The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

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The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by admin » Thu Oct 16, 2014 10:44 am

Reprinted here from the American Cinematographer magazine issue of April, 1968 in text only format. You may order back issues from the publisher which includes many excellent photographs. This text only version is presented here for research proposes only and all images have been intentionally omitted.


A legendary history of the proud instrument that has long been the world standard studio camera and of the mastermind who designed it.


When George Alfred Mitchell was a small boy in Tennessee at the turn of the century, he received his first photographic outfit. It was a simple little camera made of cardboard with a very basic film developing kit. His mother had received the outfit from a local merchant with the purchase of new blue serge suits for George and his brother.

The first exposure young Mitchell made with the camera was of his brother proudly wearing the new suit of clothes. Alas, when the film was developed it was too dark - overexposed. On the next attempt, he trained his camera on some soldiers drilling for service in the Spanish-American war. This picture came through sharp and clear. It was all there. He was a photographer, albeit on embryo one!

All this happened nearly seventy years ago but today George Mitchell's interest in photography is as keen as ever. It was this interest, plus mechanical genius, that led him to develop and perfect the world famous Mitchell Camera. But this is a little ahead of the story.

Mitchell soon outgrew the cardboard box camera. He next acquired a dollar Kodak. It was a better camera and enabled him to learn more about taking pictures. By the time he was in his teens and had begun his apprenticeship as a machinist, he was adding to his income by developing and printing picture postcards in an improvised darkroom in the bathroom of his home.

The yen for adventure led Mitchell to enlist in the United States Army. In 1907, he was assigned duty with the Signal Corps in Alaska. Most of the time he was engaged in normal military duties but on one occasion he was given a camera and told to make photographs. It seems that Army sled dogs were constantly being stolen and recovering the animals was hard because they were difficult to identify. Someone thought of having a profile photograph made of each Army dog as a means of identification. Mitchell was experienced in photography so he got the job. But it was not a successful assignment, because the impatient Huskies would not cooperate by remaining still long enough for the young soldier to make a satisfactory exposure.

By 1911, Mitchell had completed his military service and he headed for California. In the Spring of 1911, he was employed as a machinist by the Frese Optical Company in Los Angeles. This company was primarily engaged in servicing and repairing surveying equipment. The motion picture industry had only recently begun to locate in and around Los Angeles. Their camera equipment needed repairs from time to time so Frese became a repair and alteration center.

It should be noted that the Motion Picture Patents Company - or "Trust" - was then very active and cameras were hard to come by. Most of the cameras being used were of foreign manufacture and not protected by United States patents. They could not be purchased in this country so Frese had been induced to copy the Pathe and the Williamson, two of the most popular models. When Mr. Frese discovered that Mitchell was an experienced photographer - apart from his skill as a machinist - he was given the job of making duplicates of the Pathe Professional camera. He built several of these cameras which were exact in every detail.

Mitchell discovered his true metier while working on motion picture cameras for Frese. He resolved to try to get into the motion picture industry at the first opportunity.

About 1916, Mitchell was engaged by Universal Pictures to operate the camera service shop at Universal City. John M. Nickolaus, better known as "Mr. Nick,- was overall head of the Universal Photographic Department and Laboratory. Working in the camera shop at this time was William "Daddy" Paley, one of the first American cameramen, and later an Honorary Member of the American Society of Cinematographers.

The job at Universal was a fascinating one for Mitchell and brought him into contact with many cameramen. He became adept at solving the day-to-day mechanical problems encountered by the cameramen. At that time, Universal was using the Prevost camera mainly - plus a few Bell and Howells, This was before the industry had become standardized, so it was quite a job to keep all of the various cameras in first class mechanical order, and, at the same time make the required alterations cameramen were constantly demanding.

In addition to servicing and repairing cameras, Mitchell was occasionally assigned to shoot extra camera on a set or to handle an outside newsreel assignment. This was ideal training and experience, and it gave him a further insight into what was needed to produce a more versatile cine camera.

One day a cameraman named John E. Leonard exhibited at Universal a camera he had designed and built. This camera left much to be desired mechanically, but it had a unique rack-over device for focusing. The problem of being able to focus the image on ground glass behind the photographing lens had always confounded designers and cameramen. Various methods were in use but none of them was entirely satisfactory. Mitchell examined the camera and was greatly impressed with Leonard's method of focusing.

