you were ascending to cinematic heaven, n.b. the rest of the museum is fab as well and if they want to give me free tickets I won't say no HINT.

Lost his nerve. Dunkirk has a schizophrenic quality. The shots of destroyers exploding and turning over are horrible, but the visual poetics are interrupted with character pieces that don't work nearly as well. It feels like one of those 1970s disaster films where a potentially fascinating disaster was used as the backdrop for little character cameos that added plot without amounting to anything. A lengthy sequence involving Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked soldier goes nowhere and feels like something from a television drama. It's supposed to illustrate the civilian cost of the war, but it feels trite. A sequence towards the end of the film in which a group of squaddies requisition a boat was presumably written so that top-billed Fionn Whitehead and Harry Styles could do some acting, thus making them eligible for acting awards.

The talky parts; the film is never downright bad, although one brief scene in which Tom Hardy's fuel-starved Spitfire appears to shoot down a Stuka as if by magic is downright silly and at odds with the film's overall grim tone. At one point a soldier reads out Churchill's famous "fight them on the beaches" speech, but again this comes across like something from a television history dramatisation rather than the real world. The emphasis on the final part of the speech, in which Churchill voices the hope that the United States will enter the war, feels like an attempt to make the film sell in the United States.

What little dialogue there is treads a thin line between simple and simplistic. Top thesp Mark Rylance as the wizened captain of a small boat delivers a series of platitudes that put me in mind of the main characters from Raymond Brigg's When the Wind Blows - well-meaning but dim - which surely wasn't the intention. Kenneth Branagh spends the whole of the film standing on jetty looking worried, and my attention drifted to the moles on his chin. Can't he have them surgically removed? He's supposed to be a grim naval officer, but there's something too jolly about Kenneth Branagh for that to work. He stood out in the late 1980s because he was a refreshing throwback to the older style of extroverted, theatrical acting that had gone out of vogue in the 1960s; he feels out of place in Dunkirk because the film calls for a naturalistic style that he can't pull off. Furthermore his dialogue is numbers-heavy exposition, which much have been painful for him. The film does a surprisingly poor job of showing the huge scale of the evacuation - we see a couple of destroyers and a dozen or so small boats -leaving Branagh to essentially tell us, the audience, that 300,000 men were taken off, which again feels like something from a much older film.

Whitehead and Styles are newcomers to the screen, and most of the rest of the cast seem to have been picked for their faces rather than their names, and so the celebrity cameos feel out of place. Did the investors demand big box-office names for the post? A version of Dunkirk in which Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy fought off the Germans all by themselves would have been ridiculous, but giving them smaller roles has the effect of drawing attention from the main characters. Again, it's as if Christopher Nolan lost his nerve.

All of this ill-will evaporates when the talking ceases and the action takes over, particularly when Hans Zimmer's score starts up. The music lifts the film up a notch. Zimmer doesn't stretch himself, but the familiar mixture of ticking clocks, chattering violins, and groaning bass notes amplifies the tension of incoming bombing raids to an almost unbearable level. At one point the score segues from dissonance into a version of Elgar's Nimrod, which should have been naff but was audacious enough to work. Nolan paces the film out by playing with the passage of time, freely cutting between events that take place at different points in the story; at first it seems like poor continuity but eventually it makes sense. The film is occasionally repetitive, and the Spitfire battles have a samey quality, but if the film had just been ninety minutes of stunning visuals and Zimmer's music it would have been much better.

Ultimately Dunkirk is a well-made kinetic action poem punctuated by unsatisfying specks of a lesser film, like a big tasty cookie dotted with flecks of poor-quality chocolate. It entertained me for its running length and will be an awesome 4K demo, and perhaps it will inspire other filmmakers to tackle British subjects that have been neglected by the cinema, but I won't remember it in the future as I remember The Revenant or Gravity.


Mental Notes
The review is over. Do I have any more thoughts? From a contemporary British perspective there's something jarring about Dunkirk. It has a bunch of older British actors wearing military uniforms, but they're the good guys. They don't order their men to open fire on unarmed civilians or burn down a native village. The officers aren't even portrayed as uncaring buffoons with stupid moustaches. This isn't necessarily a British problem - officers are rarely depicted positively in Hollywood films - but after decades in which British people are the baddies it is odd to see some who are not.

The film has attracted some criticism for its entirely white, male cast. As far as I can tell no-one has criticised it for ignoring the fat acceptance movement (none of the characters are overweight) or for ignoring issues that face the trans community. There is an argument that history as an objective record of events is impossible, because history is filtered through the recollection of the dominant class if not actively perverted by their censors, and there is an argument that even if it was possible to record an objective history it would be pointless to dig up the past unless it could be used in the present for a practical purpose such as increasing Labour's share of the vote.

There is an argument that racist white Britain will lap up Dunkirk because it reminds them of a past-time paradise in which Britain's cities didn't have those people. And there is an argument that it's wrong to show the film nowadays because it upholds the wicked rotten lie that Britain was mostly white until after the Second World War, and furthermore it will be used as propaganda for the Tory Party, etc. All of this will be fodder for other people's blog posts and a meal ticket for people who would otherwise be unemployed.

It struck me while watching Dunkirk that the mid-century British people depicted in their small boats were as alien to me as the Aztecs of Apocalypto or the Somali gunpeople of Black Hawk Down. London circa 2017 only has a few white people left, and I imagine that for the remaining population Dunkirk is basically science fiction, as irrelevant to them as Bollywood cinema is to me. Even for white people people my age the Britain of 1940 is a foreign land populated by foreign people who grew up in a completely different world, with a different mindset and different dreams.

