Todd Fisher and Jody Eldred Test Soon-to-Be Auctioned Rare Glass on Blackmagic Ursa Mini Pros

Debbie Fisher was passionate about preserving the history of Hollywood through its many discarded artifacts. Across some 50 years, she saved more than one prop and costume bin from the dumpster and plucked buried gems from studio and personal auctions. She had hoped to share what she bought, like Dorothy’s ruby slippers and two of the 1920s-style dresses she wore herself in Singing in the Rain, with her fans in a museum like the one she had for a time in the mid-1990s in Las Vegas. Lack of supportive financing, and some bad marriages, unfortunately squandered that dream.

Debbie’s children Todd and Carrie inherited the collecting gene from their mother, which they happily nurtured throughout their lives. Carrie’s wicked sense of humor helped her amass a riotous selection of kitschy and sometimes off-kilter works of art, from one-of-a-kind Star Wars memorabilia to her group of 19th century American folk art child portraits, her so-called “ugly children,” chosen for their uncanny resemblances to living celebrities. (For more on those items, and the lives and minds that curated them, watch HBO’s Emmy-nominated documentary Bright Lights: Starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, in a command rebroadcast on September 3.)

A director and producer, Todd Fisher encouraged his mother early on to add vintage film equipment, namely lenses and cameras, to her preservation list. “It was part of her mission to save Hollywood history,” he says. “I suggested to her, ‘As long as we’re saving the Gone With the Wind costumes, why not save the cameras and lights and lenses as well?’ She immediately bought in to that idea. Her ultimate quest was to bring all these things back together so they could be enjoyed by fans, but also used by today’s filmmakers and creatives. Without the fans, none of us have a job!”

When his mother and sister died a day apart last December, it became immediately clear to Fisher, and to Billie Lourd, Carrie’s daughter, that selections from this uniquely resonant archive should be shared permanently. In the months since, Todd has served as a tour guide and interpreter in television spots of the many items from his mother’s and sister’s “massive” collections to be sold in a public auction on October 6 and 7. “The reason we’re really doing all of this is my mother’s mandate to Carrie and me to really participate, interact and stay connected with the fans,” he says. “Even when my mother was preserving all that memorabilia and the museum didn’t happen, she was sharing them back with the people — on tour, in exhibits, in many different ways. We’ll fully support what the Academy plans to do with a museum in the future, though it won’t be what she originally envisioned. She at least accomplished the goal of increasing awareness, so we have a lot more people helping to preserve these things now than we did when she started.”

DP Jody Eldred, left, and director Todd Fisher, right, tested Fisher’s range of vintage lenses on new Ursa Mini Pros at the HMPE production studio in San Luis Obispo County he co-founded with his sister and mother.

For the lenses in the collection, including a rare 50mm Super Baltar Gordon Willis used to shoot The Godfather and a 9.8mm Cooke that Kubrick used to horrific effect in The Shining, Fisher took a slightly different approach. With his friend and industry veteran Jody Eldred, an Emmy-winning DP and DGA-nominated director who has shot a range of scripted, documentary and news magazine shows, he decided to see how the old glass would perform on a new camera. Blackmagic Design supplied several Ursa Mini Pros, and the pair took them to Fisher’s Hollywood Motion Picture Experience studios near his ranch to put the retrofit lenses through a series of standard tests. “Several big-ticket lenses from Zoetrope that I’m willing to part with are in the auction and will likely be very desirable to certain people,” Fisher says. “If one of the Super Baltars doesn’t sell, clearly I’m not going to be heartbroken. Our clear intention is to save this stuff, no matter what.”

The first set of iconic gear Fisher acquired came as a referral from a fellow collector. “A buddy of mine, DP Roy Wagner, who knew I’d collected some cameras and lenses said, ‘Hey, I think I can get you the RKO camera crane, camera and lens set that shot Citizen Kane,’ which both of us thought would be very cool. He knew we already had the typewriter that Joseph Cotton falls asleep on and one of the suits Orson Welles wore in the film. It was already back East and I made a deal to buy it and schlepped it back here. Roy and the DP who trained me, Harry Stradling, share the addiction that Debbie got us all started on of preserving and finding the history inherent in this gear.”

Next, George Lucas’ Panavision camera “came as a junk pile, and we were able to salvage it,” he says. “We also put two PSR cameras back together used on the first Star Wars film, one of which we sold in 2011. A lot of stuff didn’t survive — and some did without us knowing it at first. We didn’t know, for example, that we had the Godfather lenses until Roy Wagner traced the thing back through the camera reports out of New York. Thank god for Roy and some of the old-timers at Paramount and other places that did bother to keep these reports and photo records. Even Roy wouldn’t have been able to put Humpty Dumpty back together again without that kind of documentation.”

Fisher went on to sell a few more of his camera finds but never the lenses. “Harry always told me that the glass is everything, so I always kept the glass,” he says, “even though there was no such thing as a digital cinema camera when I made that decision. The idea of putting them together obviously gelled much later.” Fisher and Eldred, both early users of the Sony F55, reconnected at NAB this year to discuss the merits of Blackmagic Design’s Ursa Mini Pro. “It’s an unbelievable value, even putting aside the $6,000 price, considering the features and 4.6K sensor that you get,” says Eldred. “We both thought, ‘How cool would it be to put the most amazing lenses that have shot the most amazing films of all time on this super new, high-performing, inexpensive camera?’ It was phenomenal what we found.”

