by Scott Henderson
The classic cliché of the American Dream runs something like this: A bright young man with an idea (and preferably little or no money) clears a place in his garage and begins to tinker with whatever he can scrounge or scrape together, in order to turn his idea into reality. With Horatio Alger-like determination and clarity of vision, he works day and night, experiencing failure after failure and enduring the ridicule of loutish onlookers. At a point where despair would have driven the ordinary man to drink or suicide, Our Hero is still hanging in there, believing more than ever in the feasibility of his idea, bucking the odds, burning ever more midnight oil. Until finally, one day - Voilà!, Eureka!, Hallejujah! - his idea becomes reality. His better mousetrap (or whatever) not only works, but solves one or more of Society's burning problems. Our Hero goes on to achieve Fame and Fortune beyond his wildest imaginings.
A cliché to be sure, but clichés become clichés because they are so often true, and the above fable, be it ever so corny, might well be the saga of Thomas E. Edison or Henry Ford or, for that matter, one Robert E. Gottschalk, who literally began in his garage by cobbling together a home-made underwater motion picture camera and is today President of Panavision, Incorporated, a towering giant among manufacturers of camera and lens systems to the professional motion picture industry.
Panavision, Incorporated was founded by Robert E. Gottschalk in the fall of 1953 for the purpose of manufacturing anamorphic projection lenses for the then brand new Cinemascope process.
Panavision anamorphic projection attachments differed from the ones Bausch and Lomb were making for 20th Century-Fox in that the optics were prismatic rather than cylindrical, thereby allowing a change in the anamorphotic power, or squeeze ratio, of the lens by merely turning a knob on the lens itself. Panavision anamorphic attachments became the most popular projection lenses in the world and more than ten thousand pairs were sold. Panavision, at that time, was small, but the tremendous sales of its lenses brought sufficient capital into the company to allow it to expand into the photographic end of the motion picture industry. MGM Studios were making their most expensive pictures in Cinemascope but they were unhappy about having to go to 20th Century-Fox for their taking lenses, so they came to Panavision with the hope that Panavision could design a system for them on a non-exclusive basis. Panavision accepted the challenge and developed Ultra-Panavision 70 which MGM first used on "RAINTREE COUNTY", then "BEN-HUR" and "HOW THE WEST WAS WON".
Concurrently with developing the Ultra-Panavision 70 process, Panavision was working on a new lens design for 35mm photography to compete with Cinemascope and, shortly afterward, brought to the studio for testing an all-new anamorphic lens designed to eliminate the troublesome closeup distortion and general lack of definition of Cinemascope lenses. MGM immediately adopted this system and stopped using Cinemascope. As soon as the word was out that MGM was using Panavision lenses, others quickly began to use the Panavision process. The Mirisch Company and Columbia Pictures were the next to use these Panavision 35 lenses. A few years later, 20th Century-Fox itself abandoned their own Cinemascope process in favor of Panavision.
While this was going on, yet a third process was being developed by Panavision: Super Panavision 70, which utilized the same 70mm cameras as Ultra-Panavision, but with new spherical lenses. The first picture to use Super-Panavision was "WEST SIDE STORY" and then "LAWRENCE OF ARABIA" and many others followed. Of course, it was obvious that the 35mm Panavision system would be the most popular and Panavision had designed its lenses to fit the BNC cameras which all studios were using, but it was not long before the urge came to design and build a silent reflex camera which appeared to the company to be the next logical step in camera evolution. It was not long, therefore, until the company displayed what it called its Panavision Silent Reflex camera or PSR, as it became known, the first silent studio reflex camera.
To produce this camera quickly and at the lowest possible cost, Panavision used NC and BNC camera boxes which they converted to the reflex system and altered the movement to allow for a 200° shutter. An all-new lightweight blimp was designed to hold the camera box and a very sophisticated view-finding system was incorporated. The PSR camera weighed in at just under 100 pounds and was in immediate demand. Zoom lenses were just coming into vogue at this time and zoom lenses desperately needed reflex cameras.
The popularity of Panavision lenses and the PSR camera grew dramatically during the early 1960s and, as television became more and more important, Panavision began to design and build spherical photographic made in Cinemascope. Because of Gottschalk's experience with anamorphic lenses, he decided to compete with 20th Century-Fox in providing projection lenses to theaters throughout the world. He then started his company, which he called Panavision, and which grew into what it is today.
