"THIS IS CINERAMA!"
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Greg Kimble
IS CINERAMA!" - These three words changed movies forever, just as Al
Jolsen's ad libbed, "You ain't heard nothing yet" had done in
It was September 30, 1952 at the Broadway Theater in Manhattan where
a world-famous adventurer, a media pioneer, and a first-time producer sat
nervously with a quietly confident inventor as the curtain rose on an
entirely new medium that would revolutionize motion picture production and
exhibition - just when the industry needed it most.
in 70mm reading:
How the West Was
Won in Cinerama
astonished first night audience tore the theater apart with cheers, the
inventor sat quietly, the slightest of smiles on his lips. "What are
you, a man or a fish?" asked an aghast friend. "How can you just
sit there?" "Oh," the inventor gently replied, "I knew
16 years ago it would be like this."
3-strip frame composite from "This is Cinerama". Click picture
to see enlargement.
Fred Waller had indeed labored that long on his dream of a motion
picture experience that would recreate the full range of human vision. It
used three cameras and three projectors on a curved screen 146° deep.
Making an anagram of the letters in "American," he called it
"Cinerama". Even in an industry up to its Mitchell magazines in
hyperbole, its impact was staggering. Running only 13 weeks in one theater
in New York, "This Is Cinerama" was the highest grossing
film of 1952. Several more travelogues would follow, climaxed by two
dramatic films co-produced with MGM in 1962.
Cinerama, which had been rejected by all the majors as too expensive -
however impressive it was - now created a landrush. When they saw its
drawing power, every studio scrambled to come up with a copycat process.
The 1.33 aspect ratio was dead and the widescreen era was on.
Cinematographer September 2002.
This article was written during the summer of 2002. The text was cut down
and appeared in American Cinematographer, September 2002. Here it is
again, in the full text version.
3-strip frame composite from "This is Cinerama". Click picture
to see enlargement.
Cinerama's 3-panel glory days lasted only 11 years, but it has never
been forgotten by anyone who saw it. Completely lost for 40 years, now on
its 50th anniversary, Cinerama is making a comeback.
But the roots of this astonishing system begin much earlier than Waller's
experiments in the '30's…
|In 1787, English
artist Robert Barker was awarded a patent for developing the perspective
techniques to give a continuous painting the appearance of all-around
vision. His creation was the Cyclorama, a 360° painting, first displayed
in a purpose-built cylindrical building in London's Leicester Square in
of Cinerama screen louvres.
To view London From the Roof of the Albion Mills, you stood on a
platform built to resemble a rooftop, with the painting all around you,
just as if you were standing atop the actual mills, just blocks away. It
was sensationally popular, and cycloramas became a major attraction in all
the large cities. You may still view one today in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
at the battlefield museum there.
It wasn't long before photographers were creating a truncated version of
the cyclorama. Panoramic photography used three or more exposures to cover
a viewing angle that a single lens could not encompass. Perfectly suited
to landscape photography, the technique was often used to document Civil
War battlefields at the end of fighting.
While Disneyland's "CircleVision" is the direct descendant of
the cyclorama, it was not the first use of the motion picture camera in
this way. Surprising, the 1900 Paris Exposition featured a 10-projector
simulated balloon ride. Patrons stood on top of a projection room dressed
like a giant balloon basket, under a huge prop balloon. The images were
projected on a full 360° screen around them. Closed after only a few days
as a fire hazard (the booth was unvented) the exhibit had a prescient name
frame from "Napoleon". Click on picture to see enlargement.
The first use of a 3-projector panorama in a motion picture was in
1927 (curiously, the same year the anamorphic lens was invented). French
director Abel Gance felt that the climax to his 5-hour "Napoleon"
needed a big finish, so he shot the final scenes with three cameras
mounted over-and-under, and was pleased to see that his "polyvision"
really worked. No one would attempt it again for 25 years.
