This article was written in 1996 at a time when there was still a lot of misunderstanding about MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70. Most of this was due to the vast amount of misinformation that was published between 1955 and 1957, before the system actually had been put into service. Compounding the contradictory information from the 1950s there was a certain movie "technical expert" that spread the most unbelievable garbage about wide screen systems imaginable. I won't mention his name but I have always referred to him as Herr Doktor Haze. Scott Marshall, publisher of the now defunct and sorely missed Wide Gauge Film and Video Monthly newsletter asked me to do some detective work and see if I could clear up the confusion.
-The Curator-

Solving The Mysteries of
MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70

By Martin Hart
Curator of The American WideScreen Museum

Revised August and December, 1997, and September 2002

From its very inception in 1954, there has been a great deal of confusion regarding the development of the anamorphic 65/70mm process known as MGM Camera 65.

That there is a relationship between MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70 is well understood. But exactly what that relationship is and how the two systems share similarities and differences is clouded by virtue of the fact that countless articles were written about MGM Camera 65 before the production of its first feature film. Even the name of the process varied from account to account, some articles calling it MGM Panavision, others MGM 65mm, and some even referring to it as just Panavision. One consistency in those old articles was the fact that Camera 65 employed camera negative and print dimensions identical to Todd-AO and added an anamorphic squeeze of 1.33:1. With the recommended projector aperture ratio of 2.21:1, the Camera 65 process yielded an aspect ratio of 2.94:1 on the screen. Ultra Panavision 70, on the other hand, used an anamorphic squeeze of 1.25:1, creating a screen ratio of 2.76:1.

Those are facts to be found in countless sources. But there are also sources that state that MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70 are the same. Most of the information required to unravel the confusion has been in print since the very beginning. The problem was that no single source seemed to have all the data right. To my knowledge, this will be the first time that all the pieces to the mystery will be pulled together to tell the story of the birth and life of MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70.

The seed for the process was planted in 1954 during the period when Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was in the planning stages of a massive remake of their 1926 silent classic Ben-Hur. Widescreen systems were still new and they drew audiences. MGM wanted to film Ben-Hur in the best available system because they felt the future of the financially plagued studio would rest on the success of that film. The available wide screen systems at that time had benefits and disadvantages. CinemaScope, which MGM embraced immediately upon its introduction in 1953, suffered from certain distortions created by the anamorphic lenses that precluded their use in closeups. Todd-AO, the magnificent 65/70mm system created by showman Michael Todd and the American Optical Company, used a nonstandard 30 frames per second film speed that prevented the production of CinemaScope-compatible 35mm anamorphic reduction prints. MGM felt that they needed something different, and better.

Douglas Shearer, (brother of actress Norma Shearer), MGM Chief of Research and Development, approached Robert Gottschalk, the president of Panavision, Inc., and presented him with a shopping list of features that he wanted in a 65mm photographic system. That list included the following requirements:

(A) A high definition system minus the curvatures and distortions seen in other systems.

(B) Enough information on the 65mm negative so that an excellent 3-strip Cinerama extraction could be made.

(C) Capability to produce a very high quality 35mm anamorphic reduction print.

(D) Capability to produce extremely high quality 70mm prints which could be projected with anamorphic lenses with an aspect ratio of 3:1 without sound and 2.7:1 with six track stereophonic sound on the release print.

(E) Capability to extract a 1.85:1 flat 35mm print, a 16mm anamorphic print, and a 16mm flat print.

Up to that time, Panavision had been primarily involved in the design and construction of anamorphic projector lenses to meet the swelling demand for CinemaScope, but Gottschalk took the shopping list and went to work without any financial advance from MGM. As the development progressed, the studio opened the doors and made their facilities available for test shooting, provided all necessary lab work through their Metrocolor labs, and the crews necessary to do all the testing. The developmental work consisted not simply of the design and manufacture of the necessary camera lenses but also the wide assortment of printer and projection lenses.

