A Brief History of 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter
by: George A. Flaxman (This article was written in 1993 and
originally published in Movie Collector as a follow-up to the article on
15 November 2005
Today audiences presume a film "Presented in 70mm" to be a quality
Producers and distributors know that this simple claim will attract
customers who might not otherwise be interested in a particular film.
is a guarantee of the best possible presentation, even if the film itself
fails to satisfy. The credit for this is due to
Todd-AO, and even more to
it's first production "Oklahoma!".
When Cinerama arrived in September 1952, it acted as a detonator for an
explosion in Widescreen presentation that would rapidly spread over the
globe. The Hollywood majors began by cropping the top and bottom of the
projected image to create a wider, but grainier image on the screen. Fox
embarked on the development of "Cinemascope" which produced a very wide
image, but with a picture quality inferior to the image produced by a
non-scope picture on an old-style screen. Fox was happy with the trade-off
of width for clarity, and the audiences were too. Cinemascope was intended
to be a low-cost version of Cinerama that every cinema could present. In
reality Scope wasn't in competition with Cinerama, however Todd-AO would
Michael Todd was a true showman, involved in stage-shows, restaurants,
nightclubs and anything else involving live entertainement. He had been
shown a demonstration of Cinerama in December 1950, and was sufficiently
impressed to join the company and supervise the filming of the European
segemnt of it's planned feature. Soon he became aware of the technical
shortcomings of the process (panel joins, distortion, colour variations
and lack of camera movement) and he left the project. Todd liked the idea
of "roadshowing" a film at selected prestige cinemas, selling tickets in
advance at higher prices, but felt that audiences would soon tire of the
travelogues planned for Cinerama presentation.
In October 1952, after Cinerama's successful launch, Todd contacted "the
Einstein of the optical racket" Dr. Brian O'Brien at the American Optical
company and asked him to design a single camera system that would project
a high quality picture image over a wide screen. Dr. O'Brien decided on a
system in which 65mm film was used for photography, and when combined with
6 magnetic stereo sound tracks would produce a 70mm projection print.
Americal Optical's initials were added to Todd's name and the system title
Various wide film processes had been tried in the late 20's and early 30's
by the major studios, but none were given more than a token release in
their wide forms, as exhibitors were not prepared to spend large sums on
new projectors, after having already invested a fortune in re-equipping
When Mike Todd began assembling backers and talent for his project his
first recruit was Joseph Schenck, an old friend and a major stockholder in
United Artists Theatres, and through him George Skouras the President of
Producers Arthur Hornblower and Edward Small were also brought on board,
together with top director Fred Zinneman.
Todd's aim was to produce one film per year to be "roadshown" at a prime
"first-run" theatre in every major city in North America, and eventually
the World. He knew, however, that his situation was unlike that of Fox.
It's Cinemascope format could sustain individual film failures, even of
it's premiere title "The Robe", because other titles could be wheeled out
to carry the baton, in what would equate to a Hollywood version of a
relay-race. Todd-AO, in contrast would get only one chance, if it's first
release faltered there would be no other titles. Mike Todd knew this, and
being Broadway oriented, "a sure-fire hit" meant Rodgers & Hammerstein,
the 40's and 50's equivalent of Andrew Lloyd Webber. In particular it
meant "Oklahoma!", a hit since 1943 and one which the duo had stubbornly
refused to sell. Arthur Hornblow was a friend of Richard Rodgers, and he
arranged for Todd to talk to them. They liked the idea of the system, and
agreed to produce a new show for it, but not "Oklahoma!". Todd was content
for the moment. It was time for Plan B...
Todd's company Magna Theatre Corporation began filming test sequences
similar to those done for Cinerama, including the obligatory Rollercoaster
ride, but Zinneman was called on to film test shots of a picnic scene from
"Oklahoma!". A special screening of these sequences was arranged and
Rodgers & Hammerstein were invited. When the demonstration was over
Rodgers admitted "That picnic sold us. I wanted to reach for a doughnut...
and then both the girls!!". Next day they sold "Oklahoma!" for just over a
million dollars and 40% of the box-office gross. Plan B had worked.
