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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


CinemaScope 55

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Christian Appelt. English translation by Dr. Alexander Reynolds Date: 08.10.2007
Poster from Belgium. Hauerslev collection.

In the history of cinema technology we see a large number of processes, formats and technical inventions which were applied just once, or at best a few times, before dropping entirely out of use. Sometimes the reason was that a particular procedure did not prove as viable in the actual practice of film production or projection as it had been expected it would; sometimes it simply proved too costly; and sometimes its obsolescence was the result of a policy decision by the film companies.

With hindsight, CinemaScope 55 appears initially to be no more than a curious footnote in the history of widescreen cinema. The technicians at 20th Century Fox developed their own film format (55.625 mm wide-format film) which also differed from other formats in the perforation pulldown foreseen both for filming and projection. There were, however, in the end just two films shot in this format: "Carousel" and THE KING AND I. After that, CinemaScope 55 cameras, lenses and copying apparatuses were all put in mothballs.

In order to understand the logic behind CinemaScope 55, it helps to take a closer look at the circumstances of the introduction of CinemaScope by 20th Century Fox in 1953. Once the decision had been made to adopt a new widescreen process as the basis of the studio’s film production , the Research Department, under Earl I. Sponable, put together, in record time, a package proposal which combined long-familiar processes (film-recording by the anamorphic method) with the very latest technology (soundtrack recording and reproduction by the multi-channel COMMAG method, and the “ECN”, or Eastman Color Negative process). This package, however, had still to be presented in a manner appealing to the tastes and inclinations of the conservatively-minded film industry, notorious for its reluctance to invest in new technologies and methodologies. It had, indeed, really to be “sold”, in the most literal sense of this term, to the decision-makers in this industry. In his book WIDESCREEN CINEMA (1992) Prof. John Belton has brilliantly recounted this whole fascinating story of the development and the “selling“ of the CinemaScope format, with reference also to numerous original documents of the period.

At the end of the 40’s, the studios were obliged by law to give up their studio-owned cinema chains, which had up until this point served as reliable performance outlets for every film produced by each of the majors. The arrival of television was already at this time causing a noticeable drop in box-office takings, while other sociological factors characteristic of post-war society (greater personal mobility, new housing construction, „commuting“ as a new work- and lifestyle) were also having perceptible negative effects on the film industry.

The year 1951 saw the first successes of the new Cinerama process, with cinemas reconstructed especially to show Cinerama productions and films in this format, devoted to great journeys and current sensations, filmed outside of the major studios. Shortly afterward came the wave of “3D” productions, bringing it with design problems on the production side and even greater technical problems for the cinemas presenting the films once produced. The “3D“ craze proved indeed to be just that: a craze that came and went in a few short years. It served to stimulate, however, the development of the various widescreen processes.

There was something of an over-hasty “cobbling together” about the formulation and introduction of the CinemaScope format. Time was of the essence. 20th Century Fox had, within a very short space of time, to get production in the new format underway and also to persuade the largest possible number of cinemas to re-equip themselves with new screens, new projection apparatuses and the new, more expensive multi-channel COMMAG sound facilities. Widescreen formats were, indeed, nothing new for Earl Sponable and his Research Department. He had already developed, at the end of the 1920’s, the “Fox Grandeur“ format, with its 70mm-wide film, which unfortunately soon fell victim to the general cost-cutting accompanying the rise of the sound film. Sponable had continued for years to press for the introduction of a 50mm format in order to improve picture quality. But it took the emergence of the real threats posed by Cinerama, 3D, and television to prompt the studio finally to take the risky step of introducing decisive alterations in the manner of recording and projecting film.

Earlier attempts to persuade the film industry to switch to widescreen formats had met with no success. Researchers and developers of new production methods were bound to the 35mm format, such special installations as Cinerama were excluded. There thus arose the idea of recording film with an anamorphic lens: the only way that presented itself of accommodating a film-format of broader aspect-ratio within the standard 4-perforation frame with which cinematographers were being forced to work. The original composite-magnetic-print format used in CinemaScope to record both sound and image uses the whole available surface of the frame; the inner of the 4 COMMAG tracks could be accommodated on two narrow strips inside the rows of perforations.

It was clear from the start that it was going to be difficult to make even this expanded version of the 35mm format yield images of an acceptable quality, since the bottom line was that there was now twice as much screen to fill as before. Larger screens and light-consuming anamorphic projection lenses caused a significant loss of light; attempts were made to compensate for this by the originally standard “Miracle Mirror“ screen and by thicker housings for the carbon arc lamps (the xenon lamp was introduced, indeed, as early as 1954, but came into general use only much later).

Unfortunately, anamorphic projection not only restored the image compressed during filming to its original proportions but also magnified by a factor of two all scratches, dust-spots and other defects present on the film, as well as any slight lateral deviations from perfect stability in the projecting apparatus itself. Technicolor also needed some time to improve their colour printing process to such a point that even CinemaScope copies in Technicolor displayed an acceptable sharpness of image.