Universal was then producing a popular series of animated cartoons which utilized live actors superimposed over chalk drawings. To produce this effect, it was necessary for the cameraman to be able to accurately line up the live actors with the cartoon background. Leonard's camera had been designed basically as a trick camera to combine cartoons and live action.

It was built of wood and had a box like profile. Using two lenses, one mounted above the other, if was possible to view two frames at the same time. The lower frame was focused on a blackboard placed close to the camera. The second frame was focused on a black set. By pre-arrangement of props - all of which were draped in black velvet - an artist could draw these objects on the blackboard and a live actor could enter the draped set and move about. This scene would be superimposed with the chalk drawing to create an unusual effect. Much prearranging was necessary. However, the results were quite good for that period.

In order to line things up properly, it was necessary to view both apertures at the same time and to superimpose one over the other. To do this, Leonard had developed a shift. Two prisms from an old stereoscope were placed base to base in the focus tube. By moving his head up and down, the cameraman could pretty well superimpose the two frames. When ready to photograph, the focus tube was shifted sideways and the camera movement and film took its place. The lens remained stationary.

Universal was not interested in the camera despite Mitchell's effort to persuade them to adopt Leonard's focusing design. They were making pictures and not cameras!

Mitchell left the camera shop and became a production cameraman. For about a year, during 1917-1918, he worked as a second cameraman on serials at Universal. At the same time, he also filmed newsreel assignments. Then the war-time flu epidemic struck and forced a shut-down at Universal City. Mitchell was laid off. He visited his old employer, Mr. Frese, and was asked to return to work there as an instrument maker. But his first job was that of altering a motion picture camera for color photography.

Mitchell had become well acquainted with Leonard and kept in touch with his whereabouts. One day Leonard called at Frese's and asked Mitchell if he could build a steadier movement for his camera. Mitchell said he could but that he might infringe on the Bell and Howell patents. Leonard said not to worry about that - if the movement could be made steady - things could be worked out later. Mitchell built a new movement using stationary register pins. With the improved camera, Leonard photographed a feature picture, "The Kentucky Colonel," produced by William "Smiling Billy" Parsons of the National Film Corporation of America, and directed by William A. Seiter. Soon after this picture was completed, Leonard persuaded Parsons to raise the necessary financing to manufacture his camera. A corporation was formed by Parsons known as the National Motion Picture Camera Corporation. Parsons was president and Leonard was a stockholder. Using the Leonard camera as a model, a copy was built by the Hunt Machine Company in Los Angeles. Hunt even went so far as to build some patterns, dies, castings for the new camera. Only one of these cameras was built and this one was sold to the late Homer Scott, ASC, who took it to Australia where it disappeared.

Leonard and Parsons were not satisfied with the camera they had produced so they asked Mitchell to build a new one from scratch. By now Mitchell was foreman of the machine shop for Frese but he resigned to join the new company on the advice of Mr. Frese.

Parsons had sold a large block of stock in the new company to a group of ranchers in the Pacific Northwest. One of this group, a Mr. Logan, was made a director of the corporation. Offices and shop space were rented in the old Berwilla Studio at Santa Monica Boulevard and Van Ness Avenue. Several employees were hired and machinery was ordered. Mitchell began to work on the drawings of the new camera.

After a brief illness, Parsons suddenly died and his estate was in a turmoil. When it was settled, Logan owned the camera company. Leonard had borrowed from Parsons more than the value of his stock so his stock was forfeited. He withdrew from the company. All of the Parsons stock in the camera company, as well as that of others, was acquired by Logan.

Mitchell agreed to run the company as a repair facility in on effort to salvage some of Logan's investment. This turned out to be a highly profitable and practical operation. Not only did Logan get his money back but Mitchell was able to proceed in building the camera model. By October 1920, Mitchell had completed the working model and was prepared to test it.

Through the influence of his friend, Charles G. Rosher, ASC, and the good graces of Mary Pickford, Mitchell was allowed to operate the prototype as the third camera on Miss Pickford's feature, "The Love Light." Aided by Rosher and his second cameraman, the late Henry Cronjager, all of the film exposed by Mitchell was usable. This proved the new camera on an actual production.

