Hackaday Prize 2022: An Old (and Distinguished) Camera Learns New Tricks

In the 1950s the major Hollywood studios needed impressive cinematic technologies for their epic movies, to both see off the threat from television, and to differentiate themselves from their competitors. For most of them this meant larger screens and thus larger frame film, and for Paramount, this meant VistaVision. [Steve Switaj] is working on one of the original VistaVision cameras made for the studio in the 1950s, and shares with us some of the history and the work required to update its electronics for the 2020s.

VistaVision itself had a relatively short life, but the cameras were retrieved from storage in the 1980s because their properties made them suitable for special effects work. This mostly analog upgrade hardware on this one had died, so he set to and designed a PIC based replacement. Unexpectedly it uses through-hole components for ease of replacement using sockets, and it replaces a mechanical brake fitted to the 1980s upgrade with an electronic pull back on the appropriate reel motor.

The whole thing makes for an interesting delve into some movie history, and also a chance to see some tech most of us will never encounter even if we have a thing for movie cameras.

4 thoughts on “Hackaday Prize 2022: An Old (and Distinguished) Camera Learns New Tricks

  1. There’s a limited number of studio film cameras that were made decades ago. Over the years as new technologies were developed for lenses, film, control etc, those old camera bodies have been repeatedly upgraded and adapted. Despite all the upgrading, it may still be possible to have one fitted out for an old process. 2001’s “Pearl Harbor” was filmed in Technicolor, which hadn’t been used for a long time. The production wanted the specific saturated richness of color that only the genuine Technicolor film process could do. Since then it’s become possible to get really close to it with digital. By 2004, for “The Aviator”, digital processing was able to simulate every major type of color film process that existed over the time period covered by the movie.

    Studios don’t own many of those cameras and accessories. They have to rent them from the small number of companies who own them. A busy year in Hollywood for movies using film can cause scheduling problems due to lack of available film cameras.

    High resolution digital cameras have eased that problem due to being more plentiful and lower cost so anyone doing a serious movie production with a decent budget can buy them outright or afford to rent – without having to wait for another studio to finish using a camera. Digital cameras are also a lot smaller and lighter so they’re much easier to work with.

    1. When I was at Laika they had the lagest collection in the world of Mitchell cinema cameras. They had been converted to use a big nema 34 stepper motor to advance the film one frame for each shot. I think they were used up until Corpse Bride where they started using Nikon SLRs. After that they moved to Redlake industrial cameras for coraline which did not work very well, Canon 5DII’s for Paranorman, and I think after that Canon 1Dx bodies were used. All nikon lenses though. When Paranorman was gearing up to shoot Laika bought ever NOS Nikon lens in the world they could find.

      1. Lakia ended with more than 40 Mitchell cameras before they switched to digital, because when you’re shooting a big stop-motion movie, you’ve got a *lot* of cameras sitting around on stages waiting for puppets to move.


        That means that if you’re looking through a book about the golden age of Hollywood and you see a Mitchell standard model working in an old photo, the odds are about 1 in 40 or so that that very camera is in a crate in Laika’s Indiana Jones warehouse.

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