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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

Stanley and Joe

Joe Dunton in Bradford, 2011

So that’s a bit of scuttlebutt about Stanley Kubrick...who was a unique character. I think I did tell you that we were quite good friends, in a detached kind of way – not good friends like I was with say – dropping a big name out of the sky – I was truly close with David Lean – and I’ve got a still upstairs of David and I, and David has his arm through mine – Stanley Kubrick might shake hands with me, but he wouldn’t go any further than that [Laughs] – and that wasn’t just me, he was very detached. I would say he was a bit weird – it was very difficult to – I don’t think he had really close friends – I think he and his wife had an affectionate family. As far as his relationships with technicians, he respected knowledgeable people. Do you know the name of Joe Dunton? – well Joe, who’s a brilliant technician in his own right, was the one, I would think probably in the last ten years of Stanley’s life, Joe Dunton was his man, would make special stuff for him – or have it made. He would find special stuff, would phone him up and might say, “I’ve heard that a Nikon lens has come out, and I think it could be adapted, and it would do whatever it might do that Nikon had brought out” [Laughs] – and Stanley Kubrick would probably say to Joe, “Well get one, and put an Arriflex adaptor on it, and let’s see what it can do”. He had that relationship. It was Joe who built Stanley’s viewing theatre, in his own home...and it had the best, the best of everything. And in fact, after Stanley died, I don’t know whether Joe bought the equipment from the viewing theatre, but Joe set up a post-production house and the projection in it – the 35mm projection – was from what was the viewing theatre in Stanley Kubrick’s home.

Anyway, I can’t say Stanley was an important customer to me – he was clearly an important person – he used my company, and our activities, but hardly as a customer – in so much as he was always very friendly – I don’t mean affectionate, that kind of friendship – but he was never like a producer client. Have you ever heard of Michael Winner? Stanley was nothing like Michael Winner, who swears at you and who’s rude, and picks on young people who can’t answer back – just a terrible man – Stanley was nothing like that. But he would phone me up, and say, “I want to be able to hand-hold a camera and shoot sync sound...I hear that Arriflex have just brought out a blimp” (we’re going back a good way here). He said, “Can you hand-hold it? I understand it’s small, only 400 feet, when a Mitchell is 1000 feet”. I said, “You can’t really hand-hold” – he would say, “Well can I come and see it?” And I’d say, “Of course you can” – and he would probably always say, “Will you be there yourself?” – “Of course I will, let’s fix a time”. He didn’t ever come during daytime; he would come at 10 o’clock at night – really strange. And I would go back to the office, and whatever it was he wanted to see, or he’d heard about, I would show him, and I’d have one of my technical people if it needed detailed explanation of any kind, especially when complicated electronics came into our industry – but he would never say, “Well for the next picture I’d like to rent that for 10 weeks”. If he wanted that item, he would find out where it came from, and buy one for himself. He must have been quite wealthy – he’d had some very successful films, hadn’t he, and he had this special deal with Warner Bros. Imagine this, his deal with Warner Bros was that he submitted the script – if they approved the script, and gave him the money to make the film, part of the contract was they were not to be in touch with him at all until he showed them the finished movie. How many Producers, Directors, could ever have that clause – that the money people can’t say, “Well we’ve had a look at your workprint and we don’t think it’s going well” or, “It’s going to be too long” or, “It’s dull” or, “Who will ever pay money to see that?” – “Why would young people ever want to see that?” – or whatever else they might say. They would have the right to say in effect, “It’s our money, and we want this, that or the other changed”. And if the Director said, “No I’m not going to change this” they would then pay him off, and take on another director to finish the project. It happens all the time.

