A Brief History of 70mm
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|Written by: George A. Flaxman (This article was written in 1993 and originally published in Movie Collector as a follow-up to the article on Cinemascope.)||Date: 15 November 2005 |
|Today audiences presume a film "Presented in 70mm" to be a quality product. Producers and distributors know that this simple claim will attract customers who might not otherwise be interested in a particular film. "70mm" s 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 be.
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 became "Todd-AO".
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 for sound.
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 the chain.
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 film "Oklahoma!" 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 of $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 "The Miracle 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 "Carousel", and 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 "Ben-Hur" 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 3-strip Cinerama.
One of the most notable of the "Ultra Panavision" releases was "The Fall 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 snowflakes!!!.
(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 "Super 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 "Lord 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 "Cleopatra", and the mega-hit "The Sound of Music" to the failures of "Doctor Dolittle" and "Star!".
By the timethat the last features were released, "Airport" (1969) and "The 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 Technirama".
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", "The Heroes of Telemark", "Tora! Tora! Tora!", "Waterloo", "The Towering 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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