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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


Sir Sydney Samuelson and Real Picture Quality
A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson. Recorded in London, Monday 17 October 2011 + 28 January 2012

The 70mm Newsletter
Interviewed by: Thomas Hauerslev. Transcribed for in70mm.com by Brian Guckian. Proofread by Sir Sydney Samuelson and Mark Lyndon for accuracy. Images by Thomas Hauerslev, unless otherwise notedDate: 26.08.2013


Professor Henri Chretien, father of the Hypergonar lens. Plaque at the Nice Observatory, France

TH: Let’s jump forward to your great adventure with Panavision, and how you got involved with that, and Samuelson Film Service –

Sir Sydney: What happened was this: arguably, Big Cinema was once saved by the introduction of CinemaScope – it was saved from the inroads that television was making into public entertainment.

I think it was Billy Wilder who said, “Why do you need Widescreen Cinema – why would you go see bad films on big screens when you can see bad films at home for nothing!” – some quote like that.

CinemaScope had emerged through the enterprise of 20th Century-Fox; their Chief – Spyros Skouras I think his name was – and the ability of their Camera Department. The lens – you may probably know this, just say so if you do – was originally French, and the designer – I can’t think of his name at the moment –

TH: Henri Chrétien –

Sir Sydney: Chrétien – absolutely – thought of it as a lens for the gunner in a tank, so he could get, without having a great big dangerous viewing aperture – he could see the whole vista in front of him. My brother David has one of the original Chrétien lenses that were used for CinemaScope. "The Robe" was shot with only one lens, and I think it was with the lens my brother has. Something, if you were interested, for another trip!

Anyway what happened was that 20th Century-Fox had brought out this so-called new process and it had become popular, because the screen was a different shape – it was bigger, and of course virtually everything was in colour that was made in CinemaScope. And it was that which caused the public to realise CinemaScope meant “Big Screen”, which was enough to give the process an edge at the box office.

So the other distributors were really uptight about their own situation and, in the end, 20th Century-Fox said, “Well, we will rent you the lenses, but you have to show our logo on the front of your movies – ‘This film is made in CinemaScope’” – with the “CinemaScope” spread out like that [Gestures], and of course the other major companies didn’t want to have to publicise their competitors like that.

Well Robert Gottschalk (12 March 1918 – 3 June 1982), who was the founder of Panavision – had a camera company in Beverly Hills – I think it was called Beverly Hills Camera – it was a high-quality camera shop, it wasn’t just a junky, like Snappy Snaps or something like that – and Robert’s friend was, I think, the Technical Director for MGM.

They were good personal friends, and I suppose this guy, whose name I think was Douglas Shearer – was the brother of the film star Norma Shearer – he said to Bob once, “For God’s sake Bob, don’t you know anybody who can give us [MGM] our own Big Screen process so we don’t bloody well have to go to Fox, down on our knees, and be given dud optics. Remember, every time ten lenses come out of the manufacturing plant probably only three or four of them are as optically good as they should be, and guess which ones Fox takes for their own productions!”

And Bob said, “Well such a system is Anamorphic; I don’t know about anamorphic lenses, but why don’t we do a system using 65mm?” He said, “Whatever way you look at it, what really gives you the quality is the size of the negative. And also, remember that 65mm is not just twice the size of 35mm, it’s getting on for four times the area of the negative”.

So that was how Panavision’s first product was a 65mm system. And its first film I think was called "Raintree County". And obviously you know why there is 65mm, and 70mm negative only in Russia – the negative as well as the print is 70mm.

I suspect – the English expression is “I’m telling my grandmother to suck eggs”, meaning “I’m telling you something you learned as a child, probably!”

So that was a new process...but of course it was big equipment, especially in those days. But I do believe Bob actually set up and he made a smaller 65mm camera – a hand-holdable 65mm camera – but of course it was still fairly big and it was all too costly, so eventually Gottschalk was persuaded to bring out a 35mm anamorphic system.

Now, although there is not much I don’t know about Panavision through the ages [Chuckles] and Bob Gottschalk and I were very close – I don’t actually know where his anamorphosers came from...what I do know is the first product of Panavision in the anamorphic format were projection lenses, and I think they were dual-gauge; there was a knob on the top so you could actually change the degree factor by which it would be stretching out the image.

