Note from Andrew Gupta, June 16, 2023: This section is an active work in progress. Dates are generally accurate but subject to errors. The core of this company historical overview is based on an article by Robert V. Kerns published in the April, 1968 edition of American Cinematographer magazine that appears to include George Mitchell himself as a source. This Kerns account of Mitchell and the company conflicts with published information found elsewhere. The manner in which the Robert V. Kerns article is written can be perceived as having overt efforts toward specific clarifications. Additionally, the timing of the publication and/or re-publication may relate to the then recent sale of the company. I am currently investigating. Updates will be made as my research progresses.
Update, July 12: I’ve partnered with a research firm in Los Angeles that specializes in movie history. Research efforts relating to George Mitchell, the company, and BNC #11 are active.
Update, August 30: Research is active. Minor revisions to the working text below.
Update, September 25: Research is active. Andrew Gupta is honored and privileged to be interviewing the son of George Mitchell.
Mitchell Camera Corporation – Historical Overview
The Mitchell Camera Corporation was established in 1919 in Los Angeles, California. The company was founded upon the reorganization of the National Motion Picture Repair Co. under the then new ownership of Henry F. Boeger who partnered with the brilliant young camera technician, operator, repairman, and camera designer — George Alfred Mitchell. Boeger renamed the company after George Mitchell, made him the chief designer, and gave him one-sixth ownership.
Born in 1889, George Mitchell was drawn to photography as a young boy, learning both how to use cameras and develop his pictures. As a teenager he became an apprentice in a machine shop. In about 1907 he enlisted in the Army, during which time he served as a photographer. In about 1911 he completed his military service that included time in Alaska.
In early 1911 George was employed at the Frese Optical Company in Los Angeles, a survey equipment repair business. As there were no camera repair shops in Los Angeles at exactly the time motion picture companies started showing up – Frese Optical Company ended up the place where people went for camera repairs. It was there where George, the brilliant young machinist with a background in photography, began repairing or modifying the earliest motion picture cameras, most all non-Edison European models with no available parts and nothing in common with almost anything.
In 1916 Mitchell was hired by Universal Pictures to manage the studio’s camera service shop. It was during this time that John E. Leonard attempted to sell his camera design to Universal. Leonard’s camera wasn’t great and Universal rejected it, but George Mitchell recognized a few key innovations, foremost among them being Leonard’s focus and tracking mechanism, later known as “rack over,” that would become the pre-reflex era industry wide solution for focusing and tracking.
The pandemic of 1918 forced Universal Pictures to shut down, and Mitchell was immediately rehired by his former employer, Frese Optical, and put to work servicing motion picture cameras. Shortly after, the failed camera designer John E. Leonard showed up at Frese Optical, met with Mitchell, whom he had first met while making his sales pitch to Universal Studios, and asked Mitchell if he could build a better film movement mechanism for his camera. Mitchell, remembering Leonard’s innovations including the rack over focus mechanism, agreed and did. Mitchell’s new design utilized stationary register pins that resulted in steadier film movement.
Known today as “the Leonard camera,” John Leonard took his camera, now improved by Mitchell’s movement, and ended up forming a partnership with silent comedy star and film producer “Smiling Billy” Parsons to produce the camera. Parsons brought together a group of investors and formed the National Motion Picture Camera Corporation.
Parsons and Leonard soon realized their camera had issues. They went straight to George Mitchell and hired him as their chief designer with instructions to, in the words of Robert Kerns, “build a new one from scratch.”
“Smiling Billy” Parsons suddenly and unexpectedly died in 1919. The National Motion Picture Camera Corporation was taken over by one of its investors, Richard Logan, who in an effort to recover his investment, repurposed and renamed the company the National Motion Picture Repair Co.. The new company quickly became profitable and Mitchell was permitted to continue his work on his new camera design.
Having recovered his initial investment made with the late “Smiling Billy” Parsons, Logan sold the National Motion Picture Repair Co. to to Henry F. Boeger, a retired lumber industry executive, in 1919. Mitchell turned over his patents to Boeger and in exchange Mitchell was made the head of camera design, was given one-sixth ownership, and the company was renamed Mitchell Camera Corporation.
George Mitchell’s first camera became known as the Mitchell Standard, the first prototype began testing in October of 1920 as a third camera in a Mary Pickford film. This motion picture camera was lauded for its precise engineering, reliable operation, and innovative ‘rack-over’ system, which was a significant advancement over existing ‘parallax view’ systems. By 1922, the Mitchell Standard had been adopted by several Hollywood studios, marking the beginning of a long-standing relationship between the corporation and the film industry.
