Could this be the most influential film camera ever made?


Replay: Continuing our series on the most influential cameras ever made. Back to the Mitchell BNC, which has influenced cinema to this day.

The Mitchell BNC.

This is the second in my highly partisan and unscientific assessment of the cameras that have changed the way we make movies, decade after decade. It is not an accurate historical record. Basically, it’s an excuse to talk about the ever-exciting subject of motion picture cameras, how they’ve evolved, and how we interact with them.

In the last paragraph of part one, covering the 1930s, I chose the Bolex H16 – a mechanical 16mm camera first produced in 1933 that is still (almost) available today. For the 1940s, I look at the other end of the spectrum – the motion picture studio camera.

The Mitchell BNC

The 1940s can reasonably be considered Hollywood’s Golden Age – or perhaps the first Golden Age. Walkie-talkies had been established for over a decade, the studio system was at its peak, and the language of cinema itself had evolved into its most sophisticated form. If you imagine the classic studio camera of that era, it’s probably the Mitchell BNC, as seen in this short clip.

I cheated a bit here because the first Mitchell BNC cameras appeared in the 1930s, but because of WWII there was only one camera made between 1939 and 1946. The 40s was the decade Mitchell owned. In 1941 the Mitchell BNC Serial No2 was leased to RKO for Greg Toland to shoot Citizen Kane. Another BNC debut was sent to the Soviet Union for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, released in 1944. From the mid-1940s through the 1960s, Paramount won over 70 Oscars. Each of them was shot on a Mitchell BNC.

Camera engineer George Mitchell started making cameras in 1920. By 1925 he had a mechanism that could shoot consistently at 128 frames per second. At the heart of the BNC was the famous, beautifully designed Mitchell movement with dual claws and register pins, rock stable, reliable and quieter than other cameras of the time. The BNC had a rack and pinion sight system, based on a design by cameraman John E. Leonard. This meant that the camera body with the film chamber was moved around so the operator could check focus and framing on a ground glass screen. Once satisfied, the camera housing would be reattached and the operator would switch to a side viewfinder to view the shot. This system will continue to be used until the 1960s.

BNCR_Movement.jpgThe famous Mitchell movement – Photo

The same weight as twenty ARRI Alexa

Mitchell designed and built the movement that was at the heart of the massive Technicolor 3-band camera of 1932, then described as the Rolls Royce of cameras. In his airship, the Technicolor camera weighed nearly 500 pounds (that’s the weight of about twenty Alexa 65 cameras) and, in today’s money, cost almost half a million dollars.

The acronym ‘BNC’ actually stands for ‘Blimped Newsreel Camera’, but news is the last thing we would associate with this huge, heavy camera today. Impossible to hold a Mitchell by hand – it took two people to mount it on a tripod. The arrival of sound had a drastic effect on the size and weight of cameras. The ‘dirigible’ part of BNC meant that the camera mechanism was built inside a soundproof enclosure, aided by the quieter Mitchell movement, and although this resulted in a very large camera it was small and portable compared to the soundproof booths cameras lived in at the start of talkies.

The Mitchell not only dominated film production in the post-war period, but it was also the camera used in a multitude of American television series. The Mitchell movement was also central to the widescreen VistaVision (35mm film running horizontally) and Todd-AO (65mm) cameras of the 1950s. In 1967, the BNC finally became a SLR, the famous BNCR. The Mitchell movement was also the basis for the Panavision cameras that would dominate motion picture production for the rest of the century and are still widely used today.

An essential part of cinematography

That the Mitchell movement may have been a staple of cinematography for so many decades is not only a testament to the superb engineering of George Mitchell, but also, perhaps, to our continued fascination with mechanics at the time. digital era. If you covet an expensive Swiss watch, it’s likely to be a mechanical design, although the digital clock on your phone or almost every gadget in your home probably keeps better time. We love film cameras in a way that digitals are hard to love. They are physical and tactile, we understand their operation just by looking at them, while digital processes will always remain invisible and distant. Film cameras are beautiful things. This is part of the reason, I believe, as much as the quality of the image, that 35mm film has survived well into the 21st century.

Interestingly, throughout the history of cinema – as some filmmakers push technology to make cameras lighter and more portable and crews smaller (Super16, digital cameras, small formats) – there There is an opposing trend of more sophisticated cameras, resulting in bigger cameras and bigger crews (3-D, bigger formats, separate recorders). The film industry tends to be conservative when it comes to new technologies. This is understandable, as producers want to limit risk in an inherently risky business and crews want familiar and completely reliable equipment. Big cameras mean big crews and let’s be honest, people want, reasonably enough, to hold on to their work. There’s no denying that the Mitchell was a great camera and a whole way of working developed around it, but it’s worth asking how it maintained its position for so long as new technology created more cameras. smaller, lighter and more versatile. This is a question we will pursue in the next part of this story.

It would be great to hear from readers who have actually worked with the Mitchell – please tell me your story and, of course, correct my mistakes!


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