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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

Takuo Miyagishima

Panavision's Tak Miyagishima and Danish cinematographer and director Mikael Salomon in 1994.

TH: Takuo Miyagishima?

Sir Sydney: Yes, Tak was an example of that - and he was Bob’s Chief Engineer. And the story I wanted to tell you was that Bob, who fell in love with anything Japanese – and I don’t know if you read my original notes, but I said that once I had to take issue with him. I said, “I don’t know if you know anything, Bob, about building a railway through Burma under the auspices of the Japanese Army if you were a British prisoner of war...where you were not only in that climate without any care or medication, but you were starving as well – you don’t know about that”. And he said, “I don’t think it was as bad as you say” [Laughs], and I remember thinking, “You don’t know, Bob, you simply don’t know”.

There’s a BAFTA colleague of mine who was the director of a series on television called "Fawlty Towers". It’s classic comedy – British-style comedy. Well, the director I think of the first eleven – no, the producer of the first eleven – is the name of a chap who was on the BAFTA Council – that’s how I knew him – and he always used to arrive at the Council meetings on time, or sometimes early. And if I got there early, I always used to enjoy chatting to him, really nice guy. And I once said to him, “You’re one of those people who’s always got a kind of smile on your face...I never see you looking cross, I never see you looking angry.” And he said. “Well, there’s a simple answer to that...I was in the British Army; I was captured in Singapore, and I was a prisoner on the Burma railway for three years. After that; having survived that; everything in life is absolutely bloody marvellous!” [Chuckles] ...That was his philosophy.

Anyway, going back to Bob Gottschalk, and the Japanese – he was so enamoured with them, that they were so reliable – that they were so conscientious – they didn’t arrive for work late, or anything like that – they studied – further education – even though they were doing a job at Panavision, they would get that extra qualification in their own time – which was just marvellous as far as employers were concerned. The day came when Bob needed two more people in the drawing office...so he put an advert in the local paper – “Engineering staff vacancies”, or “Engineering staff wanted” – whatever the paper was in Los Angeles where you could, once a week, advertise within the engineering industry. Bob advertised he wanted two Japanese mechanical draughtsmen. And he must have telexed it to the newspaper [Chuckles] - the small advertisement - the text – and he got a phone call from the person in the newspaper – probably The Los Angeles Times, in the office that handled the “Staff Wanted” page – and she apparently said, “I’m afraid by law you’re not allowed to specify the nationality or the ethnic background”. So Bob didn’t get beaten by what to him would have been a stupid law: he then changed his advertisement to read, “Wanted: Two mechanical draughtsmen, able to speak Japanese” [Laughter]

Because you know, if you’re not Japanese, not from a Japanese family, it’s very unusual if you can speak Japanese! [Laughs] So that’s how he got his two Japanese / American draughtsmen...and Tak was just fantastic – as a draughtsman, as an engineer / designer and as a person.

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
Stanley, Joe and "2001: A Space Odyssey"
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

Robert Gottschalk

When Bob got his first Oscar, his first Technical Oscar, it was – I don’t mean an Oscar that a Cinematographer using Panavision received, of which I think Freddie Young for "Lawrence" maybe was the first one – 65mm as it happens, I mean when Panavision got an Oscar for its technical contribution to the art of Cinematography. I can’t remember what the whole Citation was, but anyway Panavision got its own Oscar, and the Citation, after the first bit of wording, said, “To Robert Gottschalk, Chief Executive” – only Bob’s name. And I said, “Isn’t that amazing, it’s just lovely...and it’s all been done by one man!” [Laughs] You must admit, I’ve got nerve...I knew him well enough – “It’s all been done by one man”. And he knew exactly what I was getting at, because he was rather self-centred...so brilliant, but so selfish – he would have probably insisted that it was to record just his name. A technical award, you know beforehand it’s being considered, and he would have known someone in that department at the Academy, and he would have made it clear that he was Panavision. Which he was – however, in the case of an Oscar for engineering innovation and general excellence I thought that Tak’s name ought also to be there. And do you know, I think it got changed...how, I don’t know. I’d no idea whether Bob had second thoughts about it, I don’t know whether anybody complained – I don’t think Tak would have said a word – but somebody else might have said, “Bob, don’t you think that Tak, and Jack Barber [who was the guy that ran the workshop] – don’t you think their contribution to the design skills that made Panavision – or helped you to make Panavision what it became – don’t you think, on a Technical Oscar, [Technical Achievement I think they’re called] shouldn’t their names have been mentioned?” Or I might have said to Bob, “I’m disappointed that the Academy didn’t mention anybody else having made a contribution”.

