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How Much Maintenance do Motion Picture Film Cameras Really Need?
By Jorge Diaz-Amador
©2020 all rights reserved
One of the most common questions with regard to servicing motion picture cameras is I get asked is: How much maintenance do these camera really need? The problem seems to be that there is no “common knowledge” frame of reference for owners to go on. There is also a lot of incorrect assumptions and even bogus information out there.
The most important question you have to ask yourself is: How important are the results of your shoot with this camera? Is it “no big deal” if you have to re-shoot? Or are you risking loosing a client, or your reputation, or even inviting a lawsuit if the results are unacceptable.
The way I look at it, it makes no sense economically to not have a camera at least checked out if you are going to shoot any amount of film with it. As an example, the cost of purchase, processing, and video transfer of 100 feet (2 min 45 sec) of 16mm filmstock at our local labs in $???? If the results are unacceptable this mean a loss of $??? Even if the film was shot for personal use and there are no further losses (rehiring actors and crew for re-shoot, ect).
Lets say the camera in question was a 16 SR with incorrect flange focal depth and incorrect ground glass setting. If either one of these settings was off by 2/1,000 of an inch, focus may be unacceptable. In most cases the cost of re-calibrating both these settings on an SR would be $150. That’s a lot less that what it will cost to re-shoot 100 feet of 16mm, even with actors and crew agreeing to re-shoot at no cost.
Many camera owners also assume that if the results of the last shoot were acceptable they have nothing to worry about for an upcoming shoot. In many cases these owners do not know when their cameras were last serviced. It is most likely the camera was delivered to them at the time of purchase with no service records. Would you buy a used car from someone with no maintenance records and without having a qualified mechanic check the car?
If a camera were only used under ideal circumstances, infrequent maintenance might be acceptable. But how often do we find ourselves shooting in an air conditioned studio at 72ºF and 60% humidity? In South Florida I frequently find myself shooting in conditions of extremely high humidity, and even exposure to salt spray and sand. How often do the camera and lenses go into their cases after a long day of exposure to the elements, without much cleaning by exhausted camera assistants after a long day, to sit in the back of the camera truck in 90% humidity overnight? Happens all the time in South Florida. It’s the reality of the business, the cameras have to work to make money. Sometimes, you might not be aware of the environmental extremes your camera is subjected to. When it sitting in the cargo hold of an airliner for instance.
There are many components of even today’s modern cameras that are only meant to last for a certain amount of time. Most notably clutches and belts, as well as gaskets and seals. Depending on the type of camera, you may have 50 year old rubber belts and gaskets in it.
Just like in your car, lubricants in a camera break down over time. Lubricants are necessary at any point in the mechanism where there is metal-to-metal contact, and that means a lot of points of lubrication. Unfortunately lubrication attracts dust and metal fragments. Older cameras use unsealed cartridge bearings in the movement and mags. It is relatively easy for the grease in these bearings to get contaminated. The grease will also dry out over time, leaving just the dust and metal fragments. Most modern cameras use sealed bearings in their mechanisms. These sealed bearings protect against contamination of the grease and require less frequent maintenance, but the grease will still break down over time.
Once effective lubrication is lost, metal is now rubbing against metal with only dirt and metal fragments in between. This is when rapid wear occurs ruining the tolerance of the cameras movement. This is usually what has happened to older sound sync cameras that now run with a great deal of movement noise and make sound shooting impractical with them.
There is probably more erroneous assumptions about lenses than any other subject. Many owners seem to think that lenses do not require any maintenance, and that focus calibrations of lenses involve extensive service and should be avoided unless the lens is totally out of focus, because of the high cost.
The opposite is true. Zoom lenses, in particular, are very sensitive and require regular maintenance. Although they do not have the complex film movements of cameras, lenses require lubrication of their focus and zoom mechanisms.
One type of service you should always prioritize is to have your lenses checked for focus calibration. This involves the use of specialized optical equipment, and precision measuring equipment to accomplish. Tolerances are adjusted to 5/10,000ths of an inch! But in most cases, especially with prime lenses, calibration can be accomplished quickly and is not very expensive. I can usually check and adjust four prime lenses or one zoom lens in an hour.
Film magazines often require more maintenance that the cameras they are meant for. This is especially true for cameras with coaxial magazines. Along with the ever-present possibility of magazines scratching film and jamming, magazines with film gate pressure plates such as the 16SR can ruin focus is they are not properly calibrated. Magazines for silent sound-sync cameras are notorious for unexpectedly becoming the source of loud noise when the camera is running. This is especially true of the ARRI 16SR and 35BL mags. Nearly all mags use clutches and belts, both of which wear out regularly. Fortunately all mags are easier to service that the cameras the belong to. They should always receive more frequent service than the camera.
Batteries are probably the cause of more grief on shoots than any other item. There is a lot of commonly believed misconceptions about battery memory. While I can’t go as far as to say that battery memory doesn’t exist, it only occurs under very specific and exact circumstances that do not exist in cinematography. What is commonly believed to be battery memory is nearly always decreased battery capacity due to improper charging and/or discharging, or it may be a battery that is near the end of it useful life. Our digital battery analyzer can determine the condition of your batteries and save you from this common and embarrassing circumstance. This is an inexpensive service that I highly recommend you take advantage of. We can re-cell your battery if needed.