Mitchell Camera Corp. Articles

Blimped Cameras That Made The Movies

By Ed Johnson

The following videos are an experiment and a work-in-progress. In presenting these in unfinished form, I am hoping that you can aid me in refining these. As more help and information comes in, I will continue to update the videos and add narrations in this same space until complete.

In response to a recent question, I would be sincerely surprised if this is in any way could possibly become a money-making endeavor. This is merely an outcome of my wish to add to the historical record as best possible on these remarkable precision clockwork machines. The copyright and credits are just a way of controlling the content. Thanks for looking at "Blimped Cameras that made the Movies" ED.

Mitchell GC

Originally this was part of a group of cameras sold to the Navy in 1961. In doing my research, I found that is was not uncommon to have a few Navy GC's sold as black rather than white cameras. I decided to dress it as a Standard to illustrate the early Mitchells. Hand cranks being hard to find, I machined one from an old Victrola crank. It is supported by a Mitchell friction head on a Mitchell tripod.

Yes, there are differences between the cameras of the '20's and 30's and a GC from the '60's. Yet, essentially the basic and most important camera design elements did not change for nearly 40 years! (Even BNCR packages could come with a hand crank - not a bad thing to have for maintenance purposes.)

The motor running sets the stage for the next video in the lineup: the 1930's Fearless blimp. Note that you can always tell when out of film because it gets NOISER.

1930's Fearless blimp

So, motorized movie cameras were noisy but you needed the motor for the constant speed required to make sound movies. By 1930, that meant putting the camera inside a sound proof box of some form. But something that still allowed you to control the camera. And this camera Blimp is one of the first of the successful designs for a Mitchell camera.

This came from a studio near Mexico City that started in the 1950's. I was told that it was still used in production work into the 1970's but not completely verified! Since these weren't obviously made in the 1950's, it is suspected that this came from the big RKO cleanout sale in that time period - also unverified.

The working ingenious parallax correction for the viewfinder is not the most accurate and keeps the viewfinder inside the blimp. Loading the camera in the blimp a bit of a feat as the entire viewfinder mechanism needs to be removed to even get close to the camera inside.

The back of the box allowed the camera to slide in and provided a way to change film magazines. As in all blimps after this one, there is an inside light that moves on a rod to illuminate lenses or loading position. The switch for that is above the follow focus knob.

This blimp makes a BNCR look small. Weight without camera is 130 lbs of cast aluminum, lead sheet and fabric. Noise reduction is not bad with that noisy GC inside. Putting this on any tripod would require two men and religion.

So, the support system is a beast as well. It is supported by a Moy 22" grande head on a 1920's proto-dolly which came from the Chaplin Studios sale when A&M bought the place in 1967. The dolly (shown at the bottom picture behind the BNCR) appears to have been a modified train station dolly from that time period.

Mitchell BNCR

This camera, BNCR 104, started out as a BNC delivered new to Hollywood rental house Mark Armistead, Inc. in 1951. As part of it's story, trying to find a picture of that storefront or related (ad?) Anyone?

As one of the most modern cameras available in their rental inventory, it was in constant usage by a variety of studios - especially Desilu. It probably shot for many TV shows of the time ("I Love Lucy" has been mentioned since they shot multi-camera) and some movies where extra cameras were needed as well as commercials. Have no actual verified information on any. It has also been suggested it worked on the original Star Trek series later on as well as other TV series through the '80's on a backup or as needed basis.

I believe as part of the deal to have Mark's testimonial in the BNCR product introduction brochure (seen at the beginning of the video), BNC 104 was one of the first Mitchell factory spinning mirror conversions becoming BNCR 104.

The spinning bow tie mirror is unique and the front lens blimps that match the one in the brochure make that a fair assumption. It's checkered past include some time in NYC according to stickers from a "ABC camera Corporation" rental house on west 44th to being found in a storage locker in Las Vegas.

This is the definitive 3 man Studio Camera. With a hefty 25-250 SamCine/Cooke Varotal and 1000 ft load plus support equipment weighs in at over 450 lbs. Oh, and this camera shoots the full Edison aperture - sprocket to sprocket - not academy.

The actual sound as with all the videos is recorded from one foot away of the camera door open to closed as running to the end of the piece.

Support includes a Worrall head on a SamCine hydraulic Scorpion dolly with dual track and studio wheels.

