By Carl Marziali
If the 50-year history of Panavision could be expressed by a single word, that word would be anamorphic. Based on the Greek word for reshaping, anamorphic refers to the lens technology that played a major role in Panavision’s growth; it also describes the constant evolution of the company that has continually reinvented itself and adapted to new conditions in the marketplace and the technology of image capture.
In the early 1950s, 20th Century Fox began secretly experimenting with anamorphic lenses for filming and projection, a process that the studio would later call Cinemascope. The idea was to achieve stunning wide-screen motion pictures by compressing a wide image onto a 35mm negative. At projection, a special lens would reverse the compression, restoring the image to its full, glorious width.
Fox was using a 2.0x ratio, meaning that the image was compressed to half its width, then decompressed to twice its width during projection. There was just one problem: just like in diving, the decompression gave performers the bends. The industry called it the “anamorphic mumps,” and its effect was to make actors and actresses look wider, especially in close-up.
Any imaging process that fattens movie stars is doomed. Fox premiered Cinemascope with The Robe in 1953, but even before that others in the industry were scrambling for a way to fix the anamorphic mumps.
In an improvised laboratory on the balcony level of Campus Camera in L.A.’s Westwood area, store owner Robert E. Gottschalk, an ex-Chicagoan determined to get into the movie business, and then-clerk Richard Moore, ASC, a young graduate of USC’s cinema school who could not get a job at the major studios, thought they could come up with a better anamorphic technology.
From a business perspective, it was a daunting task. Not only was Fox one of the most powerful studios in the world, but its sole supplier of anamorphic lenses was Bausch & Lomb, the German optics giant. If other studios wanted to shoot in Cinemascope, they had to go through Fox and buy the German lenses. Luckily, writes Moore in a brief history of the company, Bausch & Lomb was not inclined to aggressively defend its monopoly.
“Fox negotiated with Bausch & Lomb to manufacture the projection lenses to meet the screaming demand, but for a huge company like B&L it was an aggravation,” Moore writes. “They produced lenses with a ‘cylindrical’ formula, which were difficult to make and therefore very expensive.”
A couple of years earlier, in 1951, Gottschalk had been trying to develop a superior underwater camera. But in ocean testing off Santa Monica, Gottschalk and Moore found that the diffraction of water negated the optical advantages of wide-angle lenses. What was needed, Gottschalk felt, was a super-wide-angle lens. Browsing a photo magazine, he came across an ad for a close-out on anamorphic attachments made by the C. P. Goerz Co.
Gottschalk bought one lens, even though the ratio was a relatively low 1.5x. Then, hearing that The Robe would be shot anamorphically at 2.0x, Gottschalk ordered another Goerz lens. He was hoping that by putting one on top of the other, the two lenses would achieve a 2.0x ratio. He was wrong, but then he and Moore accidentally discovered that by counter-rotating the two lenses it was possible to achieve a ratio well above 2.0x.
With the two lenses taped together on a camera, Gottschalk, Moore and cinematographer Meredith Nicholson went out and started shooting on land: tourist attractions, crowd scenes, sweeping panoramas. By the time The Robe came out they had put together an impressive demo reel of full anamorphic photography.
They showed the reel to Harry Eller, president of the Radiant Screen Co. in Chicago. The company supplied projection lenses to movie theaters around the world. Eller was so impressed with the demo, Moore recalls, that he said: “You make ’em and we’ll sell ’em.”
Born in 1954
Panavision was born. It was 1954. The company had $5,000 in working capital.
Gottschalk hired a quiet mathematician and lens designer named Walter Wallin, who said Bausch & Lomb had it all wrong. Prismatic lenses would beat B&L’s cylindricals in price and delivery, Wallin promised.
Panavision’s first projection lens was dubbed the Super Panatar. Technically, it was up to the job. But to protect its investment with Bausch & Lomb, 20th Century Fox was insisting that any theaters showing Cinemascope movies buy B&L lenses.
“But this created a problem for Fox, too, because B&L couldn’t turn them out fast enough,” Moore writes. “So Robert and Harry Eller and I went to New York to meet with Spyros Skouras, president of Fox, to get his OK on exhibitors buying our attachments. We staged a split-screen demonstration of the competing attachments, at the end of which Skouros said, ‘My Greek eyes tell me our lens is better.’ Eller replied, ‘My Jewish eyes tell me our lens is the best.’ Everyone laughed, and Skouros gave us his approval.”
The Super Panatar and its lighter successor, the Ultra Panatar, became the most popular projection lenses in the world. So popular, in fact, that Panavision soon ran out of theaters to sell to.
“When the market was saturated we had to look around for something else to do,” remembers Takuo Miyagishima, then a young engineer with the company (he is now senior VP of engineering). The next logical step was to develop lenses for principal photography. The market was there, because the major studios were tired of being forced to buy their lenses from Fox when they wanted to shoot in Cinemascope. Douglas Shearer, head of the sound department at MGM, gave Panavision free run of the soundstage that he used for his own R&D.
He was the exception, says Moore. At the time, only a few executives around town realized that studios had to try something new to get audiences to come back to the theaters and leave their new televisions. “The biggest challenge was to overcome the people who were dragging their feet, kicking and screaming,” Moore says. “He (Shearer) was interested in everything and very well grounded in his knowledge. To accept that kind of challenge for him made perfect sense.”
