This story begins about 40 years ago. I was recently out of the army and I'd been making a living writing for photo magazines and designing gadgets to be used in making TV commercials. I had an idea for building a computer-controlled zoom lens that would be used in shooting movies and commercials. I had no engineering background, but I convinced a small group to finance the idea. Two years later, I was nominated for an Academy Award, and the next year my lens was used to shoot the opening scene of The Godfather.
Along the way, I got married, someone gave us a honeymoon in Paris, I got to shake hands with Prince Phillip, appeared on the evening news in London, and gave a presentation about my lens before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
But I think that the most interesting part of the story, and the one that fits in with the title of this blog, is how many puzzles I had to solve that were clearly impossible. As I said, I don't have a formal background in engineering and in many ways, I think that worked in my favor. Someone with the right training would have understood that these puzzles couldn't be solved. But lacking that training, I wasn't aware that things were impossible, so I went ahead and did them.
But first, let's take a look at what Francis Ford Coppola and Gordon Willis did with my computer-controlled zoom lens. This is the opening scene from the Godfather, just voted the second greatest American movie by a group of industry professionals.
In this opening scene, an undertaker petitions Don Corleone in his quest for justice. At the beginning, the undertaker's face fills most of the frame. As the scene progresses, we zoom back very slowly and you can see the subject getting smaller and smaller. At the end of the zoom, we can see the full scene, with the undertaker framed by Don Corleone, seen from behind. This scene, which takes almost three minutes, would have been impossible with other zoom controls.
This is how an article in the March 1999 issue of American Cinematographer magazine described the photography that cinematographer Gordon Willis used in making The Godfather:
To further simulate the film's 1940s milieu, he and Coppola abandoned all modern filmmaking tools, such as zoom lenses, opting instead to frame their tale in a "tableau style" of painterly, classically composed frames (the one exception to this rule was the famous opening pullback shot).
In Part 2, I'll talk about the design issues involved in this project, and the philosophical ones as well.