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Todd-AO How It All Began #1

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Brian O'Brien, Jr. American Optical Company. Brian O'Brien, Jr. was employed at American Optical Company during the development of the Todd-AO process 1953 - 1957. He was generally in charge of planning and development of picture production equipment. Issue 42 - December 1995

Understanding the Todd-AO Process

Brian O'Brien, Jr. (right), Todd-AO camera and Michael Todd (left) during filming of "Around the World in 80 Days" 1955.

To understand the Todd-AO process and the reasoning behind it I must go back to some "ancient history". A man named Fred Waller had the idea that if you could obtain a truly wide angle picture and project it, the realism to the observer would be greatly enhanced. He was, of course, completely correct. For example if you photograph a cavalry of horses coming toward you and sweeping past using conventional narrow angle lenses (and this includes CinemaScope), the camera never sees the sides of the horses. If this is now projected on a screen, even a wide curved one wrapped around the audience, as the horses go off the screen they all turn facing you and gallop sideways. This is a subtle effect, but the fact that you never see the sides of objects destroys the participation effect - the sense of being in the middle of the action.
More in 70mm reading:

You are in the Show with Todd-AO

Todd-AO How It All Began #2
Todd-AO How It All Began #3
Todd-AO How It All Began #4

Todd-AO Birth Date

Hollywood Comes to American Optical Co.

Walter Siegmund Interview

DP70 - The Todd-AO Projector

Internet link:

The Cinerama logoThe Cinerama logo.

Fred Wallers approach to obtaining this true wide angle photography was, of course, to use three cameras pointing to the front and sides with their fields just touching. When these films were projected on a deeply curved screen from projection booths on the orchestra floor, the wide angle was preserved and the participation effect was very impressive. However, there were obvious technical problems. The join lines between the projected images exaggerated the difference in jump and weave of the different projectors. This was partially hidden by placing a vibrant comb at the edge of the projector gates to blur the image sufficiently so that the motion was less noticeable. Color matching of the three prints caused great additional expense. They started the match from the left screen print, and they often had to make as many as 150 right screen prints before they had a satisfactory color timing match.

Associated with Waller were the news commentator Lowell Thomas, Buzz Reeves of Reves Soundcraft, and Michael Todd. Mike Todd was a very colourful person. For many years he had been everything from a circus side show barker to a successful Broadway producer. His financial fortunes fluctuated, to say the least, but his credo was "I am often broke, but never poor", and his spending rate was more or less constant whether he had any money or not. When he got associated with Cinerama he was badly in debt both to the income tax people and other creditors to the tune of more than a million dollars. As a result his partners in Cinerama held on to his Cinerama stock with the agreement that he could have it when he got out of debt. With his reputation among the Wall Street bankers as a financial plunger, his partners figured he could never raise that kind of money so "honest" businessmen that they were sold Mike Todd's stock without telling him. Unfortunately for them they had not reckoned with Mikes many good and wealthy friends. He raised the money, paid off his debts, and went around to collect his Cinerama stock that they had sold. Well, to make a long story short, he could have had the whole bunch of them thrown in jail so they paid him off handsomely. That is how he got the seed money for his next project.

Mike Todd is on the phone

Mike Todd on the telephone(s)Mike Todd used telephones more than anyone.

In 1952 I was working for the American Newspaper Publishers Association Research Lab in Pennsylvania. I got a call one night from a fellow who had worked briefly at the laboratory, Warren Millais. He said Mike Todd wanted to talk to my father, and how he could be reached. At that time my dad was director of the Institute of Optics of the University of Rochester. The Institute had been built by him starting in 1930, but he had agreed to join the American Optical Company as Vice President for Research, although this was being kept quiet while the University was in a fund raising drive.

My father was a college professor, uninterested in show business, and had never heard of Mike Todd (a fact that I do not think Mike ever completely forgave him for during all their years of friendship), so when Mike called him late one night saying he wanted a meeting, my dad was naturally cautious. They agreed to meet at a bar across from the Rochester airport a few nights later. My father took along a graduate student of his, Walter Siegmund as a witness. Mike arrived in a chartered airplane, and they sat down to talk. Mike asked if my dad knew about Cinerama - he had not, so Mike described the process and then laid down his requirements. "What I want is Cinerama out of one hole. Can you do it?".

After some thought my dad said that it probably could be done. Mike said "Great, I want to hire you as a consultant to do it". "Whoa, hold on" my dad said, "no one person can do this. It will take the resources of a large organization, and the three in this country capable of it are Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb and American Optical". After his experiences with the financial community Mike was very suspicious of large corporations, and would have nothing to do with them. After some more discussions they parted on that note.

"-lets talk business"

Dr. Brian O'Brien seen with the prototype DP70 in the Research Building of American Optical. Note the large lens holder.

Every other night for three weeks Mike would call my dad, usually after 10 PM, trying to persuade him to take the job personally (Mikes calls always came from his switchboard in New York even if Mike was in Belgrade or Los Angeles). Finally, he called one night and said "OK Doctor, I give up. I have been looking into the companies you mentioned and American Optical looks like the best bet. What do I do now?". "Fine" said my dad, "I am having lunch with Walter Stewart, President of AO [American Optical] next Tuesday. Why do you not come up to Southbridge and have lunch with us?". "I will be there", said Mike and hung up. The following Tuesday Mike showed up in Southbridge (AO headquarters). My dad introduced him to Walter - Mike plunked a certified check for $60,000 down on Walters desk and said "-lets talk business". -and that is how it all started.
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Updated 17-12-17