Camera #153 - a 1928 Survivor
Mitchell Camera Corp. Articles

Camera #153 - a 1928 Survivor

By Ed Johnson

It is June 1928. Warner Brothers Pictures is officially one of the more successful studios in Hollywood after years of being a poverty row also-ran. Dramatic changes were coming fast and furious.

The reason is they are the first studio to successfully bring sound to the movies with their Sound On Disk Vitaphone system in 1927. The early sound films were mostly shot in New York at the Vitagraph studios (which is where the name VitaPhone came from.) Loaded with cash, Jack Warner is in the process of finalizing purchase of First National Pictures studios. That and owning VitaPhone including its exclusive licensing deals with Western Electric would be a power combination in the industry.

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First National Pictures had been in the process of building the first purpose designed film production studios from the ground up. Fox Pictures was close behind. As Jack walked around the on-going mud and construction, VitaPhone technicians are adding sound treatments to the new
sound stages and building recording rooms with tunnels and cableways connecting it all together.

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In 1928, The Mitchell Camera Company had ramped up production to meet the demand of their popular and modern Mitchell camera to an average of one camera per month which would more than double in the next year.  National had been an early convert to Mitchell Cameras and Jack could see the advantage of staying with one standard camera for his new operations. The early VitaPhone features were all shot with Bell&Howell 2709 cameras but due to the added stress of the dual sound drive systems, these cameras were nearing an early end and becoming expensive to keep in repair.

  VitaPhone was directed to purchase and modify 12 Mitchell cameras for the new operations. These cameras would become the backbone for a massive uptick in all sound features to be produced in the future. By December 22, 1928, Mitchell camera #153 was the fourth of the 12 new Mitchells to be delivered. For some time, in addition to the Mitchells already in the First National inventory, this was the largest number of Mitchell Cameras owned by a single studio.


Amidst the chaos, Warners produced 86 feature films of which would only continue to be a near constant for many years. #153 was most certainly a major production asset well into the 1950s at Warners. At this point in the story, let us take a brief look at the VitaPhone system and its importance to the sound film development.

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Description: MacBook Pro:Users:User:Desktop:owners articles:153:153DWpix:image024.png Even though in a few short years, the sound on disk system was superseded by the much more dependable sound on film system that had the sound physically on the film itself, The VitaPhone system solved many of the problems of double system sound recording that in essence is still a feature of sound film production today. 1) motorized synchronization driving both camera and recording device 2) sound proofing of cameras 3) how to edit picture to sound (albeit a bit primitive) 4) Microphone design and placement 5) amplification of theater sound and 6) a system of recording to projection of picture.

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In the Warners lot, The recording building was completely separate from the sound stages to avoid any vibrations to the delicate wax disk recorders. The cameras and recorders were controlled from the recorder room which featured a main motor that would drive the speed of the recorders and camera located far away on the sound stage in the early sound booths. Because of the extreme difficulty in editing the sound, the system was able to drive up to 4 cameras at the same time with each camera getting a different shot — wide, medium and specific actors closeups. cutaways and reaction shots could be shot later without the need for sound. The films were edited to the sound. Soon, cameras got out of the booths into sound housings or blimps and gained some mobility but multiple cameras remained a more efficient method.


In the 1950s and 1960s few of the 1920s cameras were working cameras and mostly for special effects but because of the still dependable features and rock-solid registration of these cameras, they were surplussed and found their way into the growing independent and commercial animation Description: MacBook Pro:Users:User:Desktop:owners articles:153:153DWpix:image037.png industry. #153 ended up in New York at one of those Description: MacBook Pro:Users:User:Desktop:owners articles:153:153DWpix:image028.png businesses. It was outfitted for a more modern Minolta lens and put to work for another 30 years until being replaced by computer and digital animation newcomers.

In a private sale, it remarkably still had all of its original features - In camera adjustable 4 way mattes, adjustable Iris, behind the lens matte wheel and 3 speed dissolve function.


With a bit of bench time and TLC as well as replacement of the turret and addition of normal accessories, this tough 1928 VitaPhone survivor and industry workhorse is back in close to the way it was for many years  — if showing that age just a bit. It has found a good retirement along with other classic Mitchell cameras in the HeavyIron productions collection.


"The Camera That Filmed Hollywood"

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