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Todd-AO How It All Began #2

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 44 - March 1996

Corporation Forming

Joe (Joseph M) Schenck

After Mikes meeting with Walter Stewart there ensued a period of corporation forming and contract writing. Mike had assembled a group he called Magna Pictures which consisted of himself, George Skouras (youngest of the threes Skouras brothers), Lee Schubert (head of the Schubert theatre chain) and Joe Schenck, retired founder*) of Paramount and one of the grand old men of Hollywood. The intent was that Magna would produce the pictures in the new process. Then a joint corporation between Magna and American Optical was formed to develop the process, and to manufacture and lease the picture making equipment, as well as sell the theatre equipment. Mike wanted to attach the O Brien name to this new company, but my dad declined. After all the concept was Mikes and the work was to be done by A.O. and so they settled on the joint name Todd-AO.
More in 70mm reading:

You are in the Show with Todd-AO

Todd-AO How It All Began #1
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

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*) Joseph Schenck was never connected with Paramount. He was president of United Artists from 1924 to 1933. He left UA and founded Twentieth Century Pictures with Darryl F. Zanuck in 1933. It merged with the Fox Film Corporation in 1935 to become Twentieth Century-Fox. He ran this with Zanuck until the early 40s.

Mark A. Vieira, 25.05.2011
George Skouras

This was the time I came on board. At first Mike wanted me to work for him but Walter Stewart convinced me that with my technical background I could do more good with A.O. I was in charge of the development of the picture production equipment (as opposed to the theatre equipment) and my father, who came to A.O. as vice president for research was, of course, in charge of the whole development project.

35mm just would not do

Michael Todd, Fred Zinnemann, Brian OŽBrien and Oscar Hammerstein III (left to right) gathered together at American Optical Company.Mike Todd, Fred Zinnemann, Brian OŽBrien and Oscar Harmmerstein photographed in Southbridge.

From the beginning it was obvious that to fill anything like a Cinerama screen the standard 35mm image just would not do. First of all with photographic emulsions of that day (and even today) the required magnification would produce a very unsharp and grainy image. Moreover, one could not pump enough light energy through that small gate to give a decently bright screen image. Since the screen dimensions would be about twice a normal theatre screen a film size about twice normal would be needed. This would allow theatre magnifications very nearly those in use at that time. The double film size would give four times the gate area and hence four times the light flux through the gate.

Off and on for many years larger film format had been tried with varying success. I believe the early showings of "Wings" in the 1930s was on 70mm using Erneman projectors, and others had tried it. Many of these tries had a common problem, namely flutter of the large film in the gate. This was made worse if they tried to pump a high light flux through thereby increasing the heat and hence the expansion of the film. My father and I were pondering this problem one day in his office, and it occurred to me that the way a monocoque airplane wing is made stiff is to curve the thin sheet metal. With the aid of a couple of ships drafting curves (a very long radius) we curved a piece of film, and sure enough it became stiff and resistant to deformation. I am sure you you have noticed that the gate of a Norelco AA11/DP70 has a slight curve with the film held in place by those flexible steel bands. You might ask how focus is maintained over the field with the film curved. It is very easy to design a lens with an inward curving field (in fact one of the lens designers usual problems is to produce a flat field lens). This curved field is, of course, nearly spherical and not cylindrical like the curved film. However, the film curvature could be so small that nearly fitting a spherical field to this cylinder was possible, and thus the film flutter problem was solved. But I get ahead of the story.

Audience Participation

The obvious next problem was cameras to photograph a large format picture, and a lens to give the true wide camera angle. Other attempts such as CinemaScope projected on a wide screen, but the maximum angle the camera would see was about 88 degrees. The result was a complete loss of the audience participation effect. Visualize a screen wide charge charge of horses coming toward you and sweeping past you projected on a wide screen. If the camera covered only narrow angle it never saw anything but the front of the horses, and as they went off the sides of the screen they would side step as they turned to face you since the camera never saw the sides of the horses. This effect is subtle, and you probably would not notice it directly, but the participation effect is destroyed. A perfect comparison was provided by an airplane landing in Kansas City airport, first in Cinerama (which, for all its faults, was a true wide angle process) and the CinemaScope film "How To Marry A Millionaire" where they had a landing on the exact same runway. In Cinerama you just feel the approach, flare, and touchdown, while in CinemaScope it was just a flat movie (as a pilot and flight instructor I was especially conscious of this). Therefore, to produce the audience participation effect of Cinerama on one piece of film, a truly wide angle lens was needed.