And then, the Panavision anamorphic camera lenses for 35mm cinematography emerged. From day one, the quality – the optical quality – was better than CinemaScope. And of course Todd-AO was left in the background, and I think they remained associated with Fox. I think Todd-AO made the first Fox anamorphic lenses – I’d have to rely on you to find out about that. There was some association I think between Fox and Todd-AO.
Home: A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson
Cinema was always in my Family
Stanley Kubrick, "Tom Jones" and one point
Dickie Dickenson, David Lean and British Quota Film
Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
Takuo Miyagishima, Robert Gottschalk and a 20:1 Zoom
David Lean and The Friese-Greene Award
Thunderball, Zhivago, Techniscope, and Fogging a roll of film
Ken Annakin, "Grand Prix", James Bond, Helicopters
How lucky can you be

More in 70mm reading:

The Importance of Panavision
A Message from Freddie A. Young
Stanley Kubrick
Shooting "Lawrence of Arabia"
Memories of Ryan's Daughter
Joe Dunton
Ken Annakin
70mm in London 1958 - 2012
The editor Receives BKSTS award

Internet link:

George Berthold "Bertie" Samuelson (1889 - 1947) (PDF)
Samuelson Film Service (reunion)

The Argus
British Film Industry Salute

'Strictly Sydney'
Clapper Board Part 1
Clapper Board Part 2

St. Mary's 1963

"Thunder Bay" advert for 1,85:1 Widescreen

Anyway, wherever Bob Gottschalk got the anamorphosers from, he loved everything Japanese – especially the quality of their manufacturing. And I know, in later days, certainly competitors of Panavision like – do you know Joe Dunton? – his anamorphosers I think were made in Japan.

But he (Gottschalk) brought out those anamorphic lenses and I noticed that more and more anamorphic movies – or just generalising, say Widescreen – because 1.85 style of Widescreen I don’t think came in till a bit later; it must have always been there, there was nothing stopping you shooting 1.85, cutting the top and bottom off an Academy frame –

TH: One of the first films was Universal‘s "Thunder Bay" with James Stewart, specifically filmed in 1.85 –

Sir Sydney: Right – which was a bit like Techniscope, which was a cheap way of getting that 2.35:1 shape. I mean it was a sort of fraud really, because at least with anamorphic – Panavision’s or anybody else’s – you had a bigger piece of negative to help the definition.

Bob Gottschalk

Robert E Gottschalk, 1959. Panavision company photo

Anyway, Bob cottoned on to the fact that as well as selling – I mean in the widest sense – persuading is a better word – the Cameramen that Panavision’s lenses would do a better job than CinemaScope, he realised that the actors – especially actresses, would appreciate his lenses, certainly an actress who was no longer young, but who wanted to look as young as possible, and avoid that effect – swollen faces – which came with some non-Panavision optics, especially the wider angled ones –

TH: “Mumps” – I think they called them “mumps” –

Sir Sydney: Yes, “the mumps effect” – that’s right. And he had a most useful piece of Test Film, which was split screen. And he must have taken his very best distortion-free 50mm lens and somehow got hold of a lousy 50mm CinemaScope lens...photographed the same girl and had them printed split-screen. And of course it was so dramatic! So Bob would say to the Cameraman of a picture where they’re deciding whether to go with this new-found independent supplier who’s a rather difficult man to deal with, Bob Gottschalk. Bob would say to the Cameraman, “Come along to Panavision and I’ll show you some material that’s been shot recently, using our lenses”.

Then he would include this split screen shot. And he would often say to the Cameraman, “Who’s the girl in your picture?” When the Cameraman would say, “So–and–so, she’s not easy, she’s 46 now”, Bob would say, “Well bring her along as well”.

And of course if the actress had any power at all and wanted to be kept happy, she’d say, “I saw a lens” – she’d say to the Producer – why wouldn’t she say it? Made no difference to her, she wouldn’t get less money if they weren’t Panavision – she’d say, “I think you should have a look, because I look so much better”.

So he was a very clever marketer. And he wasn’t the most loved person in Los Angeles, because if you were – if you liked Panavision, if you appreciated what Panavision stood for – I suppose to an extent, if you were prepared to accept that Panavision says, “This is how much a week our lenses cost: we don’t do discounts” – a lot of people, Production Managers, are more interested in the discount than they are in what actually goes up on the screen! It’s how cheap it is which matters most to some people.

