Cedar Rapids inventor creates 19th century camera props for P.T. Barnum movie

Cliff Jette/The Gazette

Francis Lebeda discusses the working replica Daguerreotype camera he built a prop in the feature film “The Greatest Showman.” Shown in his Lebeda Engineering workshop in Cedar Rapids, he plans to take the camera around the Cedar Rapids area next summer and make tintypes, a photographic process that creates a positive image directly on a sheet of metal coated with light sensitive chemicals.
Cliff Jette/The Gazette Francis Lebeda discusses the working replica Daguerreotype camera he built a prop in the feature film “The Greatest Showman.” Shown in his Lebeda Engineering workshop in Cedar Rapids, he plans to take the camera around the Cedar Rapids area next summer and make tintypes, a photographic process that creates a positive image directly on a sheet of metal coated with light sensitive chemicals.

CEDAR RAPIDS — Francis Lebeda is adding a little local flash to the dash of “The Greatest Showman” — by creating a working replica of a 19th century camera, flash units, lens cap and tripod for the feature film.

The trailer shows his Daguerreotype camera capturing a family portrait of circus impresario P.T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), and daughters Caroline (Austyn Johnson) and Helen (Cameron Seely).

Lebeda, 80, has been making movie props for 25 years, beginning with the 1988 film “Miles from Home” starring Richard Gere and shot on location in Cedar Rapids and other Iowa sites. Lebeda went straight to the source for that assignment:

“I went into the office and I asked them if they needed anything made and they said, ‘Yes, we need Russian medals.’ I said, ‘OK — I can make those.’”

Word-of-mouth led to more jobs for the Cedar Rapids impresario, and every couple of years, he gets tapped to make more movie props.

His creations have included a telegraph key for Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film, “Gangs of New York,” as well as several items for Steven Spielberg’s 2015 Cold War thriller, “Bridge of Spies.” Among those were a set of four microphones used in the trial scene, a nickel coin with a hidden compartment and a replica of a suicide silver dollar with a pop-out needle that would dispense lethal cyanide if the spy were to be caught.

“I got two-and-a-half minutes in that movie,” Lebeda said. “In this movie, I’ll get maybe 10 seconds, 20 seconds or maybe half a minute, but you’ll see three of these,” he said, holding up the flash units, “the lens cap and maybe the back of this” camera.

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He conjures up movie magic in his Lebeda Engineering workshop along First Street SW, where he’s worked since 1955. It’s filled with the tools and materials he uses not only for his Hollywood sideline, but also to repair or create mechanical parts for local industries and hospitals.

A woodworker and inventor who made all the furniture in his Cedar Rapids home, he said he does “all kinds of weird things.” Most of his clients call with parts that need to be fixed or made quickly.

The “Showman” props were no exception. He noted that even though talks for the movie began five years ago, he got a call the filmmakers saying they needed the camera and accessories in under 90 days.

“I really had to hustle with it,” he said. “I’m getting old for doing this. ... They want stuff so fast.”

He’s proud that his camera is “the closest to the original one there is,” he said. “I got a knack at looking at something and making it from pictures.”

He used a combination of red oak and fine craftsmanship to make his working model, then rented it to the filmmakers. He declined to disclose the fee, but it’s now back in his possession, and he intends to take it around Cedar Rapids next summer to create old-fashioned tintype photos.

His replica flash units, however, have a modern update. Whereas photographers of yore might use powdered magnesium to create the flash, Lebeda uses cap-gun caps to ignite a wad of much-safer flash cotton. Still, it’s nothing to take lightly. “The first time I did it, I burned myself,” he said.

The puff of flame and smoke are most impressive and highly theatrical, as is Lebeda, who dressed in a long beige coat and top hat to replicate the look of yesteryear as he showed off his creation and demonstrated the flash.

Attention to detail is key, and yet, directors sometimes change things.

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“Martin Scorsese wants everything ... exact. Steven Spielberg was the same way,” Lebeda said. “Everything has to be right. And then they changed it from what they told me, and they said, ‘Well, you don’t tell Spielberg nothin.’”

For the flash ignition, the “Showman” filmmakers wanted him to use part of a cigarette lighter, but he said no, he would do it his way.

“And then they said to me, ‘You know, when we start filming this, it costs a lot of money, and if that flash doesn’t work, there’s going to be all kinds of problems.’ So they said, ‘What we’re going to do is set them off electronically,’ ... and (the actor) had a switch in his pocket.”

Lebeda actually made four cameras, and intends to sell two or three of them.

He’s not getting rich off showbiz, he said, and he doesn’t get a screen credit, since he’s not a union member.

His satisfaction comes from seeing his work first on the big screen. “And then we buy the tape and look at it,” he said.

That’s how he runs off and joins the Hollywood circus from the comfort of his home.

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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