In early 1929 William Fox of Fox Studios was negotiating a large scale movie camera purchase from Mitchell Camera. There are varying accounts by various sources as to exactly what happened (business intrigue, card games, etc.) in early 1929. The result of whatever happened (currently investigating) is that William Fox purchased Mitchell Camera Corp. in 1929 prior to the stock market crash of 1929. Boeger remained in charge for a time, and George Mitchell left the company in 1934 after completing his work on a blimped version of his newsreel camera.
In 1932, the Mitchell NC (Newsreel Camera) was introduced. This camera was designed with a more compact and lightweight form factor to better cater to the needs of newsreel photographers who required more mobile equipment. The NC’s durability and reliability kept it in use by some news organizations until the 1960s.
In 1934, the BNC (Blimped Newsreel Camera) prototype was constructed. This model was a modified NC, housed in a soundproof casing known as a ‘blimp’, which minimized operational noise during filming with sound recording, ideal for movie studio productions. The camera was described as being so quiet that you needed to look at it to be able to know whether it was filming or not. A limited number of BNC cameras were made prior to the Second World War, during which time civilian production was ceased. The Mitchell BNC went on to be the studio production camera for Hollywood ‘A’ pictures for over three decades.
During World War II civilian and/or commercial production was stopped and Mitchell Camera Corporation essentially went to work for the US Government, producing various models for military needs. Mitchell production operations were moved from West Hollywood to a vastly larger facility in Glendale, California.
Immediately after World War II Mitchell Camera Corp. resumed non-war related production and released their first 16mm camera for commercial use, the “Mitchell 16.” This camera would go on to dominate American news and television for nearly two decades.
In 1944 owner William Fox “induced” (quoting Kerns) George Mitchell to return to the company that bore his name. George Mitchell supervised the post war resumption of the production of BNC cameras, the development and production of the Mitchell 16 camera, and the development of a Mitchell background projection system.
Mitchell Camera Corporation released the Mitchell BNCR (Blimped Newsreel Reflex) in approximately 1957. This model featured a reflex viewing system, a notable technological advancement, which allowed the operator to view the exact image being filmed through the camera lens.
In 1966, the company was acquired by the industrial conglomerate, Lear Siegler Inc. Despite the change in ownership, Mitchell continued to produce high-quality cameras under the Mitchell name until the late 1970s. After this point, the Mitchell brand was acquired by the Chambless Corporation and several models were produced under the Mitchell Camera Corporation name.
Mitchell Camera Corporation released cameras under its own name and also did work for other companies. For example, the NC was originally designed for Westinghouse, and the first three strip Technicolor camera was built by George Mitchell and the company.
Significant Mitchell branded cameras include:
- The Mitchell Standard (1920): Introduced in October, 1920, this was the company’s first camera model, a 35mm film camera known for its precise engineering and reliability. At least three different models were manufactured between 1921 and 1930, each of which represented improvements including higher frame rates of up to 128 FPS.
- Mitchell FC (Fox Camera) 70mm (1929-1930): The Mitchell FC was specifically designed to accommodate William Fox’s Grandeur film process, which utilized a 70mm film gauge. Two models were constructed, the first in 1929 and the second in 1930.
- The Mitchell NC (Newsreel Camera, 1932): This relatively compact, relatively lightweight 35mm camera, launched in 1932, was designed for newsreel shooting and documentary filmmaking.
- The Mitchell BNC (Blimped Newsreel Camera, 1934): Prototype constructed in 1934, the Mitchell BNC added a soundproof casing to the NC design for silent operation, making it suitable for sound film production. Approximately twenty cameras were constructed prior to World War II at the West Hollywood factory. Post war BNC production commenced in 1946 at the Glendale factory.
- The Mitchell GC (1940): Introduced around 1940, the Mitchell GC was a high-speed camera used extensively during World War II.
- The Mitchell SS 35mm and SS 16mm (1941): Released in 1941, these models were both 35mm and 16mm military cameras designed for rugged use and to operate under extreme conditions.
- The Mitchell 16 (1946): The company’s first 16mm camera model intended for commercial use, launched in 1946.
- The Mitchell BNCR (Blimped Newsreel Camera Reflex, circa 1956): A reflex version of the BNC featuring a mirror shutter for direct viewing through the lens.
- The Mitchell R16 (circa 1956): The reflex version of the Mitchell 16
- Mitchell VistaVision (1954): Introduced in 1954 the VistaVision camera utilized 35mm film running horizontally, with each frame being eight perforations wide, effectively doubling the film’s surface area to create higher-resolution imagery.
- Second Generation Mitchell FC/BFC 65mm (1957): This is an updated 65mm version of the original Fox Grandeur FC, with improvements adapted from the 35mm NC and BNC. It was introduced with the improved Todd-AO system and used in films such as “South Pacific” in 1957, and later.
- The Mitchell S35R (Studio 35 Reflex, circa 1970): The S35R was a 35mm studio camera with reflex viewing and part of a system designed for studios that included the innovation of a live video feed of what was being filmed.