Fred Waller was head of the effects, and later, short subjects departments
at the Astoria, NY studios of Paramount Pictures during the 1920's &
30's. When he noticed that pictures photographed with very wide angle
lenses had a slight impression of depth, he embarked upon a quest to
reproduce, as nearly as possible, the full range of human vision.
He succeeded - spectacularly.
|The man who
accomplished this was always something of a prodigy. Born in 1896 in
Brooklyn, he was repairing his own bicycle -and his friends' - at the age
of 4. His father was the first commercial photographer in New York, and
after a bout of teenage pneumonia, Waller left Brooklyn Polytechnic at 14
to join him, no doubt to the relief of his physics teachers who were
forever losing arguments with him.
While there, he invented many labor saving devices he kept secret, and
patented the first automatic printer/timer for still photographs. When a
shortage of photo supplies during WWI led to the closing of the business,
he opened an art studio for the creation of silent film intertitles,
working exclusively for Famous Players Lasky (later Paramount Pictures).
In 1924 Fred joined Paramount directly as head of Special Effects at their
east coast production facility in Astoria, Queens. While there, he
produced a cyclone for D. W. Griffith, a shipwreck for Cecil B. DeMille,
turned Cinderella's pumpkin into a coach and four and in 1925 built the
studio's first optical printer. He was intrigued when he noticed that just
as a telephoto lens will flatten an image onto a plane, a wide angle lens
does the opposite - gives a sense of depth - without any cumbersome 3-D
apparatus. Thus began an intense study of perception that would last over
Paramount closed Astoria in 1927, but Waller didn't waste the hiatus - he
went into the boat business and invented the water ski. Returning to
Paramount in 1929 as head of short subject production, he became the
favorite director of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and other major black
talent of the day. His musical shorts were distinguished by their creative
camerawork and high production value.
Waller with Vitarama camera rig
All the while, Waller was continuing his study of perception. He
recognized that each human eye sees two-thirds of the total viewing angle,
but we see in 3-D only where the two eyes overlap - directly ahead.
Everything further than a few dozen yards away is a flat plane. Often
found walking around the house with toothpicks stuck in the brim of his
hat, he conducted experiments that surprisingly revealed that it was
peripheral vision - and not straight ahead vision that mattered most in
spatial perception. Subjects with this center portion blocked navigated a
room full of furniture without incident. Those with their peripheral
vision obscured (like a horse wearing blinders) fell about.
Only one facet eluded him - a panoramic depiction of reality would require
an enormously flat screen, perhaps hundreds of feet wide.
Ready at last to turn his studies into a practical motion picture
system, he set up shop in the carriage house of boating pal David
Rockefeller's Manhattan mansion. His first generation system worked - but
was far from "practical". It used 11 (!) 16mm cameras to shoot a
combined hemispherical image of 2 over 4 over 5 individual films.
Connected by external drive belts which synchronized the cameras, the
"11-eyed monster" was used for several test films which revealed
that the angle of view was so large that the outside cameras were
photographing each other. Waller called the contraption the VITARAMA.
Waller on water ski
About this time, Waller was contacted by some exhibitors at the 1939
New York World's Fair. For Eastman Kodak he provided several multi-panel
slide displays for their Hall of Color. But it was his first glimpse of
the interior of the theme building that made it all come together. The
Perisphere was curved. Imagine Waller clapping his hand to his forehead
with the 1939 equivalent of "Duh!" flickering across his mind.
Human vision is a curved - not a flat - field.