A member of both the Directors Guild of America and the Hollywood cameramen's union (IATSE LOCAL 659), Gottschalk, as President of Panavision, is attuned to the practical requirements of technicians working in today's film industry. In the following candid interview, granted exclusively to American Cinematographer, he discusses the philosophy of his company and the development of its latest products:
Q. Today a large proportion of motion pictures are photographed with Panavision equipment. What is your opinion as to why this is so?
A. There are several basic reasons for this-the first being that Panavision's philosophy is to design and produce photographic equipment of the very highest quality regardless of price. Since Panavision does not sell its equipment, no compromise is made in quality. Secondly, and equally important: Panavision spends a great deal of time with cameramen, camera operators and assistant cameramen researching their desires and needs. In other words, the company makes a real effort to produce equipment to make the camera crew's job easier and to help them achieve a better looking picture on the screen. Thirdly, Panavision's policy of constant updating of its equipment insures the user that his equipment incorporates the latest developments and innovations.
Q. How long ago did you decide to make the Panaflex Camera and what motivated you to build it?
A. We had produced the first Panavision Silent Reflex Camera approximately ten years ago and it was received with tremendous enthusiasm because it contained many of the features desired by cameramen, operators and assistants. Even though it was a conversion, it was highly sophisticated, extremely quiet and had a superb viewing system. It far surpassed any studio camera available. In spite of the demand for it and its success, I felt that it did not incorporate ah of the features that were required in today's method of making motion pictures, nor did I feel that this camera represented Panavision's full technical capability. So, seven years ago, we started on the design of a whole new kind of camera which we felt would better fulfill the needs of modern movie-making.
Q. What were some of the changes in movie-making techniques which made you decide to build the Panaflex?
A. For one thing, movie-makers were moving out of the studio sound stages and shooting their films largely on natural locations and this required a much smaller, much lighter camera. The practical locations often made it difficult or impossible to use cranes or dollies and, therefore, a truly silent hand-held camera was desperately needed. The result of this thinking, of course, was the design of the Panaflex which weighs less than one-third as much as the PSR in the Panaflex's studio mode and converts in less than one minute to a hand-held camera which can be used for sync sound photography without compromise.
Q. What special techniques were used to achieve such a small and silent camera?
A. The manned space program spawned a great many electronic innovations and a number of these new technologies were incorporated into the camera, allowing us to miniaturize and effect tremendous savings in weight and bulk. Its extremely low sound level is achieved without a camera blimp or a lens blimp by extremely high precision in the manufacture of its drive components and, since we were not building this camera to sell competitively, we were not hampered by cost-cutting manufacturing techniques which would ultimately penalize the sound level of the camera.
Q. What is your reaction to seeing other motion picture cameras using electronic digital display since you pioneered it in the Panaflex four years ago?
A. Since imitation is the most sincere form of flattery it doesn't bother me. Anyway, putting a winged-lady radiator ornament on an Edsel does not a Rolls Royce make.
Q. Since the Panaflex Camera costs twice as much to rent as other movie cameras, has this created any problems in its acceptance?
A. The relatively high rental price of the Panaflex Camera is the result of two factors: the first being that it is an extremely expensive camera to produce because of its precision and versatile features. The second reason is that all Panaflexes from #1 on are constantly being improved and updated and new features are retrofitted into earlier cameras so that the rentor of a Panaflex is assured that his camera, no matter what its serial number, includes Panavision's latest features and improvements. This policy, of course, costs the company a lot of money and is reflected in its rental price.
Q. Do you anticipate that in time the rental price of the Panaflex will be reduced?
A. I think there is little doubt but that the rental price of the Panaflex will be reduced and for a number of reasons. Firstly, the camera has had over four years of experience on a great number of major motion pictures and television films and has been shaken out, so to speak. Like any new product there were a number of changes and improvements made in the camera and it is now operating so successfully that future changes will become fewer and fewer. secondly, Panavision has been tooling up to produce the camera in larger quantities and the result of this tooling will mean a lower production cost and, of course, a lower production cost will mean a lower rental price.
Q. Since it is now a fact that many motion pictures are made in natural locations, what is your feeling about the quality of photography of movies made this way, as opposed to those made under studio controlled conditions?
