Roy Wagner, ASC, and I recently had a fascinating conversation about two VistaVision cameras that registered on his radar when he was asked to authenticate them. VistaVision was, of course, the widescreen format developed by Paramount in 1954. The 8-perf horizontal 35mm format was used in production on dozens of movies, including White Christmas, The Ten Commandments, The Rose Tattoo and Vertigo.
After a productive seven-year run at Paramount, the format was mostly relegated to visual-effects work, where the detail in the large negative proved useful in shots that underwent multiple generations of printing and manipulation. High-speed models built by Mitchell were initially capable of shooting 90 fps.
Roy found VistaVision camera No. 1 to be completely intact (including its blimp), which is extremely rare. He notes that about 30 VistaVision cameras were manufactured, and “most of them were torn apart, with the parts used for printers and projectors and Moviolas."
“ILM [Industrial Light & Magic] and many other effects houses considered VistaVision the best way to photograph miniatures because it was a wide-frame spherical format,” Roy continues. “It didn’t have any of the anomalies and distortions of anamorphic, and it was cheaper and less complex than 65mm — and in many ways more perfect than 65mm, which requires huge depth-of-field.
“Camera No. 1 started on The Ten Commandments, worked its way through every picture Paramount made in VistaVision, and went on to do substantial visual-effects work on films in the 1960s and '70s,” says Roy. “These cameras leaped ahead of their own process and continued to be current technology right up to HD video; they were consistently used throughout generations of filmmaking.” He adds that many of the VistaVision cameras that were not loaned or sold to visual-effects houses were orphaned by Paramount — tossed aside like scrap metal.
Although Roy was never all that interested in camera technology (his passion is for the cinematographers of Hollywood’s golden age), his deep knowledge of and friendships with ASC luminaries enable him to occasionally help identify and authenticate cameras that come up for auction. “People started coming to me and asking me questions,” he says. “I knew about the cameras because I knew the people who used them, and in many cases, I had watched them use the cameras. I was getting inundated by people who wanted to validate their cameras. In a way, it was out of bounds for me, because my interest in historical equipment has always been limited to light meters and filters; I’ve collected a lot of filters from cameramen friends. Now there’s a whole subculture of people who are obsessed with knowing which camera shot which movie. It becomes a huge bidding war for cameras that once might have been beautiful technology, but are still nothing more than mechanical sewing machines, really. The true artistry was in the minds of the people behind the cameras.”
Many ASC members have worked cinematic magic with VistaVision cameras over the years, including William Daniels, James Wong Howe, Richard Edlund and John Dykstra.
“I think it’s a shame that some of these cameras will most likely end up in the collection of some high roller in Dubai or China, where people can afford them,” says Roy. “Bidding wars drive the prices up, and that’s where most of these cameras go. Soon filmmakers will no longer have access to the relics of a remarkable technology that cross-pollinated and spanned cinema history from Cecil B. DeMille to George Lucas, and that’s a shame.”