A short time later, Logan disposed of his interest in the camera company to Henry F. Boeger, a retired lumberman. When it came time to turn over the assets of the company, two or three patents were in Mitchell's name. In return for the patents, Logan gave Mitchell some of the stock he had acquired from the Parsons estate. Boeger re-organized the company, gave Mitchell a one-sixth interest and made him the chief designer. He also changed the name of the company to the Mitchell Camera Corporation.

The new Mitchell camera prototype bore no outward resemblance to the original camera Leonard had designed. It was all-metal and, with a few minor exceptions, resembled the Mitchell Standard camera of today. The Leonard idea of moving by rack and pinion the entire film movement far enough to the right to bring into position the magnifying eyepiece, which exactly fit the photographing aperture, was retained. Thus, with a simple twist of the wrist, the lens could be shifted from the focusing position to the photographing position without losing parallax. No time was lost, and no film was wasted.

There were other less vital but nevertheless important structural changes embodied in the new camera. These essentially were:

A set of four-way mattes built into the lens supporting frame and operated from the outside by knurled screws.

An internal iris behind the lens, full floating in such a manner that it could be brought into position anywhere on the aperture.

A large turret disc in which eight filters or special mattes could be inserted and brought into position behind the lens instantly.

An automatic shutter for fades and lap-dissolves with a 170-degree angle.

A set of register or "pilot" pins to hold the film rock steady during exposure.

An entirely unique tripod that could be adjusted for height, in trombone fashion with one hand, and lacked into position by large knurled knobs.

Mitchell has always acknowledged the contributions made by Leonard, The original idea for the rack-over, the floating iris and the turret disc for filters and mattes was Leonard's but it was Mitchell who made it a reality by designing and mechanically perfecting the camera. Working cinematographers also had a great deal to do with some of the innovations on the new camera. "Everything on the camera developed from ideas and suggestions made to me by cameramen," said Mitchell." I had enough experience in cinematography to make their ideas work mechanically. Tony Gaudio, ASC, Alvin Wyckoff, ASC, and Virgil Miller, ASC, made valuable suggestions concerning the viewfinder Rene Guissert, ASC, and Gaudio contributed advice on the matte box."

The new camera won instant approval and recognition from cinematographers and producers in Hollywood. Charles J. Van Enger, ASC, purchased the first Mitchell Camera placed on the open market (the original prototype was never sold and it had been Number One). Not long after buying the camera, Van Enger became chief cinematographer for the Alla Nazimovo Company and persuaded them to buy a Mitchell for his second cameraman, Paul Ivano, ASC. George Mitchell can no longer remember the exact order in which the original cameras were purchased but recalled that the first users were Rasher, Gaudio, Arthur C. Miller, ASC, Rudolph J. Berquist, ASC, Sol Polito, ASC, Rene Guissert, ASC, and Georges Benoit, ASC.

But not all cameramen so readily accepted the Mitchell Camera.

Joseph Walker, ASC, was a staunch defender of the Bell and Howell over the Mitchell. "I didn't think the Mitchell was as reliable as the Bell and Howell although I liked some of its features," Walker recalled. "One day I got into a friendly, but heated, argument with Jack Greenhalgh, ASC, who owned a Mitchell, over whether his Mitchell was as steady as my Bell and Howell." To settle the argument, the two cinematographers set up their respective cameras side by side on a stage at the FBO Studios (now Paramount Gower Street Studio). Some blinds were thrown on a rear wall and lit rather sharply. Then they placed a matte down the center and photographed one half of the picture. Next, the film was wound bock in the camera and the other half of the picture exposed. Both cameras had been carefully locked off so there would be no ride caused by cranking. If any ride appeared, it would be in the camera movements. "Jack's Mitchell camera came through with flying colors," said Walker "In fact, I thought it was a little steadier than my Bell and Howell. That sold me so I went down to the Mitchell place on Santa Monica Boulevard and ordered one of their cameras.

The first radical improvement George Mitchell made in his camera was the introduction of a high speed movement. This was an eccentric claw, heart cam, pin-registered, pulldown mechanism that could move the film up to 128 frames/second. Although the primary purpose of the new movement was to provide precisely registered photography at high speeds in photographing miniatures and other special photographic effects, the mechanism proved to be relatively quiet. All of the original movements were replaced by Mitchell and the high speed movement become standard.