A. There is no doubt that photographing in natural locations imposes some very special problems for the cinematographer and his crew, but on the whole, I think that films photographed in this manner have forced cinematographers, operators and assistants to become more expert and to develop new photographic techniques which are extremely interesting to audiences. It has made movies more real and much more interesting.
Q. As a designer and producer of photographic equipment, are there any trends that you find disturbing in today's movie-making?
A. Of course, it's a matter of personal taste and I am sure that a number of people will disagree, but I am often disturbed by movies that are overly diffused. I realize that directors today often request that cinematographers give them heavily diffused images and sometimes it is effective. But, one of the problems that occurs is that the director and cameraman often judge the effects of their diffusion by viewing the dailies on small screens in a studio or on small screens on location. The effect may be excellent under these conditions, but what happens when these films are projected in theatres on big screens is often overlooked. It is a well known and unfortunate fact that theatre projection leaves a lot to be desired. Projection equipment in many instances, even in flagship houses, is old and not well maintained. Lenses and projection ports are often neglected. Projector gates become warped and misaligned from heat and millions of feet of film passing through them and the result of these factors further degrades the image quality, with the result that audiences are subject to eyestrain, which detracts from the reality and enjoyment of the picture.
Q. Since Panavision produces both anamorphic and spherical lenses, what is your opinion about the merits of each?
A. Technically speaking, there is absolutely no question that motion pictures photographed anamorphically will be sharper and have higher definition than those projected in a 1:85 format. The reason for this is pure mathematics. An anamorphic print has 63% more area than a 1:85 spherical print. Therefore, the image does not need to be enlarged as much and, of course, the less enlargement, the sharper the image. There is yet another important reason and that is that theatres can use long focal-length projection lenses when projecting anamorphically because there is less requirement for screen magnification. An optical law comes into effect and that is that longer projection lenses are less critical to keep in focus than short focal-length projection lenses. In other words, when the projectionist is projecting a spherical picture there is much less margin for error in that critical distance between the film and projection lens. As an example, drive-in theatres with their extremely long focal-length projection lenses usually have no focus drift to speak of, whereas some flagship houses with very large screens and short projection throws have a severe problem of keeping the picture in focus, especially when projecting non-anamorphically, There is yet another reason why photographing anamorphically has an advantage. Since the anamorphically photographed print is much greater in area and the magnification on the screen less, inevitably the dirt and scratches are reduced by 63%. Our experience has been that directors coming from television are wary of the anamorphic ratio, but once persuaded to try it become enthusiastic advocates of the larger format.
Q. Since Panavision leases its equipment, do you find, in general, that it is well taken care of?
A. Generally speaking, camera crews take good care of our equipment. However, there are times when the cameras are returned that show inexcusable abuse. It is a Panavision policy to require the assistant cameraman to come to Panavision and spend four to five hours learning about the Panaflex before we will rent this camera. There are many excellent assistant cameramen who have a lot of respect for the Panaflex and treat it accordingly. Occasionally, however, the cameras are banged up and scratched and are returned in a very dirty condition. But this is an exception, rather than the rule.
Q. Since the Panaflex camera is a very small and versatile camera, is it your opinion that directors in general are using it imaginatively and taking advantage of its potential?
A. It is my opinion that a large number of directors are woefully ignorant of the technical end of movie-making and that, in many cases, they do not understand how to use the camera to its full potential. If a technically ignorant director is lucky enough to have a strong cinematographer, then he can be guided into using the advantages built into the camera. In many cases, however, the cinematographers are loath to point out the many interesting ways the camera can be utilized, for fear of antagonizing the director.
Q. Since Panavision photographic equipment has the reputation of having a higher rental price than other equipment, do you find this a problem in renting the equipment?
A. If a production manager really knows his business and takes all things into consideration Panavision equipment costs no more than equipment available elsewhere and, in many cases, due to the interchangeability of lenses and numerous other factors, less equipment need be rented for a given picture from Panavision than from others. Of course, Panavision loses some business because other equipment is often heavily discounted, but knowledgeable producers and production managers find that the dependability and versatility of Panavision products far outweighs any small difference in cost. In the case of the Panaflex, which rents for more than any other camera, it is significant that at this time over 100 Panaflexes have been manufactured and not only are these in constant use, but we are turning down requests for the cameras if not booked well in advance.
Q. How long did it take to design and build the Silent Panaglide?
A. We started on the project over five years ago. When I was visiting Japan at that time I became intrigued by the devices food delivery boys carried on the backs of their bicycles. These consisted of a gimbal and a spring suspension system holding several stacked trays which allowed the bicycle to swerve through traffic and over bumps without spilling the open bowls of soup carried on the trays.
