Panavision is an American equipment founded in 1953 specializing in cameras and lenses, based in Woodland Hills, California. Formed by Robert Gottschalk as a small partnership to create anamorphic projection lenses during the widescreen boom in the 1950s, Panavision expanded its product lines to meet the demands of modern filmmakers. The company introduced its first products in 1954. Originally a provider of CinemaScope accessories, the company's line of anamorphic widescreen lenses soon became the industry leader. In 1972, Panavision helped revolutionize filmmaking with the lightweight 35 mm movie camera. The company has introduced other cameras such as the Millennium XL (1999) and the digital video Genesis (2004).
Panavision operates exclusively as a rental facility—the company owns its entire inventory, unlike most of its competitors.
Robert Gottschalk founded Panavision in late 1953, in partnership with Richard Moore, Meredith Nicholson, Harry Eller, Walter Wallin, and William Mann; the company was formally incorporated in 1954. Panavision was established principally for the manufacture of anamorphic projection lenses to meet the growing demands of theaters showing CinemaScope films. At the time of Panavision's formation, Gottschalk owned a camera shop in Westwood Village, California, where many of his customers were cinematographers. A few years earlier, he and Moore—who worked with him in the camera shop—were experimenting with underwater photography; Gottschalk became interested in the technology of anamorphic lenses, which allowed him to get a wider field of view from his underwater camera housing. The technology was created during World War I to increase the field of view on tank periscopes; the periscope image was horizontally "squeezed" by the anamorphic lens. After it was unsqueezed by a complementary anamorphic optical element, the tank operator could see double the horizontal field of view without significant distortion. Gottschalk and Moore bought some of these lenses from C. P. Goerz, a New York optics company, for use in their underwater photography. As widescreen filmmaking became popular, Gottschalk saw an opportunity to provide anamorphic lenses to the film industry—first for projectors, and then for cameras. Nicholson, a friend of Moore, started working as a cameraman on early tests of anamorphic photography.
In the 1950s, the motion picture industry was threatened by the advent of television—TV kept moviegoers at home, reducing box office revenues. Film studios sought to lure audiences to theaters with attractions that television could not provide. These included a revival of color films, three-dimensional films, stereophonic sound, and widescreen movies. Cinerama was one of the first widescreen movie processes of the era. In its initial conception, the cumbersome system required three cameras for shooting and three synchronized projectors to display a picture on one wide, curved screen. Along with the logistical and financial challenges of tripling equipment usage and cost, the process led to distracting vertical lines between the three projected images. Looking for a high-impact method of widescreen filmmaking that was cheaper, simpler, and less visually distracting, 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to a process it branded CinemaScope: in this system, the film was shot with anamorphic lenses. The film was then exhibited with a complementary anamorphic lens on the projector that expanded the image, creating a projected aspect ratio (the ratio of the image's width to its height) twice that of the image area on the physical frame of film. By the time the first CinemaScope movie—The Robe (1953)—was announced for production, Gottschalk, Moore and Nicholson had a demo reel of work with their anamorphic underwater system.
Gottschalk learned from one of his vendors that Bausch & Lomb, whom Fox had contracted to manufacture CinemaScope lenses, was having difficulty filling the lens orders for theatrical anamorphic projection equipment. He teamed up with William Mann, who provided optical manufacturing capability, and Walter Wallin, an optical physicist who was an acquaintance of Mann's. The anamorphic lens design they selected was prismatic rather than the cylindrical design of the Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lens. This design meant the anamorphic lens extension factor—how much the image is horizontally unsqueezed—could be manually shifted, useful for projectionists switching between nonanamorphic ("flat" or "spherical") trailers and an anamorphic feature. The result was the anamorphosing system, designed by Wallin, used in the Panatar lens; the patent for the system was filed on August 11, 1954, and awarded five years later.
Entering the market
Panavision's first product—the Super Panatar projection lens—debuted in March 1954. Priced at $1,100, it captured the market. The Super Panatar was a rectangular box that attached to the existing projection lens with a special bracket. Its variable prismatic system allowed a range of film formats to be shown from the same projector with a simple adjustment of the lens. Panavision improved on the Super Panatar with the Ultra Panatar, a lighter design that could be screwed directly to the front of the projection lens. Panavision lenses gradually replaced CinemaScope as the leading anamorphic system for theatrical projection.
In December 1954, the company created a specialized lens for film laboratories—the Micro Panatar. When fitted to an optical printer, the Micro Panatar could create "flat" (nonanamorphic) prints from anamorphic negatives. This allowed films to be distributed to theaters that did not have an anamorphic system installed. To accomplish this dual platform release strategy before the Micro Panatar, studios would sometimes shoot films with one anamorphic and one spherical camera, allowing nonwidescreen theaters to exhibit the film. The cost savings of eliminating the second camera and making flat prints in post-production with the Micro Panatar were enormous.
Another innovation of the era secured Panavision's leading position: the Auto Panatar camera lens for 35 mm anamorphic productions. Early CinemaScope camera lenses were notoriously problematic in close-ups with an optical aberration that was commonly known as "the mumps": a widening of the face due to a loss of anamorphic power as a subject approaches the lens. Because of the novelty of the new anamorphic process, early CinemaScope productions compensated for this aberration by avoiding tightly framed shots. As the anamorphic process became more popular, it became more problematic. Panavision invented a solution: adding a rotating lens element that moved in mechanical sync with the focus ring. This eliminated the distortion and allowed for natural close-up anamorphic photography. The Auto Panatar, released in 1958, was rapidly adopted, eventually making CinemaScope lenses obsolete. This innovation earned Panavision the first of its 15 Academy Awards for technical achievement. Soon the screen credit "Filmed in Panavision" (as if Panavision itself were a widescreen format) began appearing on motion picture screen credits.
Screenshot of The Big Fisherman (1959), the first film released using the Super Panavision 70 process. The image shows the 2.20:1 aspect ratio in which the film was presented.
Since 1954, Panavision had been working on a new widescreen process commissioned by MGM. The MGM camera system used 1930 Mitchell FC "Fox Grandeur" 70mm motion picture cameras, retooled for 65mm film and modern lenses. The resulting system used the retooled Grandeur 65 mm film camera in conjunction with the APO Panatar lens, which was an integrated anamorphic lens (as opposed to a standard prime lens with an anamorphoser mounted on it). This created a 1.25x anamorphic squeeze factor. Movies using the process had an astounding potential aspect ratio of 2.76:1 when exhibited with 70 mm anamorphic projection prints. Introduced as MGM Camera 65, the system was used on just a few films, the first of which was Raintree County (1956). However, the film was released only in 35 mm anamorphic prints because the circuit of 70 mm theaters was booked with Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), shot with the competing, nonanamorphic Todd-AO system. In January 1959, the posters for the 70 mm release of Disney's Sleeping Beauty carried the notation "Process lenses by Panavision" next to the Super Technirama 70 logo. The first film to be presented in 70 mm anamorphic—Ben-Hur—was released by MGM in 1959 under the trade name MGM Camera 65. Panavision also developed a nonanamorphic widescreen process called Super Panavision 70, which was essentially identical to Todd-AO. Super Panavision made its screen debut in 1959 with The Big Fisherman, released by Disney's Buena Vista division.