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Transfer of Power (1939)

Courtesy of Shell International

Main image of Transfer of Power (1939)
35mm, 20 min, black & white
DirectorGeoffrey Bell
Production CompanyShell Film Unit
ProducerArthur Elton
PhotographySidney Beadle
AnimatorFrancis Rodker

The history and principles behind the development and design of gear wheels.

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Geoffrey Bell's Transfer of Power typifies the standards for which the Shell Film Unit became known. It features conspicuously high production values, it has carefully lit live-action shots (including several showing industrial archaeological sites and historical artefacts from the Science Museum) and historical illustrations and animated diagrams crisply assembled to illustrate the commentary. The precision, authority and seriousness of the script are also essential to this aesthetic; unlike the decade's most popular scientific film series Secrets of Nature (1922-33). There is no concession to humour in this film; it is designed to convey essential information only. The film can be seen to exemplify the documentarist Michael Clarke's later judgement that, in scientific filmmaking, "clarity has its own high aesthetic value".

The film contains a history of technology, but it favours an account of technological evolution - from lever to windlass to gear wheel - over the Marxist-influenced 'dialectical' view of history favoured by other documentarists, which stressed social impact. Unlike Paul Rotha's The Face of Britain (1935) or John Monck's Health for the Nation (1939) for example, only technical aspects of the subject are included in the account. Only a few of its sequences exhibit the visual and aural features typical of mainstream documentaries; there is a concentration on men at work in industry and the soundtrack uses the 'wild track' of industrial noises and indistinct working speech typical of many documentaries.

Although it is consistently referred to as a scientific film, the relationship of Transfer of Power to documentary is disputed. Rotha argued that "this side of the [Shell] Unit's work did not really fall within the category of documentary purpose, rather they were well-made films of instruction and explanation". Such a comment illustrates the difference between defining documentaries in terms of who made them (it was produced by John Grierson-associate Arthur Elton) and choosing to emphasise subject concerns or social interpretation. When counted as a documentary, it would belong within Rotha's definition of 'reportage documentary': "an honest effort to report, describe or delineate a series of events, or the nature of a process."

Timothy Boon

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Video Clips
1. A new age (3:26)
2. Shape of teeth (2:18)
3. Machine age (2.13)
Face of Britain, The (1935)
Shell Film Unit (1934-)
Science in Non-Fiction Film