Remembering Takuo Miyagishima, Panavision Innovator
COW Library : Cinematography : Debra Kaufman : Remembering Takuo Miyagishima, Panavision Innovator
In director David Lean's epic Lawrence of Arabia, cinematographer Freddie Young, ASC captured the iconic image of a distant Omar Sharif galloping into the immense frame, shimmering with the mirage of a broiling day.
What made the image possible was a 450mm "mirage lens" created by Panavision's Takuo "Tak" Miyagishima (with George Kraemer), who constructed a trombone-like lens specifically to capture that image. "Lean could envisage such a scene and Freddie Young could comprehend what Lean wanted, but Tak could deliver it technologically," says Jonathan Erland, co-founder of Composite Components Company and a member of the original Star Wars visual effects team. "All three of them had to "share" the same vision for you and I to experience it. All three of them were artists. Tak was pure art, albeit excruciatingly technical."
Panavision's Tak Miyagishima (with George Kraemer), constructed a trombone-like "mirage" lens specifically to capture this shimmering mirage scene from Lawrence of Arabia. Please click for larger view. Originally released by Columbia Pictures, now owned by Sony Pictures.
Miyagishima, who just passed away on August 4, 2011, at age 83, was both the spirit of Panavision and the creator of innumerable camera, lens and accessory inventions that span iconic film and television productions across nearly 50 years.
Six months ago, Tak's long-time colleague and friend Rob Hummel, president of Group 47, asked Tak to pick one of his favorite movies, for a screening and discussion at the Pickford Center. Miyagishima died before the screening took place, but it showed one of his top four picks which were, in order, Lawrence of Arabia, Raintree County, Taming of the Shrew and Empire of the Sun.
Franco Zeffirelli directs Elizabeth Taylor in "The Taming of the Shrew." 1967 Columbia Pictures.
Each of Tak's four favorite movies highlighted one of his many achievements: Raintree County was the first film to shoot in Ultra Panavision with as aspect ratio of 2.75:1, a 65mm format with a slight anamorphic squeeze. For Taming of the Shrew, Miyagishima made a custom 100mm anamorphic lens for Elizabeth Taylor's personal use. "She would tell her cinematographer, this is my lens," says Hummel. "When it would un-squeeze, she would look more slender." Empire of the Sun was one of the first films to use the Primo lenses that he and Iain Neil helped develop. "They were literally screwing them together and putting them in cases to send cinematographer Allen Daviau," says Hummel.
Elizabeth Taylor in "Taming of the Shrew." - Columbia Pictures 1967. "This is my lens," Elizabeth would say. When the custom 100mm anamorphic lens would un-squeeze, Elizabeth would look more slender. Photo: Everett Collection.
These are just a few highlights in Miyagishima's extraordinarily fruitful career. Among his accomplishments was the mechanical design of the Super Panatar projection lens which allowed theater owners to project multiple widescreen formats; the Micro Panatar Printing Lens (with Walter Wallin) used by film labs to produce film release prints from multiple negative formats in use in the 1950s; the design of the 65mm Ultra and Super Panavision camera systems, including studio and hand-held cameras and lenses; the design and development of the Panavision Panatar Amamorphic lenses (again with Wallin); the blimp housing for the 35mm Mitchell camera (later known as the Panavision Silent Reflex Camera); and the development of Panavision optics including several series of 35mm spherical and anamorphic lenses.
Panasonic Primo Prime Lens Series
He was also instrumental in setting numerous SMPTE standards, including the standard for 35mm 3-perf capture used by the TV industry beginning in the mid-1980s, and he was actively involved in Panavision's transition from film into digital capture. "Tak was probably best known professionally for his numerous contributions to the development of the widescreen cinema," says John Galt, Senior Vice President Panavision Advanced Digital Imaging and a pioneer in HD. "What is less well known are his myriad contributions to the development of electronic cinematography that continued until his final illness."
