The Work of Jan Jacobsen
This article first appeared in
The 70mm Newsletter
Issue 57 - June 1999
Jan Jacobsen died June 23, 1998
following cancer surgery in a hospital in Augsburg, Germany.
Jan Jacobsen in his machine shop in Munich, Germany.
Picture supplied by Gerhard Fromm.
The name Jan Jacobsen was well known in the movie
industry. Through his expertise with cameras, lenses, sound equipment, front
projection equipment and other pieces of film apparatus he built himself an
He was born in Norway in December 1916. As a
teenager he was fascinated by the movies. He assembled his first 9,5mm
camera with simple tools when he was just 16 years of age.
Jan Jacobsen went to college in Hannover, Germany,
to study radio + communication. He graduated with a diploma in spite of the
fact that he spent much time in his own workshop building a 16mm single
system with optical sound. During college he heard about and met Dr. Curt
Stille who was working on improving magnetic sound. With a combination of
college and practical knowledge he returned to Oslo, Norway, where he, as a
young engineer, built a mixing studio with magnetic sound. On top of that he
also built a genuine "J.J." optical sound camera with which you
could dub sound on sound. This installation was operated until the 60s.
After the Second World War Jacobsen went to America.
There was a curious story as told by Mr. Kenneth Richter. In those days Mr.
Richter was running a shop near New York for collimators and cameras. One
camera was the extremely small EMP 16mm (Envelope Minimum Possible). One day
a slim young man entered the shop where Richter had been working. Under his
arm he carried the shell of a bombsight apparatus from an old Lockheed
bomber. Jan had decided to use the shell to build a camera and wanted to use
the shop where Richter was working. During the day the machines were used to
manufacture machines for the shop. They agreed Jacobsen could use the
machines at night for a dollar an hour. No one believed the camera would
work, but work it did and was later used for filming commercials.
Further in 70mm reading:
Jan Jacobsen Story
Process and European Cinema of the 1960s
Superpanorama Films Adverts and posters
MCS 70 Field Camera
The unfinished Jan Jacobsen Technirama prototype
camera. Picture supplied by Gerhard Fromm.
Back in Oslo, Jacobsen was assigned to build a new
35mm camera with magnetic sound for Swedish film productions. With his
previous experience with magnetic sound he added a 17,5mm drive to a Bell
& Howell studio camera. He also built an amplifier. The whole setup was
bulky but it worked and was used for many years.
In 1954 CinemaScope was introduced. The anamorphic
lenses were rare and monopolized by 20th Century Fox. Jan received an
invitation to go to London, the center of the European movie industry in
those days. Jacobsen developed his own anamorphic lenses. The lenses were
used under the names ScaniaScope, HammerScope and many more. The lenses were
good and soon the company Arnold & Richter in Munich, Germany invited
Jan to work for them. He developed a series of UltraScope anamorphic lenses.
Despite some reluctance, Jacobsen also developed a series of wide-angle
anamorphic lenses. In those days the anamorphic elements sat in the front of
the basic lens. The wider the lens, the more distortion the lens had.
Jacobsen´s idea was to put the anamorphic element behind the lens. The wide
lens became a success and proved his concept sound. Equally simple was his
idea to put the anamorphic element behind an existing zoom lens. This is the
way the first anamorphic zoom was developed. The idea was so simple, yet no
one before him thought of it.
In 1959 Jacobsen started to develop the VarioScope
system. Through tests carried out in England and in the USA, he wanted to
introduce a large format (65/70mm) by which the format on the screen could
change depending on the scene. A landscape would be very wide, but a picture
of a person would be tall. The framing and stereo sound was to be controlled
from a control track. The process was never really finished because of the
complicated projection technique.
The very compact 5 perf 65mm "MCS" Modern
Cinema Systems Superpanorama 70 location camera by Jan Jacobsen. Picture
supplied by Gerhard Fromm.
By coincidence the ambitous German cinema owner Mr.
Engelbrecht of the Royal Palast cinema in Munich took notice of Jacobsen
when he saw a demonstration of the VarioScope camera. He arranged a meeting
between Jacobsen and the businessmen Mr. Travnicek and Mr. Pinelli. The
gentlemen convinced Jacobsen to develop a European version of the highly successful Todd-AO process. So was the
"MCS" (Modern Cinema System) founded. Jacobsen and his small team
built 6x 65mm 5-perf field cameras in a very short time. The first film was
"Flying Clipper" (1962). The camera worked perfectly. The
VarioScope camera was also used during filming of "Flying
A side note is that one of the cameras fell overboard and is
to this day sitting at the bottom of the Mediterranean. The MCS camera was
also used on the filming of the Karl May movie "Old Shatterhand".
