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The Importance of Panavision

This article first appeared in
..in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Adriaan Bijl, Holland. Reprinted by permission from the writer and Panavision
Issue 67 - March 2002

Adriaan Bijl, October 2017.

In the four months I have been writing this thesis I have had a great deal of help, both practical and moral, from a number of people. Professor Douglas Gomery of the University of Maryland was very helpful during the entire process of research and writing.

Gregg Ruzzin at Panavision gave me a warm welcome at the company and set up the appointments with the employees for the interviews. Much gratitude goes to George Kraemer, Takuo Miyagishima, Richard Moore, Iain Neil, Phil Radin, Jurgen Sporn, Al Mayer and John Farrand for their time and effort in recalling Panavision's history. I also would like to thank Dan Hammond for his demonstration of the Panaflex Platinum.

Finally, I wish to thank Tracey Hovda and Heinrich Jessen for correcting the several drafts of this thesis. English is not my native language, so their help was very valuable during the process of writing. Tracey also did a very good job in helping me out during research for articles concerning Panavision's inventions and innovations. Thank you, Tracey.

Washington D.C.
Adriaan Bijl
September 1991


When people went to the movies in the 1950's, they were introduced to different film formats and projection systems. The image on the screen no longer had the ratio of a large postage stamp, as it had since the birth of the cinema, but now featured a larger width, in comparison to the height. Apart from my academic film studies, I had been a part-time projectionist in a cinema, which molded my interests in favor of the technological aspects of the movies. The widescreen systems of the 1950's fascinated me in particular. When the time came to write my masters thesis, I decided to take widescreen film as the subject. But how?

Film is, as any other academic research, very complex. Even if you decide to examine a particular film, there are a lot of choices. "Heaven's Gate", for example, was to its studio, United Artists, an economic investment which had to be recouped at the box-office. When the film was released in 1980, it was described by one critic as "an unqualified disaster" (1). But "Heaven's Gate" might also be regarded as a 35mm filmstrip, photographed in color with an anamorphic lens. Clearly, this movie can be viewed at one and the same time from three different perspectives (and more, since these are only examples): an aesthetic phenomenon, a commercial product, and an artistic object. 
According to Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, film studies can be divided into three major branches - 

* film theory
* film criticism
* and film history

The boundaries between them are not fixed, but the three categories do outline primary areas of research emphasis (2).
Dudley Andrew states that "film theorists make and verify propositions about film or some aspects of film. Film theory brings to light what filmmakers undoubtedly comprehend intuitively" (3). 

Film theory deals more with general categories rather than analyses of any particular film. Film criticism emphasizes the qualities of an individual film or group of films. How do various aspects of filmmaking come together in one film? What is the subject of a given film and how is it told by the filmmaker?

Film history focuses on the temporal dimension of the cinema: How did film develop over time to a specific moment? The film historian, on one hand, investigates the changes that have occurred in the cinema since its introduction in the late 19th century when motion pictures were invented and innovated. On the other hand, the film historian is trying to find reasons why certain aspects resisted change (4).

After reviewing the literature on the subject of widescreen, I realized that there was not much written about Panavision, a camera and lens manufacturer which, according to David Bordwell, was able to establish itself thanks to the widescreen processes (5). Furthermore, on many (widescreen) films, it is stated that they are 'filmed in Panavision'. Other names, such as Arriflex, are seldom mentioned.

Yet there is little written about the history of Panavision. In its April 1977 issue, "American Cinematographer" published an article titled "The Panavision Story" by Scott Henderson, as well as an interview with the founder Robert Gottschalk. Mr. Henderson describes rather briefly the history of this company and its processes, which is probably due to the page limitation of the magazine (6).

Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes' book, "Wide Screen Movies", allocates merely a few pages to Panavision, but offers no thorough historical analysis of the company (7). 

