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The Importance of Panavision
In the Beginning

This article first appeared in 70mm
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Adriaan Bijl, Holland
Reprinted by permission from the writer and Panavision
Issue 67 - March 2002
Machinery is one of the most important components of the cinema. When we watch a movie, we often forget that cinema is fundamentally dependent upon technology. It is only when something goes wrong (e.g. the image is out of focus), that we become aware of this. Of course, film is not unique in this sense. Other art forms also depend on technology.

Theater, for example, expanded her expressivity when the electrical light was introduced, by making variations in the illumination of the separate scenes (not to mention the different colors). However, there is a difference: The filmmaker has to have some technological background before he can operate a camera. The theatrical creator does not need that. It might come in handy, but it is not necessary. Theater lived for centuries without electrical lighting and, for that matter, can still do without it. Making a film without a camera, on the other hand, is impossible.

Actually, the basic instruments of the cinema are three separate devices. The motion picture camera, which takes individual photographs in a rapid succession; the printer, which transfers the images on a camera negative to a projection positive; and a projector, which reverses the camera procedure by pulling the positive print between a lens and light source, projecting the resulting image onto a screen. Since the late 19th century when motion pictures were invented, this basic triad has been expanded with a variety of mainly technological devices, creating new possibilities in filmmaking. Examples of these developments were the introduction of sound, color and widescreen.

Historical context of widescreen systems

In 1907, 35mm was standardized by international agreement as the professional film gauge. It was also agreed upon that the filmstrip was to be vertically photographed and projected, that each frame was to be four perforations high on both sides and that the projected image should have an aspect ratio (the width of the screen, divided by the height) of 1.37:1 (1). This format, called academy, remained the standard for decades. Even the arrival of sound on film did not alter the aspect ratio. An area on the left side of the frame on the filmstrip, just beside the perforation, was reserved for the optical soundtrack. There were some experiments in the beginning of the 1930's with widescreen, but no definite changes occurred.

After the introduction of sound, the major Hollywood companies considered the use of wider film. However, the studios did not all use the same film gauge. Paramount, for example, set its hopes on a 56mm system and Fox film (the later part of 20th Century-Fox) experimented with Fox Grandeur, a 70mm system. Several forums were held by the American Society of Cinematographers, among others, on standardization. One of the obstacles in the path of widescreen projection at that time was insufficient illumination. Just when the solution to these problems seemed in sight, the major Hollywood companies withdrew their efforts. The Depression economy threatened to make it an unprofitable investment (2).

The 1950's marked renewed interest. The motion picture industry was declining, which was, presumed to be due to a new technical rival: Television. 

Perhaps this is the right place to contradict the myth that television was responsible for the decline in cinema audiences, and the assumption that Hollywood did not enter the field of television.

The decline of cinema ticket sales started as early as 1945, immediately after World War II, while the number of television sets in the US did not increase until 1948. Therefore, the genuine cause for this change had little to do with television but was instead related more to economic factors. During the war, durable consumer goods (e.g. cars and refrigerators) were not manufactured, and thus not available to the public, because of the increased production for military purposes. Since there was enough employment for everybody in this sector, the average income of the American household had grown. As a result, a lot of money was saved. Just after the war, these goods became available again and were bought on a large scale, despite the fact that incomes had now fallen. Two types of consumer goods were especially popular: 

1. Houses. The creation of suburbs made people leave the city centers where the cinemas were. Going to the movies became more costly both in time and money. 

2. Children. People chose the benefits of these 'goods' above others (3).

Theses trends were responsible for the decline in movie attendance. Most goods are consumed in a combination and as the majority of young American families wanted to stay at home, because of their kids and the transportation costs to the center of the city, they wanted entertainment at home. Radio met that demand. When television was introduced, people preferred this medium and they abandoned radio, not the cinema (4).

Another assumption was, as mentioned above, that the Hollywood studios would not have anything to do with television. This is not true. Hollywood tried to obtain licenses for television broadcasting as early as the 1930's, but was refused by the Federal Communication Commission due to anti-trust legislation. When this strategy did not work out they tried another: Theater television. The main advantage of this was, of course, the presentation of news and important sporting events which could be transmitted live to theaters all over the country. Theater television failed due to extremely high costs. It was an experiment which began in the late 1930's and ended in the beginning of the '50's (5). Whatever the causes, Hollywood needed a solution, so new technologies were tried.

