Ex-ILM Arriflex BL-3 Camera No. 35750
While the focus of Prop Store’s company collection will always be key film props and costumes, our interest in film history has led us to also archiving production documents, stills, artwork, and other production items relating to film history. We recently had the opportunity to acquire a different type of material for our collection – historic film production equipment. While museums have curated the tools of artists deemed historically significant for many years, this is our first foray into such an area, and we have found the research of this material fascinating. The last decade has seen significant advancement in the digital revolution of filmmaking. Not only are visual effects and sets created digitally, films themselves frequently no longer exist on film itself. They are shot on digital cameras, and projected digitally. 35mm film projectors are being stripped from theaters, and 35mm film cameras sit idly in rental houses, no longer viable due to their inefficiency compared to digital cameras. Only a few select filmmakers are still choosing to, and have the clout to, shoot their pictures on film. The retiring of this equipment adds to its historic appeal, as it now represents a filmmaking era gone-by. We are pleased to present an overview and analysis of one such piece – an Arriflex BL3 camera formerly owned by Lucasfilm and Industrial Light and Magic.
Arri BL-3 Cameras from JDC work on Return of the Jedi
The first two Star Wars films utilized Panavision cameras (the PSR-200 model as well as the Panaflex) for the majority of main-unit photography that would not undergo visual effects work. Visual effects shots were done on a variety of VistaVision cameras, due to the need for the larger size negative to maintain the quality when duplicating the film in optical printing work. The films were shot in 35mm anamorphic, utilizing Panavision’s lenses. The equipment for these films was provided by Samuelson’s Film Service, the exclusive agent for Panavision in the UK. For the third Star Wars picture, a decision was made to go away from Panavision equipment and to use Arriflex cameras provided by Joe Dunton Camera, along with Cooke Varitol lenses, specifically modified for anamorphic use by JDC. As stated in The Making of Return of the Jedi: “Richard Marquand talked about the final decision on which camera to use on Jedi: "Everyone was inclined to go with Panavision since that company gives great service, but Panavision is monumentally expensive. You're not allowed to buy a Panavision camera—you have to rent it. The production team and George were toying with the idea of going with the BL3, which is a very solid camera—sturdy, very useful—arid they were interested in buying a camera rather than renting a Panavision camera." The camera also passed the test, and Lucasfilm will now buy one BL3 camera and rent another for use on Jedi.”
This BL-3 camera is the one sold to Lucasfilm for the production of Return of the Jedi, likely at a cost of over $100,000, as was the going rate for such a camera package at the time. After its use on ROJ, this BL-3 became part of Industrial Light and Magic’s inventory, and was used for second-unit (non-VistaVision) work on many other ILM productions. The BL series of camera was developed in early 1970s, and was noted for being one of the first silent, reflexed 35mm movie cameras that could be hand-held. The third generation BL-3 camera was introduced in 1980, and Arri records confirm that this particular camera, serial no. 35750, was built in 1981.
Above: Arri BL-3 Today Below: The Same BL-3 working on ROJ
This historic camera is uniquely recognizable by the custom side plate on the right side of the body, featuring a red and green stripe. This sideplate was applied to the camera by Joe Dunton, and the stripes represent his corporate colors of the day. It is not clear exactly when this sideplate was installed on the camera. Studio production photos from ROJ show the BL-3 cameras being used with their standard Arriflex sideplates, but this sideplate (and therefore this camera) is clearly installed during the shoot in Death Valley for ROJ, which was done late in production, in December 1982. The camera can be seen in behind the scenes photography from the Death Valley shoot working on sequences such as the approach to Jabba’s Palace, and the cut sequence outside of Luke’s cave. The DOP on the shoot was Hiro Narita, who also recalls using this particular BL-3 on 2nd unit work for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. In addition to the sideplate, the camera has several ILM markings and inventory tags.
The fully-operational camera was acquired with a number of its original magazines, some still bearing the ILM magician stickers which can be seen during the ROJ shoot. The other components of the camera had to be tracked down from separate sources, but all originate from the stock of Industrial Light and Magic.
The anamorphic eyepiece adaptor was necessary to give the operator the proper image in the eyepiece when using anamorphic lenses. This is the original anamorphic adaptor from the Death Valley shoot, with the hand-applied ILM lettering still present.
The Arri matte-box features a custom aluminum hinge modification that is seen on all BL-3 cameras working on ROJ. This modification was likely done at Joe Dunton Camera, and allows the mattebox to easily swing out of the way for access to the lens.
The Arri baseplate and dovetail mount plate, necessary for attaching the camera to the tripod head, are also labeled ILM.
The lens on the camera is a Cooke-Varitol 20-100mm lens, with a custom anamorphic modification and anamorphic adaptor created by JDC. The front of the lens is marked JDC, and the lens also features several ILM markings and inventory tag numbers. Even the lens cap speaks to the history of the piece – the interior features the old-style ILM magician logo. The American Cinematographer article on Location Photography of ROJ states “Lucasfilm had been testing anamorphic lenses for some time and had determined that the British made Dunton Lens was the best for their purpose. At that time there were only 3 sets of these lenses in existence— prototypes. Two were on our show, one half-set at Leonetti's Cine Rental in Los Angeles and the other half-set was at Dunton's Shop in London.” While this lens is not the one specifically seen on the camera in the Death Valley shoot (that lens is a JDC 40-200), it is undoubtedly from the same set and would have worked on the film at the same time. The lens is in fine working order and would still be suitable for production today – film camera lenses are frequently used on digital cameras to lend a film-look to the digital image.
To replicate the look of the production stills, the camera is displayed on a tripod and fluid head of the same type used in Death Valley, although these components were never owned by ILM and did not work on ROJ. The fluid head is an O’Connor Model 100, and the wooden sticks are a standard Mitchell set.
Prop Store will have this historic camera on display at Celebration 6 in Orlando, FL August 23-26.