When I first met Richard Edlund 25 years ago, he showed me one of the original Acme-Dunn optical printers, a device that revolutionized special effects and contributed to memorable shots in Citizen Kane and many other classics. The “Dunn” in the name was of course Linwood Dunn, ASC, one of the fathers of modern visual effects and a beloved presence at the ASC Clubhouse through the late 1990s. That optical printer now resides at the Academy, Richard tells me.
Collecting has always been one of Richard’s hobbies, and a long-gestating project of his is nearing fulfillment—the reconstruction and restoration of one of the 32 original 3-strip Technicolor cameras, which are made up of many hundreds of parts, machined to very tight tolerances in the fabled Technicolor machine shops. In the 1970s, Richard robbed the movement from an 8-perf Technirama camera to make the pin-registered ‘Moviola’ used to check motion control shots for Star Wars, and he saved the camera body and accessories, matte boxes, viewfinder, et cetera. These cameras were brutally converted from Technicolor cameras—the front door and shutter shaft were machined off.
Later, Richard befriended Merlin Thayer, formerly the head of dry maintenance at Technicolor in its heyday, and in 1978 bought a Technicolor dual movement 3-strip pedestal from him. The key piece of the puzzle was acquired a few years later, around 1983, from Leon Bijou, the father of cinematographer Peter Biziou, BSC and a fellow camera collector. Edlund went to buy a Mitchell geared head from Leon, but noticed on a shelf a box painted the unmistakable Technicolor blue hue. Inside were hundreds of parts that had been removed from a 3-strip camera, including 33 gears, shafts, sprockets, keepers, and an intact hinging front door with the lens mount and shutter! He bought the box and its contents for about $150.
“That box contained all the parts, reverently saved from one of the Technirama conversions,” Richard enthuses 30 years later. “What a find!”
Fast forward to one year ago. “I ran into Bruce Heller, a compulsive perfectionist and accomplished machinist who is also a walking encyclopedia of Technicolor,” Richard says. “He had restored a couple of Technicolor cameras, but never from a Technirama conversion. The front door on these cameras, which provides access for threading, was removed during the Technirama conversion. The hinge of the front door is actually the shaft that drives the shutter.”
Heller made a wooden cast form of the metal that had been removed, made an aluminum casting of the form, and machined the casting to fit the gaping hole precisely to within ten-thousandths of an inch. “My hat goes off to Bruce,” says Richard. “It’s so complicated and difficult. It’s kind of masochistic, in a way. It’s outrageously precise. He worked at it for weeks, and then charged me very fairly. The door is on, and it opens and shuts smoothly.”
The camera is now tantalizingly close to being finished. The movement pedestal fits in the camera. A very thin shim was required to replace the material that was machined away.
Of course, the lens is a key aspect. Cooke made specially designed lenses to work with the original cameras. Richard has several, which he acquired when Technicolor sold off the inventory from its building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.
“Because of the thickness of the prism and the arrangement of the shutter, lenses had to have a much longer back focal length, so to enable the Technicolor films cinematography with wide-angle lenses, the optical engineers at Cooke designed the first what they called an ‘inverse telephoto lens,’ which has come to be called a retro focus lens, a lens with a very long back focal length. These lenses were the precursor to all the wide lenses made for single-lens and motion picture reflex cameras.”
A few other aspects are outstanding. Cosmetic work will not be simple, with many holes to be filled, and a few rather complex plugs will need to be machined. The crinkle-blue finish will be a challenge since the original oil-based crinkle paint is not legal in California. The goal is the color and patina of a working Technicolor camera. A magazine needs to be restored, and a motor with power supply is needed. When it’s finished, the camera will be capable of running film, although the magnificent Technicolor imbibition printing process is long gone.
“Just to have a working Technicolor camera will be a rarity,” Richard says. “I think there are 14 or 15 of these cameras left, but I don’t think any are actually operational. This camera is a very ingenious exercise in three-dimensional thinking. It’s one of the most complicated precision machines produced in the early 20th century. It’s really mind-blowing. I wonder what it will sound like.”
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Bill Dill recently received some good news: the book he’s been working on, currently titled Tell Your Story, will be published by Focal Press. Also, a film he shot in the 1980s called Sidewalk Stories will be included in the Tribeca Film Festival program this April, and will be rereleased internationally. Sidewalk Stories is a black and white comedy described a “nearly silent.” In it, a street artist who rescues a baby must learn to care for it.
In the book, Bill distills wisdom gained over his professional career as a cinematographer, and during 22 years of teaching filmmaking, currently at Chapman University, where he is head of the cinematography department at the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. He has noticed certain common tendencies in young filmmakers.
“A beginning writer often starts out with what’s called ‘purple prose,’” says Bill. “Hopefully, the learning process eventually leads to a more powerful, effective way to communicate ideas. There are parallels in filmmaking. You see certain tendencies, and you have to break some habits before you can substitute real ideas. It’s surprisingly hard it is to convince students that the ideas in their heads, their life experiences, are relevant to the images they are making. What does it take to be creative? What does it take to make great images? We’re looking into the mind of the filmmaker when we watch images that have been created by that filmmaker.
“You talk to students about their lives,” says Bill. “Often, they think their lives are irrelevant to the movie. Almost invariably, it turns out that there’s some experience that is relevant to the story. And that will give a student some specific reference for an approach to take in making this movie. All of our lives are connected in some way.”
Bill says it’s hard to put these lessons into shorthand, so he decided a book would be an appropriate way to make them useful to teachers and students in filmmaking courses. “Sure, there are technical aspects to it, but the most important aspect to cinematography is the response you have to that story that’s there in front of you,” he says. “I’m hoping that the tone of the book will be similar to the tone of my classes.