Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Movie Camera that Revolutionized War Films

In 1915 wildlife explorer Carl Akeley patented a new type of movie camera that revolutionized the film industry. Nicknamed the "pancake" because of its peculiar rounded shape, it sported an internal gyroscope, which allowed the camera to tilt straight up while the viewfinder remained fixed. Originally designed for filming outdoor scenes, the camera was quickly adopted by the U.S. Signal Corps when America entered the First World War.

Edwin Weigle (left) and Carl Akeley, testing the "pancake" movie camera, December 1917. From: American Cinematographers in the Great War (2014)

Claim to Fame

A jack of all trades, Akeley was a taxidermist, sculptor, biologist, conservationist, inventor and nature photographer, noted for his contributions to American museums. His major contribution to film history was the "pancake", a lightweight camera that was very popular with newsreel cameramen but that was only when they were able to find one that was still available. After the American entry into World War I the Signal Corps was most eager to use Akeley's camera and as a result the "pancake" was sold out within a few months. The shutter mechanism was the camera's real claim to fame. The rotary design of the body gave room for the shutter to travel all the way around its circumference.  As a result, the shutter angle was 230 degrees. Standard motion picture cameras at the time had a 180 degree shutter, or less. The result of having 50 degrees more shutter is having longer shutter speeds and gaining almost 1/3rd more light than standard cameras. This was important to Akeley because the majority of his filming while shooting wildlife across the globe was during the dusk and dawn hours when lighting was not ideal.

Akeley camera, as used for aerial cinematography in the World War I classic movie Wings (1927) 

This was also where the "pancake" made a huge difference when used by the American army at the western front. With most of the military activities taking place at dusk or dawn under extremely difficult lighting conditions, Akeley's camera proved to be a suitable war film camera both for documentary purposes on the ground and for aerial reconnaissance.

According to a press release in March 1918, Akeley had come to Washington, DC, shortly after the American entry into the war to place his camera at the disposal of the newly created Photographic Division. The U.S. Signal Corps soon decided to adopt it as the 'box' for their official war photographers. The first test shots with the pancake film camera for military purposes were made by Signal Corps cameraman Victor Fleming, the future director of Gone with the Wind (1939), as well as Edwin F. Weigle who had filmed in wartime Germany before joining the original team of the Signal Corps Photographic Division.

Here is a link to the original photograph, showing Weigle and Akely demonstrating this film camera, from the collection of the National Archives. 

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