And therefore Bob was not popular with everybody. And of course I remember that the Cameramen who were kind of “locked into Fox”, they didn’t ever use Panavision. And Bob would not speak well of them, because he would know they were not Panavision people.

And just a little bit of explanation of Bob – he was very, very ordinary in his personality – I mean he was forever combing his hair – he was very shy about his appearance – he was completely bald – not sides, but up here, like me. And when I first knew him I still had a little bit of hair – that probably didn’t please him!

We were the best, the closest of friends – he was the most loyal person, business colleague, I could ever have – did ever have. If someone complained to him, along the lines of, “I don’t know why you have Samuelson’s representing your product, they’re very difficult to deal with, you know”. He would say, “Why, was there anything wrong?” “You can’t negotiate with Sydney at all”. And he’d say, “Well are you talking about discounts?” “Well not necessarily, but it’s...not easy to do a deal”. And Bob would always say the same thing – “Have you spoken to Sydney about it?” “Well no, I haven’t spoken about it, I was coming to Los Angeles so I thought I’d speak to you – I thought I’d come to the top”. And Bob would always say, “If you haven’t spoken to Sydney, I don’t know why you’re speaking to me!” And that was very important to me – if anyone was – I think I can say, without sounding too pompous – if anyone was complaining about my company it was because we didn’t discount. In the end, we had to discount just like everybody else in order to stay in business!

Later on, Panavision also had to discount. Bob never used to have a good word to say for anything except Panavision anamorphic – if a Cameraman was not shooting in Panavision anamorphic, as far as Bob was concerned, he was worthless; how could anyone not want the best possible picture on the screen?

But in the end Bob had to bring out a series of non–anamorphic lenses, spherical lenses, and he hated that because he felt it was not the best way to photograph movies.

But again, it was so difficult to get people to pay for anamorphic. And then the labs’ opticals were not very good in the early days of anamorphic, it was easier to shoot 1.85. And of course when Techniscope came out – same screen shape but half the negative size of an anamorphic frame – Bob thought it was just shocking. But when he brought out his non-anamorphic lenses he also brought out at more or less the same time – I’d need to check that, just what the relationship was to the Panaflex camera and the non-anamorphic lenses. It was a big step for Panavision, to go non-anamorphic. They were however a good series of spherical lenses.
But...when the Panaflex came out – it was so revolutionary, so light in weight, so many features on it that had never been seen before – so quiet – if you wanted the Panaflex, Bob’s rule was – “Only for Panavision anamorphic”. And I remember the Producers and Directors hated this stipulation – they felt, “Who the hell does he think he is, telling us how to shoot our movie!” What they really meant was, “It’s a pity nobody else has a camera as good as the Panaflex”. They wouldn’t say it, but they might even think, “I suppose he’s the only person who might spend the money to develop the Panaflex”...they might even think, Thomas, “He’s got that fantastic Japanese Chief Engineer – ” – we used to call him Tak –

TH: Takuo “Tak” Miyagishima

Sir Sydney: – One of the articles, incidentally, in one of your magazines, is about him because he just died. You’ll enjoy it – it’s in there somewhere.

So people would think – some people might realise, “Well, a lot of research has gone into this; a lot of Panavision’s money has gone into this; a lot of love has gone into this”.

I can remember the story when Bob had the first Panaflex and he phoned up his good friend, who always went Panavision – Clint Eastwood, who was by that time directing – and he said, “Where are you shooting at the moment? I’d like to bring you something to look at”. And he went on the set, and as luck would have it, Clint – I forget which film it was – was shooting a dialogue scene inside a car, and then cutting to outside – and Bob walked up to where they were shooting, a velvet cloth over what he was holding, in one hand – not any old piece of cloth; not a changing bag, but a piece of quality velvet. And he said, “Clint, I’ve got something here that might be useful on that shot. Am I right in saying you want to be in the car, and then come out of the car?” Then he pulled the cloth off, and there was this not only a very small camera being held in one hand, but a beautifully-styled camera. And Clint used the camera there and then, and it is shot in a much better way. But it would still be for anamorphic in those days.