One of the first innovations was called 3-D, released in 1952. This consisted of a special recording technique that created depth in the originally two dimensional image and required the audience to wear a special set of polarized spectacles that were handed out before the screening. It was considered to be a gimmick by critics and the public, and within a few years the novelty had worn off (6).

Cinerama was also introduced in 1952. This system consisted of three synchronized cameras placed next to each other, each one covering one third of the scene, and shown in the cinema by three synchronized projectors placed at the same angle as the camera positions, thus creating one large screen with an aspect ratio of 2.72:1 (7). 

The main problem was the synchronization of the three images. For a start, the three projections had to be equal in quality. The first could not be brighter than the second or the third. If one of the filmstrips broke and a few frames had to be cut out, the other two had to be treated in the same way and in the same place, otherwise the synchronization would be lost. This technical aspect was partially responsible for the failure of Cinerama. It had a nice effect, but the two join lines of the adjacent projections were too obvious and distracted the audience from following a dramatic narration. Subject matter of films were at that time restricted to sensational documentaries, such as a roller coaster ride. Cinerama was, therefore, very limited in its subjects and the public eventually lost interest (8).

Michael Todd was one of the members of the board of Cinerama, Inc. and saw the disadvantages mentioned above as early as 1952. He tried to convince the others within the company of these drawbacks, but did not get any response, so he divorced himself from the Cinerama company, and set out to developin a single lens system whose projected image could fill a screen as amply as Cinerama did. He found cooperation at the American Optical Company, which took charge of the technological aspects of the new system. Dr. Brian O'Brien, head of research at this company, decided that if this system was to be comparable with Cinerama (but less complicated because there would only be one projector) the area exposed on the original negative would have to be increased.

There is a limit in magnifying the standard 35mm image onto a screen without losing either its brightness or definition of the grain. Wider film had to be used in order to fill a screen of the same size as Cinerama, because, first, a larger aperture allows more light to reach the screen, providing more contrast in the projected image and, second, a larger negative has a smaller magnification factor, providing a less grainy picture. The sound was another aspect: 35mm had, and still has, an optical soundtrack, which means that it is reproduced by means of light. The variations in perceived light by a solar-cell are transformed into variations in sound. If there are strains or scratches on the soundtrack, they are also reproduced, which is the reason for the 'knispering' sound in old films. Whereas Cinerama had a six-track magnetic sound reproducer synchronized with the projectors, Todd wanted a multiple-track magnetic sound system along the edges of the film (9). 

The result was called Todd-AO, a 65mm (camera) film system, with an additional 5mm for the release prints containing the six-channel magnetic soundtrack. Its projected aspect ratio was 2.05:1, not as wide as Cinerama. Apparently, this was the maximum they felt which could be obtained out of a 65mm negative.

CinemaScope was introduced in 1953. Much earlier, in 1927, Henri Chretien, a French inventor, had constructed a lens with a specific distortion which he gave the name Hypergonar, but which was eventually renamed anamorphoser (taken from the Greek word anamorphosis = distortion). The basic technique is simple: An additional lens distorts the photographed image, by squeezing it horizontally. Then the same type of lens is used during projection, thus removing the distortion and creating a wider image. It appears that the Hypergonar was met with little enthusiasm in the 1920's and '30's, since there was no widespread use of this invention at that time. However, in the beginning of the 1950's Spyros Skouras, president of 20th Century-Fox, saw possibilities with this invention in the battle against television. The required investment for the production as well as for the theater mode of the movies was relatively low. Standard 35mm film could be used, cameras and projectors did not have to be changed; only the extension of an anamorphoser and a wider screen were required. Fox bought the patent rights of Chretien, renamed it CinemaScope, and used it for the first time on "The Robe" (1953).

However, the principle of distortion could not be copyrighted. As a result, after a while a lot of other names (e.g. Alfascope, Ultrascope) were introduced, using the same effect. This was merely a 'trick' to avoid paying patent rights, a suspicion which is easily confirmed with the so-called expansion factor. Fox had this set on two, meaning that the extension of the anamorphot doubled the width of the projected image, which was the aforementioned academy format. So it became twice as wide as academy. The majority of the other names imitated this technical feature. Considering this, one would think that the aspect ratio was 1.33 x 2 = 2.66:1. However, that was not feasible due to the limited area of the frame. It eventually became 2.35:1.

