Build complex toys and simple tools
by Tony Karp

Doing the impossible - Part 4 - The final result
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computer-controlled zoom lens - Doing the impossible - Part 4 - The final result -  - The Godfather - computer controlled zoom lens - Analog Computer - - Tony Karp, design, art, photography, techno-impressionist, techno-impressionism, aerial photography , drone , drones , dji , mavic pro , video , 3D printing - Books -
Here's the finished zoom control as it appeared in the August 1971 issue of American Cinematographer magazine. The Angenieux 25-250mm zoom lens is mounted on an Arriflex 35mm motion picture camera. The rectangular box housing the motor and gears is mounted on the lens. The T-shaped control unit, with its knobs and switches, is seen in the foreground. The computer is actually inside this handle. Not shown is the box containing the motor control circuits and the rechargeable batteries that powered the system.

 - Doing the impossible - Part 4 - The final result -  - The Godfather - computer controlled zoom lens - Analog Computer - - Tony Karp, design, art, photography, techno-impressionist, techno-impressionism, aerial photography , drone , drones , dji , mavic pro , video , 3D printing - Books -
This photo is from an advertising brochure. The T-shaped control unit contains the computer and has the interface that controls the system. The large box contains the batteries, the motor control electronics, and the battery charger. The zoom lens is shown with the box that contains the motor, the drive gears, and the feedback elements. The small window on the side of the box has a printed tape that displays the current focal length. The small box with two knobs can be used instead of the control unit to manually control the zooming. Connecting cables are not shown.

Here are some additional notes about the computer-controlled zoom lens used to shoot the opening scene of The Godfather.

Interface and use - This was one of the earliest examples of using a simple computer interface to hide the complexity and power of the system it controlled.

The main programming of the zoom was done with a bidirectional toggle switch and two knobs, as can be seen in the picture above. Looking through the lens, the director or cinematographer would first push the toggle switch to the left and use the left-hand knob to set the framing for the start of the zoom. Then he would push the toggle switch to the right and use the right-hand knob to set the framing for the end of the zoom. By doing this while looking at the camera's groundglass, the framing for the start and stop could be set quickly and precisely.

Above the knobs was a set of numeric thumbwheel switches. Using these, it was a simple matter to dial in the exact time that the zoom would take. Another knob dialed in the softness of the start and end of the zoom.

In just a few seconds, you could set up a precise zoom, framing the start and stop, and setting the exact time the zoom would take.

There were four square pushbuttons, vertically aligned on the handle. These controlled the running of the zoom. The Start button started the zoom. The Stop button cancelled the zoom. The Pause button paused the zoom, in case an actor hadn't hit their mark yet. Pressing the Pause button again would continue the zoom. The Reset button set the zoom up for another take.

And that was it. A piece of computer equipment that you could learn to use in just a few minutes, thanks to its intuitive interface.

Discovery Technology - I had to think up a name for the corporation. You have to register the name with the state corporation commission and the name has to be unique. After a number of tries, I came up with the name Discovery Technology -- an interesting name and also a pun. In those days a business also had a cable name for receiving overseas cables, usually a shorter version of the corporation's name. Our cable address was "Disco-Tech."

TV commercials - This was the first thing that the zoom control was used for. Commercials took advantage of two of the control's strong points -- precision and repeatability. Both are crucial requirements in shooting TV commercials, where a 30-second commercial has to take exactly 30 seconds. The zoom control allowed the commercial's director to quickly set up the required zooms and fit them to the exact timing dictated by ad agency's storyboard.

One commercial that took advantage of both the slow zooming capability and the precise repeatability of the zoom control was for the gubernatorial campaign of Nelson Rockefeller. As part of his campaign, he had proposed a new set of drug laws that would put drug dealers in jail for life. How to show this in a 30-second TV commercial? The photographer build a set in his studio that looked like a jail cell. The drug dealer (actually the account's art director) was posed carefully on this set and the zoom was set for a pullback that lasted almost the full 30 seconds.

The first shot, with zoom, was of the drug dealer at his current age. Then the subject held that pose while makeup was added to age him a little. Then another zoom. This was repeated a number of times, with the makeup getting more extreme at each take. In the editing of the commercial, sections of the different takes were spliced together with the result that the subject aged fifty years during the 30-second pullback zoom. This would have been impossible to shoot without a computerized zoom control.

The Academy presentation - In the fall of 1970, I got a call asking if I would like to give a presentation at the yearly meeting of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences where technical innovations are displayed. The presentation would be the equivalent of an Academy Award nomination, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Although the zoom lens had been used mostly for commercials up to that point, and still hadn't been used on a feature film, we had a dynamite demo reel of TV commercials that demonstrated the lens' capabilities. So we took off for Los Angeles, carrying our equipment with us. I attached the control system to a zoom lens and mounted it on a camera, both provided by a local camera rental company in Hollywood.

