Film and video engineer Steve Switaj has brought a classic 1950s film camera back to life – for the second time, as the camera enters its seventh decade of operation.
“In the mid-1950s, the Mitchell Camera Company built a dozen VistaVision motion picture cameras for Paramount Studios. Against all odds, they persevered for 65 years,” says Switaj. “This is actually the second time this big camera has taken a trip through the retrofit machine. I ended up rebuilding the failing electronics for its second resurrection, bringing it up to modern standards and breathing new life into it. of life. his 7th Hollywood decade.”
These dead electronics were all that stood between a film camera in its seventh decade and new images. (📷: Steve Switaj)
The cameras, built during the explosion of interest in big-screen content as Hollywood sought to combat the threat of home viewing on TV, aren’t exactly pocket-friendly: the biggest weighs 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 rival 65mm film formats through the use of standard storage and processing equipment, the cameras were retired in the early 1960s – before being resurrected in the 1960s. 1980 for visual effects projects.
“Specialty optics companies such as ILM, Beaumont Camera and Fries Engineering have dug old VistaVision cameras from the bottom of storage rooms all over Hollywood and rebuilt them with ‘modern’ features, like SLR viewing,” says Switaj. . “It’s one of those ’80s Fries conversions. It started life as one of the lightweight ‘butterfly’ models, a ‘small’ portable version for action and inserts, reaching a svelte weight of 17 lbs. – without film. Fries rehoused the motion film in a studio-style body and added a rotating mirror for reflex viewing (the original had a rangefinder).”
Eventually, however, the electronics gave up the ghost – until the owner brought in Switaj to see if it could be fixed. “After about 30 minutes of working my way through the original circuits,” he explains, “I realized that 1) something bad had happened here, and 2) just rebuilding it from the bottom up. up was the way to go.”
The new circuit boards use through-hole components and provide familiarity for modern camera users. (📷: Steve Switaj)
To do this, Switaj designed two new printed circuit boards from modern components: a replacement control board with a 4×20 character LCD panel, a Microchip PIC24EP microcontroller operating at 70 MHz, and physical controls designed to mimic those the common Arriflex 435 cinema camera; and a power board with three motor drivers, which allow frame rate adjustment from 1 to 36 frames per second in 0.001 FPS steps.
“An interesting thing is that the camera originally contained a brake to help with stopping, but I had to remove it to find room for a modern shaft encoder,” adds Switaj. “It was a good brake, a noble brake even, but it just needed to go, there just wasn’t room because the old 25-hole engine speed sensor disc really needed a fix. “an upgrade. I replaced it with a modern 800-point quadrature encoder. Having 32 times the resolution greatly improves speed control, but equally important, it allows me to shunt some signals to provide a industry-standard Arri-B family interface port.”
Switaj’s full article is available on its Hackaday.io project page.