While American Optical came up with the overall design of the system, they
sub-contracted the camera work to the Mitchell Camera company and the
design and production of the projectors to Philips of Holland. The test
shots were made, before a new camera was ready, by mounting O'Brien's new
lenses on an old 1930 Paramount 65mm camera, which coincidentally had been
made by Mitchell as well. The Philips projector when ready would be able
to play any of the formats, except Cinerama. The cost of installing the
system was typically $40,000 against $25,000 for conversion to
Cinemascope. However, this isn't as reasonable as it sounds, as by the
time the first film was ready almost all the first-run theatres had
installed Scope anyway.
During tests it was found that a steadier projected image could be
achieved if the frame rate were increased from the normal rate of 24 per
second, past the Cinerama rate of 26 frames to a new rate of 30 frames per
second. As it was intended to release the Todd-AO titles to district
cinemas after the first-run market had been exhausted it was necessary to
concurrently in 35mm Cinemascope at 24 frames per second. After the second
feature it was decided that 30 frames per second was an unneccesary
complication and all further productions were at the normal rate.
"Oklahoma!" started production in July 1954 at MGM Studios with a budget
$4 million. It premiered at the
Rivoli in New York on 10th October 1955.
Fred Zinneman was completely satisfied with the new format, claiming that
it's range of lenses allowed for panoramic long-shots and intimate
close-ups. The public was as impressed as the director; Mike Todd had his
first hit. To him the new format allowed the creation of an "event".
"Movies you can see anywhere...and eat popcorn while you watch". Todd
insisted that during his "events" popcorn would not be allowed, and he had
it written into the contracts with the theatre owners.
Rodgers & Hammerstein had insisted on a straight-forward production of
their show without photographic gimmickry. Todd agreed but he made a short
to precede to the main feature called "The Thrill of Todd-AO" to impress
the audience with the pseudo-Cinerama capabilities of the system. [Mike
Todd had nothing to do with it, and the title was
of Todd-AO", editor]
Once the success of "Oklahoma!" had been assured, work began on the next
project "Around the World in 80 Days". It replaced the first picture after
12 months and was an even greater success, getting the Best Picture Oscar.
Meanwhile the sound of Mike Todd's cash register could be heard all over
Hollywood,....and the Lord said "Go forth and Duplicate", and some of the
major companies figured "Why not?".
Fox's attempt to enter the roadshow business led them to try out a 55mm
process called Cinemascope 55, which arrived in 1956 with
was followed later the same year by "The King and I". Both were
successful, but not any more so than would be expected for a popular 35mm
release. Other planned productions were halted and Fox contracted to make
future prestige films in "Todd-AO". Their first was "South Pacific" which
replaced "80 Days"
in the theatres as news came of Mike Todd's death in a plane crash. His
"Don Quixote" project which would have followed "South Pacific" was
dropped. Fox stepped in and bought out the company.
MGM initially intended to use 70mm photography to improve the quality of
their major 35mm releases, then decided to film in 65mm and release in
70mm as with Todd-AO, but with a difference. While Todd-AO produced an
image roughly twice as wide as it was high (2:1), MGM's system "Camera 65"
used special Panavision anamorphic lenses creating an image with a ratio
of 2.76:1, virtually the same as Cinerama.
Their first feature "Raintree County" premiered in October 1957, and
followed in November 1959 sweeping the Oscars. Camera 65 was renamed
"Ultra Panavision" and after
"The Big Fisherman" and "Mutiny on the
Bounty" became the basis for "Super Cinerama", replacing
One of the most notable of the "Ultra Panavision" releases was
of the Roman Empire", which had such clarity of image that the camp-fire
scene at the begining exhibited an almost 3-D effect, and later as the
snow fell in the forest it was possible to count the individual
(This film is regularly shown at the National Film Theatre in London in a
slightly cut version, and is highly recommended).
Panavision operating independently from MGM bolted it's own 70mm
non-anamorphic lenses onto the Todd-AO format and called it
Panavision". This was used for "Exodus" (1960),
"West Side Story" (1961),
and then what is probably the finest 70mm film, at least from an artistic
standpoint, "Lawrence of Arabia". Other releases followed, including
Jim", "Ice Station Zebra" and "Ryan's Daughter".