And I always think one of the most interesting things in the old Halliwell Film Guide – sadly no longer produced; it used to come out every two years – it was updated – each film would have all the most important front-of-screen credits – a bit about the story of the film – a bit about what two or three critics said, if it was an important film, or a popular film – and then it would often say who the preferred original actors were, but who were not available. It’s always interesting as to when you’ve subsequently seen the film, whichever stars played the parts, to be able to say, “Oh how interesting – they actually wanted John Wayne to play that part...I wonder what he would have been like?” - but he wasn’t available, didn’t like the script, not enough money on offer, or whatever it was. Anyway, back to Kubrick: he was entirely self-indulgent. What was his last film?

TH: "Eyes Wide Shut" -

Sir Sydney: "Eyes Wide Shut" – with that little actor – American – big star –

TH: Tom Cruise –

Sir Sydney: ...Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman – I think that was certainly Kubrick’s last picture. I think they shot for over a year – it was made at Pinewood, it was a studio picture – over a year! And I don’t think it was much of a success...even after spending all that time. And he only used the very best people on it...I never saw that film, but I believe it was pretty sexually explicit, a serious film, but I don’t think it did that much business! [Laughs]

I don’t think anyone ever says to me, when we’re talking about enjoyable movies, I don’t ever remember anyone saying, “Gosh, did you see "Eyes Wide Shut"? - Stanley Kubrick” – I don’t think anybody said that to me. But there are quite a lot of successful Directors and Producers about who you have to say, “But his last five or six films didn’t work that well”.

I don’t know if it’s a case of whether directors simply lose their touch, get too old, or they don’t understand how the main audience - the main cinema audience – is younger, and they think in a different way. But you get people like one who I knew very well – Otto Preminger – he was a terrible man as well – used to shout at junior people – if a young actress or actor was having difficulty with their lines, and they did take after take after take, he used to scream at them – which of course doesn’t help! He was just...just awful on set. This kind of material we’re talking about, Tom, is it of interest?

TH: Yes – we’re going around –

Sir Sydney: You need to bring me back!
Home: A Conversation with Sir Sydney Samuelson
Cinema was always in my Family
Panavision, Bob Gottschalk and The Answering Machine
Stanley Kubrick, "Tom Jones" and one point
Dickie Dickenson, David Lean and British Quota Film
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

"2001: A Space Odyssey"

TH: I would like to bring you back to the thread of 65mm and "2001" – last time we ended with Stanley Kubrick getting the equipment and taking all the measurements he needed – can you remember from the actual shooting of the film – did you have any contact with him and his crew...about the equipment?

Sir Sydney: Only complaints! And some of them might have been justified, but I’ll tell you the kind of complaint – it wasn’t the lenses (“the 75mm lens is not good enough”) – they did these four weeks of tests, and of course the fact it was 65mm negative running through the camera, when they were doing the tests, if there was any lens that Kubrick thought was not as good as it could be – it may not have been that it wasn’t as good as it could be – just he thought it wasn’t as good as it could be. Maybe he didn’t think the focus scale was accurate; he thought that it was sharper when the focus was on 10 feet, if you had that scale on the lens at 10 foot 6 inches – I mean that kind of complaint. And being 65mm, we had to bring in every item of camera equipment from Los Angeles – we didn’t stock 65mm Panavision – there wasn’t enough 65mm Panavision for us to be able to hold a stock in London, and to have it waiting on shelves. There wasn’t a great amount of 65mm – there wasn’t a great call for 65mm – Panavision couldn’t afford to build gear, and not have it used. I would think that Panavision had enough 65mm probably to do two major movies at the same time – to shoot them both at the same time. It may be that there was a third film where they only needed one (wild) camera to get some coverage of something before they started the main shoot. Panavision would be able to supply them with just one camera and some lenses to go to say, the Himalayas, to get some preliminary material. But as far as providing three cameras – an average would be three cameras for any major film – I doubt they could cover more than two major 65mm productions at once.

