The Shell Film Unit is probably, after the GPO, the most celebrated organisational product of the Documentary Movement. Certainly, it must have special significance for any history of the relationship between industry and the media. It was the most highly regarded documentary unit based within a private corporation. It was also especially long-lived, surviving many changes in distribution and technology - from 35mm film to 16mm to video. Shell's film activity, though centred on the UK, ultimately became international in scope - reflecting the nature of its sponsor (Shell Oil and its various manifestations can be seen as a prototype for the multinational corporations much more prevalent today). Finally, the combination of quality and subtlety evident in Shell's best films exemplifies a form of sponsored filmmaking, apparently more enlightened - or perhaps more insidious? - than direct product promotion.
Though Shell had sponsored films in the 1920s, its in-house film unit was created in 1934, and key figures in British documentary history were involved. Instrumental in setting up the Unit was Shell's publicity head Jack Beddington (later head of film production at the Ministry of Information). Edgar Anstey was installed as the Unit's first Producer, and this role was later taken on by his close colleague Arthur Elton, the key creative figure in Shell's film work over many years (later still he was joined by another Documentary Movement figure, Stuart Legg). The documentary organisation, Film Centre, originally set up by John Grierson and for which Elton and Legg worked, played an important consultative role in the Unit's activities through much of both organisations' existence.
Shell's film work was from the start designed to have a cumulative, but subtle, impact on the general public. Often released into cinemas as well as screened non-theatrically, the films frequently avoided direct reference to the company or its products and services. It is true that many films, bearing titles like Lubrication of the Petrol Engine (1937), covered technological themes directly related to Shell's industrial activity, or performed a technical instructional function. Others, though, such as the first film Airport (1934), were certainly tangentially related to the parent company's activities but took a general interest documentary approach to their subjects. A third group of films covered topics entirely unrelated to oil - for instance the Craftsmen films (1934-51), an educational series dealing with traditional rural crafts. Shell's long-running Cinemagazine series straddled the genres of the industrial cinemagazine and the educational film.
Stylistically, Shell was also particularly innovative in the 1930s in its incorporation of graphics and animation - see, for example, Birth of the Robot (d. Len Lye, 1934) - and such techniques continued to be important during World War 2. During the war, the Unit, like much of the film industry, was co-opted into the war effort, its staff and facilities being put at the service of the Ministry of Information's film division: its prewar work had prepared it particularly well for the wartime use of the medium for technical training purposes. After WW2, Shell's film work diversified further, films being sponsored by an ever-larger number of the Shell Group's individual components and sometimes by outside agencies including charities. It became associated with such varied output as popular film coverage of international motor sports (many of these films, such as Grand Prix (1949), directed by Bill Mason), technological histories (Paint, 1967, surveyed the evolution of paint through art - and human - history) and imaginative, often thought-provoking, science documentary (the celebrated The Rival World (1955) brilliantly, if gruesomely, conveyed the relationship between the human and the insect world).
Environmental themes became increasingly common in the 1970s, though the Unit also regularly remade or updated many of its popular classics in order to retain a contemporary feel to its output (for example, the How An Aeroplane Flies series was originally released in 1947, but updated for distribution to a new generation of viewers in 1975). In the 1980s, video production proliferated at the same time as the non-theatrical film distribution circuit, critical to Shell's wide outreach, largely faded away. The Unit ultimately changed its name to the Shell Film and Video Unit, but remained among the key players in the audio visual communications industry. Subsequently, it transferred its entire film archive to the British Film Institute's National Film and Television Archive.