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Three Histories: Roll Your Own

A Personal Look at Camera History

Billy Bitzer and D.W. Griffith shooting Way Down East (1920).The bicycle lamp hanging off the right side of the camera was Bizer’santi-static totem.

Have you ever picked up a new video camera, and, after a few minutesof trying to understand the illogical controls and poor ergonomics,muttered, “Who the hell designs these things?”

A recent thread on the Cinematography Mailing List tried to makesense of one manufacturer’s inexplicable decision to calibrate itsfocus scale in percent. Not feet. Not meters. Percent.Another discussion, about a different camera, complained of terribleergonomics, flimsy connectors, mediocre color reproduction, bad manualoverrides, and the fact that the camera powered down automaticallyafter five minutes.

So what should you do with all your gripes and feature requests?What about following the fine tradition of your filmmaking ancestors,taking matters into your own hands, and going where manufacturers fearto tread?

In the early days of film, things were simple. Cameras were notinscrutable black boxes stuffed with circuit boards. They werebeautiful wooden boxes containing sprockets and gears, a shutter and alens. Anyone could understand exactly what each part of a camera did— and users could modify their cameras easily, making them dothings the manufacturer never imagined.

The great Billy Bitzer (best known as D.W. Griffith’scinematographer) modified his Pathe camera so radically that it wasnearly unrecognizable. The most bizarre addition was a carbide-fueledbicycle lamp hanging off the side — not for light, but to funnelwarm, moist air into the camera — to try and keep static flashes(common when shooting in cold, dry environments) from marring his film.(This was such a problem back then that the American Society ofCinematographers was originally known as The Static Club.)

Bitzer can be credited with inventing much of the film grammar wenow take for granted, as he pioneered the matte box, the iris effect,and the in-camera fade and dissolve. His modifications became standardfeatures on the next generation of cameras from Mitchell and Bell &Howell.

In 1914, explorer Carl Akeley needed a camera that could withstandthe rigors of an African safari. He wanted to use telephoto lenses,reload quickly, and make very smooth camera moves. There were nocommercially available cameras that came close to filling hisneeds.

So he designed and built his own camera — which, due to itsunique shape, was nicknamed the Pancake Akeley. The round body wasintegrated into the camera’s gyro-smoothed pan/tilt head; the cameracould tilt straight up while the orientable viewfinder (35 years aheadof its time) remained in a fixed position. A viewing lens (identical tothe taking) was used for focusing and framing, like the laterRolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. The quick-change internal magazineslet an operator reload in fifteen seconds.

The author, in 1973, shows off his “big” one-person rig (note theNagra around his waist), on the cover of the obscure fanzineFinders/Keepers.

Cinematic adventurers quickly adopted the Akeley. Robert Flahertytook two to Hudson Bay to shoot Nanook of the North (consideredthe first documentary film). Ace aerial cameraman Elmer Dyer used hison Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels and many other films — andeven advertised himself as an “Akeley Expert.” The Pancakewas still being manufactured in the ’40s — because Carl Akeleyknew what he needed in a camera and found that others shared thoseneeds.

In the early 1950s, there was a sudden demand for portable 16mmsound cameras to shoot television news. Bach-Auricon tried to push itsPro-600 camera to the industry, but cameramen preferred its diminutiveCine-Voice — designed for sound home movies. It was small, cheap,and lightweight — but accommodated only 100ft. of film.

So cameramen modified their Cine-Voices, cutting a hole in the topto accept a 400ft. magazine. A more radical faction devised the“choptop” conversions — they literally cut the topoff the camera, creating a smaller, lighter rig. This became theindustry standard, but rather than make a new camera, Auricon ignoredits users while others made a cottage industry out of chopping downCine-Voices. (Years later Auricon still ran ads warning people of the“marginal results in dependability” of theconversions.)

In the late 1950s, filmmaker Ricky Leacock grew frustrated shootingdocumentary films with immobile equipment and large crews. He and D.A.Pennebaker, with the aid of funding finagled out of Time-Life byproducer Robert Drew, invented a system that made it possible tocapture what Leacock called “the feeling of being there.”This required a portable synch-sound rig that could be operated by onlytwo people.

Their first workable system was used to shoot Primary, agroundbreaking look at the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic Primary thatpitted JFK against Hubert Humphrey. Though the equipment barely worked— and much of the film was shot with non-synch cameras (thespring-wind Kodak K100 blimped in a leather shaving-kit bag is aclassic) — Primary gave the world an intoxicating look atthe future of non-fiction filmmaking.

