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Panavision Celebrates 60 Years of Artistic Innovation

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of British Cinematographer magazine. 

Diamonds are Forever

​In director David Lean’s 1962 epic Lawrence Of Arabia, cinematographer Freddie Young BSC ASC captured the iconic image of Omar Sharif galloping slowly from great distance into a wide frame shimmering with the mirage of scorching desert heat.

In effect Young had captured an optical illusion on film. Sharif and camel began as a barely distinguishable flicker in long-shot and continued riding as if through waves of water into a focused close-up all in one take.

What made the image possible was a 482mm telephoto lens with spherical optics created specifically by Panavision to meet David Lean’s vision. While it holds pride of place in Panavision’s Woodland Hills headquarters in California, the ‘David Lean Lens’ has not been used on any other scene in any other movie since.

This is one of hundreds of stories testifying to Panavision’s intimate role in motion picture creation over the last six decades. It has invented a multitude of cameras, and thousands of lenses and accessories that span the most quintessential film and television productions – from Ben-Hur to Transformers: Age of Extinction – and served the industry with an unswerving passion for filmmaking and commitment to excellence.

“It’s not magic. We listen to our customers and deliver what they want,” explains Panavision’s EVP of Global Sales & Marketing Bob Harvey. “If it’s two o’clock in the morning in Timbuktu, and you can get a signal on your cell, our team will jump through hoops to solve any problem you may have, even if it means sending out another camera or a technician on the next available flight. We won’t let filmmakers settle for second best.”

It could be said that any camera and any lens is enough to make a movie, but what stands out for many cinematographers is the level of service and back up.

“Panavision’s most common mantra is ‘tell us how much you’ve got and we’ll do our best to match it,’” reports Phil Méheux BSC (Goldeneye). “On so many occasions they have added extra equipment to please me without adding to the budget. What more can one say."

“One of the reasons I use Panavision is they have a fantastic stock of equipment – old and odd, in development, as well as the right up to date,” says John Mathieson BSC (Gladiator). “They are enthusiasts, and could be accused developing non-commercial ideas, of hoarding obsolete and equipment that maybe out of fashion, but they respect and appreciate the engineers and optical minds that made those pieces, and they know someone someday will have a shot that only that item will execute.”

This pragmatism and dedication were the hallmarks of Panavision founder Robert Gottschalk who, in 1949, bought into a camera store where his customers were Hollywood cinematographers.

Gottschalk was also a 16mm filmmaker with a particular interest in underwater photography (a field just being opened up by Jacques Cousteau inventor of the mobile aqualung, which had a distributor in the same neighbourhood as Gottschalk’s shop). With colleague Richard Moore, Gottschalk experimented with the embryonic anamorphic lens technology using a wider field-of-view to alleviate the refraction of underwater shots.

The entrepreneurs then spotted a new niche for their concept, reapplying it to help theatre owners capitalise on the boon in widescreen films. The special cylindrical lenses necessary to project CinemaScope and other formats were too expensive for many exhibitors, were difficult to use, and were in short supply.

Joining forces with optical specialists William Mann and Walter Wallin, cameraman Meredith Nicholson ASC and businessman Harry Eller, Gottschalk and Moore incorporated Panavision in 1954 to manufacture the Super Panatar. This anamorphic projection lens featured a variable prism that projectionists could adjust to support any anamorphic format from 2.66:1 to 1.33:1 with a turn of a single knob.

The simple but ingenious projector attachment allowed theatre owners to adopt widescreen projection without costly equipment modifications. It not only captured the market but the attention of MGM who sought Panavision’s partnership in devising a widescreen acquisition system to rival that of Twentieth Century Fox’s CinemaScope.

Later that year, Panavision introduced the MGM Camera 65, a 65mm Mitchell camera system housed in a soundproof blimp which used an anamorphically squeezed image on a 65mm negative and 70mm print to project a picture with a ratio of 2.76:1. It marked the beginning of the company’s camera business.

MGM trumpeted its use of the process to make Raintree County (1957), and then Ben-Hur (1959), which was shown in 70mm. Incidentally, some of the original lenses used by Robert Surtees ASC will be made available for certain shots on the recently announced MGM remake of Ben-Hur. While camera bodies have changed considerably in sixty years, the quality and particular characteristics of hand-milled glass composed of silicon collected at source by Panavision, has never gone out of style.

