Garrett Brown meets Walter Siegmund at American Optical
Article excerpted from Garret Brown's work-in-progress
Garrett Brown is the inventor of Steadicam - the original handheld
Text reprinted here with Garret Brown's permission, celebrating Walter
Siegmund's fiber optic achievements in movie history
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Garrett Brown. (Excerpt from chapter
eight, copyright 2008)
Brown's OSCAR winning Steadicam rig equipped with a Cinespace 70 Todd-AO
65mm camera, late 1980s.
THE MOVING & TALKING PICTURE COMPANY
...I unhappily admitted to my wife that unless the viewfinding problem
was solved, my would-be stabilizer was unlikely to generate any income.
A week later, in search of Christmas presents for my son Jonathan at the
Edmund Scientific Company just over the bridge in Barrington, New
Jersey, a startling answer appeared. In addition to serious optical
equipment for professionals, Edmund offered an array of science toys and
a brand-new wonder: a cheap, fiber-optic viewer. For $29.50 I bought
myself a two-foot demonstration ‘Fiberscope’. It had 13,000 plastic
fibers bound into a flexible tube and organized so that each one carried
its single pixel from one end to the other! Back at the farm, I walked
around holding the viewing end to my eye. It was grainy, but as the lens
floated over objects and through space, I became excited imagining this
full-color remote image coming from my film camera out on the pole!
The manufacturer of the little fiberscope was named on the box: The
American Optical Corporation of Southbridge, Massachusetts.
A long earnest phone call got the attention, successively, of
receptionists, secretaries, executives, and finally of
himself, one of American Optical’s chief scientists. I described my plan
to provide hundreds of ‘stabilizers’ to the movie industry, fitted with
hundreds of his fiber-optic viewers! He carefully listened to my story,
suggested, to my relief, that I not tell him the details of the
invention, and invited me to visit the factory. We made an appointment
for the following week.
Sandie and I stashed Jonathan with her mother and drove to
was a tall, gray-bearded, Nordic-looking fellow with a gentle
professorial manner. He was completely film-savvy, in fact had
Todd-AO, the grand wide-screen
system for Mike Todd’s
the World in 80 Days" (I had never known that the AO stood for
American Optical!), and as he gravely watched the little image on my
Akai video recorder, he nodded and smiled and said, “That’s good. That’s
really good!” Dr. Siegmund looked at Sandie and me for a moment, and at
the little plastic fiberscope I had brought along.
“We can do better than that.” He opened a drawer and handed us what
looked like a five-foot garter snake. It was a much longer, much more
impressive bundle than I had dared to hope for. It had an 8mm image area
and was as limber as a bull whip with a lens on one end and a cupped
viewfinder at the other. He told me it had 87,000 optical glass fibers,
each little thicker than a human hair, each with a core of incredibly
transparent glass—light would pass through miles of the stuff!—and each
with an outer coating of a different glass which formed a mirror-like
boundary. An entering photon of light made a few shallow bounces along
the whole length of a fiber’s core, like a stone skipping across water,
and emerged intact!
At both ends, the fibers were glued together, cut off and polished
smooth. The miraculous aspect of these so-called ‘coherent’ bundles was
that the skeins of glass hairs in between were machine-laid in exact
order so a speck of light falling on the upper-left fiber at one end
would emerge from the corresponding position at the other, and they
collectively transmitted a complete image! As Sandie and I each looked
through that astonishing object, like a magical eyeball at the tip of
one’s finger, Siegmund told us a story:
“We have been experimenting for years with an espionage technique, a
coding and decoding scheme that could never be broken. If you mix up the
fibers in the middle of a bundle and then pot them, cut them and polish
the new matching faces, you have a one-of-a-kind ‘scrambler’ and its
matching ‘unscrambler’—photos taken through the first half will be
visual gibberish until they are viewed through the mating section!”
in 70mm reading:
Walter P. Siegmund
Dear Thomas, Please give my very best regards to Walter Siegmund. I
have been in touch with him since you sent me his contact info. Here
attached is an excerpt from my unfinished book on the invention of the
Steadicam. It documents my first meeting with Walter and you have permission
to publish it with, of course, the usual attribution and copyright notices.
I am still generally overbooked and unable to either finish my book or write
your article, but I'm hopeful things will settle down soon. It's all
worthwhile stuff, but I'm beginning to yearn to retire. I have stopped
shooting movies as of this year, so that's a start.
Siegmund looking into a fiber optics cable. Note his face to the left.
I said, “Can I buy one of these? I mean a normal one?”
“Of course,” he said, “This small bundle costs $2,000. You could
optically reduce your 16mm image to fit, or you could buy a larger
version with the same picture area as the film—that would be
sensational.” He paused for a second. “Wait here.” He left the room.
Sandie gave me an alarmed look.
In five minutes he was back with an even bigger, thicker, and more
limber snake—six feet long and sheathed in sinuous overlapping aluminum
scales. Dr. Siegmund explained that this one had 360,000 fibers and the
image area was exactly 16mm wide!. He told us that if the polished end
of the bundle could be inserted to exactly replace the ground glass in
my 16mm camera, the result would be sensational! (In a ‘mirror-reflex’
movie camera, the image from the lens alternately falls directly onto
the film or bounces off a rotating mirror onto a film-sized ground glass
screen, which is viewed by the eyepiece). “With this one,” Siegmund
said, “you’ll see a luminous ‘f-1’ image from six feet away! It will be
brightest viewfinder you’ll ever see!
He encouraged us to walk around and compare it to the smaller snake, and
we both involuntarily exclaimed at the resolution of the big bundle.
Siegmund cautioned me that this object was worth $8,000. and if it were
ever sat upon or bent too tightly, it would go entirely, un-repairably,
black, black, black! The scattered, visible flaws were from stray fibers
that had broken here and there, like dirt on an old screen door. I
strolled around his office, cruising American Optical’s impressive
collection of awards, past my shocked young wife’s face and Dr.
Siegmund’s benevolent visage; but my joy over this miracle was dashed by
its utter unaffordability. The key to making my ‘invention’ functional
in the world of film, lay coiled in my hand, yet was impossibly out of
reach. I asked if we might get any kind of special deal, considering the
vast potential for sales generated by my invention, and Siegmund said
that he would think it over. Meanwhile he would rent me the ‘small’ 8mm
bundle to experiment with for $100.00 per week.
As we walked out, he ducked into another office and returned with one of
the stiff plastic headbands used to mount the eyepiece so a doctor could
have both hands free to manipulate AO’s new fiber-optic medical viewer.
Sandie and I joked nervously about ‘penetrating the innards of a movie’
with my Giant Proctoscope Camera...
Although 'hundreds of fiber-optic viewfinders' did not end up on
Steadicams (we went with video as soon as it became practical), Walter
Siegmunds 'big bundle' did allow Garrett Brown to make his now-legendary
demonstration film that included thirty 'impossible' shots--including a
run down and back up the soon-to-be-famous Philadelphia Art Museum
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