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Cinerama Goes to War

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Fred Waller, 1953 Date: 30.10.2010
Fred Waller

INVENTOR of many kinds photographic devices and systems, Fred Waller is certain to go down in motion picture records chiefly for his Cinerama which evolved out of The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer. The device was credited with saving the lives of 300,000 Allied airmen during World War II. He has been in the photographic business for more than 40 years and continues to make important contributions to the art and science.

ALTHOUGH CINERAMA had its Broadway premiere only about a year ago, that could hardly be called the first public demonstration of this new kind of moving picture. Years before that glittering first night audience gathered, years before the first roller coaster ride, the realistic illusion of depth and space that Cinerama offers had been tested and approved by possibly the most exacting critics in the world - the technical brass of the U.S. Army Air Force, the Navy and the Marines. But at the time it wasn't called Cinerama. It was known as the Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer.

Not that Cinerama wasn't in the back of my mind. For years, ever since I worked in Special Effects at Paramount, I had been aware - call it a hunch, if you like - that wide-angle photography could lead to a new kind of film making, a movie that had depth as well as width and height. I found that the wider the angle, the greater the impression of depth. The only trouble was that to complete the illusion in the ordinary theatre, I would need a screen a whole block wide.

The idea remained in the back of my mind until the summer of 1938, when I was called in for consultation by the architect, Ralph Walker, on plans to show movies in a spherical room he was constructing for the New York World's Fair. That was the answer! A sphere, I saw immediately, does not arbitrarily limit the field of vision, and it actually corresponds to the way we see normally. I began to read up on everything known about how we perceive the world around us.
More in 70mm reading:

The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer

The Entire Development of the Cinerama Process
mr. cinerama

The Birth of an Idea
Adding the Sound to Cinerama
This Cinerama Show
Finding Customers for a Product

in70mm.com's Cinerama page

Internet link:

I began to experiment myself, now using blinkers that permitted me to see only out of the corners of my eyes, now using a mask pierced with tiny holes that permitted me to see only straight ahead. I discovered for myself just how heavily each of us relies on the elements of peripheral vision to supply an accurate picture of our environment, how much of so-called stereoscopic vision is actually a product of memory and imagination. The idea for Cinerama began to take shape.

As time went by, I discussed my ideas more fully with Ralph Walker and he came to share my conviction that we were on the verge of something big and exciting. Thanks to Ralph and his partners in Voorhees, Walker, Foley and Smith, I was provided with working capital and encouraged to begin my experiments. And as Vitarama, the first Cinerama was born.

I can honestly say that since the very start, the basic premise of my work has remained unchanged. As early as 1938 I had sketched on paper an outline for Cinerama that would stand today in any patent court as the model for the present installation on Broadway. But there have been many modifications, of course. All of my early thinking was directed toward preserving the spherical shape—not just an arc, but an actual spheric section 165° wide and 75° high. The strip construction of the screen also came in early, a necessary element to absorb the light that would otherwise bounce back and forth within the shell.

Perhaps the most radical change has been in the number of projectors. Originally I had eleven! This was due solely to the fact that, for economy's sake, I was forced to work in 16mm— for the sake of economy, and because I could rely on my friends at Eastman Kodak to procure exactly what I needed. For example, my eleven cameras had to be fitted with eleven precisely matching lenses. The good people in Rochester actually tested 931 lenses to produce the eleven that matched. Also, for simplicity of operation, I needed the monopack Kodachrome film, at that time the only color film available in 16mm. But I knew that if we ever switched to 35mm I could achieve the same mosaic effect with only five projectors.

In 1939 Walker and I were able to interest Laurance Rockefeller in the invention and he joined us in Vitarama Corporation. He was enthusiastic; we talked about putting it on at his Center Theatre. But already the clouds of war were gathering abroad. It hardly seemed like the time to introduce a new entertainment medium, especially one as costly as this. I suggested putting the whole project on ice. "Fred," Mr. Rockefeller said, "you're an unusual inventor. Most of them just can't wait until their brainchild is shown to the public. I'm glad to see that you are such a good business man as well."

By this time we had not only a working model, installed in the Rockefeller carriage house on West 55th Street in New York City, but a number of test films as well. Among the guests who saw some of these early demonstrations was an old friend of mine, Henry Martyn Baker, a graduate of the Naval Academy and an expert in ballistics. Months later - the Decoration Day weekend of 1940 - Baker came to me with an idea. He had been impressed by the realism of my pictures, the way they gave the spectator the illusion of being actually "in the picture". Couldn't this realistic experience be applied to the construction of an apparatus to train men in gunnery?

