The word Panavision over the past half-century has become synonymous with Wide-screen Hollywood Motion Picture. In fact, the company named for the optical process that refined the always-expanding market for "bigger and better" began as a small manufacturer of theatrical projection lenses in 1954.
The history of what we'll call "large format" motion pictures most likely began shortly after the invention of Edison's Kinetograph with the first entrepreneur who used a different lens on his moving picture machine to widen, heighten, or make sharper his presentation. It wasn't long before audiences began to tire of the mere presentation of an actual moving locomotive, or a horse-drawn fire engine complete with Dalmatian on its way to a conflagration. Savvy filmmakers and exhibitors hired actors. Writers. Artists who designed sets and costumes.
But soon enough, spectacle became the watchword of the nascent motion picture industry, and by 1939, at the New York World's Fair, there was nothing more spectacular than the process invented by Fred Waller that utilized eleven cameras and projectors to replicate the human field of vision. By 1952 this expensive process (cameras, film stock, operators, processing, projectors) had been simplified down to three cameras/projectors operating in synchronization with a seven-track magnetic filmstrip for sound. Standard 35 mm motion picture film was used, but the height of each frame was increased from four perforations to six. There was a slight gap between each of the projected images, but persistence of vision and a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience made Cinerama a huge success. Eventually even the three cameras became unnecessary, when a single camera with three lenses was developed to achieve the same effect—Wide Screen.
Significantly the quest for Wide Screen presentation developed rapidly, as Hollywood searched for an antidote to television, which was keeping audiences out of the movie theatres by the millions.
In 1953 20th Century Fox developed a process to compete with Cinerama. It utilized anamorphic lenses that squeezed a horizontally-composed image onto the negative while it was being filmed and then unsqueezed the vertically distorted picture back to normal when it was projected in the theater. Many called this process "the poor man's Cinerama," but anamorphic lenses became standard in cinematography. They called the process CinemaScope, and I'll never forget the first CinemaScope movie I ever saw—it was, indeed, the first CinemaScope production, The Robe starring Richard Burton and Jean Simmons in a story about the men who gambled for Christ's garment after the crucifixion. The vertical lines between the three images were gone. The picture was HUGE. It was thrilling.
Hollywood being Hollywood, while Uncle Miltie cavorted across the small screen in tandem with Lucy and Ricky, the studios outdid themselves with various attempts at Wide Screen production. VistaVision, Dynavision, Todd-AO, Warnerscope, Actionscope, Cinepanoramic, Cinetotalscope, Fujivision—each of them competed with Fox's ingenious original.
Robert Gottschalk founded Panavision in 1954 on the basis of a revolutionary idea: he designed a variable-width projection lens for CinemaScope presentation. Any theater in the world could utilize this single solution to variable screen-geometry and projection-distance. The Panavision Super Panatar or "Gottschalk Lens" kept thousands of distributors in business during those confusing times by allowing them to affordably adjust their projectors to any format from 1.33:1 (roughly the shape of a TV screen) to 2.66:1 (a picture that was 2.66 times wider than it was high).
Following up on this brilliant idea, Gottschalk's company next developed a printing lens, the Micro-Panatar, which allowed the studios to take the squeezed image on the negative of their CinemaScope pictures and unsqueeze it in the laboratory at the printing stage. Incredibly, up until December 1954, studios would use TWO cameras for production, one squeezed Cinema
Scope for large-format venues, and one "spherical" or normal or unsqueezed for theaters that didn't have anamorphic projection.
Fierce market competition demanded creative moves forward however, and in April of 1955 MGM began shooting its big-budget films in yet another new format—on 65 mm film utilizing anamorphic lenses. The picture was BIGGER still, and, more important SHARPER. Panavision built MGM's lenses, the APO Panatars, and the system came to be known first as Camera 65, then Panavision 65 and later Ultra-Panavision. The first film utilizing the new format was Raintree County, followed closely by the historic Ben Hur. For Panavision there was no looking back.
The company went head-to-head with 20th Century Fox, developing a better anamorphic lens than CinemaScope's, primarily because, for the first time, actors' faces were not distorted in closeups. The close up had practically disappeared during the CinemaScope years because of inherent distortion in the anamorphic process. Not surprisingly, it was the actors themselves who demanded that Fox start using Panavision's lenses in their productions. The Auto Panatar, which used the same variable prism principle as Gottschalk's early projection lenses, brought Panavision the first of 15 Academy Awards for innovation in the medium.
Panavision's dependable partner, MGM, was the unwitting catalyst in the company's next sea-change. Mutiny on the Bounty went famously over budget in 1962, and in a cost-cutting measure, the studio eliminated its entire camera department. Panavision bought their inventory, performed huge modifications on the cameras, and invented the PSR, the Panavision Silent Reflex camera which was a. without parallax (what the operator SAW, he got) and b. quiet (meaning it could be smaller, because blimping, or silencing, was not necessary).
In a stroke of genius, these new cameras were rented, never sold, and as a result the dependability of Panavision equipment became legendary. Everything Panavision provided to producers—who were happy to not have to expend huge sums of money on cameras and related equipment—was rigorously serviced before it went out again. Often a camera or lens was completely stripped-down before it was allowed to be delivered to a new location. This too was revolutionary.
Panavision has continued as well to be synonymous with innovation. In 1972 the PANAFLEX camera was invented. It was 100 pounds lighter than any previous camera and could be converted to a 25 pound hand-held camera in under a minute. A lighter camera changed the way movies LOOKED because shots were made hand-held, providing a more fluid look and feel to the scene.
When a producer decides to utilize Panavision equipment, he is assured of a complete photographic system with matching camera bodies, lenses, and magazines and power supplies. The Panavision PRIMO lenses are unrivaled in the world for their consistency in color, sharpness, and lack of distortion across the full range of focal lengths and apertures.
Although every Panavision camera and lens is manufactured at the company's facility in Tarzana, California, there are nonetheless 31 offices and affiliates world-wide, ready to service filmmakers on every continent.
Contractually, users of Panavision equipment are required to so-state in their end credits. If the film is shot anamorphically, the legend reads Filmed in Panavision. If spherical, unsqueezed, lenses are used it will be noted Filmed with Panavision Cameras and Lenses.
Today, over fifty years after Robert Gottschalk's first projection lens saw light, the newest Panavision cameras, of course, are digital. The next episode of Star Wars represents the highest evolution of the motion picture camera—it doesn't use film, but it DOES proudly wear the Panavision logo.
On Hollywood and filmmaking:
Below the Line
sex drugs and divorce
a little life, interrupted
- Hecho en Mejico
- Sam's Song
- Hemingway and Fortuna
- Hummingbird on the Left
- The Long and Drunken Afternoon
- Safe in the Lap of the Gods
- Quetzal Birds in Love
- Angela in Paradise
- And the machine ran backwards
a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon
I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind
Below the Line
Final Cut Pro
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Apocalypse Now Redux
The Jazz Singer
We Were Soldiers