A giant inside the film/TV camera and technology world, Tak remained largely unknown outside that world. "Although he never took credit for it, he was the driving force behind a lot of the way that most people see things in the industry," says Galt. In addition to his involvement with the American Society of Cinematographers, SMPTE, The Academy's Science and Technology Committee and the International Standards Organization(ISO), Tak was honored many times over: In 1978 he received an Oscar®; an "Award of Merit" for the Panaflex Motion Picture Camera System; and another in 1994 for the Amamorphic Taking System. In 1991, he received a Fuji Gold Medal for his contributions to the design of anamorphic lenses, an Emmy® statuette, and, in 1998, the ASC's President Award (with Al Mayer, Sr., Panavision).
In 1999, he received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation from the Academy and in 2004, he received an Oscar® for the Gordon E. Sawyer Award, give to a select group of people for their contributions to the industry. Miyagishima was also one of the first three Academy Science Fellows, a category of retired technologists who have knowledge to share with the industry.
Tak Miyagishima accepting the Gordon E. Sawyer Award in 2005 for his lifetime of technological contributions to the industry. (Photo courtesy AMPAS).
Not that Tak ever retired. Richard Edlund, ASC recalls that the two were emailing until shortly before his death. "Tak had officially retired from Panavision," says Erland. "We all attended a lovely retirement party, but of course he didn't retire at all. None of us expected that he would or could. He still showed up every day at seven in the morning, driving all the way from Torrance to the San Fernando Valley. He still remained the heartbeat of Panavision, and I think we all expected he would remain in the thick of it with the rest of us for at least another ten years. We are far from ready for such a gaping loss in our ranks."
Miyagishima's life--constructed here based on a short, unpublished autobiography as well as talks with his son Daryl, a eulogy written by his son Bryan, and talks with a dozen of his colleagues--exemplified the inner strength, tremendous intelligence and generous personality that made him both valuable and beloved by many. [Tak Miyagishima's oral history resides in the Academy's Margaret Herrick Library and at the Pickford.]
MGM publicity still of director Edward Dmytryk with Montgomery Clift and Eva Marie Saint, working with the Panavision Camera 65 on the set of Raintree County, courtesy A Certain Cinema.
Although Tak's own autobiography begins after he served in the US Army during the Korean Conflict between 1950 and 1952, it's instructive to go back a bit in time, to Tak's childhood in the areas around Los Angeles and Long Beach. "He was born at the outset of the Great Depression in a three-room house without electricity or refrigeration on Terminal Island," says Bryan Miyagishima's eulogy. "His mother and father ran a vegetable stand in Long Beach, and the family was evicted from their home at the start of World War II, along with all the other Japanese families. The FBI detained Tak's father in a prison in North Dakota for six months. The family moved to Utah where they sharecropped for the rest of the war."
Though his family avoided the relocation camps where all Japanese Americans on the West Coast were sent, Miyagishima experienced discrimination, joking to his sons being batted back and forth between the "white" and "colored" restrooms while stationed in the US Army base at Fort Bliss, Texas during the Korean War. "To really know our father, all you have to know are four basic Japanese concepts," said Bryan's eulogy. "Shikataganai means 'it can't be helped.' By extension, it means, 'it can't be helped, so don't bother complaining about it'." Needless to say, Tak was not a complainer.
Tak's own autobiography begins after he served in the US Army during the Korean Conflict between 1950 and 1952.
After leaving the Army, Miyagishima went to East Los Angeles Junior College, with the intention of becoming "the greatest bridge designer in the world" but his academic dreams were cut short when his father died. He never received any more formal education--a fact that makes his achievements all the more astounding. "He was self-taught and worked in the business over 50 years," recalls optical designer/entrepreneur Iain A. Neil, who became CTO at Panavision and worked by Tak's side for 19 years. "Funny thing, although I have degrees, I was also self-taught in optics, and George Kraemer was also self-taught. The whole company was like that; it wasn't about finding the guy with the degree in optics. You hired him because you thought he had the right attitude."
That attitude is partly illuminated by a second Japanese concept that Bryan Miyagishima mentioned in his eulogy: gaman, which means "fighting through obstacles." "Our father's accomplishments pretty much speak for themselves in this category," he says. "But, put into perspective, dad used to be 'the engineering department' at the start of Panavision and continued consulting with Panavision engineers up to month before his death. To our father, the greatest sin one might commit might be that of wasted potential. He always pushed everyone to do their best, to gaman."