Now, how did I originally contact him? I had realised that more and more films that I went to see had the Panavision logo on – even the James Bond films, from number three – or four?
Danish "Thunderball" newspaper advert

TH: "Thunderball" was shot in Panavision –

Sir Sydney: Yes, that was three, wasn’t it?

TH: "Dr. No", "From Russia with Love", "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball". That was number four...in 1965

Sir Sydney: Yes, but "From Russia with Love" was –

TH: – was Flat

Sir Sydney: – was spherical, wasn’t it? And "Dr. No" was the very first one, wasn’t it?

TH: That was Flat too –

Sir Sydney: So "Thunderball" was the first Bond film [in
Panavision]. But a number of films had been shot in Panavision where the Cameraman and/or the Producer and/or the Director had said, “Can we get those lenses? I keep seeing marvellous pictures shot ‘In Panavision’”.

And so they used to bring the lenses in from Los Angeles – the UK Camera Departments of those days were all studio-based. So if you wanted to make a film, you did part of it in Pinewood and then at your location – all the Pinewood gear would go out on the location. What happened with the lenses was, the studio camera was always a Mitchell NC or BNC. And the Studio – this was before reflex – the Studio would take the lenses and make “Viewfinder Cams” for each lens on each camera – a long, tedious job. But that’s how Panavision anamorphic was originally shot. It was before we owned a Mitchell camera, and I used to try and get in touch with Bob Gottschalk – never got a phone call returned. And then – Freddie Young – although he had never shot a picture for my father, he knew of my father when he, Freddie, was a Camera Assistant in 1918 and knew of my father, but never worked with him, but later he knew of us. And once, when a new item of equipment – a Moviola crab dolly – emerged, people kept asking me for a crab dolly and I hadn’t got one. Then the Moviola crab dolly appeared in Los Angeles and I had a look at it. I phoned the firm and bought one, which we couldn’t really afford – I think it was about £2000, for us a lot of money, in those days. Freddie was preparing a picture to shoot in Malaya and I knew him well enough – we’d supplied him with bits and pieces, filters, lenses that Pinewood hadn’t stocked, and that kind of thing – and I said, “I’ve got a new item, Freddie, can I bring it and show it to you?” He said, “Well, tomorrow we’re doing Artists’ Tests at St. John’s Wood Studios” – a little tiny studio. He said, “You could bring it there...what is it?” So I said, “Well it’ll – let me just say it’ll give you lovely movement”. And he said, “Oh well, my Director – ” – Lewis Gilbert I think – he said, “Lewis loves fluidity”. Anyway, I took in a truck this brand new, beautiful-looking Moviola crab dolly. It looked like a professionally-made product, whereas the McAllister (which Shepperton Studios represented in the UK) looked like it had been home-made by a camera techie! And I remember rolling it down outside the Studio, and Freddie was standing there and he said something like, “I’ll have it!” Because he could immediately see what it was. Anyway, we wheeled it onto the set, they mounted the camera on it, they used it for the rest of the day and it went on rental to Malaya for 14 weeks. It was a William Holden film, and Freddie said, “I wonder – we haven’t booked any camera gear yet, we’re not making it out of the studio – how would you be fixed to do all the gear, could you do that?” And I said, “We don’t have a BNC, but I could get one. I could hire one from Bunny” (Bunny Onions was a Cameraman who owned a BNC – which was like the Rolls-Royce of cameras; we were not in that league yet, frankly). Anyway, to cut a long story short, we got that picture, the first BNC feature film we ever did. And it was with a hired-in camera. I remember I had nowhere for the crew to come and check all the gear, so I had to rent a church hall in Hendon! But it all went very well.

