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Posted December 10, 2004


The Camera: In Depth


Rick Mitchell


The Science and Technology Counsel of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences may have unwittingly opened a Pandora's Box to judge by the success of, and reactions to, the first two presentations: the introductory program held at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater on October 16, and the first on individual areas, "The Camera: In Depth", held at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood on December 2.  Both programs left the packed houses salivating for more, and even the camera program, hosted by ASC members Richard Edlund and Steven Poster, seemed an attempt to cover too much territory in two and a half hours.


The program opened with a clip from "The Cameraman" (MGM; 1928), the sequence showing Buster Keaton's attempt to film a tong war, perhaps the best documentation of a silent cameraman in action (and knowing Keaton, probably as accurate as his comic sensibilities would allow), apparently from a newly restored print from a pristine source.  This was followed by an enthusiastic Steve Gainer, ASC's discussion of the three workhouse silent cameras, the Pathe, the Akeley, and the Bell & Howell 2709, the workings of the first and last demonstrated in close-up by Peter Anderson in videotaped footage, while Gainer demonstrated his own Akeley in the auditorium.


The Pathe was the favorite camera of Billy Bitzer and Gainer showed, from video, the famous "dolly" shot from "Intolerance" (1916), explaining how Bitzer and Karl Brown operated it so smoothly.  The Akeley grew out of Carl Akeley's frustration with trying to shoot wild animals with the cumbersome Pathe and other cameras of the time, as well as the equally cumbersome hand cranked tripods; he also invented the fluid head.  (Gainer demonstrated the difficulty of that old tripod at the program; those who weren't there can see it being handled in the scene in "King Kong" [RKO; 1933] in which Carl Denham is setting up his camera in the native village.)  Akeley also made it easier to follow action with lenses of longer than 100mm and even into the sound era, they would be used for action sequences and aerial photography.


Gainer concluded his presentation with a tribute to cinematographer Joseph Walker, ASC, whose work was illustrated by a beautiful clip from "It Happened One Night" (Columbia; 1934).


John Hora, ASC, a knowledgeable collector of classic cameras like Gainer and Edlund, discussed the workhorse studio cameras of the first forty years of the sound era, the Mitchell BNC, the three-strip Technicolor camera, and the almost forgotten Fox Cine Simplex, or Fox Studio Camera, the only one built by a studio camera department, under the supervision of Charles G. Clarke, ASC.  It was quieter than the Mitchell and though not reflex, had a number of unique features which eased the duties of the operator and assistant. Introduced in 1940, only 14 were made and used for principal photography on all Fox films over the next 25 years including "The Robe" (1953) and other CinemaScope pictures.  Unfortunately, there was a problem in showing the videotape of Peter Anderson illustrating the camera, but one was among the many in the lobby and Peter later demonstrated it for a delighted select few.


(And John also presented the interesting political story behind the Fox camera: in 1928 William Fox, founder of the Fox Film Corporation, had personally bought Mitchell Camera, primarily to build cameras for his in-development 70mm Grandeur process, even freezing George A. Mitchell out of profits.  During the subsequent financial difficulties that cost him the company, Fox put Mitchell Camera into a trust in the name of his daughters.  As a result, both George Mitchell and the successor Fox and later 20th Century-Fox Film Corporation hated William Fox and the studio resented having to use Mitchell cameras and set out to develop a better one on its own.)


John's presentation also touched on wide film and wide screen, but it was implied that this was to be its own topic in a future presentation, as color might be.  His presentation did include a clip from UCLA's restoration of "Becky Sharp" (Pioneer/RKO; 1935).


Bill Russell of Arriflex then gave an interesting history of that company, though he omitted mention of its replacing the Akeley and Bell & Howell Eyemo for small camera/ difficult situation/ hand held work beginning in the late Forties.  William Fraker, ASC's use of it for the car chase in "Bullitt" (Warners; 1968) was presented and Mr. Fraker himself was there to describe how it was done.  Mr. Russell complimented the Arriflex camera designers, original designers August Arnold and Robert Richter and their chief designer for many years Erich Kaestner, who came up with the spinning mirror reflex system that revolutionized Arri and motion picture cameras in general.  The modern cameras displayed, particularly the 435 and 235, were the results of the efforts by their current chief designer Walter Trauninger and the Arricam was a collaboration between Mr. Trauninger and Fritz Gabriel Bauer.


Because the first Panavision cameras were essentially modifications of The Mitchell BNC, that company's Mo Shore concentrated on the first camera they designed from the ground up, the Panaflex, initially intended to be a small handheld camera, but which they soon realized could also be a studio camera.


Over the next 30 years, the various successive and improved versions would share with Arriflex the status of being the industry's 35mm and 65mm workhorses.  Mr. Shore gave a roll call of cinematographers who'd done famous work with Panavision cameras, Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC and the recently deceased Conrad Hall, ASC and John Alonzo, ASC, and concluded with a clip from Mr. Alonzo's "Chinatown" (Paramount; 1974).  Mr. Shore also complimented his company's engineers, Al Mayer, Sr. and Jr. who were present, as well as founder Robert Gottschalk and chief engineer Takuo Miyagishima.  He and Mr. Russell also exchanged friendly gibes, essentially that during World War II, Panavision founder Robert Gottschalk had led bombing raids that destroyed Arri's Munich plant; in fact there is a great deal of cooperation between the two companies, with Panavision's rental line including Arriflexes modified to take Panavision mount lenses.


As I noted in the comment about Arriflex, there is even more ground on this subject that really could not be covered in the time allotted.  Éclair went unmentioned, not just the Reflex CM-3, later versions of which could shoot 35mm, 16mm, or Techniscope, though one was on display in the lobby, but more significantly the Eclair NPR, which was the workhouse camera for 16mm newsreel and documentary usage in the Sixties and Seventies, a self-blimped camera specifically designed to be worn on the cameraman's shoulder.  Also undiscussed were the Bell & Howell 16mm Filmo and Kodak Cine Special, which really came into their own during World War II by making possible color filming, using Kodachrome, of course.


Since this audience, like that of the introduction, seemed to be composed mostly of people knowledgeable about the subject, future programs need not fear getting too technically in depth or arcane.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

© 2004 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved




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