In fact, Panavision had only been in existence a short time, when co-founder Robert Gottschalk met the young Miyagishima, who was working on a Panavision project at Atlas Tool & Die. Gottschalk immediately hired him as a draftsman. "One of Tak's gifts was he had an amazing mathematical mind," says Galt. "He was originally hired as a draftsman and if you look at the drawings he first did for the company, he was quite adept. But he quickly transitioned from this job."
Panavision had only been in existence a short time, when co-founder Robert Gottschalk met the young Miyagishima, who was working on a Panavision project at Atlas Tool & Die. Gottschalk immediately hired him as a draftsman.
One reason was an opportunity that arose for Panavision. Behemoth manufacturer Bausch & Lomb provided projection lenses for Cinemascope, introduced by Twentieth Century Fox when Panavision was approached by MGM to come up with its own solution. Gottschalk saw a chance to make a better, more cost effective solution. As Miyagishima wrote in his autobiography: "MGM approached Panavision to see if they would be a willing partner in designing an entirely new photographic system to compete with the system at that time, which was owned by other studios, mainly Twentieth Century Fox Cinerama (1952), Cinemascope (1953), VistaVision (1954), Todd AO and Dimension 150 (1955). MGM wanted a system that they could call their own."
Neil first met Tak in 1985, when he worked for the Ernst Lietz Canada Ltd, a division of what is now Leica, and the two were working on what would become known as the Panavision Primo lenses. He points out that, although Panavision--and, by extension, Tak--is now associated with the Panaflex camera, that before the 1970s, the company and Miyagishima did a lot of work not just with lenses but also blimping Mitchell (and other) cameras. "Tak was always working on all the mechanical side of blimping cameras," he recalls. "For the James Bond film Thunderball, he worked on not just blimping cameras but also sealing them to be used underwater."
That attention to the details that comprise excellence was another trait, one that endeared him first to Gottschalk and later to other industry professionals he helped. "Tak's philosophy about lenses was image quality," says Panavision technical liaison to the engineering department Dave Kenig. "He was concerned at making sure that you could get as much as you could out of a lens. It didn't just have to look good. It had to feel right. He and Gottschalk were completely sympathetic from that point of view."
The "Star Wars" camera: The Panavision HD-900F, which is the "Panavised" version of the Sony HDW-900F
Galt recalls that after Allen Daviau shot the first digital comparison with the Panavised version of the Sony HDW-F900, dubbed "the Star Wars camera," he was relieved that the images looked good. "Tak had pointed out certain things we had to improve," he says. "That was his philosophy: it could always be better. Although he was very good at the whole process of performance measurement, he didn't put a lot of stock in numbers and I understand why. People ask, is it 2K or 4K and that's a nonsensical question. It's the whole system. It starts with the lens and ends up on the screen."
After Gottschalk's death in 1982, says Kenig, Tak became the public face of Panavision. "He was as involved as Robert was with all the professional societies and he knew everybody in the industry and the periphery of the industry," he adds. "He was all encompassing and covered the entire universe of Panavision's realm from legal to technical to outreach."
"Tak also realized the value of personal relationships and cultivated them over generations of people," he adds. In his eulogy, Bryan Miyagishima describes the Japanese concept of on that motivated his father. "Loosely defined, on means "doing someone a favor for which no payback is expected," he says. "But the implications go deeper than that. It means being a teacher, a mentor, of being of service whenever possible."
Kenig, who met Miyagishima in the 1980s, was one of his mentees. "He took me under his wing," says Kenig. "He knew I was interested in technology and the technical aspect of the business. He was my source for an awful lot of information."
Christian Bale in "Empire of the Sun." Warner Bros. Pictures. Click for larger image.
Hummel recalls that he'd make time to talk to any student who called or stopped by. "And if you were Owen Roizman or Vittorio Storaro, he'd also talk with you," he says. "He was a brilliant engineer and could take the most complex topics so anyone could understand."
