As a boom in car ownership in the 1930s stoked competition between oil companies, so Shell looked to make documentary films as a way of raising its profile.

The company created its Shell Film Unit 80 years ago under the guidance of the UK’s most influential documentary film-maker of the time, John Grierson (1898 – 1972). One of the first to see the power of motion pictures to educate and shape opinion, Grierson is still widely regarded as the father of the documentary today.

The films Shell produced set out to inform and entertain, using action and animation to explain the mechanical marvels of the age to a wide audience. They demonstrated how people around the world could overcome challenges in health, food and transport.

The intention was not to advertise Shell’s brands: the film-makers consciously took a journalistic approach, and the company name and pecten logo appeared only at the end of films.

Historic poster for the film Airport
Shell’s first film “Airport” (1934) depicted a day in the life of London’s Croydon airport

“This detachment has served Shell companies well, for today Shell films are a part of the curriculum of schools all over the world,” wrote Sir Arthur Elton, one of the early leaders of the unit, in Film User magazine in 1956. “They have been adopted by scores of universities and are used by international, national and government institutions everywhere.”

Shell’s first film, “Airport”, depicted a day in the life of London’s Croydon airport, at the time one of the busiest in the world. Shell went on to produce hundreds of documentaries in the decades that followed, captivating audiences with films distributed in a variety of languages.

The post-war period also saw Shell branch out into international filmmaking. In the 1950s, we made a series of multi-award-winning films about problems associated with pests, especially the malaria-spreading mosquito and the crop-destroying locust.

The Rival World
The Rival World (1955) was a dramatic account of the threat posed by the insect world to human health and food resources

“The Rival World” includes stunning shots of a pest-spraying aircraft battling though vast locust swarms in Africa, its windscreen wipers struggling to clear splattered insects away.

The strong ecological, social or environmental themes continued throughout the 1960s.

“Food or Famine” studied the unequal distribution of food around the world, while “Mekong”, featuring a United Nations (UN) project to harness the river that winds through south-east Asia, earned widespread praise. “The River Must Live” went on to warn about river pollution in Europe and how to remedy it.

By the early 1970s, demand had grown within Shell for more technical oil industry films and the unit also began using actors to dramatise important safety issues.

Shell continued to make educational and public interest films, however, including “The World of Oil” series directed by Robin Jackson. “They were specifically for educational use in schools,” Jackson said.

The company’s long cooperation with the UN continued with 1984’s “Escape from Hunger” and 1992’s “Nutrition: The Global Challenge”.

The award-winning 1991 film “Climate of Concern” is one of the earliest warnings about the threat of global warming and how the world might deal with it.

Much of Shell’s 80-year archive has since been preserved on digital video. Watch a two-minute overview of Shell’s films since 1934, right up to the present day.

Smartphones and tablets are now replacing cinemas and celluloid. But Shell’s recent productions – on energy-related subjects ranging from urban pollution in China and poverty in the Philippines to innovative new projects – continue to inform and entertain 80 years on.

Watch our latest films at Shell’s YouTube channel

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