Edlund Restores Technicolor Camera; Dill’s Book to Hit the Presses Soon

Edlund in his workshop.

Edlund in his workshop.

When I first met Richard Edlund 25 years ago, he showed me one of the original Acme-Dunn optical printers, a device that revolutionized special effects and contributed to memorable shots in Citizen Kane and many other classics. The “Dunn” in the name was of course Linwood Dunn, ASC, one of the fathers of modern visual effects and a beloved presence at the ASC Clubhouse through the late 1990s. That optical printer now resides at the Academy, Richard tells me.

Collecting has always been one of Richard’s hobbies, and a long-gestating project of his is nearing fulfillment—the reconstruction and restoration of one of the 32 original 3-strip Technicolor cameras, which are made up of many hundreds of parts, machined to very tight tolerances in the fabled Technicolor machine shops. In the 1970s, Richard robbed the movement from an 8-perf Technirama camera to make the pin-registered ‘Moviola’ used to check motion control shots for Star Wars, and he saved the camera body and accessories, matte boxes, viewfinder, et cetera. These cameras were brutally converted from Technicolor cameras—the front door and shutter shaft were machined off.

Later, Richard befriended Merlin Thayer, formerly the head of dry maintenance at Technicolor in its heyday, and in 1978 bought a Technicolor dual movement 3-strip pedestal from him. The key piece of the puzzle was acquired a few years later, around 1983, from Leon Bijou, the father of cinematographer Peter Biziou, BSC and a fellow camera collector. Edlund went to buy a Mitchell geared head from Leon, but noticed on a shelf a box painted the unmistakable Technicolor blue hue. Inside were hundreds of parts that had been removed from a 3-strip camera, including 33 gears, shafts, sprockets, keepers, and an intact hinging front door with the lens mount and shutter! He bought the box and its contents for about $150.

The new front door in place on the Technicolor 3-strip camera.

The new front door in place on the Technicolor 3-strip camera.

Bruce Heller made the new door. The hinge of the front door is actually the shaft that drives the shutter.

Bruce Heller made the new door. The hinge of the front door is actually the shaft that drives the shutter.

“That box contained all the parts, reverently saved from one of the Technirama conversions,” Richard enthuses 30 years later. “What a find!”

Fast forward to one year ago. “I ran into Bruce Heller, a compulsive perfectionist and accomplished machinist who is also a walking encyclopedia of Technicolor,” Richard says. “He had restored a couple of Technicolor cameras, but never from a Technirama conversion. The front door on these cameras, which provides access for threading, was removed during the Technirama conversion. The hinge of the front door is actually the shaft that drives the shutter.”

Heller made a wooden cast form of the metal that had been removed, made an aluminum casting of the form, and machined the casting to fit the gaping hole precisely to within ten-thousandths of an inch. “My hat goes off to Bruce,” says Richard. “It’s so complicated and difficult. It’s kind of masochistic, in a way. It’s outrageously precise. He worked at it for weeks, and then charged me very fairly. The door is on, and it opens and shuts smoothly.”

Edlund came across a box of gears, screws and other parts when he went to buy a geared head from another collector.

Edlund came across a box of gears, screws and other parts when he went to buy a geared head from another collector.

The camera is now tantalizingly close to being finished. The movement pedestal fits in the camera. A very thin shim was required to replace the material that was machined away.

Of course, the lens is a key aspect. Cooke made specially designed lenses to work with the original cameras. Richard has several, which he acquired when Technicolor sold off the inventory from its building on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood.

“Because of the thickness of the prism and the arrangement of the shutter, lenses had to have a much longer back focal length, so to enable the Technicolor films cinematography with wide-angle lenses, the optical engineers at Cooke designed the first what they called an ‘inverse telephoto lens,’ which has come to be called a retro focus lens, a lens with a very long back focal length. These lenses were the precursor to all the wide lenses made for single-lens and motion picture reflex cameras.”

Through the side door. The movement pedestal is in place and the hinged front door is almost closed. Tightening the big screw to the left of the movements locks the lens mount to the proper distance for focus. The prism is not mounted in this shot.

Through the side door. The movement pedestal is in place and the hinged front door is almost closed. Tightening the big screw to the left of the movements locks the lens mount to the proper distance for focus. The prism is not mounted in this shot.

A few other aspects are outstanding. Cosmetic work will not be simple, with many holes to be filled, and a few rather complex plugs will need to be machined. The crinkle-blue finish will be a challenge since the original oil-based crinkle paint is not legal in California. The goal is the color and patina of a working Technicolor camera. A magazine needs to be restored, and a motor with power supply is needed. When it’s finished, the camera will be capable of running film, although the magnificent Technicolor imbibition printing process is long gone.

“Just to have a working Technicolor camera will be a rarity,” Richard says. “I think there are 14 or 15 of these cameras left, but I don’t think any are actually operational. This camera is a very ingenious exercise in three-dimensional thinking. It’s one of the most complicated precision machines produced in the early 20th century. It’s really mind-blowing. I wonder what it will sound like.”

* * *

Bill Dill recently received some good news: the book he’s been working on, currently titled Tell Your Story, will be published by Focal Press. Also, a film he shot in the 1980s called Sidewalk Stories will be included in the Tribeca Film Festival program this April, and will be rereleased internationally. Sidewalk Stories is a black and white comedy described a “nearly silent.” In it, a street artist who rescues a baby must learn to care for it.

In the book, Bill distills wisdom gained over his professional career as a cinematographer, and during 22 years of teaching filmmaking, currently at Chapman University, where he is head of the cinematography department at the Lawrence and Kristina Dodge College of Film and Media Arts. He has noticed certain common tendencies in young filmmakers.