We talked over the problems involved thoroughly, for hours on end. And within sixty hours I had the whole thing worked out in my head. The answer came to me while I was shaving. The clue to the problem was to do it all backwards, to start at the point where projectile struck aircraft, put the bullet back into the gun and put the plane back to where it was when the trigger was pulled and the shell leaves the gun.

Ballistics charts give the speed of every type of missile, the speed of aircraft can easily be computed, and film runs through the projector at an even rate. I had the solution to sorting hits on my gunnery trainer! At the end of the war, Army experts called this an "empirical process". "It couldn't have been wrong," they said.

All through that day I outlined my idea to Baker. He couldn't find a single flaw. For further check, we called in engineers from the Grumman airplane works, from Eastman Kodak and Kenyon Instrument. I outlined my device again and asked for criticism. For eight hours we talked the whole thing back and forth, but again none of these assembled experts could find a single flaw in my reasoning. Baker was convinced, promised to try to interest his friends in Washington in building the device.

Soon after, Major Larry J. Carr came to New York to see a demonstration of our Vitarama show and discuss further the possibilities of a trainer. At that time Larry was air advisor to Secretary of War Woodring; later he was placed in command of all gunnery training in the Air Corps. Larry arranged to let me use four bombers and three pursuit ships at Mitchell Field to make a special picture that would demonstrate better how my process could be used in combat training. I had my eleven cameras mounted in a cradle so that they handled as one, placed them in the nose of a B-18A, and began shooting film as bombers and the speedy pursuit craft closed in around us.

In August of 1940 we ran our first tests for officers of the Army Air Corps, the Navy and the Marines. At that time I could show them not only the picture, but also a crude scoring mechanism, and even the dummy gun that the trainee would use to aim at the screen. It was good enough, however. The men were clearly impressed.

When I look back on it, I frankly wonder how they ever could have been. That little projection setup on 55th Street was weirder than anything Rube Goldberg ever devised, a veritable jungle of plywood and baling wire. But it worked. Every part that required precise machining was as perfect as human ingenuity could make it. Rough plywood covered an exceedingly intricate electrical network, designed and built by Robert Dresser of the Auditone Oscillator Co., of Bridgeport, Conn.

In any case, early in 1941, while I was directing some three-minute movies for the Mills Juke Box people, I was suddenly called to the phone in the middle of a "take". It was Washington. The Navy wanted 31 trainers at once. Their experts had checked and were satisfied. They didn't even want a preliminary test model. I was to go into production immediately. I warned that after delivery there might be as high as 50 per cent error in the machining of parts. They wanted the trainers anyway. Actually, on delivery it turned out that there was only an 8 per cent change in parts required—an unusually low percentage for a first shot at any mechanism as intricate as this.
The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer

And intricate it was, the most intricate of all trainers used in the war. One friend of mine described it as looking like the end of the Triborough Bridge with four men on it, their feet dangling in air, a console like a church organ, and behind that photocells, amplifiers, levers, scanners and a whole lot more. Then, take the Perisphere from the World's Fair, cut it into four pieces, push the end of the Triborough Bridge into one of the pieces and you have a Waller Gunnery Trainer!

Actually, each of those four men was seated at a replica of a 50 cal. machine gun, built so that when it was fired it had all the kick of the original gun. Each gun was connected to a special panel, a recording device through which a film was run in perfect synchronism with the pictures on the screen. This film was patterned so that whenever the gun was aimed in precisely the right position for a hit on the target, an electrical impulse, a high "beep-beep-beep," so informed the gunner through his earphones. Four of these, mind you, each with its own recording panel and its own scoring film running through it own projector.

The console was where the instructor sat, above his trainees. Before him was a panel that indicated, among other things, how many bursts each student had fired, how many bullets, how many hits each scored. Also a microphone through which he could speak to the projection room and to each or all of his trainees, a "still" button which enabled him to hold any single frame on the screen for as long as five minutes, a pilot light that flashed whenever a hit had been scored. And a switch controlling a light mounted on each gun that permitted him to see, on the screen, where each or all of his students were aiming. (The student himself couldn't see this light; it struck the screen at the point covered by the central spot in his own aiming sight).