"Superpanorama 70" arrived from Germany in the mid-60's, and was also a
"Todd-AO" type process. So too was
D-150, although this system included a
deeply-curved screen for greater audience involvement. It was used for the
sleep-inducing "The Bible" in 1966, and the magnificent
"Patton" in 1970.
Further "Todd-AO" releases followed "South Pacific"
beginning with "Porgy
and Bess" from Columbia, and "The Alamo" from United Artists, then a
series of Fox titles from "Can-Can", through the troubled
the mega-hit "The Sound of Music" to the failures of "Doctor Dolittle" and
By the timethat the last features were released, "Airport" (1969) and
Last Valley" (1971) the "Todd-AO" credit was being carried in very small
print, as if seen as somewhat of a liability. The format name continued as
"Todd-AO 35" a standard anamorphic process. By the end of the sixties
"Ultra Panavison" and
"Superpanorama 70" releases had also come to an end.
Soviet 70mm pictures arriving from 1958 onwards were categorised as "Sovscope
70", but all were copies of one or other of the above formats.
"Super Technirama 70" was also of the "Todd-AO" projection type, but
although generally considered to be of the 70mm variety of film, it was in
fact photographed using 35mm film stock running horizontally through the
camera instead of the usual vertical arrangement.
Devised by Technicolor
Corporation it was essentially wide-frame "VistaVision" with anamorphic
compression. When printed on 35mm anamorphic it was called "Technirama",
but if printed on 70mm without the anamorphic squeeze it was "Super
This meant that all "Technirama" features were capable of 70mm release,
but that this need not be decided on until post-production.
"Sleeping Beauty" was the first in "Super Technirama", followed by
"Solomon and Sheba", which had not originally been intended for 70mm
treatment, but after Tyrone Power's death and faced with virtually having
to re-shoot an entire picture with Yul Brynner, it was decided that a 70mm
roadshow release might be the only chance of recovering the film-makers
investment. The most notable "Super Technirama" roadshows were undoubtedly
the Samuel Bronston epics ("El Cid" and "55 days At Peking").
"Zulu" was roadshown in various countries in 70mm, but shown only in 35mm Technirama
in Britain until it's reissue in 1971.
By the early 60's as additional theatres converted to 70mm, they needed
more 70mm releases than could economically be provided. The answer was to
take a 35mm completed picture that might benefit from an extended release
and optically enlarge it to fit a 70mm print. The picture image would not
be as good as a 70mm original, but would be better than a 35mm image, and
it would still have the impressive 6 track stereo sound.
The first 70mm "blow-up" has been claimed as "The Cardinal" in December
1963, but that was only in North America. It was in fact preceded by "Taras
Bulba" in March 1963 in Britain.
Other notable blow-up's have included "Hawaii", "The Carpetbaggers",
Heroes of Telemark", "Tora! Tora! Tora!", "Waterloo",
Inferno", "The Wind and the Lion", "A Bridge Too Far",
"Star Wars", "The
Sand Pebbles" and "The Great Race". Hundreds of 70mm blow-up's have been
released world-wide, particularly in Spain.
The blow-up's soon outnumbered the genuine 70mm product, and after "The
Last Valley" in 1971 it was 10 years before "Tron",
"Brainstorm" and "The
Black Cauldron" signalled renewed interest in 70mm original filming. In
the intervening period 70mm photography was limited to special effects
sequences in sci-fi blockbusters. These were then reduced to 35mm so as to
merge them with the live-action elements, before blowing the final
composite back up to 70mm.
The soviets continued to film in 70mm, but few were seen in the west.
Recently "Far and Away" was mostly filmed in 70mm, but the true potential
of the wide-film for crystal clarity is being missed, In the late eighties
"Lawrence of Arabia" was restored and reissued in 70mm. It was in a far
from perfect condition but clearly illustrated the superiority of original
70mm over blow-ups.
Today genuine 70mm exhibition is mostly limited to "IMAX" and "OMNIMAX"
films show in specially built theatres. These are the inheritors of the
Cinerama travelogue tradition. They are a novelty, and not really a part
of mainstream cinema. Dramatic features in these processes have been
promised for years, but never appear.
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