Vitarama Goes To War
view of The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer. Click picture to see a larger
When the Vitarama was rejected by fair organizers as "too
radical" Fred, disciplined inventor that he was, simply moved on to
phase two - five 35mm cameras arranged 2 over 3. With war looming in
Europe, Waller adapted his idea to an extremely practical use - an aerial
gunnery trainer, which saved fuel, freed up pilots and aircraft for actual
combat and eliminated the very real problem of unskilled gunners hitting
the aircraft and not the tow target. Since shooting at a slowly towed
target didn't begin to mimic actual battle conditions, most gunners never
really learned their job until they were in actual combat - and casualties
in 70mm reading:
view of The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer. Click picture to see a larger
The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer was the first virtual reality
experience - decades before the term was coined. Trainees wore headsets
with actual battle and engine sounds, and a sophisticated photoelectric
system scored their hits on the photographed planes diving in from out of
frame. So realistic and effective was the trainer, that 1 hour was
equivalent to 10 of real flying practice. The first group of graduates hit
80% of their combat targets and suffered no losses. At the end of the war,
it was calculated that over 350,000 lives were saved by the trainer.
Enthusiastic graduates wrote Waller, wanting to see this amazing
technology used in a more commercial way.
Waller, not surprisingly, was way ahead of them.
The Secret of Oyster Bay
the 75 gunnery trainers contracted by the US Navy and British Admiralty,
research and construction was still going on at new facilities in an
indoor tennis court out in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Reflections within the
sphere had been a real problem on the trainer, so Waller dropped the 2
upper cameras and projected the remaining 3 images - totaling 146° of
horizontal angle - onto a curved screen. But the reflections remained, so
the screen was rebuilt as 1100 1" vertical strips, all parallel to
the viewer. This solved the problem, but made for a costly install.
7-track sound in Oyster Bay. Click picture to see a larger version.
The cameras and projectors were also custom made, as the new system
used frames 6 perforations high instead of the usual 4, and ran at 26
frames per second instead of 24. Total exposed negative area was 6 times
that of a standard academy aperture. The camera, while not the monstrosity
the 11-header had been, was still a behemoth. Unblimped, it weighed over
200 pounds and made an awful racket. With its lead-lined blimp, it tipped
the scales at 800 lbs. The lenses, custom made by Kodak for Waller, were
the size of a contact lens, with a focal length of 27mm - the same as the
Squire checking the camera.
This huge expanse of screen real estate could hardly be complemented by a
standard monophonic sound track, so Waller brought in sound engineer
Hazard Reeves who developed a 7-channel discreet surround sound system. To
accomplish this, Reeves invented fullcoat magnetic film - the first use of
magnetic media in an optical sound industry. He proved invaluable in
another way. When the Rockefellers and Time pulled their funding, Reeves
kept the company afloat by buying the assets - for $1600.
Reeves made one other important decision. He hired Mike Todd, a Broadway
showman who had yet to produce a feature film, as his Cinerama producer,
reasoning that his boundless enthusiasm and sales ability was a necessary
asset to the new company. Todd also had a relationship with Rodgers and
Hammerstein, and promised to bring their hit musical Oklahoma! to
the new company to be filmed in Cinerama.
One by one, heads of all the majors trouped out to Oyster Bay to see
"Waller's Wonder." The 15 minute film included the roller
coaster at Rockaway Playland and the Long Island Choral Society singing
the Messiah, which had been recorded in the church, then photographed to
playback on a set constructed at the tennis court. Both were in black and
white. There were also traveling shots of fall foliage and scenes aboard
the Rockefeller yacht, which marked the first use of the new Kodak
monopack color negative film.
Impressed as they were (instinctively turning around as the choir came in
on the rear surrounds) they nonetheless knew that exhibitors would never
endure the huge conversion costs, and correctly saw how impractical and
expensive it would be for regular production. Compliments all around for
Fred - and no callbacks.
Waller realized that if Cinerama was to succeed, it would be without the
help - and financing - of the established picture industry. Fortunately,
Waller's Wonder had some very important friends.
Cue Lowell Thomas
|It may be difficult to
imagine now, with so many talking heads clamouring for our attention, but
once the voice of Lowell Thomas was the single most famous in the world.
