Akeley & the Birth of the Newsreels
The Akeley “Pancake” camera, created by explorer Carl Ethan Akeley in 1917, was one of the earliest examples of a camera rig specifically geared towards travel, wildlife and newsreel production. Its extreme yet ingenious circular construction was like no other camera design of its time, and allowed for a 230 degree shutter angle - ideal for filming in low light conditions.
Pre-1920 Akeley Camera No. 315
Akeley No 315 was owned by cameraman James J. Seeley to produce Hearst News' long-running News of the Day series. On May 6, 1937 Seeley's team, utilizing this Akeley, were one of the four newsreel crews that captured the unforgettable footage of the tragic Hindenburg disaster.
The Akeley featured an integrated gyroscopic pan/tilt head for smooth operation, and enabled the camera to point straight up while the viewfinder remained in a fixed position.
Its dual lens design - one for viewing, one for imaging - allowed for quick and accurate focusing. The camera also allowed for the changing of 35mm 400 ft film magazines in daylight, and in less than 15 seconds.
expanding the visual language
Akeley cameras were used by news cameramen, wildlife filmmakers and cinematographers through the 1920's and 30's. By the 1930's, “the skills of ‘Akeley specialists’ were in demand, and they were even listed separately on the American Society of Cinematographers roster, according to historian Mark Alvey. The “Akeley shot” was written into film scripts to describe a shot of a rapidly moving subject in the foreground and a defocused background. The pioneering documentarian Robert Flaherty used two Akeley cameras to shoot his classic 1922 film, Nanook of the North in the Canadian Arctic.