Shell’s pioneering films
Millions of people worldwide have watched award-winning documentaries made by Shell over the last 80 years – films that inform, entertain and tackle the challenges of the time.
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.
“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” 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.
Farmers transplant rice seedlings in China’s Hunan Province in Escape from Hunger (1985), which examines the challenge to provide enough food faced by rural populations in the Third World
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.
Shell Film Unit - Celebrating 80 Years, 1934-2014
Title: GRIERSON SHELL FILM UNIT 80 YEARS MASTER
Duration: 1:59 minutes
Grierson Shell Film Unit 80 Years Master
[Background music plays]
Strings. (Film reel sound can be heard)
Old-style Shell film unit logo on blue background
Shell Film Unit 1934-2014 Founded by John Grierson
Black and white shots of propeller plane landing, communication tower, engineers taking a plane apart, a glass blower, people watching the start of a motorcycle race, shots of the race in progress, ships in a port, the landing strip on a tanker, a plane landing on the tanker, an air controller waving the plane in to land, people pushing the plane down the landing strip. In colour now: People running through a field of birds, a woman in a canoe with four children with a stilt house behind her, an old fisherman repairing his net, a younger fisherman throwing his net out into the water, a man in discussion with officials at a stall with others sitting on the dusty street floor watching, a man and woman examining crops in a field, bags of produce being loaded onto a 4x4 with buffalo in the foreground attached to a makeshift sled for carrying produce, a bird market in progress, shots of a tapir followed by a monkey eating in a tree, people climbing into the back of a plane, an oil rig at sea, a two-blade helicopter landing on the rig, men climbing on scaffolding on the rig, the rig base, sunset and the rig, the rig surrounded by ice, shots of ice with water flowing through it, inside a car factory, women grinding cereal by hand, landscape shots of rocky areas, underwater reef shot, inside a cave, a Western street scene with horses and carts, a man and his dog walking outside a country house, shots of people in canoes going down a river, a deserted plain with canal running through it, busy roads in a city, staircase and escalators in city with people going up and down them, busy city roads at night, a ship named Prelude at a port, people inside the ship, tug boats around the ship, oil tanker leaving port, 4x4 ‘golf carts’ going along a desert road, a sign in Arabic and English that reads ‘Mines’, oil rig at sea, oil rig at sea at night, men at work at night on the rig, woman in a racing car with shell logo on the bonnet, snowy mountain and frozen river, rocky valley with river shot, the London Eye. Fade to black.
Yellow and red shell logo appears in top right-hand corner throughout video footage.
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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