Lens Design and Film Format

Walter Siegmund is taking a photograph with the Bug-Eye, even before it was mounted on a motion picture camera.

We enlisted Dr. Robert Hopkins to produce the required wide angle lens. Bob Hopkins was one of my fathers former graduate students and had succeeded my father as director of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester and was one of the worlds premiere lens designers. Since time was extremely short many things were done simultaneously. Bob started on the lens design before the final film format was settled upon.

The film format was not finalized because there were no cameras. There was a 70mm film standard in existence, but it was, primarily, an instrumentation format with very poor perforation design. The other two perforations, were, of course, the Bell & Howell so called "negative" perforation that was flat on top and bottom with rounded ends, and the rectangular Kodak "positive" perforation. The old Bell & Howell perforation dated from the early days of register pin cameras, when it was easier to produce circular rods to close tolerances and then just grind two flats for the vertical registration. The Kodak perforation, on the other hand allowed for much better control of the registration. The 0.122 mm radius corners with the flat top, bottom and sides permitted an interference of 0.0001 inch in the vertical dimension on both sides of the film, and full fit pin (0.0001 inch lateral interference) on the register side of the film and a slightly narrower pin on the other side of the film to allow for the film shrinkage which is greater across the film than along it. The pins have their corners cut flat on a 45 degree angle. This now allows the space between the flat corner of the pin and the rounded corner of the film to distort enough to accommodate the .0001 inch interference. The result is a much better registration (for color separations, running mattes etc) than any other standard. Therefore we knew that we wanted an image size twice that of 35mm (four times the area) with the Kodak type of film perforation.

Thomas Color Process

Now I must digress for a moment. Some 7 or 8 years before all this the Pullman Company had been forced by the U.S. Justice Department to divest itself of its railroad sleeping car business on anti trust grounds. The thus had a large amount of cash to invest and were looking at various options. One such was the invention of a man named Thomas that had developed a motion picture color process using additive color, rather that the subtractive color of color films. He used a wide film with three black & white color separation red, blue and green images forming each frame of the film. When these were projected through suitable image combining prisms an additive color image appeared on the screen. Pullman asked my father (then at the Institute of Optics) to consult for them in evaluating the process. The upshot of it was that Pullman decided not to go into the motion picture business and the process was never heard from again.

From Mike Todd we heard a rumour that somewhere in Hollywood there were some camera parts that had been used for a wide film process called Thomas Color. I immediately hopped a plane to Los Angeles and scouted around to see what I could find. Sure enough, in a warehouse was one complete camera and nearly complete sets of parts for six more, along with a nearly complete set of prints. I bought the whole bunch on the spot and had it shipped home to Southbridge by air express. These cameras were designed to house 65mm film with the standard Kodak perforations so we now had a film format that was just about what we wanted. Four times the area of image with the best type of perforations and a camera at least assembled. One problem remained with that camera. Thomas Color used an 8 hole pull down to get the double 35 images they needed, and we needed five holes for our format. We dumped the whole camera problem in the lap of our chief mechanical engineer, Henry Cole and enlisted the help of Mitchell Camera for camera construction. Henry and Mitchell did a very fast job of getting the first camera ready.

Now we were on the way to having a workable camera we had to have film to run in it. With the pile of "junk" that I had picked up in Hollywood were some auxiliary pieces of equipment, like an old Bell & Howell perforator rebuilt for perforating 65mm film and an edge numbering machine. We sent the perforator back to Bell & Howell to be cleaned up and put in working order and then sent it to Kodak to perforate film for us (eventually they built their own because they had trouble making the old machine perforate to our tight specifications).
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Updated 17-12-17