N. Paul Kenworthy Jr., a camera-systems inventor and cinematographer whose captivating wildlife footage was featured in Walt Disney’s Academy Award-winning True-Life Adventure films “The Living Desert” and “The Vanishing Prairie,” has died. He was 85.
Kenworthy, who co-invented the Snorkel Camera System, died of thyroid cancer Oct. 15 at a senior living facility in Ventura, said his son Kirk. The cancer had spread to his lungs.
A World War II veteran, Kenworthy earned a postwar master’s degree in cinematography at UCLA, shooting a documentary on desert wildlife that centered on the battle between a pepsis wasp and a tarantula.
His enthralling footage caught the attention of Disney, whose studio was producing a successful series of short nature films.
Kenworthy was hired to return to the desert and shoot additional sequences for Disney. His footage became a major part of the studio’s first feature-length True-Life Adventure, 1953’s “The Living Desert,” which won the Oscar for best documentary feature film.
Walt Disney’s brother, Roy, once recalled that Kenworthy “practically lived down in the desert, like a desert rat, many months, in his little hut with cameras all set up, photographing tarantulas and lizards and desert flowers blooming. And we got the most wonderful bunch of material.”
In his review of “The Living Desert,” Times movie critic Edwin Schallert described it as “a super story of nature” whose “miracles of photography are unending.”
Kenworthy went on to specialize in shooting underground and above-ground prairie dog sequences for Disney’s “The Vanishing Prairie,” a 1954 True-Life Adventure that also won an Oscar for best documentary feature.
For Disney, Kenworthy co-directed “Perri,” a 1957 True-Life Fantasy that chronicles the life of a female pine squirrel. And for the “Walt Disney Presents” TV series in 1958, he directed “Rusty and the Falcon,” the tale of a boy who tries to train an injured falcon that he found.
After a four-year break from filmmaking, during which he worked in his family’s wool import business in Pennsylvania, Kenworthy returned to the film industry and began making commercials in 1963.
He also teamed with engineer William Latady to develop a remote-controlled periscope camera system.
Dubbed the “snorkel camera,” it was originally used to view architectural models from the point of view of a pedestrian and was later used for TV commercials, opening-title backgrounds for TV and feature films and special sequences.
In 1978, Kenworthy and Latady shared a technical award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the invention and development of the Snorkel Camera System.
In the mid-'70s, Kenworthy and engineer Bob Nettmann developed an improved Snorkel Camera System that operated silently for on-camera dialogue. That was followed in 1986 by another improved system developed by Nettmann that became known as the Kenworthy-Nettmann Snorkel Camera System.
In 1994, Kenworthy received an outstanding achievement award from the American Society of Cinematographers.
He also received the John A. Bonner Medal of Commendation from the motion picture academy in 2001 for “outstanding service and dedication in upholding the high standards of the academy.”
Kenworthy was born in Philadelphia on Feb. 14, 1925. After serving as an Army infantryman during World War II, he received a bachelor’s degree in economics from Cornell University. He made student newsreel films on the side and also worked for an industrial film company.
Besides his son Kirk, Kenworthy is survived by his son Rob; his daughter, Carol Johnson; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
A memorial service is pending.