He was the country's second news commentator. His radio and television
career lasted 28 years including his long service as the voice of Fox
Thomas filming "This is Cinerama"
A constant traveller with an insatiable curiosity to see new places
and people, he was raised in the gold fields of Colorado where his father
was a surgeon. The endless parade of prospectors, saloons and cathouses
sowed the seeds of his love of the colorful. He would become famous for
his egalitarian courtesy, and counted among his friends everyone from the
Dalai Lama to the doorman of his Manhattan apartment building.
One of his most important friendships was with T. E. Lawrence, the
Englishman who fought so hard for Arab independence during WWI. Thomas
discovered him by chance while on a trip to Egypt and recognized instantly
a great story. He single-handedly built Lawrence into one of the 20th
century's great icons with his book and lecture series. Without Lowell
Thomas, Lawrence of Arabia would have been but a footnote in history.
knew both Hazard Reeves and Fred Waller and had produced a Broadway show
with Mike Todd. There are various versions of which got the other to join
Cinerama. Upon seeing the Cinerama demo for the first time, Thomas knew
that this could provide him a success even bigger than Lawrence had been.
Todd, dissatisfied with the 16mm he'd used at a recent show at Madison
Square Garden, called it "the greatest thing I've ever seen. We must
get control of it," and came onboard as producer.
When the Lowell Thomas prestige attracted new financing, Mike Todd had his
son reshoot the roller coaster in color, then took off for Europe with a
small crew. Todd had charmed the IA (the parent organization of movie
craft unions) into granting "experimental" status to the
project, freeing it from all union requirements.
Todd in Scotland photographing a sequence with the Cinerama camera.
Possessed of what can most tactfully be called a bravura personality,
Todd bullied and charmed his way across Europe. Ever the showman with an
eye for the spectacular, he photographed the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a
Venice canal boat parade, a Spanish bullfight (but thankfully not the
final coup de grâce) and the Act II finale of Aida at La Scala, the first
time cameras had every been allowed inside the venerable opera house in
Milan. A few phone calls in Vienna turned up enough of the famous Boy's
Choir to sing The Blue Danube Waltz for the huge camera.
The footage, sent to NY for processing and so unseen by the crew, created
a sensation back at corporate headquarters. But the board of directors was
not happy with Todd's assumption that he knew best in all matters and it
was becoming hard to attract more financing because, as Lowell Thomas
candidly writes, "Wall Street hated Mike Todd." So he was
quietly bought out and left the company, happily taking his money and
the 30 fps 70mm system with the huge bug-eye lens, which was designed to
be, as he had stipulated, "Cinerama out of one hole." His first
This left the board with just over an hour of great footage - but no
movie. Cinerama needed another friend. Quickly.
Enter The Veteran
|In a business
know for its larger-than-life personalities, few stand taller than Merion
C. Cooper. A life-long adventurer in the 19th century fashion, he resigned
from the Naval Academy in his senior year, and shipped out as an able
seaman intending to get to Britain and join the Air Corps during WWI.
Passport problems sent him back to the States where he joined the Georgia
National Guard and chased Pancho Villa across Mexico.
C. Cooper and Lowell Thomas
He finally got his chance to fly when the US entered the war,
but in 1918 he was shot down behind enemy lines and spent the rest of the
war in a prison camp, where his severe facial burns were excellently
repaired by German plastic surgeons. The next year he joined the Polish
Army to help them resist the Russian invasion, but was again shot down. He
escaped his Soviet prison after 10 months, and 26 days later, with the aid
of a professional smuggler, made it to the Latvian border.
After a short stint as a reporter for the NY Times, he and cameraman buddy
Ernest Schoedsack hit upon an idea to combine their two loves - flying and
exploration. They headed for the Persian Gulf and spent the next several
months with one of the wandering tribes there as they sought pasture
during the terrible equatorial summers of the Middle East. The result was "Grass"
(1925), a landmark in documentary film. Two years later, they released "Chang",
shot in Siam, to even greater success.