The MGM Camera 65 technology led to the 1958 unveiling of the 35mm Auto Panatar camera lens, which eliminated the distortions created by early CinemaScope lenses and earned Panavision the first of 19 Academy Awards for Technical Achievement.

Innovation flowed thick and fast. Led by legendary engineer Tak Miyagishima, Panavision devised the Micro Panatar Printing lens used by film labs to produce film release prints from multiple negative formats in use in the 1950s.

Panavision’s popularity among filmmakers and actors cemented its growing reputation as the premier optics innovator for film. For Taming Of The Shrew (DP Oswald Morris, 1967), Panavision made a custom 100mm anamorphic lens for Elizabeth Taylor’s personal use. Frank Sinatra wielded his considerable influence to have Panavision 35mm anamorphic lenses used on Von Ryan’s Express (DP William H. Daniels, 1965). This became the first film from 20th Century Fox to have the ‘Filmed In Panavision’ credit instead of Cinemascope.

Panavision’s large format technology supported the artistry behind Lawrence Of Arabia and My Fair Lady (DP Harry Stradling Snr, 1964); continuing through to 2001: A Space Odyssey (DP Geoffrey Unsworth BSC, 1968); Ryan’s Daughter (DP Freddie Young BSC ASC, 1970); Far And Away (DP Mikael Salomon, 1992) and right up to the present with The Master (2012) lensed by Mihai Malaimare Jr in a combination of 65mm and 35mm.

Such classics helped inspire generations of filmmakers. Among them was Ben Smithard BSC, for whom Panavision was ingrained on his subconscious the day he first saw Papillon (DP Fred J. Koenekamp, 1973) – the film that he says influenced his choice of career.

“I scoured every journal and publication in order to just see one behind-the-scenes picture of how it was made,” he recalls. “The picture I found was of Dustin Hoffman, Steve McQueen and a Panavision Camera. I was hooked!”

Bolstered by the acquisition of MGM’s camera equipment division, as well as the rights to the Camera 65 system (subsequently rebranded Ultra Panavision 70), Gottschalk shifted Panavision to a rental-only business model that continues to this day. Customer service, long a point of pride for Panavision, was its central focus. By maintaining ownership of the inventory, Panavision was solely responsible for the quality and reliability of every piece of gear and it meant that every client received personalised advice and production support to help them achieve their vision.

“It’s not just about physical inventory,” observes Harvey. “Our dedicated team of lens designers, engineers and marketing reps often collaborate with the cinematographer, camera crew and the director to custom design lenses and camera packages to help them achieve their vision for the production.”

With the business well established by the early sixties, four of Panavision’s founders left the company to pursue private careers. Richard Moore turned his hand to cinematography, lensing subaquatic scenes in Thunderball (DP Ted Moore BSC, 1964) and then as main DP on productions including Annie (1982). Remaining as president, Gottschalk expanded the company into markets beyond Hollywood in a trajectory, which today sees the company with over 60 facilities worldwide.

The recent opening of an office in Hertfordshire represents Panavision’s latest facility based at the home of the Harry Potter franchise – Warner Bros Studios Leavesden in the South East of England.

“We’re constantly evolving, ever adapting and identifying new opportunities. Our presence at Leavesden underpins our dedication to service and our passion for filmmaking”, says Hugh Whittaker at Panavision in London.

Since opening its doors in summer 2013, Panavision Leavesden quickly proved to be a vital resource for such films Edge Of Tomorrow (DP Dion Beebe ACS ASC, 2014), Jupiter Ascending (DP John Toll ASC, 2015) and Heart Of The Sea (DP Anthony Dod Mantle DFF BSC ASC, 2015) and is currently supporting Pan (DP Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC & John Mathieson BSC, 2015) and Tarzan (2016).

The revolution of Panaflex

In 1968 Panavision tasked designer Al Mayer with creating a lightweight and portable studio camera with all the functionality of traditional cameras. Four years later the Panaflex debuted and took the filmmaking community by storm.

“Ergonomically designed, small and relatively silent with a mirror reflex shutter which allowed the operator to see what was going on directly through the lens – something we are now having to relearn with digital cameras – and 1000ft magazines providing 10 minutes of 35mm shooting complete with a double register pin gate, the Panaflex revolutionised shooting,” says Méheux. “It allowed the camera to be used in small situations and be handheld, and was probably instrumental in Hollywood abandoning the studio set and moving on location… to say nothing of advancing the use of long lenses and zooms which are now so common.”