The next night we went to the Academy Theatre on Melrose Avenue where I gave a brief speech after which my wife ran the demo reel on a movie projector. We were outsiders in the motion picture equipment clique, so there was some doubt about the lens and its capabilities. I didn't win an Academy Award since the zoom control hadn't been used on a film at that point. The next year, of course, it would be used on several films, including The Godfather.

We'll always have Paris - In April of 1971, my fiancée and I took the zoom lens to Hollywood to exhibit it in a trade show of motion picture equipment. We had made arrangements to be married there as well -- an elopement in the Hollywood fashion. At the show we met a charming Frenchman named Claude Chevereau. He said that he'd heard that we'd just gotten married and asked if I would like a honeymoon in Paris in June. I thought he was kidding and said yes, at which point he handed me two airline tickets.

So we rushed to update our passports and in the second week of June we headed for Paris. Claude met us at the airport and helped to smuggle the zoom lens into France (we would be leaving it in France for rentals there). A few days later, it was my birthday and we celebrated with Claude, his wife Evelyne, and some new friends at a Hungarian restaurant until the wee hours of the morning.

My French was primitive, but somehow I was able to work with the French technicians in attaching the zoom control to a lens that belonged to Claude. In Paris, Claude and Evelyne sponsored a salon for us to demonstrate the zoom lens to French cinematographers and directors. Afterwards, we went out for drinks with the French crew. They taught us some French and I taught them some American expressions. My favorite was "mazel tov," which I explained means the same as "bonne chance." I had visions of these French guys, in their future interactions with Americans, saying "mazel tov," and what sort of reaction they might get.

Off to London - After Paris, we hopped a plane to London, where we exhibited the zoom control at the "Film 71" International Film Technology Conference and Exhibition that was held at the Royal Lancaster hotel. The picture at the top of this page was taken at that exhibition.

The most interesting point of our London adventure was meeting Prince Phillip who, it turns out, visits most of the trade shows held in London. David Samuelson, owner of London's largest cine equipment rental house, brought Prince Phillip over to our exhibit and explained the equipment we were showing. I shook hands with the prince who asked if we were considering opening a subsidiary in London. I said yes. Anything is possible. Later, the shots of the two of us were on the evening news in London.

Claude Chevereau and David Samuelson asked if we wanted to bring our equipment down to Rome to demonstrate it for Federico Fellini, the famous Italian director ("La Dolce Vita"). I had to decline as we were almost out of cash, a decision I've always regretted.

To the moon - One of the other things I was working on was something called a "snorkel lens." This is sort of an inverted periscope that that attaches to a motion picture camera, allowing it to get a close-up view the camera couldn't normally get due to the size and bulk of the camera and the dolly it was mounted on.

In July 1969, I got a call from Doug Trumbull, the guy who did many of the special effects for Kubrick's "2001: a space odyssey." Doug was working with CBS, providing animation films that would be used to help explain the Apollo 11 space shot and moon landing. He'd heard about the snorkel lens and thought there might be a way to attach it to a TV camera so they could get better close-ups of CBS's model of the moon's surface complete with a miniature of the Apollo 11 Lunar Landing Module.

So Doug came over to my workshop and we packed up the snorkel lens and hopped a cab over to the CBS studios on 57th Street. To make a long story short, the lens didn't work with a TV camera. But it wasn't a total loss. Doug showed me the equipment he had built to provide an animation of the moon shot and landing. And I got to meet Arthur C. Clarke, the famous science fiction writer, who was one of the talking heads who would be providing commentary during the Apollo mission.

Other movies - The zoom control was used in a number of movies. One of them was Doug Trumbull's science fiction classic "Silent Running."

A Swiss face - Here's an interesting little note. The actual layout of the numbers and words on the zoom control's panel was done by Henry Wolfe, a well-known art director. Henry said that he had done this using "a special Swiss typeface." It turns out that this was one of the first uses of the typeface now known as Helvetica.

The first and last - My zoom control was the first piece of computerized equipment designed especially for motion picture use. It was the very first piece of computer technology used in the shooting of a major motion picture. Today, the use of computers in making movies is common. In fact, some movies are made entirely in the computer without ever exposing a single frame of film.

Given that, you would think that someone, in the last thirty five years or so, would have duplicated my zoom control in a more modern, or in an improved form. But no one has. If you use your favorite search engine, the only computerized zoom control you'll find is the one that I built, all of those years ago.

So I was the first, and I was the last. Maybe that's why, in the years since then, no one has shot another "Godfather."

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