So when we came to do 65mm out of our own premises, serviced from us, first of all, the gear had to be shipped from Los Angeles. We used to get the list from the crew of what they wanted, and then we would all order it and it would be shipped in by Panavision. But it wasn’t as if, when they wanted to change an item, that we had six of them on a shelf – if a cameraman said, “I’m not really happy, Sydney, with the 35mm lens”, or, “We’re having a bit of trouble with the sync motor...we think it’s hunting a bit – you know, it’s not running smoothly [Imitates noise of mechanism] – seems to be alright on the rushes, but we would like you to change it...give us another motor and let us try it” – that kind of thing, with the complexity of the mechanics, such problems happen all the time. With 65mm, with Kubrick at the helm – he was so unbelievably fussy – I had to rely on the common sense and the friendship of his camera crew people. Cameramen as an example of this, the cameraman on "2001: A Space Odyssey" -

TH: - was Geoffrey Unsworth.

Sir Sydney: Yes. Geoffrey was one of the nicest people you could ever imagine...and so indeed was Johnny Alcott – who was like a whizz-kid because of his longtime association with Kubrick. I would think that Johnny probably was permanently on Kubrick’s staff...he probably got a regular wage – not a Lighting Cameraman’s wage, when they were not actually shooting, but I can’t remember Johnny doing anything much for anyone except Kubrick in his latter days. And then the poor fellow had a heart attack and died very young, like 40, that kind of age.

TH: He did "Greystoke", didn’t he?

Sir Sydney: He did "Greystoke", yes –

TH: That looked beautiful in Super 35 –

Sir Sydney: Yes, you’re absolutely right – yes, wonderful music on "Greystoke" as well. Didn’t do much business – I thought it was a fascinating story, and I thought the actor, who played the difficult main part where he’s hopping about like an ape [Chuckles] – I thought he was excellent!

TH: Christopher Lambert -

Sir Sydney: Yes –

TH: How many years did they shoot "2001"? More than two years, wasn’t it?

Sir Sydney: Was it?

TH: I think so –

Sir Sydney: I don’t know – and I don’t know where I could look that up because it’s not a normally required statistic –

TH: There are many books explaining the background -

Sir Sydney: Of course, a film like that – but if you said to me, “How long did they take to shoot "Bunny Lake is Missing?"” – or you know, a run-of-the-mill film, I don’t know where you would find that statistic...unless you knew the production manager, or one of the camera crew who had a good memory and he could say, “Oh yeah, we were out in so-and-so and we were there about 6 weeks, and then we did 3 weeks back in the studio”. So you then knew they shot it in a normal 9 or 10 weeks. But extraordinary films – you might also know of some of those – like it’s legendary how long it look to shoot "Eyes Wide Shut", and how much it must have cost Warner Bros...they just sent the money, on demand, as it were.

TH: Can I finalise "2001" by asking, "2001" had a lot of special photography, well done in 65mm by the special effects team – do you have any recollection of their cameras, because they might not be Panavision cameras, they could be any 65mm camera –

Sir Sydney: I think they were all Panavision cameras – it was a very big assignment for us – I would think they had about five cameras. And Panavision’s 65mm cameras, they even had a hand-holdable 400 foot loading version – a 65mm camera that went on your shoulder – and they had a kind of a midway camera – by that I mean it was a 1000 foot camera, but it wasn’t blimped, so you couldn’t use it if you wanted to get sync sound. But it probably went up to a higher speed than the normal sync camera would – a normal sync camera is made to shoot at 24 or 25 frames – it might go up – you might be able to put a wild motor on it, like a Mitchell – and speed it up to 30 frames, but you couldn’t go at 120 frames say, with a Mitchell BNC, because all the design was into making it a quiet camera. And you couldn’t put a motor on it that was going to want to turn everything over – all the gears were fine, and tuned, but not designed to go at high speed.