I’m telling you all that because Tak was a major part of what Panavision stood for, what they achieved. And he seemed to be not just in the optics, the mechanics, he seemed to know about everything. He was the Chief, and he had his board, his drawing board in his office, and he played a very major part in what Panavision became. I would say he probably had nothing to do with the business side of it – he couldn’t care less about how much a 100mm Super Panavision lens rented for, he wouldn’t care about that. But a lot of the cameramen knew him very well, and they would go and talk to him if they wanted something special made, like I’m pleased to say people used to come and talk to us in London.

A 20:1 Zoom

The way of things was, they would first talk to me, and then I would say to them, “Well let’s go and talk to Bill Woodhouse, our Optics Chief” – he was affectionately known as “Bill the Lens”...that’s a sort of London kind of semi-Cockney way of describing someone. Anyway, Bill was I think an untrained optical expert – for all I know he went to Night School, and learned about optics – but he was just brilliant – and he, and Joe Dunton, who was on our staff at that time – they brought up the first 20:1 zoom lens – 20:1 – that would cover a 35mm frame. How they did it was they took an existing Angénieux 20:1 zoom lens designed to cover a 16mm frame, and in effect added – what’s it called, it’s like an extra lens?

TH: An extender?

Sir Sydney: No, it’s not an extender...if you want to do a big close-up, you

put such a lens on the front, which enables you to focus right down close –

TH: I have a macro lens at home –

Sir Sydney: Yes, same item I’m sure –

TH: I can actually make a stamp be larger on the negative than it really is, because it magnifies – it focuses down to 2 inches –

Sir Sydney: There’s a name – Diopter – that’s it – they fitted a diopter, which they’d had to have specially made, to a certain optical formula. The new 20:1 zoom lens had its limitations because putting on the diopter reduced the speed of the lens by 2 stops. I think it started off at 5.6 – so it became maximum aperture: f11. Well not for every shot you want to do have you got a enough light to shoot at f11, nevertheless you could happily do most exteriors, and I remember Dickie Attenborough was shooting a film with an American director, and it was about a ghastly murderer – a real life story – the murderer’s name was Christie, and he lived in a terraced house –

TH: "10 Rillington Place"

Sir Sydney: Yes! My goodness, fantastic that you would remember that – because it wasn’t a big film – "10 Rillington Place" was the address of the house where they found the first body hidden behind a panel, and the police started investigating – I think in that house they found about five bodies. And, the owner of the house, who had mental difficulties, was arrested, tried, convicted and hanged for the murder of some other people, tenants, I think two of them were prostitutes. These bodies that had been found had been murdered several years earlier. And the murderer was this multi-killer Christie, who was also a tenant in the house.

Anyway, what’s that got to do with the Angénieux 20:1 lens you’re asking yourself? [Chuckles] I was talking to Dickie, and he was telling me about this film, and the technical difficulty, because Dickie had hair that time. As for Christie, part of his persona was that he was completely bald – he was a bald-headed, ugly man, with horn-rimmed glasses - so Dickie had to be made up to look like Christie, not to look at all like lovable Richard Attenborough! So he had to wear what they call a “bald” wig. And although you couldn’t see the join, I think he spent 3 or 4 hours in make-up each morning, while they fitted his wig – covered the join. There were scenes where Dickie had to show emotion, went red in the face, but the bald part didn’t go red! [Laughs] Which was a major problem. So Dickie had to shoot emotional scenes – without being emotional! Somehow, he had to be mentally laughing it off, whatever he was shouting and screaming about, because his head changed colour if he let go, showed all the temper such scenes required.

Oh yes, the other thing was, and a true story, Christie disappeared. The police couldn’t find him – they knew he had done all the murders – I can’t remember the timeframe from the crimes, but the innocent owner of the house had been hanged, and then they found a couple more bodies somewhere else. They knew who the murderer was – but where was he? Eventually he was arrested, this is in real life, on Putney Bridge. He was standing, looking into the River Thames, leaning on the balustrade at the side, there was this bald-headed figure, the police found him. And the shot the director imagined, when we told him, “We’ve got a 20:1 zoom, a 20 to 400mm – ”

Anyway, they did a great wide angle shot of Putney Bridge...and the houses all around, and the river – and there was a little tiny speck of a human being leaning over the side of the wall...and they did a 20:1 zoom in, and there was Christie at the end of it. So that was the first 20:1 feature film shot that we can claim! Probably a bit of useless information for you, but that was part of the kind of thing we did, and we did it because, as I’ve said many times – when people have said, “Well, how did you come to build up that marvellous business?” I used to say, “Because what I’m good at is finding and choosing people”. And that’s really, absolutely true – I couldn’t just on my own have thought out a 20:1 zoom lens! Even an f11 maximum aperture lens – but it was a 20:1 zoom that didn’t exist before Samuelson’s. I had all these marvellous people on staff who together made such things happen.
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Updated 21-01-24