World Intellectual Property Organization

Australian invention dazzles Hollywood - Jim Frazier

CSIRO physicists said it was impossible and the Export Market Development Grant board refused to back it but camera man Jim Frazier went ahead anyway and invented a new lens which has revolutionized the international film industry.

Until the late 1980s Frazier was shooting wildlife films for David Attenborough. He was frustrated with the limitations of the lens available on the market then and set about making his own.

"Wildlife is very unforgiving - there is no time to set up the camera and position the shot the way you want it. As well, with small subjects, such as insects and spiders, it's very difficult to get both the subject and background in focus. I wanted it all in focus and I needed a versatile lens which would allow me to rapidly get the shots I wanted.

"In the late `70s I consulted a CSIRO physicist who said that what I wanted was impossible. So I began tinkering myself and started getting the results I'd envisioned.

"Over the next 10 years I kept rebuilding the lens and, with much trial and effort, formulated a lens with deep focus and a single swivel on the end. The optics to do this are very complex but I began to get positive results."

The new lens has three revolutionary features:

  • a 'set and forget' focus which holds everything, from front of lens to infinity, in focus
  • a swivel tip so that, without moving the camera, you can swivel the lens in any direction, completing a sphere if need be
  • a built-in image rotator. This allows the image to be rotated inside the lens without spinning the camera.

It's a brilliant invention and when Frazier began using it in his work, it did not go unnoticed. Nobody has seen the sort of depth and clarity of filming he was achieving and his work was unique. In 1993 he was invited to speak at Montage 93, an imaging conference in the US.

After his talk Line of Fire director John Bailey and the head of the American Society of Cinematography, Victor Kemper, asked to borrow his tape so they could show it to Panavision. Within days, Panavision was knocking on Frazier's door.

"It was at this point that I thought I should get a lawyer and Peter Leonard, a high technology international contracts lawyer with Gilbert and Tobin in Sydney, did a superb job for me.

"Panavision sent me a standard three page contract which my lawyer advised me not to sign. He rewrote it and we sent back a document of 30 pages which not only protected my invention but helped me negotiate a very sweet deal."

The contract was structured so that Panavision, regarded as the best lens manufacturer in the world, could never come back and say they'd already known about the optics used in the lens. They met with Frazier on neutral ground in Hong Kong and the company had to sign a confidentiality agreement before they saw the lens.

"The deal was that Panavision would patent the device, at their cost, but that I would own the patent. Mantis Wildlife Films gets a set fee for every lens made and, when Panavision rents them out, a percentage of the rentals."

When Frazier first showed his lens to Panavision they couldn't work out how it was done. But they recognized its value. At more than US$1 million, this would have been one of the biggest patent ever taken out by Panavision but the returns are already rolling in. Nearly every second commercial made in the US uses Frazier's lens and many in the feature film area won't go on a set without it.

The benefits to the film industry are huge. Quite apart from the unique abilities of the lens itself, it has dramatically lowered production costs. What used to be a three day shoot now takes only one day because Frazier's lens has done away with the need for teams of people to rig up complicated setups every time the director wants a new angle. It's as simple as adjusting the swivel tip.

This case study has been compiled by IP Australia

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