Q. How does the Panaflex used on the Silent Panaglide differ from the standard one?
A. It is a very different camera because it is very, very much lighter than the standard Panaflex. This is apparent when one considers that the standard camera weighs approximately 30 pounds and the Panaglide model only 13 pounds.
Q. How did you manage such a saving in weight?
A. By utilizing lightweight materials and redesigning all the parts of the camera to reduce mass. It was the most difficult part of the whole project and is only practical in the Panaglide application.
Q. What do you enjoy most in your work as President of Panavision?
A. By far, my greatest enjoyment is working on the design of equipment. It is my feeling that manufacturing trends in recent years have been away from very high quality products and towards mass production with an obsolescence either built in or inherent in the design, fabrication and material composition. There are a number of reasons for this including inflation, stiff competition and the relentless emphasis on higher and higher profits.
It is a source of great pleasure and satisfaction to me to know that Panavision's products are designed with quality as the prime consideration and that our products enjoy the reputation, by the people who use them, as being the best in the world.
Q. But isn't Panavision also affected by the same factors you just mentioned?
A. To some extent, yes, but to a lesser degree because of our policy of renting instead of selling. This allows us to spend more money on our products and to keep updating them, rather than spending that money on sales commissions and extensive advertising. In a nutshell, that is the philosophy behind our engineering.
Q. Does Panavision manufacture all of the products it rents?
A. Practically everything with a few exceptions. Our Arriflex Cameras are, of course, purchased, but we alter them considerably to meet our specifications. We call that Panavizing.
Q. Do you make all the parts of Panavision equipment in your plant in Tarzana?
A. Certainly not. If we did that we would employ about 500 people and have a most inefficient operation. Efficient manufacturing today is far different than it was say only ten to twenty years ago. Today it's the world of specialists, and knowledgeable manufacturers take full advantage of this trend.
Q. Would you elaborate on that please?
A. To be specific, take painting, for example. Panavision subcontracts all of this work to painting specialists. These people have the latest, highly sophisticated equipment and personnel trained over the years to be experts. Of course, we set the quality specifications and exercise strict quality control. We also subcontract many of our high-quantity parts which do not require any special skill to manufacture. Many of our parts are cast in outside foundries and we do no anodizing or plating either.
Q. What about Panavision lenses?
A. I think there have been more misinformation and false rumors circulating about our lenses than any other part of our business. In the beginning Panavision had its own in-house optical engineer who designed many of its earlier lenses. As the company grew it became necessary to go outside the company for additional optical engineering and that practice has continued to grow as the need developed for an even greater variety of lenses and other optical components.
Q. When you decide to build a new lens just what is the procedure?
A. It begins at Panavision where we discuss just what kind of a new lens is needed. Meetings are held in our optical department where we decide on the basics, such as focal length, speed, approximate size, focusing range, etc. It is then decided which optical designer or team of designers we feel would be most likely to arrive at the best design. We then begin a series of consultations with the chosen designer and these continue until the completed design on paper gives us, via computer readout, the expected performance of the lens.
Q. Is it difficult to find optical engineers who can satisfy Panavision's demands?
A. There are relatively few who qualify, so, in addition to our local designer, Panavision utilizes designers who work for some of Europe's most prestigious optical companies. And since there is no selling price limitation on the designers, Panavision's lenses are the most sophisticated and, of course, costly in the world.
Q. How many of the lenses are manufactured in Panavision's factory?
A. Almost all of the metal parts, but none of the glass. This is subcontracted largely to local aerospace firms who specialize in glass fabrication. Some glass is fabricated in Germany and some in England and the elements are then fitted into the metal mounts in our factory, where they are then calibrated, engraved and tested. Only those lenses which equal our original design specifications are released. Those which do not are reworked until they do.
Q. About how long does it take from the decision to make a certain lens to the production model?
A. From two to four years in most cases.
Q. What are some of the things you would like to see changed in the production of motion pictures?
A. I would like to see producers, directors and production managers become more photographically oriented, so that the camera crews would have better rapport with them. I would like to see more young people have an opportunity to get into motion picture photography and I would like to see the cost of movie-making stop escalating. All these things must be accomplished if the industry is going to continue to advance.