This was the situation that existed in 1927 when sound struck with a vengeance in Hollywood. The ubiquitous microphone picked up the slightest sound and this forced the cameras into sound-proofed booths about the size of a telephone booth. Some cameramen overcome this to a degree by covering their cameras with heavy blankets which came to be known as "barneys." At 24 frames per second, the Mitchell was the quietest camera on the market. Although it had to be placed in a sound booth or swathed in blankets to deaden the noise of its mechanism, it became the favored camera for sound photography.

George Mitchell rose to the challenge and re-designed the Standard Model by substituting fiber gears for steel gears, and sleeve bearings for ball bearings. The resulting camera, while much quieter than its predecessors, was, at best, a stop-gap. By now the studios had restored camera mobility by building heavy insulated boxes around their cameras which were dubbed "blimps" - a much better arrangement than the camera booths but still unsatisfactory.

In 1929, the Fox Film Corporation introduced the "Fox Case Grandeur" process, This was a wide-screen process that utilized 70rnm film. The Mitchell Camera Corporation was contracted by Fox to build the so called "Grandeur - cameras which was essentially the Standard Model enlarged laterally to accommodate the wider film. Initially only a few cameras were produced but then it was decided by Fox to order fifty more, In the negotiations that followed, an offer was made to Mitchell and Boeger to buy their interest in the camera company. The offer was accepted and the company passed into the hands of William Fox. Mitchell and Boeger remained in charge of the company for a time. Unfortunately, the "Grandeur" process was short-lived and the company returned to building the regular models.

Camera noise remained the big problem. One day George Mitchell was invited to lunch with old friend John Nickolaus, then head of the Camera Department and Laboratory at MGM Studios. Mr. Nick showed Mitchell the heavy blimps and other insulating devices the studio was using. During lunch, he asked Mitchell what could be done to improve the situation. Mitchell said he could build a camera in a more compact insulated box with all of the controls on the outside, but it remained to be seen about the level of noise reduction. With the encouragement of Mr, Nick, Mitchell started work on a new camera.

At about this time, Mitchell had designed and built several cameras for the Westinghouse Corporation which were called "News Cameras" or NC'' Cameras. Several new innovations had been tried in these cameras to help quiet the noise. Mitchell had designed a new method of drive and a revolutionary film movement which employed eccentrics instead of cams. Moving parts were operated with a fewer number of gears, and the noise reduced to a minimum. Using these improvements plus a very compact and relatively light-weight insulated outer case, Mitchell produced the "Blimped News Camera" or "BNC."

The "BNC" was not an immediate success. The country was in the midst of on economic depression and the studios were making do with their contrived blimps as an economy. The first two "BNC's- were sold to Samuel Goldwyn Productions in 1934 and 1935. The late Gregg Toland, ASC, used these cameras to photograph "Wuthering Heights" for which he received the 1939 Oscar, He also used these "BNC's" to photograph "Citizen Kane" in 1940-41 for Orson Welles.

With the exception of two "BNC's" sold in England, no more "BNC's" were sold until 1938 when ten were delivered to Warner Brothers. During World War II, eight "BNCs" were shipped to the Soviet Union under the military assistance program. Several of these cameras were used by the Soviet director, S. M. Eisenstein, to film "Ivan the Terrible." Except for these, no more were produced until after the end of the war. Since 1945, when production was once more resumed, this great camera has become the standard sound stage camera all over the world.

Mitchell also supervised the design and built the first three Technicolor three-strip color cameras. Known as the "Rolls-Royce of movie cameras," these superb cameras were delivered to Technicolor in the Spring of 1934 at about the same time the "BNC" was introduced.

In May 1934, Mitchell left the company he had helped found. After a vacation, he became associated with Dr. George E. Hale and the Mount Wilson Observatory, remaining there throughout most of World War II.

William Fox induced Mitchell to return to the company in 1944 to help out in a greatly expanded program. The factory was moved from West Hollywood to a much larger facility in Glendale where it is still located. Production on the "BNC" was resumed, the Mitchell 16mm camera was introduced and a background projector developed. Then George Mitchell finally decided to leave the company again.