Now Freddie could do no harm in Bob Gottschalk’s mind. Bob loved him to bits as a person, and because he’d done a little film called "Lawrence of Arabia" in Panavision and won an Oscar for it. And apparently he had said to Bob, “You know, I think it’s ridiculous you have no representation in London or anywhere in Europe, and it’s not practical bringing lenses in, and the Arriflex” – if you wanted an Arriflex you needed to get that from Panavision, as it was converted to take Panavision lenses, and you know, the bigger aperture plate too – and, apparently, Bob Gottschalk said, “Funny you should say that, because I’ve had a bloke called John Davis, boss of the Rank Organisation, who says that he feels his company should be handling Panavision, and they are already the agents for Arriflex”. Well, that was a kind of turn-off for Bob – he wouldn’t want to be with the agent for Arriflex. He had to use Arriflexes, because hand-held shots you couldn’t get any other way – but that doesn’t mean he liked putting Panavision lenses onto an Arriflex camera. But, for a lot of people in Los Angeles, America, there was only one camera, and that was the Mitchell. Anyway, Bob Gottschalk said something like, “He’s the Arriflex agent; I didn’t like him very much either”. And Freddie said, “Well shall I put you in touch with someone I think would do a good job for you, his name’s Sydney Samuelson, and I’ve known his family as long as I can remember?” And Bob said, “Oh yeah, I know him, he keeps ‘phoning me!” So Freddie said, “I think you should see him”.

Well, Bob never phoned me. So any excuse I had, I called him. If a customer phoned, and they were using a set of Panavision lenses and needed a hand-holdable camera, and I got a call saying, “What have you got that’s hand-holdable, and’ll take Panavision lenses?” I used to have to say, “I haven’t got anything – I don’t think we’d be allowed to re-mount Panavision lenses without authority from Panavision anyway”. I would then phone Bob – if I could get through to him I would say, “I’ve another well-known Cameraman who would like to use Panavision, and has a query, has a problem, so why don’t I come and see you?” And he’d say, “Yeah well, we’ll get round to that later”.

Well then "Thunderball" came about – Panavision lenses...I think that was the first James Bond film shot in Panavision. And their first day of shooting was in Weymouth on the South Coast.

Now a lot of "Thunderball" was underwater, and it was in Panavision 35. And the gear came from Panavision LA, and when they came to put it all together, something didn’t fit something. And of course you know there are two lots of camera crews – there are those who would say, “I don’t think it’s too bad...what can we do about this, get onto Sydney”. Or, there were those who’d say, “Phone Samuelson’s – don’t speak to anybody except Sydney Samuelson, and say to him this is the second time we’ve had an Arriflex from him, and a f*****g battery is flat, and what is he going to do about it”.

The Answering Machine

In both examples, the problem could be exactly the same – it’s just the way they look at it. First of all of course they’ve got another battery. Second of all, within the hour, at Shepperton Studios we would have a replacement battery. It’s just whether you want to smooth over it, or you want to be able to get at the Supplier. There were people, Thomas, who don’t enjoy – what shall I say – they don’t enjoy success, or appreciate enterprise – they are a bit jealous, envious, whatever – so it was difficult with some people ever to persuade them we’re not the cheapest, but we’re the best value – believe me, I would say we’re the best value! One evening, when I got home, I had just installed my first telephone answering machine. It was a large box in my home, German. Nobody knew what answering machines were, really – anyway, when I got home late one evening – we’d both been out – there was a message on my answering machine. And it was the Office Manager – “I’m phoning up for Mr. Robert Gottschalk – he wants to speak to you”. And it was gone midnight. So I phoned Robert Gottschalk and he did speak to me – he said, “There’s a picture called – ” – and he had to look it up, I remember – “ – "Thunderball" being made – they’ve taken equipment from us, they’ve just started shooting and they say the stuff doesn’t fit together - they must be idiots! Now you’ve told me on the phone before about your Chief Engineer, who came from the Rank Organisation – Bill Vicker is it?” And I said, “Yes”. He said, “Well, tell him to get his ass down to Wye-mouth – wherever that is – right away!” I said, “Bob, it’s 1am...I’ll try to get him, but he’ll need to go on the train – he’ll be on the first train tomorrow, with his toolkit”. So he said, “Right”. I said, “Now while we’re on the phone – we’ve never met, I’ve asked you whether we might talk about representing Panavision. I’ve asked if I can come and see you, but we have no deal. Believe me, Bill Vicker will be there, not later than 9 o’clock in the morning”. And he said, “Oh well, you can come here if you want to”. And so I did!

I had previously knocked on his door for a visit, and – I’d forgotten this bit – I was shown around Panavision in their relatively small place in Pontius Avenue in West Los Angeles. Nothing about UK representation was talked about, but I did meet him in the end, in passing, as it were. He wasn’t in the mood to say, “Well what do you think of it all”, “Tell me about yourself”, or “Come and have a coffee” – and so I went, but that’s how we began to get a deal.
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