In short, then, there was no overlooking the fact that – for all the enthusiasm inspired by the wide image and the stereophonic sound - CinemaScope had to contend, during the first months and years, with a large number of problems.

In order to improve the quality of CinemaScope projections, Sponable proposed a measure which certainly owed something to the influence of the VistaVision process adopted as its own by Paramount. It had emerged in practice that the process of filming with wide-format film and then subsequently reducing it to the standard 35mm format displayed considerable improvements vis-à-vis the process of filming directly in 35mm. VistaVision film prints looked excellent even in 1:1.85 format, because the grain of the camera negative was, in the reduction process, also reduced, so that the superior sharpness of image largely preserved. It was also possible to produce large-format “special-performance prints “ for especially large-scale projections, so as to bring still more clarity and sharpness onto the screen.

The task facing Sponable, then, was that of finding a moving-image recording process that would be, as far as projection and performance were concerned, compatible with the already successfully introduced 35mm Scope, so that the only new technology required would be for the actual filming. This new process should, in addition, also provide the possibility of the preparation of especially large-image copies for roadshow presentations.

The result of Sponable’s efforts here was originally announced as “CinemaScope 4x“, later, however, acquired the appellation “CinemaScope 55“.

For the actual filming process there was used a converted 70mm camera which Sponable had had built already in 1930, by Mitchell, for the old “Fox Grandeur” format, with its 4-perf pulldown as opposed to the standard widescreen 5-perf. This camera is still on display today in the museum of the American Society of Cinematographers in Los Angeles.

The film gate on this camera was four times as big, almost to the millimetre, as the image recorded on the film of a CS projection copy. For actual filming, there were used “Super CinemaScope” special versions of the second generation of anamorphic taking lenses manufactured especially by Bausch & Lomb. Initially, the 55.625mm-wide Eastmancolor raw film stock had to be cut, perforated and processed by Fox themselves; only later did Kodak begin to deliver the stock ready-made for filming.

This „XXL-Scope“ was then reduced by an optical printing process to 35mm format, a procedure intended to result in a particularly sharp and fine-grained image. As at the time of the introduction of the original version of CinemaScope, the test filmings were shown in demonstration performances which, it was hoped, would convince cinema proprietors and technicians of the advantages of the new format.

And the reaction of cinema proprietors was indeed – so far, at least, as an accurate account of it has come down to us – enthusiastic. They were particularly pleased at the fact that no re-equipping of their cinemas, or new investment vis-à-vis the older version of CinemaScope, would here be necessary. The elaborate promises made in the accompanying publicity – „scenes recorded perfectly, with no distortion“; „a perfect view from every seat in the house“; „brighter colours; clarity right through to the back of the picture“ – should, of course, be taken with a pinch of salt, since the very same promises had been made, in almost the very same language, at the time of the demonstration performances of 35mm CinemaScope. One noticeable difference, indeed, was the dropping of the former emphasis on the three-dimensional qualities of the CS screen-image („The Modern Miracle! You Can See It Without Glasses“). Such emphasis was now superfluous, the great competitor in this respect – 3D – being no longer a factor in the film industry.

The Rodgers & Hammerstein musical CAROUSEL was the first film to go into production using the new format, although at the start of filming the new and old formats were used in tandem, with each take being filmed once in CS55 and once in 35mm. A similar method was adopted, moreover, in the making of the first Todd-AO film OKLAHOMA, so that there still at the present day exist two substantially different versions of the film put together from the two different series of takes.

The actor originally set to star in CAROUSEL, Frank Sinatra, was not prepared to go through each take twice and quit the project. Gordon MacRae, who also played the lead in "Oklahoma!", took over Sinatra’s role – arguably to the detriment of the finished movie.

The format used in the CS55 “roadshows“ has proven in practice something of a technological curiosity due to the fact that it was only ever in these demonstration performances that this particular version of the format was applied. In order to create space for the stereo soundtrack and to limit the mechanical load involved in projection, the pulldown was reduced from 8 to 6 perfs and the image optically reduced. The addition of 6 COMMAG tracks was intended to complete this premium image format with an appropriately impressive high-fidelity acoustics.

A series of 50 combination projectors for Century 35/55 were produced and delivered, later being converted and applied also as universal projectors for the Todd-AO format under the denomination: JJ 70/35. Several magnetic stereo apparatuses of the “Penthouse” type, for combined use on 35mm and 55mm COMMAG soundtracks, still survive today. The Sponable Collection at Columbia University also still contains many film-rolls and film-clips both from the 55mm test film-recordings and from the 6-perf performance copies with magnetic stereo soundtracks.