Brought to RKO by David O. Selznick to help with production, Cooper saw
some dimensional animation tests by effects man Willis O'Brien for the
studio's unmade "Creation". Cooper had no interest in the
project, but was very interested in O'Brien, who's magic with animated
model animals he saw as the answer to a major production problem on a
giant ape picture he wanted to make.
Selznick left for MGM in 1933, and Cooper was appointed Head Of Production
at RKO. His jungle adventure picture had taken a year to complete and cost
an astronomical $650,000. But when released, "King Kong"
was just as astronomical a success. It played continuously at New York's Radio
City Music Hall and the Roxy for over a year. Eventually, Kong would
take its place as one of the greatest fantasy adventure films ever made -
perhaps the greatest.
Cooper was instrumental in the early success of 3-strip Technicolor, and
in 1941 re-enlisted in the Air Force where he was Chief of Staff for the
famous "Flying Tigers" which flew against the Japanese - over
the Himalayas. After the war, he returned to producing, and with his
partner John Ford, made several pictures, including She Wore A Yellow
Ribbon and The Quiet Man.
Without Mike Todd, Lowell Thomas knew Cinerama needed a new producer, and
he called Cooper, who agreed to take over production, direct new material
and personally edit it all into a releasable film. The board liked the
idea of shooting in Cypress Gardens (where the Waller-invented water ski
would be featured) but hated his plan for a 26-minute flight across the
country. And, oh yes, would he please put the roller coaster at the end of
But the board was no match for the man who had faced enemy fire,
imprisonment and charging elephants. Cooper got his way, and the picture
was finished - barely in time.
view of the Cinerama camera. Note three contact-lens sized lenses.
"Prior to the premier [of "This Is Cinerama"]…no
one - including myself - had seen the whole thing put together. Some wheat
field shots were barely out of the lab in time for opening night. I only
made the final cut a couple of hours before the opening."
The lights dimmed on the invitation-only black tie audience, and on the
screen, the familiar face of Lowell Thomas droned on for 15 minutes about
the history of photography - from a regular 1.33 frame, and in black in
white. Patrons began to wonder if they'd been had. "Cinerama, so
what's the big deal?" Suddenly, the curtains parted - it seemed they
would never stop - until a deeply curved screen nearly 40' high and over
90' wide was filled with the Rockaway roller coaster, introduced by
Thomas' simple, triumphant, "Ladies and gentlemen, THIS IS
No wonder Fred Waller was smiling.
The next morning a rave review of the opening appeared on the front page
of the NY Times, the only time any film has been so honoured. Executive
phones lit up all over Hollywood. Cinerama was an unprecedented success.
The standard format of 1.33 was dead overnight. Audiences suddenly wanted
wide screen films. How would the studios, who had all passed on it, react?
The way they always react to success, of course - copy it.
The Big(ger) Picture
|Spyros Skouras, head of Fox,
dispatched a team to France to track down Prof. Crétien, who's 1927
anamorphic lens was well known around town. Cooper had considered using it
on Chang, and Selznick flirted with the idea for "Gone With The
Wind" but decided to go with Technicolor instead. Warners sent
out a search party as well - and found the good professor the day after
Fox had signed him to an exclusive contract. Although his patents had
recently expired, putting his invention in the public domain, the contract
secured his expertise for Fox. A year after "TIC", "The
Robe" would be the first film in Cinemascope - advertised as
"The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses" to distance it from
the 3-D craze. Advertising artwork for the new process was strikingly
similar to that for Cinerama.
Across town at Paramount, the camera department went into overdrive to
come up with a viable widescreen system and created VistaVision, which
used 35mm film run sideways, each frame being twice as big as normal (8
perfs). Release prints in any aspect ratio could be made from the 1.5
aspect ratio negative. The larger negative area was especially important
in the early days of monopack color film which was very slow and grainy.
Technicolor, seeing the end of 3-strip photography coming, retooled their
cameras for 8-perf shooting, added a 1.5 squeeze anamorphic lens and
called it Technirama.