Then followed "Der Kongress Amüsiert Sich" and "Uncle Tom's
Cabin" for which Jacobsen built two additional 65mm blimped studio
cameras. The death of Mr. Pinelli and Mr. Travnicek caused Modern Cinema
Systems to close. The cameras were sold and to this day they are lost (The
writer of this article would like to know the whereabouts of these
cameras.). NASA used one of the MCS-70 Superpanorama field cameras for a
number of years.
In 1960 Jacobsen developed a Super Technirama camera
with a rather unusual design. As with the Super Parvo camera, a 300-meter
cassette is located on each side of the camera. The mirror reflex shutter is
above the optics and the viewfinder has been moved to the rear of the
camera. Only one specimen was built, and the present whereabouts is unknown.
In 1963 he built a special very quiet and compact
65mm 5-perf camera for MGM Studios. The camera was built in Copenhagen,
Denmark, where he borrowed a friends machine shop [Editors note: It was most
likely Mr. Ernst Jacobsen's machine shop in Copenhagen, but this has been
impossible to verify. The Danish Mr. Jacobsen is very ill and is presently
not interested in being interviewed]. The MGM camera was very beautiful and
probably one of the most elegant "J.J." cameras ever!
The J.J. 5 perf. 65mm camera Jan Jacobsen made for
MGM. Picture supplied by Gerhard Fromm.
Jacobsen returned to Munich where two MCS-70 cameras
had re-emerged. Mr. Engelbrecht, who had bought them, had a new idea for a
3D format. Jacobsen was excited and he rebuilt the 65mm cameras. He
succeeded in putting two CinemaScope images side-by-side on 65mm film.
Simultaneously he developed a projection lens capable of projecting both
images with one projector. Several films were made utilizing this process,
including "Operation Taifun" starring Alan Delon. The process was
sold to a company in Switzerland, to be used for a system to shoot 30-minute
3D action ride-movies shown in dome shaped cinemas.
The next assignment for Jacobsen was very special.
In Toronto, Canada, a group of large screen enthusiasts had been working on
a new large screen process. At EXPO 69 in Japan they had used 5 Arriflex
cameras on a special rig to form a very large picture. The process had
flaws, including color shifting and the join lines between the separate
panels. They envisioned a new format in 15 perf. 65mm running horizontal
like VistaVision. They called their system IMAX (Image Maximum). No camera
manufacturer could supply such a camera. There was fear of problems with
register pins and the oversized pull-cross claws. After all, the camera
would consume nearly 2 meters of film per second. Jacobsen´s name was
mentioned and he was brought to Toronto. Back home in Copenhagen he
constructed the prototype IMAX camera in his friend's shop in a very short
time. Jacobsen´s solution was a double set of pull-cross claws each moving
With the IMAX camera ready, the new process was
ready. Except for the one small problem: no projector was available! A
regular projector with a Maltese cross movement would not last with the 15
perf. format. Jacobsen knew of Australian Ron Jones who had
invented a new form of film transport, the Rolling Loop. The Toronto folks
traveled to Australia and bought the patent. The IMAX system was now
Jacobsen´s next project was a two-level front
projection system called DualScreen for which he later received an Academy
Award. Harry Saltzman asked him to come to London to build front projection
devices for several studios. He also buildt a special VistaVison set-up for
one of the "Superman" movies. Concurrently with DualScreen in
London he was working for Salzman on a Super 8 sound camera. The camera was
never introduced on the market, however.
Drawing of Jacobsen´s IMAX camera movement. Patent
filed December 29, 1969.
Click image to see enlargement
In his basement back in Augsburg, Germany, Jacobsen
buildt a few portable DualScreen set-ups which he sold to movie studios in
Vienna and Munich.
With DualScreen behind him, he attempted two new
cameras, one 16mm and one 35mm, with a rolling loop movement instead of
pull-down claws. These did not work out so well, however, and he gave up. He
took the 35mm apart and rebuilt it (Most of the 16mm rolling loop camera
body has been saved by the author of this article).
During his later years Jan Jacobsen led a quiet and
modest life in his house outside Augsburg, Germany, where he kept himself
busy in his small machine shop with new ideas and inventions. One of these
was an improved and faster pull-cross system to the VistaVision version of
his DualScreen system. For his experiments he built another 8 perf. camera
that subsequently turned up in Stockholm, Sweden. That second camera is in
the camera collection of the author.
Gerhard Fromm, author of this article
FROMM, Munich; inventor, author of numerous technical publications and
filmtechnique historian. He was a tremendous source of information about Jan
W. Jacobsen. Assistant cameraman with the M.C.S. production "Uncle Toms
Cabin". Owner of company „Filmtechnik Fromm“ and member of the B.V.K.
- top - back issues