And below, in the heart of this monster, was a battery of five standard Century projectors operating in synchronism as a single mechanism. Each was trained upon a separate portion of the screen, supplying the mosaic that built the entire image.

Precision framing minimized the points of overlap, aided further by the fact that the throw was relatively short. We used standard 35mm color film, running at 24 frames per second. One particular problem in the projectors raised in the Navy's specifications for the Trainer: it was desirable, for purposes of instruction and analysis of shots, to hold a picture on the screen for five minutes. For this I designed a heat-absorbing glass filter as a heat shield, an automatic dimmer for the lamp itself, and a fairly elaborate cooling system that forced a stream of air about the lamp and the film, then carried it off through an exhaust.

For our Trainer's screen, the original strips would have been impractical. Instead, we prefabricated sheets of plywood, bent to shape and marked for assembly upon a light frame. The inner surfaces of the sheets were covered with an aluminum powder in a gum solution which, by controlling the thickness of the solution, made it possible for us to control the angle of light reflected from the face of the shell. Incidentally, we had already determined upon directional sound to complete the illusion. Three loudspeakers, placed behind the screen, would have located the aircraft's position by sound. We were persuaded, instead, to supply a steady roar to the students' earphones, interrupted only by the "beep-beep-beep" when he had scored a hit.

If all of this sounds complicated, it was child's play compared to the register machine that made the guide marks on the scoring films. The machinery itself filled a room 30 feet by 40 feet and 30 feet high. This was so intricate it could only be operated by mathematicians. Each frame of film that passed through the trainer had to be pre-analyzed, determining at just what point a gun firing at the target would score a hit. This information was then recorded electronically on four control films, one for each gun position, to run synchronously with the picture. Dresser's photoelectric controls on this machine were nothing short of masterful.

In all, we turned out 75 gunnery trainers during the course of the war, most of which, of course, went to the Air Force. The cost per Trainer was $41,500; while the total cost of our entire operation—installations, making the films and the control films, servicing, training personnel to operate the Trainers—came to about $5,250,000. We made separate films for each branch of the service, arranged in series of progressing difficulty. All in all, we used over 300,000,000 feet of film in the three years we produced the Trainers.

Even in the movie business, I dare say, $5,250,000 sounds like a lot of money. Actually, compared to what the Army spent for Air Corps training with live ammunition it was minimal - perhaps the equivalent of three days' training. But our Trainer had further advantages. For the first time a trainee knew when he had scored a hit at the instant that he made it. In the usual towed-sleeve type of practice, a few hours after his firing a gun the cadet would discover how many bullets had hit home. But he wouldn't know which they were, nor how he was aiming at the time he made his strike. And, of course, there were no casualties in our type of training.

I remember vividly a group of four T-Sergeants just in from the Pacific. They had all had combat experience, had in fact been on one of the air fields that the Japs struck on the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I remember the comment of one of them as he looked over the Trainer for the first time: "That must have been some crazy s.o.b. who dreamed this up." They asked for a demonstration, then insisted on taking an entire course. They were going back to the Pacific, they said, and the training they got on our machine gave them the best education in gunnery this side of actual combat. "If I'd had just ten minutes of this," one added, "I wouldn't have missed those first six Jap planes."

From the Navy came the report that the first convoy on which the gunners had been Trainer-trained shot down nine attacking German Stukas, driving away all the others. Up to that time exactly one Stuka had been downed. The Air Force has officially estimated that more than 250,000 casualties were averted by the training made possible on our machine in that branch, alone.

With Trainers all over the country, in Hawaii and England, many running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this new kind of moving picture experience was seen by thousands and thousands of men. I began to hear more and more frequently, "When are we going to see regular pictures like this?" Indeed, I received well over a thousand such requests from G.I.s alone.
"Buzz" Reeves of Soundcraft Studios

Once the war was over, it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. I was able to interest some new investors—Time, Inc., "Buzz" Reeves of Soundcraft Studios and, of course, Laurance Rockefeller was still with us. We formed the Cinerama Corporation to promote the theatrical end of Vitarama, and I went back to the shops and back to my original Cinerama conception. I can assure you, it was far less complicated than working out the Gunnery Trainer.

A cylinder replaced the sphere, the arc was enlarged, the strip screen came back, the projectors were reduced from five to three. Dresser and myself worked out an original sound system. But that, of course, is another story—a story that won't end until we have simplified Cinerama down to the point where it can play any theatre in any community. And I think I know how even that can be accomplished.
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Updated 21-01-24