Todd and the big 128 degree Todd-AO lens. Spanish bull ring is reflected
And of course there was Mike Todd, who's 70mm Todd-AO
was the closest copy of Cinerama.
All this was for the best. In the five years since the end of WWII, the
picture business had seen a loss of 50% of its revenues, due to the
combined effects of the Paramount Consent Decree, which had stripped them
of their theaters, increased options for leasure time use, and the big
meanie - television. Widescreen got people back into theaters - for a
while. This, in fact, is Cinerama's greatest legacy. Since it premiered in
1952, widescreen cinema and stereophonic sound have not disappeared from
movie screens for a single day.
Of course, all of these copycat systems used only one projector, and none
were designed to fill your peripheral vision to give you a sense of being
in the scene. They were merely wide, and successful as they eventually
were, the effect of Cinerama was (and is) completely unique. Because
it fills your peripheral vision, your brain interprets what it is seeing
as a real experience.
Which explains those woozy patrons running out at intermission for
Three strips of film.
Click frames to see enlargements.
Success - Now What?
Cinerama" (referred to as "TIC" by fans) had
cost $512,000 to make - and made over $4 million in its first year. This
success caught everyone off guard. The film had been made just to
demonstrate the process. No real thought had been given to what would come
next. And then there were the corporate politics.
The company was split into two separate units - Cinerama Inc. which made
the cameras, sound equipment and projectors, and Cinerama Productions
which made the films. Cooper was given a 5-year contract as general
manager in charge of production. Knowing a good thing when he saw it,
Cooper tried to get control of the company but lost out to Stanley Warner
Theaters who bought it in a paper transaction to allow Mike Todd to sell
his shares, which he hadn't told the IRS he owned.
frame composite from "This is Cinerama". Click image to see
Not being a production entity, Stanley Warner had less than no idea
what to do with their new acquisition. Audiences, returning to TIC in lieu
of any other product, filled out suggestion cards as to what the next
Cinerama film should be. It took 3 years, but finally "Cinerama
Holiday" hit the screen in 1955. The idea was simple enough - two
couples, one American and one Swiss, would swap continents, each followed
by a Cinerama camera crew. It is now a priceless time capsule of
of "Cinerama Holiday".
Recovering from their lost momentum, Cinerama Productions began to
release a new film each year. 1956 gave us "Seven Wonders of the
World", a Lowell Thomas concept which begins at the pyramids -
the only surviving wonder of the original seven - and continues around the
world to Victoria Falls, St. Peters in Rome, the Suez Canal (where the
camera plane was fired upon) and the Taj Mahal.
|The idea of
exploration infuses the next release, "Search For Paradise"
(1957) shot entirely in the rugged mountain ranges of Katmandu, where the
crew was the first to run the rapids of the treacherous Indus River, with
5 times the flow of the Colorado at its flood. On the last run, cast
member Jim Parker rode along but didn't bother with a life jacket. The
raft flipped, and both Jim and the camera were lost. Just days before, he
had been heard to remark, "I wish I could spend the rest of my life
3-strip frame composite from "Search For Paradise". Click image
to see enlargement.
In 1958, what would be the last Cinerama travelogue was released. "South
Seas Adventure" took a camera crew throughout the South Pacific
on a sailing ship, recording colorful Polynesian life. On Pentecost
Island, the production found a tribe who once a year had a day-long
ceremony where the men would leap off a one hundred foot tower with vines
tied around their legs as a test of manhood. This Cinerama sequence was
the first recorded incidence of bungee jumping. Pentecost had been
occupied by the Japanese during the war. They never found the tribe, but
|1958 also saw
the release of a complementary format film, "Windjammer",
which followed the Norwegian tall ship Christian Radich around the world.
It was filmed in CineMiracle, which used three Mitchell cameras converted
to 6-perf pulldown, and photographed the side panels by reflecting them in
mirrors. This handily evaded the Cinerama patents.