Arriflex 1st generation (400) blimp & Arri IIb camera

This is the competitor to the Mitchell BNC/BNCR. As a MOS camera out of the blimp, this camera came from a completely different philosophy: compact and portable. From the very beginning in 1937, these cameras had reflex viewfinders and were designed to be hand-held where the Mitchell thought process was still rooted in the past on tripods and heavy duty, square-to-the-planet camera support and a parallax viewfinder.

But, like all cameras from the time period, the IIb is too noisy and needed a blimp to do sound work. As far as soundproofing, if you are not looking thru the viewfinder at the flicker (and even are within a foot of the camera) you have to look at the running light teltale on the side to know it is running. The 75Lb cast aluminum, lead, corduroy blimp diminished the difference between the two camera systems and made the Arri/blimp combo just as support-bound as the Mitchell.

Support: O'Connor100 head and sticks.

Mitchell 16Pro

If one was serious about film production but could not afford 35 mm, this was the top of the line camera. The surprising fact of this camera is that Mitchell waited until 1947 to introduce a 16 mm camera into the lineup. And, if you really look at this, it really is a 1930's 35 mm camera design made somewhat smaller. It even requires double perf film stock! So, why not add a clone of a late 1930's Houston-Fearless/Raybee clamshell camera blimp. And they did!

That said, It all works quite well. Registration, as expected, is superb. This camera has all the lens parallax focus plates that also do quite well.

Support: Mitchell friction head on Mitchell standard sticks.

Arriflex 120 blimp & Arri16St camera

Again, the direct competitor to the Mitchell 16Pro - same time period. And again the clash of the different world views as with the two 35 mm cameras. Interesting fact is that because of the configuration differences between the 35 and 16 mm Arri's, the 120 blimp is the larger of the two and slightly heavier.

Also, like the focusing system on the 400 blimp, there is a filter holder as part of the mechanism between the lens and the front optical glass. You don't want to put a polarizer in it because it rotates with the focus mechanism.

Support: Oconnor100 head and sticks.

Mitchell SSR116

This is a quite rare camera. As far as I can tell there were only 200 or so of these made. It was designed as a would-be competitor for the already grown news camera business. It bears a distinct design compatibility with the S35R. On close inspection, this looks like an Arriflex built by Mitchell with, oddly enough, their usual choice of 4 motors.

Competing with self-blimped single lens conversion Auricons and CP16's the design of the early model seen here is for three expensive "arriflex bayonet-style" Super Baltar primes and Kinoptik long lenses. Arri standard lenses, though, don't seem to work with this camera - therefore the "quotes" above.

The turret is divergent like the Arri16s so that non-shooting lenses are angled away from the taking lens position which is near the motor-not the door as in all other Mitchells up to this point. The Arri turret at an angle of 24 degrees, the Mitchell, 20 degrees.

Really rare, as far as I can tell, this is the only Mitchell camera ever made with a single claw/registration pin pulldown because it was meant to use single perf mag sound film. Like the Arri, again, the pulldown is a single perf claw.

The inside of the camera is very tight and a pain to load. The flywheel steadied record head system really takes up a lot of space and is either primitive or over-engineered depending on your point of view. The SSR116 could also be ordered without the sound heads for double system (a DSR16) that may have had double registration pins as the movement has provision for such.

The Mitchell SSR16 was among the few and last attempts at innovation for a camera company that simply waited too long to change. It was too late to the market, overpriced at $2,000 more than the competition and oddly not attuned to its intended market. CBS, among the big TV networks world-wide had some. Universities and the Military bought the rest.

Support: O'Connor 30/F&BCeco sticks. The full package includes cables and a functioning Auricon record/play external on-the-shoulder electronics unit biased for the RCA heads in the camera.


So, there you have the current videos and some of what would go into the scripts. I see the length of each to be within the two minute mark for each and probably close to the current times now playing for each. Any info that needs changing or that can be added? Something visually to be added? One other big help would be to nail down a basic timeline for each Mitchell model in a rolling scale.

Yes, would love to have S35R/Mk2 with blimp and begin the series with the B&H2709 then include the Eclair blimped CM3 to be fair to Europe. Unfortunately, have either not run into the parts to do the whole package on either and/or what is out there is beyond my current means. Then, there is the elusive 1940's SS35 optical sound camera. I'm quite willing to collaborate with anyone out there with this hardware to add other cameras in order to make a more complete history series.


"The Camera That Filmed Hollywood"