Max Penner

I met with Max Penner one day in August, in my office in Real D. I first met Max something like 20 years ago, when he was working for Ed DiGiulio at Cinema Products. He was designing special camera equipment for Ed in those days.

Over the years Max has become one of the leading stereoscopic cinematographers and designers of stereoscopic cameras. The term of art that’s used in the field is “rig,” to denote two cameras, or two camera heads, in some kind of a contraption that provides a means for taking stereoscopic moving images. Max makes various kinds of rigs along with other people in the field like Steve Schklair, Jason Goodman, Vince Pace, and Steve Hines. One common type of rig was first designed, or at least first patented, by Floyd Ramsdell, and it’s often called a Ramsdell rig. There’s a drawing of it here to show you how it works. I’ve taken it from Ramsdell’s original patent.

By shooting both through and into a semi-silvered mirror one can reduce the interaxial separation of the cameras. It’s pretty clear, if you think about it for a moment, that you can’t get two lenses closer together than the width of the camera or the width of the thickest part of the camera, which might be the lens itself or a matte box. Max and his colleagues over the years have designed some pretty slick camera rigs to allow for both the reduction and the increase of the distance between the lenses–the interaxial spacing. It turns out that it is often important to be able to reduce the spacing between the cameras especially for close-up work.

Rigs like this tend to be big and heavy, especially if they’re holding 35mm or 70mm cameras. Today they are more likely to have hi-def digital cameras mounted in them. The majority of theme park movies have been shot with rigs like this, and the results are pretty good. Max usually offers his services as the guy who maintains the rig when a cinematographer uses it on a shoot, and he also serves as the stereo consultant.

Lately Max and other people in the field have been shifting to digital cameras and recorders to shoot features but obviously haven’t been around as long as film cameras. According to Max they’ve got some work to do to catch up to film quality. Max pointed out that using these cameras is like shooting slide film. He mentioned his experiences with a Fuji product, Velvia, which, although it has a pretty broad range of tonalities, doesn’t compare to color negative film. Color negative film is what cinematographers use in 35mm motion picture cameras and it has tremendous exposure latitudes–probably something like seven stops. That means you can really louse up the exposure and still get a good result. But more importantly it means that you’ve got detail in the shadows and in the highlights, and typically when shooting with digital cameras you’ve got to worry about highlights blowing out — just as you have to worry about the highlights blowing out when shooting slide film.

Max has been using the latest generation of digital cameras from Sony, and also an SR recorder. Although it’s better to be able to record in the 4:4:4 format and capture all the color information, the SR recorders can record two channels–both the left and the right — in the 4:2:2 format. Being able to record the left and right perspective views on one tape in synch is a tremendous advantage. The downside is, Max points out, some minor loss of color fidelity, even though you’re shooting at 10 bits; and that may have an impact, especially if you’re doing any blue- or green-screen work.

Max has not given up on his work with film. He considers his rigs to be generic and will work with either film or digital cameras. They’re made out of aluminum plate, and he’s thinking of going to even lighter materials. He is about to use the Arri D-20, a digital camera that interestingly uses a single-chip sensor, the same size as a 35mm frame. That means 35mm cine lenses will work on that camera and, unlike three-chip cameras, the optics are more straightforward. The correction of lenses is a challenge when you’ve got three-chip cameras with their internally complex light path. My experience with digital still cameras leads me to come to the possibly rash conclusion that three chip cameras are, in the long run, a dead duck.

When I said goodbye to Max he was off to Canada to do some aerial photography. Max is working on a film for Disney in their Circle-Vision process, where he’s got nine cameras that are set up shooting into mirrors. The result is a panoramic image that covers 360 degrees. I remember seeing that process years ago at Disneyland. I stood in the middle of a circular theater and looked up at the screens that surrounded the audience. It’s spectacular and the mullions that separate the screens don’t seem to bother you. It’s like looking out a window rather than being in the picture. Circle-Vision was designed by Walt’s erstwhile partner — the man who drew Mickey Mouse, and designed the multi-plane animation camera, Ub Iwerks. A kindred spirit to Max, I would say.

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