When "TIC" became the surprise hit of the 1954 Exposition
in Damascus, completely eclipsing the Soviet exhibits, the Russians built
their own 3-panel system, claiming the US had stolen it from them (of
course). KinoPanorama was a huge hit both in the Soviet Union, where 15
films were made, and took prizes at later world fairs. In 1966, a
compilation of scenes from these films was released in America as "Cinerama's
Russian Adventure". It only played for a short time in Chicago
and was unseen elsewhere in the States.
contract with Stanley Warner had expired and Lowell Thomas hoped for a
change in management - for the better. For a time, it seemed as though it
might happen. The company was acquired by Nicolas Reisini, an
import/export tycoon who had been entranced with "Napoleon"
and had a real vision for the company.
of "Cinerama Holiday".
His first idea was a good one - Itinerama. He put Cinerama on trucks,
and took it all over Europe to the countryside where there was no theater
nearby. A tent was put up, and 3,000 people could view a Cinerama film.
And so it was that one memorable night in France, Abel Gance, who had the
idea nearly 40 years before, was the guest of honor at a Cinerama
Reisini also began an aggressive global building campaign. Over 200
purpose-built theaters were planned, to bring Cinerama to the world. When
the Tokyo theater opened, it was such an event that even the Emperor came.
Reisini's second idea wasn't bad, either. He made a co-pro deal with MGM
for a string of traditional dramatic films. George Pal brought his special
touch to The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, a bio-pic interspersed
with dramatizations of their fairy tales. It featured several visual
effects and was moderately successful.
|But it was the classic "How
The West Was Won" which would become the crown jewel of Cinerama,
the last 3-panel film, and the highest grossing film of 1962, just as TIC
had been 10 years before.
3-strip frame composite from "Search For Paradise". Click
picture to see enlargement.
"HTWWW" was a multi-generational story which followed the
Prescott family as they headed West. Shot entirely on wilderness locations
with several units, an all-star cast, and three directors over a two year
period, it was a major achievement for director general Henry Hathaway,
who studied the Cinerama process in depth and learned how to work around
Hathaway proved that the process, thought difficult and expensive, could
be effective with the right property. It is a taste of what might have
followed. If only…
Unfortunately, Reisini's vision had expanded faster than his revenues. His
360° consumer camera wasn't selling, nor his home video tape recorder.
The company, unfamiliar with studio accounting practices, had taken a bath
in "overhead" charges on "HTWWW". When the 70mm
comedy "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" proved a
success, he decided the 3-panel process was just too expensive and made
all future films in either Technirama
Panavision 70, hoping to trade on the established marquee value of the
Cinerama name. Of course, audiences weren't fooled by this bastardization
of the process - it was impossible not to notice that there was only one
Several subsequent films were advertised as being "in Cinerama"
among them "Khartoum", "Grand Prix", and
"Ice Station Zebra". Originally contracted for 3-panel, "2001"
was shot in 70mm when effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull saw the long,
slender design for the Discovery spacecraft and knew it would kink badly
at the blend lines. "The Greatest Story Ever Told"
actually began production in 3-panel, but after a few days director George
Stevens was talked into using Ultra-Panavision
by ill-informed advisors.
3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday". Click picture
to see enlargement.
Now it happens that the original specs for Ultra-Panavision
(70mm with a 1.25 squeeze) yield the same aspect ratio as Cinerama (2.76),
and 3-panel prints could be made from the negative, although this has
never been done. (Imagine the chariot race from "Ben-Hur"
projected this way!)
Worse, Reisini also called a halt to all R&D, which stopped production
of Waller's design of a 35mm 16-perf pull-across camera with a curved
gate, and curved real element lens. Three-panel prints would be made from
the single negative, forever solving the image kinking problem where the
panels (each with its own vanishing point) met. Waller had never stopped
trying to improve the process, and had always seen 3-panel as first
generation technology. He would know none of the fate of his brainchild,
however. He passed away in 1954, just days after receiving an Academy
award for Cinerama.
