This Chunky 1950s Hollywood Film Camera Has Received an Overhaul for Its Seventh Decade of Work

Having already been brought out of retirement once in the 1980s for visual effects work, this workhorse camera has been revived again.

Film and video engineer Steve Switaj has brought a classic film camera from the 1950s back to life — for the second time, as the device enjoys its seventh decade of operation.

"In the mid 1950's the Mitchell Camera Company built about a dozen VistaVision motion picture cameras for Paramount Studios. Against all odds, they have soldiered on for 65 years," Switaj explains. "This is actually the second time this big ol' camera has taken a trip through the modernizing machine. I ended up rebuilding the failed electronics for its second resurrection, to bring it up to modern standards and give it a new lease on life going into its 7th Hollywood decade."

The cameras, built during the explosion of interest in widescreen content as Hollywood sought to fight off the threat from home viewing on TV, aren't exactly pocket-friendly: The largest weigh in at 39 pounds unloaded, before the film, lens, battery, and viewfinder are added, and measure over two feet in length. Shooting in their own VistaVision, designed to compete with 65mm film formats through the use of standard stock and processing equipment, the cameras were retired in the early 1960s — before being resurrected in the 1980s for visual effects projects.

"Specialty optical companies such as ILM, Beaumont Camera, and Fries Engineering dug the old VistaVision cameras from deep in the back of storage rooms all over Hollywood and rebuilt them with 'modern' features, like reflex viewing," Switaj explains. "This is one of those Fries conversions from the 80s. It started life as one of the lightweight 'butterfly' models, a 'small' handheld version for action and inserts, coming in at a svelte 17lbs - without film. Fries rehoused the film movement into a studio-style body and added a spinning mirror for reflex viewing (the original had a rangefinder)."

Eventually, though, the electronics gave up the ghost — until the owner brought Switaj in to see if it could be repaired. "After about 30 minutes of tracing my way through the original circuits," he explains, "I realized that 1) something bad had happened in here, and 2) simply rebuilding it from the bottom up was the way forward."

To do so, Switaj designed two new circuit boards from modern components: A replacement control board with 4×20 character LCD panel, a Microchip PIC24EP microcontroller running at 70MHz, and physical controls designed to mimic those of the common Arriflex 435 motion picture camera; and a power board with three motor drivers, which allow for frame-rate adjustment from 1 to 36 frames per second in 0.001 FPS steps.

"One interesting thing is that the camera originally contained a brake to help when stopping, but I had to remove it to find room for a modern shaft encoder," Switaj adds. "It was a good brake, a noble brake even, but it just had to go, there was just no room because the old 25 hole motor speed sensor disk really needed an upgrade. I replaced it with a modern 800 count quadrature encoder. Having 32 times more resolution dramatically improves speed control, but just as importantly it allows me to derive certain signals to provide an industry-standard Arri-B family interface port."

Switaj's full write-up is available on his project page.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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