“Several big-ticket lenses from Zoetrope that I’m willing to part with are in the auction and will likely be very desirable to certain collectors,” says Fisher. “I think they belong in a museum. If they don’t sell, I may end up donating them. They’ll still be hard to part with either way.”

Using new Zeiss Compact Prime CP.2 lenses as their baseline, Fisher and Eldred lit a model in the studio with a variety of textures, highlights and reflections in the scene. “Once we got it looking great, we didn’t change anything but the lens. We started with that 50mm Super Baltar. We’re standing there looking at it on the monitor and right away, it was like ‘Wow. Would you look at that?!’ It wasn’t too soft but it was just beautifully creamy. There was something very painterly about it and also very reminiscent of The Godfather.  We were kind of stunned to see how much.”

Working in a similar way through the rest of the lenses, the duo made recordings, in raw, to look at side-by-side later in post. “As the saying goes, it was glaringly obvious that there were qualities of these lenses well worth paying attention to,” says Fisher. “I think about Harry Stradling, who not only painted with light, but literally painted with a paintbrush. He painted his own background plates and overlay filters. In my opinion, part of the inventory, or the quill, of an artist, in this case cinematographers, is the glass. It’s like having these great different styles and textures of brushes that you get to play with.”

Charts — of any kind — were not permitted on set. “We made everybody leave their charts and meters in the car,” says Fisher. “It was only about, ‘What does it look like?’ We had some very expensive monitors we could do this on.” Adds Eldred, “These lenses are all designed a little bit differently. So some of their form factors took some time to get our heads around. We were just setting focus by eye, without a camera assist and the benefit of a super sharp 8K lens, and depth of field was pretty darn shallow.”

Sometimes focus was a moot point, says Fisher. “We were like, ‘This is beautiful, but is it in focus?’ Who cares! It’s beautiful. We let that guide us.”

Although those trained on digital might complain about a vintage lens’ mechanics, says Fisher, it’s never a difficult fix to rehouse them. “I mean, the iris is in the wrong place. It’s so stiff!” he jokes. “But that’s just whining. For a hundred years we made movies with these lenses and nobody cried about it. Still, the vintage glass I use day to day I have rehoused, like a less historically important other set of Super Baltars I own. It makes them friendlier with existing workflows and more functional, I get that. But I haven’t rehoused any of the Godfather lenses or other truly special ones like it, for obvious reasons.”

What does he think about the “new” classic lenses recreated by the original manufacturers? “That’s fine as an approximation, but the real classics were made not on computers but with slide rules, and the glass was ground by hand,” he observes. “And there are things that have changed in terms of glass properties in those made 80 years ago and how you make glass today. To me, these vintage lenses are like fine wine and have a very specific feel and look and taste to them, and that’s what makes them important and well worth preserving. And the Ursa Minis performed amazingly well with them, given its form factor and ridiculous price.”

The only real difficulty in using the tested lenses with the Ursa Mini, says Eldred, was making sure they had an operable lens mount. “Thankfully, most everything we wanted to use had adapters or had been rehoused to the necessary PL mount,” he says. “We wanted to try some of the Citizen Kane lenses but we didn’t have the right adapter for the Ursa Mini to make that happen in time.” Those original Baltars, adds Fisher, “are some of the finest lenses ever made. I’ve tried them out on the Sony F55 and they were simply beautiful.”

The 9.8mm Cooke lens up for auction that Kubrick hand-selected to use with his favorite Arriflex IIc for A Clockwork Orange and The Shining has been rehoused. “In our tests, that lens was also phenomenal,” says Eldred. “We’re talking super fisheye; GoPro has nothing on this lens. And there was hardly any distortion at all. We had our model about eight inches away from the glass and even things that were perpendicular weren’t bowing. I’d never seen anything like it before.”

While shooting with a 9.8mm Cooke or 50mm Super Baltar won’t magically turn you into John Alcott or Gordon Willis, it could give you a window on their shooting styles. “It certainly makes it more difficult to shoot like Willis without this lens,” says Eldred. “There is just something about it that creates a feel nearly impossible to achieve without some serious filtration and some serious color grading. Of course we have to touch the raw footage, but the depth of field we were getting is just so much better when you can do it in camera without rotoscoping. I prefer to do that stuff in camera, and I think a lot of DPs will agree with me.”

Fisher certainly does. “When I was growing up, the DP was in charge of the look, period!” he says. “During our test, we saw some funny little reflective effects in the background on set that we thought were so cool. You could never reproduce something like that accurately during a grade or in After Effects! But it had to do with the iris, the focus, the illumination of the set, and the shiny object we used. That’s what these lenses can do.”

Debbie Reynolds also understood what a lens could do to boost or undermine her performance. “When you zoomed in on my mother on set and she could read the word Zeiss or Schneider and it looked new, she would recoil back like the vampire at the sunrise,” Fisher says. “You don’t want to put that kind of sharpness in the face of a movie star, whatever their age. Sure, you could buy a filter and correct it and spend days in post. But with these lenses, you don’t need to do that. It’s sharp enough. It’s all right there in camera.”

Profiles in History will auction the personal property of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, which includes some of Todd’s collection of lenses, online and at the auction house’s Calabasas location on October 6 and 7. A portion of the proceeds will go to both Debbie Reynolds’ charity The Thalians and The Jed Foundation, a charity chosen by Billie Lourd.