D.A. Pennebaker shooting Monterey Pop with his classicshoulder-held slantback Auricon conversion. This was the first handheldsynch camera with truly good ergonomics.

A big problem with the early rigs was the umbilical cord betweencamera and tape recorder. Simple things, like going through a revolvingdoor, were impossible. Visiting a friend who was making a promotionalfilm about the new Bulova Accutron watch, Leacock had an epiphany. TheAccutron — worn by astronauts and railroad engineers — useda tuning fork, vibrating at 360Hz, as a super-accurate timebase.

Leacock realized that image and sound synchronization was merely atiming issue. He figured that if he used one Accutron to control thespeed of the camera motor, and a second Accutron to generate a synchpulse recorded by the tape recorder, cableless synch was possible.Working with camera engineering genius Mitch Bogdanowycz, they builtnew cameras, each with an Accutron on its back. They could forecastsynch problems (and there were many) by checking to see if the camera’sand tape recorder’s watches remained synchronized.

Pennebaker wasn’t happy with the ergonomics of the camera. It wasessentially a choptop Auricon conversion, fitted with an Angenieux zoomlens and side finder. The eyepiece was at the rear of the camera,putting the camera in front of the user’s face. To support the weightof the camera, a short pole attached to the bottom rode in a leatherflagpole holder, worn around the user’s neck. It was portable, buthardly elegant.

Ricky Leacock shooting with an earlier Auricon conversion.

Penny came up with something so simple and ingenious that it remainswith us to this day. He shortened the viewfinder so the eyepiece was atthe front of the camera. Then he added a simple handgrip to the frontof the camera. Suddenly, everything sat beautifully on his shoulder. Hecould steer it with his right hand, leaving his left hand free to zoomand focus. To improve the balance, the magazine was placed at a45-degree angle, which they called a slantback camera.

Al Maysles, who had also worked on Primary, developed his owncamera, which some said resembled a “dumpy bazooka.” It wasmuch longer than Penny’s camera, but was perfectly balanced, so thatone’s right arm merely steered it, without supporting any of theweight. Al used this camera to shoot Salesman and GimmeShelter. Penny used his camera to shoot many films, includingDon’t Look Back and Monterey Pop. These filmmakers didn’tlet the lack of a commercially manufactured camera stop them frommaking the films they wanted to; they pressed onward, using tools theydesigned themselves.

Cameras like Pennebaker’s became so popular that Cinema Productscodified it all into a commercial product: the CP16 — essentiallya slantback Auricon with a crystal-controlled motor (far superior tothe tuning fork motors), onboard battery, and a handgrip on the front.The lightweight and reliable CP16 was the standard TV news camera untilthe ENG takeover of the late ’70s.

So why do I care so much about this stuff? I started making filmswhen I was fifteen, back in the late ’60s, and had an odd set ofinfluences — I was around underground filmmakers like TomPalazzolo, George Landow, and Stan Brakhage, who all made films bythemselves using Bolexes — but I wanted to make cinémavérité films. Working solo made sense to me, as there weretimes when I didn’t have a soundperson available, or needed to filmintimate scenes where an additional person wouldn’t fit in.

Of course, there wasn’t anything commercially available forone-person synch shooting, so I took my big Nagra tape recorder, whichweighed 15lbs., and wore it around my waist. I held a Sennheisershotgun mic in my left hand. I used a 10mm lens on my Auricon, with anoptical finder from a Leica (cheap and bright). I discovered I couldshoot quite well with this 35lb. rig — I was much younger andstronger then — and made a film about my family (The Plaint ofSteve Kreines as recorded by his younger brother Jeff) with it.

The next year I started working at the MIT Film Section, a hotbed ofcinéma vérité activity headed by Ricky Leacock. Leacockwas devoting his efforts to developing a Super 8 synch sound system, ina belief that “everyone has at least one film in them.” (Ithink the digital video revolution has proven that this was notnecessarily the case.)

Others at MIT (notably Ed Pincus) were also experimenting withone-person synch sound. We all became users of the tiny Nagra SN taperecorder, originally developed for the CIA. It weighed only a pound,and fit in your pocket — but was nearly as good as the big Nagra— a marvel of Swiss engineering. I built an SN into the side ofmy camera, getting rid of the big Nagra forever. The result was a verycompact and user-friendly rig.