Steven Spielberg’s The Sugarland Express (1974), lensed by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, was the first feature shot entirely with the Panaflex.

Inspired by the invention, filmmakers intensified their demands for ever smaller, lighter-weight film cameras. The Panaflex itself evolved over several generations to include the Panaflex Gold, Panastar, Panaflex Gold II, Panaflex 16 ‘Elaine’, Panaflex Platinum, Panastar-II, and Panaflex 65. Each model retained the original focal plane shutter and spinning mirror design, while advances in electronics and optics led to new features such as improved viewing systems, modern electronics, lighter materials, quieter cameras, and advanced video assist.

“What made the Panaflex special was the fact that Panavision made or adapted their own accessories, so that you knew everything and every lens would fit every camera,” says Méheux. “Those of us working on low to mid-budget films in Europe could only dream of renting a Panaflex, as its rental cost was significantly higher than other camera systems at the time, but it was universally praised as the doyen of cameras. Our only hope in those days was to be asked to photograph a CinemaScope film, as Panavision were the only ones with seasoned anamorphic lenses that could be trusted.”

In 1997, Panavision went one step further and unleashed the Millennium, a camera that re-examined every aspect of the existing 35mm technology. The Millennium XL further shrunk the camera body by using two film sprockets in place of the single sprocket design.

Besides these breakthrough moments of invention Panavision has produced dozens of less heralded, but equally valuable, accessories that help artists fine-tune the image, such as the illuminated on-set filter Panaflasher. Indeed the company has built more accessories for the Sony F55, ARRI Alexa and Red Dragons than anyone else. From rain reflectors to follow focus mechanisms, Panavised accessories allow filmmakers to get the shot.

The precision physics that went into creating Panavision optics have been the gold standard in high-end lens performance for motion pictures since the 1950s. Panavision Ultra Speed lenses, for example, haven’t been out of circulation since launch in 1976. In 1989 Panavision set the bar higher with the Primo series, the first completely matched series of primes and zooms between all the different focal lengths designed specifically for the motion picture industry.

When Phedon Papamichael ASC got his first opportunity to use a Panavision system, in 1991 on Poison Ivy, he realized that the (then brand new) Primo lenses, but in particular the 4:1 zoom (17-75mm, T2.3), would change the way he would shoot for the next two decades.

“The zoom’s quality was perfect, even wide-open, and although I was a purist up to that point, only relying on primes, I discovered the most useful creative tool with the 4:1,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed driving this Cadillac of cameras ever since. Always reliable, luxurious with its amazing viewing system and versatile, easily adjusting to all my needs.”

Once filmmakers work with Panavision they become part of the family. “I’ve tried to shoot all my features on Panavision lenses because they simply are just sublime in their look and performance,” commends Robbie Ryan BSC (Philomena, 2013). “I’ve been lucky enough to have the two best things in filmmaking together: celluloid, for which I will always be indebted and in love with, combined with Panavision Primos, which to me are the truest honest interpretation of what I see with my own eyes. They are like the perfect couple – they compliment each other like no others can.”

When Smithard moved up to a director of photography in 1997 he used every opportunity to shoot with Panaflex Cameras and Primo lenses. “It made me feel like I was making movies with the best gear available, even though I was shooting commercials at the time,” he says. “Never in the history of cinema has there been a better sync’d 35mm movie camera system and lenses as the ones that Panavision have designed in my opinion. It’s not just the amazing equipment and technological brilliance that Panavision excel at, their customer service is second to none.”

More recently the original glass of the Ultra Speeds were modernised with new housings and modern mechanics and called back to duty as PVintage lenses.

“We didn’t just make the PVintage series look like vintage glass,” says Harvey. “We use true vintage glass from actual Ultra Speed Primes, re-housed in modern mechanics to be more user friendly.”

In 2013 Panavision introduced the Primo V Series lenses, which were expressly designed to work with HD cameras to eliminate digital optical artefacts, whilst retaining the characteristically smooth organic imagery of the original Primo lenses. PVintage lenses are rehoused Ultra Speed lenses for use on film and digital cameras. Primo V lenses were specifically designed for use on digital cameras eliminating digital aberrations.

Today, Panavision offers six different sets of anamorphic lenses with up to 12 focal lengths in each series alongside hundreds of speciality and zoom lenses.