"I increasingly realized how privileged I was in the mentors and exemplars I had: Lin Dunn, Joe Westheimer, Don Trumbull, Rod Ryan, Ed DiGuillio, Dick Stumpf, Bud Stone and, though he was only 11 years older than I, Tak Miyagishima," says Erland. "These sturdy oaks were the pillars of the forest we worked in."
Miyagishima was also known for his gentle, non-intrusive manner that has earned him the sobriquet of "gentleman" from nearly all who knew him. "He had inner strength, and political know-how and was never confrontational. I always learned something from him," says Kenig.
Galt recalls that it was "very unsatisfactory to try to argue with him. "He would never rise to the bait," says Galt. "He'd take it all in. And maybe come back with a brief statement that made you rethink it. Tak would never press his point...but he always had one."
According to Galt, "Tak became the person who was always willing to help" and many in the industry have stories of the extraordinary lengths he went to in order to do so. Galt was at Sony working on the earliest film-to-HD transfers and, after a conversation at a SMPTE meeting, Tak became the go-to person providing assistance on those transfers. "This is the thing about both Tak and Panavision," says Galt. "He never said no to anyone who asked for help and it was never quid pro quo. At one point in our telecine development, we had a problem with getting the right anamorphic de-squeeze for some of the early movies. We'd had a lens designed by a company in Japan and it was very expensive but didn't work terribly well. I finally ended up back with Tak. When I showed him the problem, he came back with a lens in two weeks that had been built within Panavision's machine shop. It was based on early anamorphic printing optics and inside was one of the prism optics from 1956...and it worked magnificently."
"This shows the characteristics of both Tak and Panavision," Galt continues. "Always willing to do things that would help the industry. It permeated every level of the company, and Tak embodied that. I always felt he was the soul of the company."
Spartacus - 1960 Universal Pictures. Spartacus was shot with the Technirama process, which employs a half-squeeze lens on the VistaVision Camera. Click for larger image.
Erland recalls tapping Miyagishima to help him revisit the Technirama process (used to shoot Spartacus), which employed a half-squeeze lens on the VistaVision camera. "I wanted to shoot a scene, at the quad at UCLA's Royce Hall, with Technirama compared to standard VistaVision and standard scope," says Erland. "Tak was not only supportive but he provided the critical anamorph lens we needed and declared that if we were going to this much trouble, why not shoot all the formats there were?" Miyagishima and Erland showed up at UCLA with a truck jammed with gear and a crew of a dozen camera operators and lined up everything from 16mm to HD. "Trying to find someone with such dedication to the pursuit of excellence today in this industry is getting exceedingly hard," says Erland.
According to Bryan Miyagishima's eulogy, the concept of giri, or duty or obligation, is behind his father's more than 55 years at Panavision, as well as his daily drive at 6 am from Torrance. Hummel recalls a conversation with Miyagishima when he asked him how he stayed for so long at Panavision when he most likely got many other career offers. "He said that in the early 1950s it was really hard for a Japanese-American to get a good job," he says. "There was definitely prejudice. After Gottschalk offered him the job on the spot, he felt intense loyalty to him and to Panavision."
Al Mayer Sr., who led the Panavision team that developed the Panaflex 35mm camera system, recalls meeting Tak in 1965, when he worked for Mitchell Camera Corporation and Tak came in to take measurements to adapt Panavision lenses for Mitchell cameras. "He was a great person, of course," says Mayer, who also says that Miyagishima was a "very good tennis table player." "He was very smart, but he was quiet. You never heard him say he was the best. He was definitely a good human being."
Panaflex 35-mm movie camera, during photography in the Vallons de la Meije, Hautes-Alpes, France. Photo credits: Éclusette
In his autobiography, Miyagishima wrote a fitting coda to his own career and, in a fittingly humble way, the role Panavision played in it. "My dream of building bridges never materialized, but my luck at being in the right place at the right time certainly proved right," he wrote. "Images being an international language without any boundaries assisted me in achieving my goal of being able to build bridges of understanding. I would not have had the opportunities to achieve my dreams had it not been for Panavision." It's up to the rest of us to recall the gifts he gave to filmmakers everywhere to realize their dreams.
Takuo "Tak" Miyagishima. March 15, 1928 - August 04, 2011
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