Panavision had this 1000ft kind of standard camera that I think went up to 120 frames per second – which is not ultra-high speed, but it’s five times normal speed. When shooting anything at sea they always overcrank – instead of 24, they shoot at about 36 frames, because it smooths out the movement of the sea. If they were in a tank, and they’d got some wave machine creating disturbance in the water, if you shot that disturbance at high speed, it then had all the more effect of being the real thing, particularly with models – so that if you had a model of the Titanic and it was actually only 30 feet long, over-cranking the Titanic going through the water in the tank in Malta made it look bigger [Laughs] – made it feel bigger. So Panavision had two or three maybe of those versatile midway cameras which the special effects people would invariably use. And it was probably designed also to go at normal speed, high speed, to overcrank, and because you were not worrying about how much noise it made – because you weren’t attempting to shoot sound at the same time – it was an ideal camera for the special effects unit, for the action unit, for the aerial unit – whatever.

So Panavision – and I’m just estimating this – it would probably be able in my day to service two full-scale 65mm feature films, together with some ancillary cameras for special effects, etc. just as you said. I think the Special Effects man (on "2001") was a chap called Wally Veevers...and he was a great techie and a really nice man.

One of the problems Tom, is that nearly everybody’s died now! I look at the credits rolling up, and I used to know person to person pretty well. This will sound terribly pompous, but I knew pretty well all the British cameramen – any credit that went up, and said “Gil Taylor”, I knew Gil, I knew all about him, I knew how difficult he was, I knew what a good cameraman he was, and I knew many of the American cameramen. I didn’t know them all personally, but I got to know them because I saw so many movies, and I would know for example in the great MGM days, starting with before the War, and going on to what – 15 years after the War – they were the big Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer days. And so I would notice that their Senior Cameraman seemed to be a guy called Joe Ruttenberg...and I think he maybe is still the only Cameraman that’s won three Oscars, for Colour – or maybe not just for Colour...there was another one, called James Wong Howe, whose grandfather came to Los Angeles as a Chinese labourer, building the railway that ran from the East Coast to the West Coast. He came over with thousands of Chinese – they called them Coolies – his grandfather was a Coolie – but having reached San Francisco (it was actually from Chicago – Chicago to San Francisco) – I think they called it the Union Pacific Railway, where they built it from both ends – you’re a railway man, you know much more about this than me – but the rivet where they joined the two ends of track in the mid-West, ran a thousand miles in either direction, it was a golden set of rivets they used to mark their achievement –

TH: Spike – The Golden Spike

Sir Sydney: The Golden Spike – yes it’s not rivets, it’s spikes! Well, James Wong Howe’s grandfather was a labourer, and the reason that San Francisco has such a huge Chinese population to this day is because all those labourers were allowed to apply for permanent citizenship. And why would they go back to China when they could stay in America, marry, have their children, and have their children educated to the same standard as non-Chinese, non-minority children? And it applied also, as you probably know, to the Japanese – it was a bit later with the Japanese, and I don’t think that they came as labourers to build railways...but they came in large numbers, and first of all it was part of the ethic of Japanese life that whether you can afford any luxuries in life at all, it didn’t matter – the first thing was to educate your children. And I can tell you that for the immigrant Jewish families, it was the same. Even if you could only afford to give a really good education to one child, invariably the eldest son, if there wasn’t enough money – if the father was slaving away at a sewing machine, they would do their best to educate at least one child and get him a qualification. From then on, that poor innocent fellow would be expected to support all the brothers and sisters and brothers-in-law and everybody else, because he was the one who got the education (Laughs) – I’m talking Tom about a hundred years ago, or more. My grandparents came to this country about 1860...and my father was one of five. Four only survived – in other words, one died in infancy – the eldest one became a Chartered Accountant. None of the others did, but they all got on their feet in different ways. But the one who had a profession, and was educated – had what we call higher education – not University, but accountancy – accountancy college – that was the eldest one. But the Japanese were such wonderful technicians...and in Bob Gottschalk’s day – sorry, I have to tell you a little story about this – Bob found that the best people in his design department were of Japanese family origin.
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Updated 07-01-23