In the late 1950's, the company introduced the Mitchell Reflex 35mm camera. After several re-designs, it finally emerged as the S35R. It is also used in conjunction with a solid-state Vidicon camera to provide a continuous view of the scene being filmed on a distant TV monitor. This is called the Mitchell System 35.

Early this year, the reflex version of the "BNC" debuted. Known as the "BNCR", it has all of the features of the "BNC" plus reflex viewing. It is now in use on sound stages in the United States and in England.

Mitchell cameras saw extensive military service in World War II and the Korean War. The Mitchell has again gone to war and is performing the same reliable lob in Vietnam. Within the past twenty years, a wide variety of Mitchell instrumentation cameras have been produced for the United States Government for use in the missile and space programs.

In 1952, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented George Mitchell an Honorary Award which read: "George Alfred Mitchell, for the design and development of the camera which bears his name and for his continued and dominant presence in the field of cinematography."

George Mitchell is an Honorary Member of the American Society of Cinematographers - the highest honor the Society can bestow on anyone. In 1966, he received the ASC Milestone Award for his contributions to cinematography. And he is still as interested in photography as he was seventy years ago when he made his first photograph.


Re: The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by drumstrong » Thu Aug 26, 2021 4:57 pm

Is there anyway to determine what films were shot with a particular camera? I have BNC24 #264.

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Re: The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by marop » Thu Aug 26, 2021 6:02 pm

Hi Scott,

The short answer to your question is “sometimes” you can find out what your Mitchell Camera filmed. There is no central depository for this information and if you find information like this, it is spotty at best. I have spent countless hours searching for information on my cameras and have gotten lucky. If I run across information on other cameras I keep that information and have shared it with collectors and museums. I checked my listings for your camera, if I have the number right, and found nothing in my personal records.

What you can do to start is we need to confirm your serial number and then you should find out who the original owner was. You posted; BNC24 #264. I’m not sure what the 24 is and I assume the serial number is 264? If you could post a picture of the tag it would be helpful to confirm. This website, which I’m a part of, has a service (for a small fee which helps with the cost of maintaining this website) that will tell you who the first owner was. Look under “Camera Registration” for further information. You should realize that many Mitchell cameras were purchased by the US Military and not a Hollywood Studio. However they likely bought far less BNCs than GC’s so your chances are good.

Once you find out the first owner you can start doing some research to see if you can find out what it filmed. I had intended on doing an article for this website about just that. However I dragged my feet and haven’t done it yet. I am willing to help direct you if you have interest but the first thing is find out who first bought that camera.

Feel free to ask any questions,



Re: The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by drumstrong » Thu Aug 26, 2021 10:13 pm

Thank you for your quick response Mark.
I know that the guy I bought it from was W. Martin Hill in Midland, NC. He had quite the collection. He passed away about 5 years ago. I've reached out to his son, MH, JR but haven't heard back.
I've attached the pics. It was in fairly unprotected (but conditioned) storage for over 20 years and I just rediscovered it. I think it will clean up nicely but will need a few replacement parts...

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Re: The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by mediaed » Fri Aug 27, 2021 6:51 am

Nice to hear from you about your BNC. Always interested to add to our ongoing registry project.
If you are trying to identify the camera from the badge on the matte box, it is not a reliable ID. Those were easily swappable accessories. The most reliable is the number stamped on the film movement inside the blimp or on the inside of the bottom with the bottom plate removed if there is no badge on the outside of the body.
Could you post a picture of the inside of the mechanism?

What parts are you looking for? I may have some or do know where to find them.
You can contact me at

Ed Johnson, Director

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Re: The Mitchell Camera Story - 1968 A.C. Reprint

Post by marop » Fri Aug 27, 2021 2:12 pm

Scott, looks great. I bought several cameras from Martin Hill and he became a friend. O certainly miss him.

I can't really tell but is this just the outer Blimp? In other words is there a camera inside? The number you gave is a serial nu.ber to the lens shade and likely is not the same as the main housing. The "24" means it's a shade for a 24mm lens, so it's wide enough as to not show in the lens view.

If this is the outer shell (blimp) only, there may be a serial number in the casting somewhere, possibly on the rear near the bottom edge.

In case you dont know, F&B/Ceco was a camera rental house. They rented to major studios a d Independents.
They may or may not have been the first buyer. A cool camera!


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