Originally, Fox tried to sell CinemaScope with a four-track magnetic sound system. Research had shown that the new acetate film introduced around 1950 would not shrink like the nitrate film stock did. The perforation holes could, therefore, be diminished. This would lead to a larger area for the addition of four magnetic soundtracks (for a stereophonic effect just like Todd-AO and Cinerama) along the smaller perforations (10). However, this posed problems, in that the magnetic strips decayed with use. Also, theater owners were not enthusiastic about the cost of installing the soundhead and the additional speakers. According to David Bordwell, "By 1956, only about one-fourth of the CinemaScope installations in the U.S. and Canada had magnetic playback facilities" (11). 

There were weak spots in the so-called anamorphic systems at that time. The perspective distortions and a shallow depth of field, for example, were very obvious. Characters on the side of the frame appeared to be thinner than in the middle. However, the anamorphic format became very popular, largely due to its compatibility with 35mm cameras and projectors. Also, films shot in Todd-AO could eventually be transformed to 35mm anamorphic prints, thereby allowing exhibitors who had not acquired 70mm projectors to show these films in their theaters as well. 

CinemaScope also changed the traditional academy 1.33:1 ratio. In order to make the difference between anamorphic and non-anamorphic projections less obvious, the frameline on the non-anamorphic filmstrip was enlarged. Less image was used per frame, so the resulting image resembled the form of a rectangle and was therefore more appropriate to the shape of the wider screen than academy. The aspect ratio differs by country. The US has a standard 1.85:1 and Europe in most cases 1.75:1. The latter format is called Wide-Screen by some film scholars. To avoid any confusion it will be referred to as spherical in this paper.

Finally, Paramount Pictures offered VistaVision. This system featured a horizontal negative travel instead of the traditional vertical one. The width of the frame was therefore not limited by the perforation edges and was thus wider than the standard 35mm image, since it used eight perforations both on the top and the bottom of the frame. Paramount's VistaVision was supposed to be the answer to Fox's CinemaScope. In 1928, George Hill, a British cinetechnician and Filoteo Alberini, an Italian inventor, had presented this system to the Hollywood studios but it was rejected just like Chretiens' earlier Hypergonar. Paramount purchased the system in the 1950's and named it VistaVision. Initially, the purpose was to shoot and show the film on its horizontal axis, but that did not work out. Instead, the horizontally taken negative was vertically printed on a positive. During this printing process, the original image was reduced from a large negative to a small positive. When projected, the resulting image had an extreme enhancement of its focus. The aspect ratio was 1.66:1. Probably due to the high costs (some sources mention four times as high compared to standard costs of film use) it went out of use (12) except for special effects shots.

These were the main alternative formats of the 1950s. Others, that were not mentioned, were either basically the same systems, or combinations of the main ones. Technirama, for instance, was developed by Technicolor. It combined VistaVision with an anamorphic lens as a camera system. The release prints were either 70mm, identical to Todd-AO, or 35mm anamorphic.

All these systems had one thing in common: The proclaimed enhancement of reality. Television had a smaller screen and was viewed in a familiar surrounding (at home). If the audience wanted to be moved, thilled or gripped by another (escapist) emotion, only a cinema equipped with one of these systems could provide this.

But it was not all sunshine. 3-D and Cinerama were novelties unable to establish themselves as regular camera and theatre systems. Todd-AO was highly specialized, meaning that it was the only system which required different projectors and sound equipment in the theatres. A lot of films had to be produced in this system in order to make the investment of the theatre owner worth while. In the 1950s, it was by no means certain whether that would happen or not. CinemaScope was adaptable to every cinema, but had some technical problems. Finally VistaVision was too expensive to become a regular camera and projection system.

It was in this state of technological and economical turmoil that Panavision entered the business of motion picture equipment.
Further in 70mm reading:

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In the Beginning

1 "Wide Screen Movies", p. 1.
2 "Classical Hollywood Cinema" p. 359.
3 Douglas Gomery, "Who killed Hollywood?", "Wilson Quarterly" Volume XV, Number 3 (Summer, 1991), pp. 106-112.
4 ibidem.
5 Douglas Gomery, "Failed Opportunities: The integration of the U.S. Motion Picture and Television Industries", "Quarterly Review of Film Studies" Volume X, Number 2 (Summer, 1984), pp. 219-228.
6 "Classical Hollywood Cinema" p. 359.
7 "Wide Screen Movies" p. 26.
8 ibidem p. 165-166.
9 ibidem.
10 Herbert E. Bragg, "The Development of CinemaScope" in "Film History, (International Journal)" Vol. 2., nr. 4. (November/December 1988), p. 363.
11 "Classical Hollywood Cinema" p. 360.
12 "Wide Screen Movies" p. 147.
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Updated 07-01-21