By Mark London Williams
While the revelation that an Oscar may have gone to someone wholly undeserving of the honor hardly qualifies as “news” in Hollywood, the idea that the no-nonsense scientific/tech wing of the Academy may have been hoodwinked, along with Panavision, has raised an eyebrow or two. It has also raised some questions about the very future of “filmed” media.
Provoking the upturned facial hair was a recent ruling by U.S. District Judge Gary Allen Feess nullifying the patent held by Aussie nature Cinematographer James Frazier, who appeared to have invented a lens system that could keep objects both near and far in crisp focus. The Panavision/Frazier lens, as it was known to aficionados – among them, cinematographers for food commercials and music videos – couldn’t even be owned: You had to rent it for $2,000 a day.
Now Feess has ruled that a 1994 videotape used by Frazier to nab his U.S. patent qualified as a “false and misleading statement” – i.e., the video was faked, and the lens may not be so unique. This will come as good news to P&S Technick GmbH Feinmechanik, a German firm with a similar lens, initially slapped with patent infringement by Panavision (the company later discreetly settled, while Frazier pursued the case by himself), and not so good news to the Academy, which coughed up one of those tech Oscars for the lens in 1997.
The case gets interesting in the witness list Panavision initially deployed: Cinematographers for films such as Armageddon and Stuart Little 2 swore by the lens’ utility. And yet, these films, like so many others, fit right in with a recent observation made by novelist Salman Rushdie, in conversation with Director Terry Gilliam (and transcribed recently in the new literary journal The Believer). Rushdie asked Gilliam, as a cartoonist, what it was like to watch “animation secretly taking over the cinema. You go and see a film like Perfect Storm for instance…and 75 % of it is animated. All that ocean. All of that, that’s a cartoon.”
Which brings up the question, in an age of digital fakery, how a videotape could ever be considered a reliable barometer of how well an analog piece of equipment, like a lens, really works. You can always tweak the depth of focus on a videotape. Digits can always be used to collapse disparities in “real world” performance (at least, of the technical variety).
And while film stock, lit sets, and good lenses will obviously be around for several years, the notion that a camera lens, which initially proved its worth on a videotape submission, can be considered reliable because it was used on partial cartoons like Armageddon, calls into question the role and meaning of Hollywood’s new technical dividing lines. More importantly, the case asks something even more profound: Not the issue of what, on screen, you can “believe” – that question is a century old. Rather, it’s the newer question of what you can believe “off screen” that the media biz will have to grapple with.
Frazier’s lawyer, meanwhile, plans an appeal.
By Mark London Williams