The results of Panavision's efforts paid off with a system that met all of MGM's requirements and, in the bargain, gave rise to Panavision's move into 35mm anamorphic camera lenses, which MGM used exclusively even though contractual agreements with 20th Century-Fox made it necessary for MGM to advertise their Panavision anamorphic films as CinemaScope for several years. The 65mm process that his company developed was named "Ultra Panavision" by Robert Gottschalk. It had initially used approximately 1.4 and then 1.33:1 anamorphic squeeze but this was reduced to 1.25:1. The original lenses were never re-marked after the change. At what point in the development of Ultra Panavision the anamorphic ratio was changed is still not clear.

MGM executives enthusiastically approved the use of Ultra Panavision to film Ben-Hur, but a delay of a year in start up provided time for MGM to try the system on Raintree County, which was released in 1957. It is possible that some brief shots in that film were made with the original 1.33:1 anamorphic squeeze, but the negative is basically 1.25:1 anamorphic. Ben-Hur was filmed with the same lenses plus additional sets necessary to accommodate a total of six cameras sent to Rome for the production, and a seventh held in reserve in Culver City.

While Raintree County and Ben-Hur were actually filmed in Gottschalk's "Ultra Panavision," MGM decided they wanted a distinctive name and they adopted "MGM Camera 65," indicating an incredible lack of marketing savvy on someone's part, further verified by the equally innocuous slogan "The Window of the World." The proliferation of other process names in numerous articles indicates that the studio had a tough time coming up with their distinctive name. MGM stated that they intended to release Raintree County in 70mm but couldn't because all existing projectors were tied up showing Around the World in 80 Days in Todd-AO, thus making it necessary to show it in 35mm CinemaScope-compatible anamorphic. The real reason for the 35mm release might have been that Raintree County did not turn out to be another Gone With The Wind, as the studio had hoped, and the investment in 70mm projectors was deemed unwise at that time. That is a piece of conjecture on my part, but two facts do exist, both of which are easily visible, even on television prints: First, it is a magnificently photographed film and second, it is nowhere near Gone With The Wind in its appeal, though, in fairness, it is every bit as good as a number of films that later received the 70mm roadshow treatment.

The 70mm premier of Ultra Panavision/MGM Camera 65 came with the release often Ben-Hur on November 14, 1959. The process proved to be everything the studio wanted it to be, and the huge financial success of Ben-Hur paved the way for MGM's third film to be made in the process, the remake of their 1935 Oscar-winning hit Mutiny on the Bounty.

Released in 1962 after many delays in production, Mutiny on the Bounty was the first film credited as being filmed in Ultra Panavision 70. MGM hadn't suddenly realized that "Camera 65" was a dumb name. The reason for the name change is that MGM sold their camera department to Panavision in 1961 and rented back the cameras and lenses from Panavision for the production of Mutiny on the Bounty. Between the making of Ben-Hur and Mutiny on the Bounty, Panavision further refined both the lenses and cameras, making them lighter and more portable. The original lenses were essentially high quality spherical optics mounted in a housing that held a pair of anamorphic prisms, making them quite large and very heavy. The redesigned lenses would incorporate Panavision's research in cylindrical anamorphics and produce lighter, more conventional optics.

It is interesting to remember that one of the design requirements laid out in 1954 was the ability to make 3-strip Cinerama extraction prints. This was ultimately done in 1962's How The West Was Won, though only for certain sequences where the use of the 3-strip camera would have been difficult, or to provide added coverage for the 3-strip cameras in some of the action scenes. There is little argument that the Ultra Panavision segments lack the impact of the genuine 3-strip footage.

Other than the small question about precisely when Ultra Panavision changed from 1.33:1 to 1.25:1 anamorphics, I think we now have an accurate record of the birth of MGM Camera 65. There are a couple of commonly held beliefs about Ultra Panavision/MGM Camera 65 that need some correction:

(1) The Big Fisherman, distributed by Buena Vista in 1959, is reported as having been filmed in Ultra Panavision 70. This is not true. This film was made in 65mm with Panavision spherical lenses, which makes it the first film produced in "Super Panavision 70."
(2) In an attempt to explain the 1.33:1 versus 1.25:1 anamorphic ratio question about Camera 65 it has been speculated that the lenses were field adjustable in order to obtain a wider angle of view if desired. This speculation is absolutely untrue, and idiotic. Gottschalk finalized the development of Ultra Panavision by establishing the anamorphic compression ratio of 1.25:1. This conversion entailed the remounting of the prisms, but the information engraved on the lenses themselves was never corrected.