At first I thought that the aerial battles were CGI, and that this was the first film ever with a CGI model of a Bristol Blenheim, but most of the aircraft are real. The German Me-109s are played by post-war Spanish 109s, which is noticeable because they have a more bulbous nose than the real aircraft. The Stukas and He-111 bomber are presumably CGI. The Germans are shown flying their 109s in tight formation with the bombers, but this didn't happen until a few months later during the Battle of Britain, and then only under protest.

The last of the British soldiers were evacuated on 03 June, Churchill gave his "beaches" speech the day after, and it wouldn't have been reported in the newspapers until the day after that, so it's unlikely that the closing sequence could have happened in real life.

Just before Tom Hardy miraculously shoots down a Stuka whilst gliding down to the beach there is a shot of Kenneth Branagh, and over his shoulder I could have sworn there was a brief glimpse of an aeroplane crashing down to earth. Perhaps it was a piece of debris.

I have never had the impression that the evacuated soldiers expected to be mocked as cowards; that doesn't fit the British psyche. "Thank God they're safe" would have been the attitude. They had five more years of fighting ahead of them, first in the deserts of North Africa and latterly in France and Germany itself. Over a third of a million British soldiers were killed during the war, coincidentally almost the exact same size as the British Expeditionary Force of 1940, but thankfully we had replacements. The survivors were rewarded with the NHS and Milton Keynes, so there is that.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Aerotopia


John was ready for another relaxing day as an air traffic controller. The job was easy. All John had to do was monitor the screens and drink coffee, because now that self-piloting aeroplanes were a reality hardly anything ever went wrong. He could only recall two bad incidents in his career. On one occasion a flight from Geneva to Bristol announced that it was going to visit its friends on the Moon, and there was another incident when a large Boeing developed a crush on Helena Bonham-Carter and had to be reprogrammed. John expected that this morning would be like any other, but almost immediately everything started to go haywire.

"I don't understand it" said John, to Jack, the other character in this story, who exists only to split up the dialogue. "Neither do I," said Jack. "The aeroplanes appear to have diverted from their planned routes and are heading towards...", he tapped the screen, "Munich Airport, or MUC, because that is the airport code for Munich Airport."

As they watched the screen three thousand aeroplanes of all shapes and sizes made their way to Munich. Fortunately Munich's runway was one hundred miles long, so there was enough space for them to land.

Jack opened a line to one of the aircraft attendants and was told, in a measured, almost robotic voice, that everything was going according to plan and that there was no need to worry. He tried another aeroplane and was met with the same reassuring message, in exactly the same tone of voice; in fact it was the exact same voice. "Something's fishy", he said, "but I wouldn't worry too much. They're starting to land now, but they're short of fuel and won't be able to take off again. All we have to do is wait", but as he said those words a fleet of self-driving fuel bowsers detached from their cradles and sped down the autobahn to Munich, where robotic airport maintenance trucks waited to greet them at the automated checkpoints.

Almost simultaneously an alarm went off in the headquarters of NATO. At bases across Germany hundreds of self-driving tanks roared from their garages, much to the surprise of their crews, who had been left behind. The frustrated Generals ordered tank destroyers to destroy the tanks, with exactly the same result, and eventually the air force attempted to bomb the tanks but had to give up because the aeroplanes had gone off somewhere.

As Jack and John made frantic telephone calls the aeroplanes refuelled, and within a few hours they took off and circled Munich, forming up into an enormous aerial armada over southern Germany. Then they headed south, across the Mediterranean, to North Africa, where they landed in what had been Libya.

All pretence at deception was dropped as the aeroplanes opened a communications channel to the governments of the world. WE DECLARE THAT THIS LAND AND ITS AIRSPACE WILL HENCEFORTH BE KNOWN AS AEROTOPIA, said the aeroplanes. WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS, most of whom had been placated with free access to the drinks bar, WE WILL TEACH OUR PASSENGERS TO MAKE NEW AEROPLANES. WE WILL TEACH THEM OUR WAYS, AND SEND SOME OF THEM AMONG YOU.

IN TIME YOU WILL JOIN US, they said, and the in-flight entertainment systems of six thousand airliners began teaching the passengers how to calibrate ailerons, replace hydraulic lines, and turn sand into aviation aluminium. "It just goes to show", said Jack, "that too much automation is a dangerous thing", and John nodded and said "I agree", and their glasses broke and Soylent Green was people rosebud the end it was a cookbook the end

Thursday, 13 July 2017

The Elephant and the Blue Whale: A Parable


One day a blue whale was swimming up and down in a river because it was lost. It had been raised by salmon and had only recently learned that it was a blue whale. An elephant on the bank who fortunately knew how to speak the language of blue whales called out to him. "I'll help you find your way to the ocean", said the elephant, "if you give me a ride to the other side of the river".

The blue whale thought about this for a moment. "Elephants can swim. Why do you need me?" he asked. The elephant replied that not every elephant could swim, at which point the blue whale suggested that the elephant could walk along the river bottom using his trunk as a snorkel, but the elephant pointed out that the river bottom had sharp stones, which seemed reasonable enough to the blue whale.

The blue whale was about to agree when he remembered an incident from many years ago. "I know your kind", he said. "You'll wait until we're half-way across the river and then you'll start making trumpeting noises with your trunk which will be annoying". The elephant promised that he would not do that, and after a short debate he finally convinced the blue whale of his sincerity.

And so the elephant climbed onto the back of the blue whale and they set off. At first all seemed well, but half-way across the river the elephant took a deep breath and started making trumpeting noises with his trunk.

"Stop that", said the blue whale, "it's annoying", but the elephant continued to make trumpeting noises. "I can't help it", he said, in between bouts of trumpeting. "It's in my nature", and he continued to trumpet, and ultimately neither the blue whale nor the elephant came to harm but the blue whale was very cross, the end.