The Cinerama name rapidly lost its caché and market share. Theaters were
un-converted to conventional projection. Of the several purpose-built
"Super Cinerama" theaters, only a few remain, and only two, the
Seattle Cinerama and the Cinerama Dome
in Hollywood, are equipped to show 3-panel films. (The Cooper in Denver,
Colorado was recently demolished for a parking lot despite its listing on
the National Register of Historic Places.) The company assets and
distribution arm were purchased by Pacific Theaters, which mothballed the
equipment and sold the remaining prints as sound spacer.
The last presentation of 3-panel projection was at a festival in Paris in
1972. As late as 1976, Lowell Thomas was still trying to revive interest
in the process for the nation's bicentennial. He firmly believed that
someday, someone would help Cinerama achieve its potential. And so it
languished, presumed dead, for nearly 20 years.
The Cavalry Arrives
|In 1983, American
Cinematographer Magazine commissioned a 20th anniversary retrospective article
on "How The
West Was Won". Appearing in the October issue, it celebrated
Cinerama and mourned its passing.
Actual 3-strip frame composite from "Cinerama Holiday". Click
picture to see enlargement.
This caught the eye of retired projectionist John Harvey, who decided
he would bring back Cinerama "if I have to do it by myself." He
ferreted out three projectors and a sound head and installed a full
working Cinerama theater - in his home. At first he only had 4 minutes of
footage. Gradually, he cobbled together a print of "TIC"
and one of "HTWWW", the latter in IB Technicolor.
Eventually he acquired a pristine, but faded Eastman print of "Cinerama
Holiday". These he happily shared with the National
Museum of Photography, Film and Television in Bradford, England
beginning in 1993. For years this was the only place on the planet where
Cinerama could still be seen.
|In 1996, Larry Smith, manager of the small art house cinema, The
New Neon in Dayton, Ohio, convinced Harvey to move his equipment
there. And so began the renaissance of 'ole 3-eyes. Press attention
brought people from
all over the world to see the process they thought was lost forever.
Not long after, Paul Allen saved the Seattle Cinerama Theater from the
wrecking ball, and restored it to its full 3-panel glory, ordering new
prints of "TIC" and "HTWWW".
3-strip frame composite from "Seven Wonders of the World". Click
picture to see enlargement.
Much of the continuing interest in saving Cinerama can be traced to
the efforts of Dave Strohmaier, who has spent 5 years researching the
process, and collecting memorabilia and interviews with surviving cast and
crew for his documentary, "The
Cinerama Adventure". A labor-of-love project, it is now being
completed with the help of the American Society of Cinematographers and
The original film materials for all the travelogues have been vaulted for
decades. Fading as we speak, they are awaiting restoration - if only
someone will put up the money.
And what of the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood? Nearly lost in a planned
conversion to flat-screen and buried inside a parking structure, the Dome
was saved largely through the efforts of the Los Angeles Conservancy under
the direction of Doug Haines' Friends of Cinerama. This is quiet
vindication for John Sittig, long time Pacific Theaters manager, who has
been quietly lobbying behind the scenes for years to install Cinerama in
This fall, it will happen at last. Made at the order of Michael Forman,
head of Pacific Theaters, a new print of "This Is Cinerama",
struck from the original negative by Crest Lab, will be shown on September
30th, the 50th anniversary of the original premier in New York. This will
mark the first time 3-panel has ever been shown in the Dome. In October, a
40th anniversary re-premier of "How The West Was Won" is
This will be welcome news for millions of baby boomers for whom Cinerama
is a cherished childhood memory of an utterly unique experience they've
been denied for over 40 years. Come September, they'll all feel a bit like
Lillith Prescott toward the end of "HTWWW", when she is
joyfully re-united with her family after decades of separation.
"Oh my," she gently weeps, "I swore up and down I
wasn't going to cry."
Museum of Photography, Film and Television
Dayton article #1
Cinerama Adventure web site
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