So much for optics.

As is the case with Todd-AO's development starting in 1952, the cameras themselves have an interesting story. A small number of both 65mm and 70mm films had been made in the 1920's and 1930's. Todd-AO's first cameras were old units pulled out of mothballs and polished up with very little change from their roots in the 1930's. Ultra Panavision's first cameras were built to Panavision specs by Mitchell Camera Corp., and were essentially standard 35mm models modified to handle 65mm film. To insure the necessary soundproofing, Panavision built magnesium blimps that weighed 300 pounds. MGM also dug out a number of old 70mm cameras they had used in the 1930's, and had Mitchell modify them for 65mm. The introduction of 70mm presentations in Todd-AO and Ultra Panavision were hailed as new, better-than-ever widescreen systems, which they were, but it's interesting to note that a lot of spectacular footage was shot with antique cameras.

The Panavision Identity Crisis

The name confusion between MGM Camera 65 and Ultra Panavision 70 is not the only case of Panavision process name fuzziness. Here are a few other examples:

Photographic Lenses by Panavision: This title usually appeared on CinemaScope-credited films where Panavision anamorphic lenses were used rather than the Bausch & Lomb lenses. In the case of the film Spartacus, which was photographed in Technirama and presented in 70mm as Super Technirama 70, the title apparently refers to the printer lenses used to convert the horizontal 8 perf 1.5x anamorphic negative to flat Todd-AO compatible 70mm.

Process Lenses by Panavision: This title appeared on 35mm anamorphic and flat reduction prints of South Pacific, which was produced in Todd-AO, and refers to printer lenses used to make the reduction. It was also used in The Big Fisherman, which was filmed in spherical 65mm (Super Panavision 70), and the title, I suppose, refers to everything. The Big Fisherman, had very, very few 70mm prints struck. A wise move.

Panavision 70, Super Panavision, Super Panavision 70 and Panavision Super 70: Here are four names for the same format. Both Exodus and West Side Story carried a screen credit for"Panavision 70," but Exodus posters stated "Super Panavision 70," while West Side Story advertising was consistent with the film credit. 35mm anamorphic release trailers of these two films merely stated "Panavision," as did those for Ryan's Daughter, but that film and all ad artwork said "Super Panavision 70", though its 70mm release was limited to a handful of theatres while all others used 35mm anamorphic copies. Lawrence of Arabia was the first film to use the "Super Panavision 70" credit in all forms. "Panavision Super 70" was the credit used for Far and Away, and that minor name change was to show that updated cameras and lenses were used. The credit "Super Pavavision 70," which appears in some ad art for Lord Jim, is the result of a typo, not a new widescreen system.

70mm Panavision: This term, which might be confused with "Panavision 70," was actually used in advertising for MGM's remake of Goodbye, Mr. Chips, filmed in 35mm Panavision but released as a roadshow film in 70mm, one of the first such 35mm blowups.

Ultra Cinerama: This term was never widely used. It referred to the use of Ultra Panavision 70 films that were optically corrected for projection as quasi-Cinerama. The less said about the 70mm version of Cinerama the better. Ultra Cinerama should not be confused with "Super Cinerama," which referred to 3-strip Cinerama theatres built specifically for that process, and a couple of older theatres that were substantially remodeled to qualify for the "Super" name. It never referred to any sort of variation on the Cinerama photographic process, as has been stated in some references.

The Thank You List

The information on Ultra Panavision 70 and MGM Camera 65 was compiled over an eight month period in late 1995 and early 1996. I would like to thank cinematographer M. David Mullen for providing me with invaluable copies of contemporary American Cinematographer articles on the production of Ben-Hur, Robert A. Harris for grilling the folks at Panavision, Richard May of Turner Broadcasting for information on Raintree County, Theodore Gluck of Disney for information on The Big Fisherman, fellow TECLOC member Mark Gulbrandsen and his associate Steve Kraus for verifying the compression of a Camera 65 lens, and lastly, the U.S. Department of Defense for having developed the Internet, which made it possible for the bits and pieces to come together at long last.

With the assistance of these gentlemen, I hope I have been able to remove the mystery, but none of the romance, of MGM Camera 65.