Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Feel free to discuss any topic related to the Mitchell Camera. Both 35 mm and 16 mm models are welcomed here. Also consider posting topics of other major motion picture cameras that you feel are important to the development of the Mitchell Camera. Feel free to upload a photo from the option on each new post.
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Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by GlennPrzyborski » Wed Apr 15, 2020 9:45 am

My late father, Joseph Przyborski was a motion picture cameraman at Cape Kennedy. In the late 50’s through the 60’s, RCA had the contract to provide “technical documentation” of all launches at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Motion picture photography of each launch was considered documentation. (From 1963-1973 the facility was re-named Cape Kennedy after the death of the President.)

There were dozens of film cameraman employed by RCA in the 50’s & 60’s. During these years multiple rocket launches happened every week. Every type of 16mm, 35mm & 65mm motion picture cameras were used. This included cameras from Photosonics, Hulcher, Milliken, Fastax and of course Mitchell. RCA also operated a tremendous camera and optics service facility that could repair and align literally any type of professional camera or lens.

Footage shot at Cape Kennedy was processed about 20 miles South of the Cape at Patrick Air Force Base. I was told this United States Air Force lab facility was the largest military film lab. To put things in perspective, on busy launch weeks, they processed more footage than all the labs in Los Angeles & New York combined.

There were numerous Mitchell cameras at work every day. This included Mitchell 16’s, 35mm GC’s, and a number of 65mm cameras. All models were painted white to deal with the tremendous heat of the Florida sun.

It wasn’t unusual for a launch to be photographed by 50 or more cameras. Cameras were positioned all around the launch pad. Many were mounted in anti-explosive housings that attempted to protect cameras that were placed near the launch pad. Some were on the gantry to capture the rocket as it began to lift off. Some 16mm cameras were positioned below the launch pad, within several feet of the intense engine exhaust. In the early 60’s, rockets were not very reliable and quite a few cameras were lost.

Most of the cameras were modified with an early form of timecode. A tiny neon lamp inside the camera would expose marks on the edge of the film that would convey the exact time of the launch sequence when each frame was exposed. In the event of an all too common explosion, footage could be synced to reveal a possible component failure on the rocket. Also, all the unmanned cameras were started remotely using a sequencer that was coupled to the master countdown.

For each launch, my dad and others were assigned several cameras to setup, load, focus, test run, then secure with blast covers if the camera location required it. Lens selection was predetermined based on the camera position. Some cameramen were assigned tracking mounts that were based on highly modified, motorized anti-aircraft gun mounts from WWII. It was not unusual that 4 cameras with different focal length lenses were mounted on the same motorized tracking mount. In the 80’s, new custom designed tracking mounts were introduced.

At my dad’s funeral in 2003, I got to talk with several of his co-workers from the 60’s. They mentioned the times they would earn a form of hazard duty pay. Sometimes a fully loaded rocket would fail to ignite at the end of the automated countdown. Auto sequencers would have started all the cameras and they would have run through their film loads. With the rocket on the launch pad, fully loaded with fuel, venting liquid oxygen, cameramen would re-load all the motion picture cameras. I was told it was like working around a fully loaded bomb.

In the late 60’s the contract for motion picture acquisition at the Cape was awarded to a division of Technicolor. I don’t know who has the contract today, but film is gone and everything is digital. Most (if not all) of the white 16mm, 35mm, & 65mm cameras have been part of government auctions. You occasionally might see one for sale on eBay.
My dad loads a 65mm Mitchell at Cape Canaveral
Atlas rocket.jpg
a 65mm Mitchell is placed close to an Atlas
a 16mm Mitchell is aligned with an optical data system
My dad sets up 3 cameras for a Titan launch
another launch with 2 high-speed 16mm and a 65mm Mitchell
During the Apollo 11 launch the same tracking mount handled a Norelco PC70 & a 35mm Mitchell
The world watched the live color camera, but the best images were from the Mitchell 35

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Re: Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by marop » Wed Apr 15, 2020 10:15 am


Thanks so much for sharing that really interesting story and pictures!


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Re: Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by admin » Thu Apr 16, 2020 9:46 am

Fantastic post, thank you some much for the effort you put into sharing this with us. God bless your father sir.

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Re: Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by GlennPrzyborski » Thu Apr 16, 2020 12:38 pm

A few more bits of of info regarding filming the launch of Apollo 11… Todd Douglas Miller’s excellent 2019 documentary, “Apollo 11” released by CNN’s NEON Films was promoted as featuring newly discovered 70mm & other footage of the historic event. During the launch, my dad and a number of other RCA camera personnel were assigned to the now defunct USIA (United States Information Agency). (see press site credentials below)

Driven by the intense USA vs USSR space race, the USIA planned to use the moon landing (if it was successful) as the biggest public relations effort in US history. Much of the footage was filmed in 5 perf 65mm which runs through the camera at 112.5 feet per minute. I remember my dad talking about spending a day in Florida’s hot July sun filming the massive crawler that carried the Saturn 5 from the VAB (Vertical Assembly Building) to the launch pad. I don’t believe there was any 65mm cameras brought to the launch from “Hollywood”.

After processing, all negative & prints would have been shipped to the USIA. The Clinton administration ended the United States Information Agency in 1999. Although I can’t confirm this, I think the “newly discovered” footage was in the USIA’s vaults since July, 1969.
Here’s all you needed for entrance to the Apollo 11 press site
My dad (second from left) and a RCA crew were assigned to shoot VIP and guest reactions at the press site. Mitchell camera on left has a reflexed Angenieux zoom. Note the Sekonic light meters in their leather cases.

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Re: Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by GlennPrzyborski » Tue Apr 21, 2020 4:01 pm

In addition to Mitchell’s large format camera, there were10 Photo-Sonics 70mm-10A high speed cameras. They pulled down 10 perforations for each frame of film, yielding a square image. (see photo below) This 135lb, pin-registered camera could shoot at up to 80 fps. The massive motor operated on 208V 3-phase AC and a gearbox setting controlled the frame rate. Many of the lenses were made by RTH (Rank-Taylor-Hobson) which later became Cooke Optics from England.

Interesting Note: Philip Kiel, president of Photo-Sonics Inc. told me that in 1986, the iconic hi-res, color telephoto shots of the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding were shot on a Photo-Sonics 10-A that was built in 1959.
Joseph Przyborski sets up a 70mm Photo Sonics camera at Cape Kennedy
10 perf pull-down 70mm frame from Photo Sonics 10A
film-70mm.jpg (29.16 KiB) Viewed 18199 times

Rick Wetherington

Re: Motion Picture Cameras at Cape Canaveral

Post by Rick Wetherington » Thu Aug 31, 2023 12:55 am

I also worked as a camera operator/Photo Planner from 1981 thru 2020 using these same cameras your father used, just to update you the Photo Sonic 16 and 35 mm film cameras we used in the previous Nasa Artemis 1 launch last year.
Rick Wetherington

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