Film digs into Bolex camera's family history

A La Crescenta woman is on a mission to solve a mystery involving a man with three last names for each of the three countries he lived in. The inventor, artist, filmmaker, medical student and businessman was born in Russia in 1895, and he would eventually create the Bolex line of cameras.

The cameras have been used by professional filmmakers as well as those who simply wanted to document their lives. Jacques Bolsey's desire to bring filmmaking capability to the masses first came to life in 1914 with the Cinegraph-Bol 35mm motion-picture camera. His iconic Bolex followed in 1924.

Alyssa Bolsey, the inventor's great-granddaughter and a 2007 graduate of the San Diego State University School of Theatre, Television and Film, has been piecing together his life since 2004. Her research and quest for information will be part of a documentary project she hopes to release in 2013.

The 27-year-old Bolsey said she discovered her great-grandfather invented the same camera she happened to be learning about in a film class. “I went to film school and didn't have any idea my great-grandfather invented this camera that most film schools use still today,” Bolsey said.

When her grandfather died about seven years ago, she discovered he had saved a lot of Jacques Bolsey's belongings.

“There were 10 to 20 boxes full of cameras and documents dating to 1914,” Bolsey said. “Some of the photographs are from before the turn of the century, and I read that he invented Bolex.”

The name immediately rung a bell.

“I was reading about Bolex in Robert Rodriguez's book ‘Rebel Without a Crew: Or How a 23-Year-Old Filmmaker With $7,000 Became a Hollywood Player' where he discusses using that camera,” Bolsey said. “Slowly I started realizing what a big deal that was.”

Bolsey initially told only a handful of people about the experience and shared her story with a few of her film professors. Her professors provided her with American Cinematographer magazine articles in which cinematographers discussed the Bolex as the first camera they used.

“Almost every cinematographer has used it in their career,” Bolsey said. “Big directors started with it, [including] Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson and Robert Rodriguez. It was that camera that anybody could get their hands on. And so if they wanted to experiment with filmmaking, they could use it.”

Bolsey likened it to the ubiquitous, bulky camcorders that used VHS tapes.

“Bolex was kind of like that camera for that day and age,” she said. “It allowed you to shoot despite your lack of money.”

Michael Tisdale, who runs the Bolex Collector website, said he has been interested in classic still and movie cameras and eventually pared his collection down to Bolex cameras. The former TV news photographer said he was attracted to the camera's mechanical aspect and the look and construction of it.

“The features that it offers and quality of image produced over other cameras with a spring motor makes for a cleaner picture,” said Tisdale, who is based in Atlanta. “It also offers a very stable image. It's not jumpy … it's one of the things that really appealed to a lot of people.”

While the idea of home movies began before the invention of Bolex, Tisdale said that with Bolsey selling the Bolex camera to the Paillard company, it became another option.

“With their manufacturing plants and ability to mass-produce, [Paillard] was able to market the camera to a wider range than what he had been able to do when he originally started the Bolex Company in the 1920s,” Tisdale said. “It helped make his camera available to a global market.”

Tisdale's website lists Jacques Bolsey as Ukrainian, but Alyssa said that is not the case.

“His death certificate states Kiev, Russia, as his birthplace,” Bolsey said. “Yet everything I have seen so far points to him growing up in Astrakhan, Russia, which matches his brother's family's story.”

Even the simplest questions about him have mystery attached to them, she said.

“Really what I'm trying to do is piece together this puzzle,” Bolsey said. “This mystery behind this man, because right now you can't Google him and find relevant information.”

Bolsey was also cautious when explaining her timeline of her grandfather's inventions, calling it a working document.

“I'm constantly updating it,” Bolsey said. “There are thousands and thousands of documents. Some in a different language.”

As she continues her research for the film and makes connections for project contributors, Bolsey said she has noticed a pattern.

“One of the themes that keeps coming up is that he was ahead of his time,” she said, pointing to plans for an electric car that Bolsey was designing in the 1950s.

“Another thing I find fascinating about this story is that right now, everyone can record their lives,” Bolsey said. “We have our iPhones, we have every portable way of recording or lives, social networking and whatnot. It's kind of what he was going for in the '20s.”

Even in the personal movie footage he left behind, he took the opportunity to test new devices and ideas. In one piece of film footage, the inventor is trying out a fader on his camera.

“It's like time traveling backward. It's the beginning of being able to do home moviemaking,” Bolsey said. “ It was less than 100 years ago, but when everyone thinks about it, it feels like an eternity ago — where society has progressed to is a whole other world.”

In 2010 Bolsey quit her job as an assistant at Creative Artists Agency to focus on the documentary project full time. “I decided it was now or never,” Bolsey said. “I quit my job. I've gone all in ever since then. I'm determined to make this no matter what it takes.”

Bolsey partnered with Camilo Lara Jr. of Los Angeles and Werner Schweizer, a Swiss producer at Dschoint Ventschr in Zurich. Jacques Bolsey attended medical school in Switzerland and lived there about 25 years before moving to the U.S. in 1939, and Alyssa Bolsey said she felt it was important to partner with someone from Switzerland for the project.

A development teaser can be seen at and Bolsey hopes to secure funding to help her shoot in Switzerland next month.

To apply for a “finishing grant” Bolsey needs a certain amount of footage. A trip to Switzerland would bring her one step closer to unraveling the mystery of Jacques Bolsey.

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