Joel DeMott, who’d been a student of Leacock’s, was shooting a filmabout her little sister, and wanted to shoot it solo. We startedworking together — late nights in the old MIT building whereradar was invented — and developed a more sophisticated rig. Itconsisted of a CP16, 10mm Switar lens with optical viewfinder, Nagra SN— and we shot with the camera on our right shoulder, and acardioid mic in our left hand. It was quiet, simple, affordable, andreliable. For a filmmaker, it was the closest thing to shooting stillphotographs with a Leica. DeMott first used this rig to shoot her filmDemon Lover Diary. We’ve made many films together with it since,including Seventeen.

Joel Demott shooting Demon Lover Diary with her one-personsynch-rig.

It seems so obvious now — a simple camera/tape recordercombination that let a person shoot synch sound movies in low light,working solo — but in 1974 people thought we were crazy.

1974 is notable for another reason, as it’s the year that portablevideo gear began replacing newsfilm cameras. But how did these videocameras evolve?

To cover political conventions, NBC and RCA developed theWalkie-Lookie vidicon camera of 1952. (Believe it or not, theseconventions once made for fascinating television, and the networkspreempted regular programming to cover them gavel-to-gavel.) The camerawas quite small and had a three-lens turret. Of course, it required a50lb. backpack filled with support electronics and batteries. But itwas truly portable, and the images from these cameras felt, well,new.

In the ’60s, Ikegami worked with CBS to develop a camera they calledthe Handy-Looky. It was a box camera that sat on the shoulder,with an electronic viewfinder and a large backpack filled withelectronics. Fast-forward to the mid-’70s, when it morphed into theHL (for you-know-what) -33 and -35 — colorcameras, but still burdened with a large backpack.

Lose the backpack and poof! It’s an Ikegami HL-79 or anRCA TK-76, tethered to a 40lb. U-Matic deck. Lose theexternal deck, build a Betacam deck into the camera, and —aha! — you’ve got the first of the one-piece broadcastcamera-recorders. Replace the camera tubes with CCDs, upgrade the tapeformat to digital, and presto! You now have a portable DigiBetacamcorder like the DVW-600.

Increase the resolution, but compress and filter the signal so itcan still be recorded on a Beta-sized tape, and — voila!— it’s HDCAM.

Digital cameras have a video history. And that’s one way to do it.But could there also be digital cameras designed for filmmakers,building on 100 years of film camera design principles? Why can’t therebe a digital Bolex? How about a high-resolution, low-light monochromecamera for infrared shooting? How about a truly variable-speed camera— so variable that it could be hand-cranked, if one desired? Howabout a camera that can be used to shoot HD, PAL, or NTSC —whatever format you need that day? Why not a camera that lets you useall your film-camera lenses? (Dalsa and Arri have shown prototypesingle-sensor cameras with a PL mount, which I think is the way of thefuture. However, these cameras don’t yet include any recording system.)How about a camera that records raw, uncompressed 10-bit log data, soall color correction decisions can be deferred until after the shoot,without compromise? (The new Viper camera does output a raw signal,but, again, there’s no integrated recorder.)

And finally, why not a digital camera that looks and feels andoperates like a film camera?

The author tests a prototype of his new camera.

Back to me and why camera history, specifically improvisational,homegrown camera history interests me so much. Taking inspiration fromAkeley, Leacock, and Pennebaker, and my own past, I began looking atnew technologies and thinking about how they could be used to make amodern camera. There are some very good CCD and CMOS sensors that areideal for a high-resolution digital camera. The new generation of tinyhard drives make a good recording medium, freeing one from the fixedframe rates mandated by tape-based formats. The latestfield-programmable gate arrays make it possible to fit an entirecamera’s electronics into a few chips. So why not build a camera fromscratch?

I didn’t have a good answer for that one, so that’s what I’m workingon. It’s not as simple as it was in the Auricon days, so I’m very luckyto be working with Martin Snashall, a pioneering designer of digitalvideo equipment (he designed the Abekas A64 and A84, among otherthings).

So how’s it going? Film people really like it. They pick up theprototype, put it on their shoulder, and say, “Ahhh…”That’s a good sign. With a little luck, you’ll be able to judge foryourself at NAB 2004. If nothing else, I will have added a smallfootnote to the long history of filmmakers who stopped grumbling androlled their own.

Jeff Kreines has been making non-fiction films for over 35 years.His new company, Kinetta, which debuts at NAB 2004, makes cameras,telecines, and film recorders for filmmakers and archives. Heapologizes to his friends in Europe for not having room to write abouttheir cameras in this piece.