So there was my project: A technological history of Panavision, Inc.. However, before starting I needed a method and a question from where I could depart. These two items are just as important as the content, since you cannot start an investigation out the blue, without, for example, setting the frame or limitations of the examination, and determining what it is you want to focus upon within the broader subject. A method is required to give the research structures, because writing the technological history of Panavision is not simply a matter of describing technological changes, made by this company, in a chronological order. These changes have to be placed within a certain context.

Panavision is an American company operating in a capitalist society. The main goal is to generate maximum long-term profits, meaning that technological changes evolve from economic decision making. In order to make it clear why these changes occurred, the first step should be to examine the state of technology before the changes, and thus the establishment of Panavision, Inc.. The second step is to divide the time, from the date of the beginning of Panavision until the present, into periods. According to Douglas Gomery and Robert C. Allen there are three distinct phases (8):

This phase examines the stages of and reasons for the development of the first product of Panavision.

This phase examines the establishment of the company from the sales and modifications of its first product, through the developing and sales of later products.

This phase examines how Panavision was able to stay in business and expand its activities. 

The separation of these three phases not only enhanced the clarity of the project, it also provided me with the required method of research. Now all that was left to do before starting was to find my central thesis question. A lot of possibilities came to mind, but in the end there remained only one: What made Panavision, Inc. so important to the motion picture industry?

I started my research at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Looking over many articles in industry newspapers such as "Film Daily" and "Hollywood Reporter", and technical journals such as "American Cinematographer" and "Journal of the SMPTE" in search of information about Panavision. 

In July, 1991, I went for nine days to the Panavision plant in Tarzana, California, to interview several employees of the company. During my stay there I was able to speak to the following people:

* George Kraemer (vice-president, optics) who has been working at Panavision since 1960;
* Takuo Miyagishima (senior vice-president, engineering) who has been working at Panavision since 1955;
* Richard Moore, one of the co-founders of the company, who left Panavision in 1962;
* Jurgen Sporn (vice-president, manufacturing) who has been working at Panavision since 1968;
* Al Mayer (vice-president, research & development) who has been at Panavision since 1968;
* Phil Radin (vice-president, marketing) who has been working at Panavision since 1976;
* Iain Neil (senior vice-president, optics) who has been working at Panavision since 1986;
* John Farrand (president and Chief Executive Officer) who has been working at Panavision since 1985.

With all the raw material in hand, I returned to Washington, D.C., where I lived until mid-September 1991, in order to write the thesis. During my research, I found that Panavision holds the patents of numerous inventions. I would have liked to mention all of them, and investigate the reasons for their development. However, due to my financial limitations and lack of time, this was not possible. Therefore, my aim in this thesis is to present the 'highlights' of Panavision's history.

Finally, the aforementioned method was also very useful for the division into chapters: chapter one will focus on the historical context of widescreen. The second chapter will cover the first phase, invention, in the history of Panavision, Inc.. Chapter three provides information about the second phase, innovation, in Panavision's history. Chapter four deals with the diffusion, the third phase Panavision's history. Finally, chapter five will summarize my findings and explain what further research needs to be done.

Further in 70mm reading:

Panavision History Home

1 In the Beginning
2 Invention Phase
3 Innovation Phase
4 Diffusion Phase


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1 "New York Times", November 20, 1980. p. 24 (C).
2 Robert C. Allen and Douglas Gomery, "Film History, Theory and Practice" p. 4.
3 Dudley Andrew, "The Major Film Theories" p. 3.
4 "Film History, Theory and Practice" pp. 4 and 5.
5 David Bordwell, Janet Steiger and Kristin Thompson,"The Classical Hollywood Cinema" p. 359.
6 Scott Henderson, "The Panavision Story" and "Mr. Panavision speaks out" in "American Cinematographer", (April, 1977), pp. 414 ff., and 416 ff.
7 Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes, "Wide Screen Movies".
8 "Film History, Theory and Practice" pp. 114 and 115.
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Updated 07-01-23