Panavision’s work on the studio lot yielded the MGM Camera 65, later renamed UltraVision. The first film to be shot with the system was 1956’s Raintree County, but the print was never released in 70mm. The second film was Ben-Hur, shot with a mild 1.25x ratio. The reaction from both technical and lay audiences was overwhelming.
“They’d never seen such good images on the screen before,” says Miyagishima. He remembers the moment when he knew Panavision was going to thrive: a circle was filmed from six feet with Cinemascope lenses and then with Panavision’s new Auto Panatar 35mm taking lens. Projected back in Cinemascope, the circle was fatter. In Panavision, it was perfectly round. The anamorphic mumps were a thing of the past.
Eventually, says Miyagishima, even Fox switched to Panavision lenses. “The first time 20th Century relented was when Frank Sinatra did Von Ryan’s Express (1965),” he says.
For developing UltraVision, Moore, Gottschalk and Shearer won a Class II Academy Award for Scientific & Technical Achievement in 1959. Another Class II award followed in 1968 for the first handheld 65mm camera. The larger format was on its way out, though, partly because of a Panavision invention. The Micro Panatar, a printer lens developed in the mid-1950s, was able to blow up anamorphic 35mm film to 70 mm without appreciable loss of quality.
Eight Years Later
By 1962 Moore knew the company he had co-founded was finally on solid ground. “After eight years I felt the company was going to make it,” he says. Panavision had achieved a success that he and Gottschalk had not dared to imagine in 1954. “We just knew that here was a new technique, a new window of opportunity for the motion picture industry, and ‘Yeah, let’s get in on this opportunity.’ But we didn’t do any long-range projections.”
Having shepherded Panavision this far, Moore was ready for a change: “I wanted to get out and use the equipment.” He segued into a career as camera operator and director of photography, with credits such as Annie (1982) and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).
Miyagishima stayed at Panavision and custom-engineered the mechanical parts of the famous “mirage” spherical lens for Lawrence of Arabia. The original is now displayed in the office of Panavision CEO Bob Beitcher. The mirage lens was a variation on a new process using spherical lenses, the Super Panavision 70. As television grew, Panavision designed more spherical lenses both for television and feature photography.
Besides the hand-held 65mm, the ’60s also brought the Panavision Silent Reflex (PSR) camera, which quickly established itself as the most sought-after studio camera in the world. But in 1968 Gottschalk launched a secret program to develop the Holy Grail of the time: a lightweight, fully portable and silent studio camera with all the functionality of traditional cameras housed in blimps.
The now-legendary Panaflex camera debuted in 1972. Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, was the first feature shot entirely with the Panaflex. Panavision received two more Academy Sci-Tech awards in the ’70s for Panaflex-related innovations, and in 1978 the company was honored with an Academy Award of Merit and an Oscar statuette for the concept, design and continuous development of the Panaflex system.
The 1970s also brought the Panastar high-speed camera and Super Speed lenses. After Gottschalk’s death in 1982 the company was led by Jac Holzman, formerly of Warner Bros. When Panavision was sold to a group of investors in the 1980s, John Farrand took over as president. The ’80s were also the decade of video, and Panavision responded with the Panacam video camera. Other innovations through the ’80s and ’90s included the Panaflex Platinum, featuring enhanced electronics and viewfinder optics, and the Primo lenses in a range of focal lengths with color matching from lens to lens. For the Primo lenses the company earned a series of Academy Sci-Tech awards, the first of which credited Panavision’s Iain Neil for the optical design and Miyagishima for the mechanicals. And in 1994 the company received a Class I Academy Award for its continued development of anamorphic lenses.
The redesigned Panaflex Millennium, introduced in 1997, built in several accessories that were optional on earlier Panaflex systems. The system’s viewfinder received another Sci-Tech award in 1999, with the citation acknowledging the work of Neil and Rick Gelbard.
In 2002 Panavision, along with co-recipient Arnold & Richter Cine Technik, received a second Academy Award of Merit “for a commitment that lies beyond the usual commercial considerations.”
It was the kind of award that sometimes caps off a company’s achievements. But for Panavision, the journey of innovation is just starting. The move to digital filmmaking has brought huge challenges and opportunities. The company and Sony collaborated on the HD-900 high-definition camera system—although as Miyagishima points out, the company started in high def 18 years ago with the HD-300.
“It’s nothing new for Panavision to be involved in television,” he says. Also in partnership with Sony, Panavision offers a complete digital camera system combining Sony’s 24p Cinealta digital camera and specially designed Primo Digital lenses. The resulting “Panavised” Sony HDW-F900 24p camera has risen to become an important acquisition system for episodic television.
And just this year Panavision introduced the Genesis HD camera, an incredible 300x HD zoom lens, and an anamorphic wide-angle zoom lens.
For Miyagishima, nothing has changed in Panavision’s basic role. “The challenge is still the same. It’s an educational process. The DPs are not familiar with the digital process,” he says, but acknowledges the digital savvy of pioneering directors like Michael Mann and George Lucas.
Moore has no patience for the critics of the still imperfect digital process. “Change is the only thing that keeps progress going,” he says. “Think of the quality of color film when it came out. It was terrible.”
The same could be said for the quality of wide-screen projection before Gottschalk and Moore started tinkering with anamorphic lenses. If Panavision’s current generation of engineers continues in that pioneering spirit, the world of digital filmmaking may look a whole lot different—and better—in just a few years.
Below the Line acknowledges Panavision’s internal correspondence and American Cinematographer magazine for contributing some of the background for this story.