Bill Dill, ASC portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC.

Bill Dill, ASC portrait by Owen Roizman, ASC.

“A beginning writer often starts out with what’s called ‘purple prose,’” says Bill. “Hopefully, the learning process eventually leads to a more powerful, effective way to communicate ideas. There are parallels in filmmaking. You see certain tendencies, and you have to break some habits before you can substitute real ideas. It’s surprisingly hard it is to convince students that the ideas in their heads, their life experiences, are relevant to the images they are making. What does it take to be creative? What does it take to make great images? We’re looking into the mind of the filmmaker when we watch images that have been created by that filmmaker.

“You talk to students about their lives,” says Bill. “Often, they think their lives are irrelevant to the movie. Almost invariably, it turns out that there’s some experience that is relevant to the story. And that will give a student some specific reference for an approach to take in making this movie. All of our lives are connected in some way.”

Bill says it’s hard to put these lessons into shorthand, so he decided a book would be an appropriate way to make them useful to teachers and students in filmmaking courses. “Sure, there are technical aspects to it, but the most important aspect to cinematography is the response you have to that story that’s there in front of you,” he says. “I’m hoping that the tone of the book will be similar to the tone of my classes.

10 Responses to “Edlund Restores Technicolor Camera; Dill’s Book to Hit the Presses Soon”


  • With this camera working, can you run 3 black-and-white negative film strips through it and then electronicly “develop” the film as they do when they produce blu-rays of old Technicolor films like Wizard of OZ. Or will modern black-and-white negatives not work. It would be great to see new 3 strip Technicolor if only digitally.

    • Rod:

      An interesting idea, however, there would be some significant problems in pursuing it. Let me briefly explain:
      Basically, in the original 3-strip process, green light passed straight through the beamsplitter onto an orthochromatic (blue/green sensitive) emulsion (blue light was absorbed by a green filter cemented on the prism face), and magenta light was reflected to a movement on the left, (green light was absorbed by a magenta filter cemented on the left face of the prism). In that movement there were two films in emulsion-to-emulsion bipack: the front film was blue sensitive only, and on its emulsion was a yellow-orange coating which absorbed blue and allowed only red light through to expose the bi-packed panchromatic (red-sensitive) emulsion. Further, these 3 emulsions were made to exacting Technicolor specifications and each had a specific ASA rating (emulsion speed)to balance the simultaneous exposure of all three films, and each was developed to a different gamma (contrast). These were very slow (effectively ASA 10-15 range), and required hot arc-lights to be used on-set, though the emulsion speed was increased somewhat as time went on. So, easier said than done.

      The Technicolor imbibition printing (IB) was basically a dye transfer process, carried out in room light. Three photochemical matrices were made and the silver bleached out, so each matrix would imbibe the complementary dye-color of its negative separation. One color (the complementaries: yellow, cyan and magenta) was applied at a time, then dried, then another, dried, then the final. Complicated though it was, it was still quite cheaper than photochemical printing because it didn’t require silver, and though the cameras were shelved in the early 50’s, IB prints were made through the 70’s; Technicolor London made the final IB prints for Star Wars in 77-78.

      All-in-all, Technicolor was a brilliantly mounted ‘technopoly’–it was so complex and difficult to do, that there could be no possible catch-up competition–until Eastmancolor appeared in 1950–but even then it took photochemistry some time to match the beauty of the Technicolor process. The last 3-strip movie was made in 1954.

      Best regards,

      Richard Edlund, ASC, VES

      By-the-way, I believe Rob Legato was quite successful in digitally recreating The Technicolor ‘looks’, both 2-color and 3-strip in The Aviator…

  • Bravo to Richard Edlund for taking on such a complicated task! It will be a joy to see the finished Technicolor camera. These cameras made some of the most beloved films in history and to think there are only a handful left in the world — and none of them currently working. I’d love to hear one running film through it.

  • Alessandro Zonin AIC

    Dear Maestro

    Congratulations for a such exciting experience! For all of us dop’s and directors the Technicolor three stripes process is almost a legend:as you probably know, at AIC Museum in Cinecittà (Rome) we have a Technicolor 3 stripes camera and I’m pretty sure it is working: our former vice president Giuseppe Berardini (who sadly passed away a couple of years ago) was committed to make all our cameras working and now our Technicolor camera is in excellent conditions.
    Hope this can help you some way.
    All the best

    Alessandro Zonin AIC
    DoP
    Italy

  • Does Mr. Edlund still need a motor for his Technicolor camera?

  • Hi;
    I was just wondering about the old Technicolor Fitzpatrick Travelogues of the 30’s. Were they actually shot in 3 strip form?
    The thought of lugging a Technicolor camera (even un-blimped as I’m sure it would have been)around the world boggles the mind!

    • By the 1940s, the Fitzpatricks were being shot with Technicolor’s (actually Kodak’s) “Monopack,” which was actually 35mm Kodachrome. Also, it turns out a good deal of footage from that period was shot 16mm Kodachrome, too. You can always tell what was shot with a three-strip camera because reflected light (such as on glass) has a magenta “halo” around it because it had a stronger, more direct exposure on the green record.

  • And in that vein, wwhat would an un-blimped Technicolor camera actually weigh?

  • …and I have read that fully blimped and loaded the camera weighed approx. 500lbs. That really makes you appreciate the wizardry of Christopher Callis who was Jack Cardiff’s operator on THE RED SHOES even more

Leave a Reply


+ 7 = eleven