Remember he had claimed Henry.L.Buckingham (actually he was always known informally by his middle name Laurie) had invented the widescreen Variscope system ? And Laurie had apparently written about it in the prestigious American Cinematographer journal. Since then, thanks to researcher and archivist Guy Edmonds, that article has come to light. It’s dated November 1964. However, Laurie Buckingham had been using the system since the early 1950s. It turns out that Laurie’s system was called ‘Varispect’ although the image size was identical to Ian Smith’s Variscope. In the AC article, Laurie goes into substantial detail about the mods he made to his 16mm Bolex, even making a curved rear pressure plate to improve focusing of wide-angle lenses. Also a cunning air-pump that held the film firmly in the gate ! Not to mention a registration pin for extra stability. (Personally I have always felt Bolex’s have a superb steadiness anyway.) There are illustrations of these mods in the AC article, however it would be fantastic if some time in the future we could all see the work of this engineering genius. Again we have to thank Steve for telling us about his late father. (Some of his exploits actually rubbed off on Steve, but there’s no space here !)
Now, I don’t want to get into the game of who did what first. What I find intriguing is that all these years ago, two chaps, Laurie Buckingham and Ian Smith, were working independently it seems on trying to create a non-anamorphic widescreen format for 16mm film. It does look as if both Super-16 and the lesser used Ultra-16 formats were in fact born many years before we thought. Lone inventors and engineers often are not too expert at getting their ideas taken up? Then what of this majestic sweep of Variscope or Varispect whatever you want to call it, why was this idea never adopted by the film world ? Here we have surely, a marvelous way of creating very wide 16mm film images.
WERE THERE OTHER VARISCOPERS ?! Someone came into my shop a few days ago with a collection of 1950s ‘Amateur Cine World’ mags. I happened to open one (January 1954). There is an article mentioning the new widescreen systems then appearing, with anamorphic lenses making their debut for the wealthier amateur cine enthusiasts. The writer criticizes this development. 16mm he says “is the one gauge which can afford to extend the gate aperture at either side.” He proposes firstly a new format occupying the soundtrack area… (Super-16 !) And “a small reduction in the picture height would enable the gate to be extended between the perforations…. The aspect ratio of 2.33:1 so provided is almost the same as CinemaScope. Extension of the frame area would make it easier to push through the film the extra light needed for wide screen projection.” Or would it ? Remember in those days tungsten halogen lamps hadn’t appeared. So… because of the need for “special projectors…. with optical systems capable of illuminating the larger gate…. the anamorphic lens won the day.” The writer’s name is not given. In another issue March 1960, J.H.Wyburn describes the conversion of a 9.5mm Dekko camera to “16mm wide screen format”. From the small photo above he seems to use the full width of the film. What this means is that way back in the 1950s and early 60s, variscope or varispect perhaps was being tried by various (no pun intended) people ! Yet the manufacturers never took sufficient interest. Anamorphic did win the day.
SO HOW ABOUT NOW ? There is no technical reason why many existing 16mm cameras cannot be converted to Varispect/Variscope. Same film cost, extra image information. Projection conversion is easier now, more light. Digital scanning never existed in those days, now it’s easy. With a native widescreen film format you will get better definition without anamorphic lenses, and modern movie film is also better than before (excepting Kodachrome !). Digital formats have got wider. 16mm alone among the gauges has the wider potential. So what is holding everyone back ?
FLY IN THE OINTMENT…. Yes, these days it’s those manufacturer’s markings that appear every foot or so, and disrupt the wide image. The Ultra-16 frames along the top row… see that faint ’76′ mark third frame from the right ? No problem with 1.85:1, but anything wider no way.
There is no doubt, the film manufacturer must play ball and get rid of those intrusive marks. The ultra-16 sample was on Ektachrome 100D. (I don’t know the situation with Vision 3.) Now take a look at the lower sample: normal regular 16mm on Wittnerchrome (Agfa) 200D. There are no marks whatsoever ! The black areas are crying out for IMAGE.
PLEASE manufacturers, follow Wittner’s example. 16mm film has this hidden potential for WIDE images. As Laurie Buckingham says in his 1964 AC article “picture quality not far short of Techniscope (35mm) at a fraction of the cost.”