“Quality engineered glass has properties that cinematographers look for,” Harvey elaborates. “Each feature, commercial or TV project represents a different canvas on which to paint, so we have to offer the cinematographer and director a full range of creative options to enable them to realise their aesthetic vision. The look of the lens becomes more critical when paired with digital camera sensors.”

For Haris Zambarloukos BSC, anamorphic is the cornerstone of Panavision’s contribution. “They literally invented the art of anamorphic cinema – and continue to excel at it,” he says.

For Cinderella (2015), Zambarloukos and director Kenneth Branagh wanted to shoot 65mm (Branagh shot 1996 film Hamlet in the format, with Alex Thomson BSC the cinematographer), but for various reasons were unable to. They made various tests to get as close as possible to the look of Super Panavision. “One of the things we tried was using 50 and 200 ASA Kodak stock and the Primo anamorphic,” he says. “The combination was outstanding. It sometimes became almost imperceptible to 65mm.”

The C-Series is Zambarloukos’ ‘go to’ anamorphic lens. “One of the great pleasures I get when starting a film is going into Greenford [Panavision’s UK HQ] and using serial numbers and a chart and Panavision’s expert knowledge to select lenses. Each lens has its own personality. Whether I’m looking for characteristics of crispness or softness or sensor sharpness, each is a unique masterpiece of optical engineering.”

“With Locke (2014) there is particular way in which the landscape and portraiture melt into one. A large part of that effect lies in how we picked just the right C-Series anamorphics to give us beautiful bokeh with portraiture. No other lens would work as well with a digital format.”

The arrival of digital cinema might have heralded a demise in Panavision’s fortunes. Instead, the company became a pioneer in the field, challenging the industry’s preconceptions of visual imaging once again.

Collaborating with Sony in 2000 Panavision raised HD digital video to the standards of big screen film quality. The Panavized Sony HD-900F and Primo Digital lenses powered the first digital major feature film, George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (DP David Tattersall BSC, 2002). This led directly to 2004’s Panavision Genesis, the first commercially used 35 mm 4:4:4 HD camera designed specifically for motion picture and television production.

Harvey says, “We worked closely with Sony to make the camera user friendly for film people. Essentially it was a film camera that shot tape.” The first films to use the camera with Primo spherical lenses to deliver true 35mm depth-of-field and look were Newton Thomas Sigel ASC on Superman Returns (2006), Henry Braham on Flyboys (2006) and Dean Semler ACS ASC for Apocalypto (2006) and Click (2006).

Modern classics Unforgiven (DP Jack Green ASC, 1992), Dances With Wolves (DP Dean Semler ACS ASC, 1990), Pulp Fiction (DP Andrzej Sekula, 1994), JFK (DP Robert Richardson ASC, 1991) and Nebraska (DP Phedon Papamichael, 2013) were all supported by the company’s technology, as are the 2014 summer releases of Captain America: The Winter Soldier (DP Trent Opaloch), The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (DP Dan Mindel ASC), and Godzilla (DP Seamus McGarvey BSC ASC) among many others.

Now the company is poised to lead the industry once more, by researching and developing a large format digital camera system fit for the most demanding motion picture artists of the 21st century.

As with previous models, Panavision intends to offer this new digital camera as a system, the first fruits of which are already on the market. The Primo 70 series of lenses builds on the Primo heritage with characteristics that include flat field, “natural” sharpness vs. electronic sharpness and minimal chromatic aberration. Compatible with 35mm digital cameras including ARRI Alexa, Phantom 65, RED Dragon and Sony F55, the series represents a new creative choice for the cinematographer.

“We decided to go back to our roots on our next development and work on a new larger format digital camera and lens system,” says Harvey. “Make no mistake this is no easy task. We don’t have anybody to copy. If this camera isn’t all that it needs to be then we won’t put our name on it. It means no compromise on depth-of-field control, portability, sensitivity, dynamic range, or colour. But we have got the right team in place.”

Under the leadership of David Macintosh, Vice President of Systems Development, and Dan Sasaki, Vice President of Optical Engineering and Lens Strategy, Panavision fosters an on-going legacy of unsurpassed excellence in optics and engineering design.

Now beginning its seventh decade serving the film, television and commercials industries, Panavision’s long commitment to innovation has made this legendary name a trusted partner to the industry’s creative community.

As Mathieson exclaims, “This company will fight for you, and support you, whatever format you want to shoot on. They listen to the cameramen, technicians and producers, and also to the DSLR punk rockers who will be our next generation of filmmakers.”