It seems, however, that no actual public projections in the 55mm format ever in fact took place. On 15th February 1956, just a day before the CAROUSEL premiere, VARIETY quoted E.I. Sponable as saying that all projections had been in 35mm and with 4-channel magnetic stereo soundtrack, excepting some 12 installations with separate 6-channel magnetic tape player, including those in the New York ROXY and the CHINESE THEATRE in Los Angeles. In the SHOWMEN’S TRADE REVIEW of 25th February, 1956, the news was published that:

“From Cleveland, National Allied's board had wired 20th Century-Fox President Spyros P. Skouras that "The King and I", which Fox planned to roadshow first in 55mm CinemaScope prints, should be released generally in 35mm. From New York, Skouras wired Allied that he would not only accede to its request and drop plans for 55mm roadshowings, putting the film out in 35mm, but that he would advance the release date from fall to midsummer."

Indeed, as late as 17th July 1957 – that is to say, a whole year after the premiere of THE KING AND I - VARIETY also published the puzzling news that Darryl F. Zanuck and other members of the Fox Board of Directors had just seen for the first time this film in 55mm format!

After these two musicals (of which only THE KING AND I enjoyed any real success) 20th Century Fox never again made use of the CinemaScope-55 format to film any of its productions. There are several possible reasons for this:

1. Kodak made improvements, in the course of time, to the Eastmancolor film stock, so that the graininess of the colour 35mm Scope films was no longer such a big problem.

2. Technicolor also made decisive improvements, in the period 1954/55, in the manner of manufacturing ist matrix films and the precision of its printing process; it also introduced the „wet copying“ of original negatives, so that Technicolor copies in CinemaScope could be manufactured without scratches, striations, or dust-marks.

3. A very significant amount of investment would have been necessary in order to produce more compact 55mm cameras that also operated less noisily and also to build up a whole new palette of anamorphic taking lenses for the new wide format.

4. The superior qualities of CinemaScope 55 were not particularly well noted either by the public or by the film industry itself and did not – in contrast, for example, to the cases of Cinerama or Todd-AO – prove to be qualities usable in publicity campaigns or important factors in studio decisions. Speaking against CinemaScope 55, on the other hand, were the increased production costs.

5. Todd-AO had very swiftly acquired a position as more or less the standard process when it came to large-format “roadshow“ presentations, thanks to the superior image quality it achieved by means of its spherical lens, its sharp, clear 70mm contact copies, and its high-quality 35mm reduction copies in Technicolor.

6. In contrast to what had occurred in the case of 35mm anamorphic filming, no other studio was, in this case, prepared to follow along in adopting 55mm. Even Paramount, once the initial stages had passed, rested content with producing reduced 35mm versions of its own VistaVision productions. Horizontal wide-format projection remained the exception.

7. Certain quality defects were inseparable from the very principle and nature of filming with anamorphic lens. Not even the extra-large “Super CinemaScope“ lenses did anything to change that. The laws of physics and optics alone dictated that the broader image format would necessitate a significantly greater effort to light the studio, in order just to maintain the clarity and definition of normal CinemaScope. (The trick photography expert Bill Taylor threw interesting light on this when he mounted, some years ago, a CS55 camera lens on a test projector and noted that this lens did indeed provide a significantly lesser degree of clarity and definition than the Bausch & Lomb anamorphic lenses in use at the time on 35mm).

8. The first three CinemaScope productions had been, due to pressure of time – and contrary to the information about them given both in the adverts in the industry press and in the film credits themselves – filmed in fact not with the taking lenses newly developed by Bausch & Lomb but rather with the special camera adapters the rights to which Fox had acquired from Prof. Henri Chrétien, who had developed them, christening them Hypergonar lenses, as long ago as the 1920’s. These attachments of Chrétien’s, however, had many shortcomings. The lenses later developed by B & L permitted a much greater clarity and definition of image and solved many other image-reproduction problems as well, so that the normal 35mm CinemaScope films look better than the first ones.

9. After the producer Mike Todd died in an airplane crash in 1958, Fox acquired shares in Magna/Todd-AO and later took over Todd’s format for its own roadshow productions.

Such, then, was the less than glorious demise of CinemaScope 55. But the format was to be reborn under another name some years later as “Grandeur 70“. 70mm had established itself at the beginning of the 1960’s as the definitive roadshow format. It therefore seemed a wise move to send Yul Brynner – the once-so-successful “King of Siam“ – once again into the cinemas as a 70mm revival. The denomination „Grandeur“ was borrowed by Fox from its own 1930’s process, and the publicity spoke in euphoric tones of the superb picture quality which was to be achieved through the optic copying of the image, rid of its anamorphic distortion, from 55mm onto 70mm positives.

The idea seems a reasonable one; CS55 had, after all, always had a negative frame area of a comparable size to the 65/70mm format. But doubt must be expressed here about whether the few existing 70mm positives were in fact drawn from the 55mm original. Several considerations speak against this possibility:

1. The promotion booklets for “Grandeur 70“ speak, in fact, not of a copying specifically from 55mm onto 70mm but rather only of the high-quality film-recording’s being taken out of its distorted form and brought onto 70mm.

2. The widescreen copies of the film were not created by Fox’s own “house film lab” DeLuxe, but rather at Technicolor. And at the time of the cinema revival of THE KING AND I all was already in place for the execution of a high-quality “blowing-up” of anamorphic 35mm positives onto 70mm positives which would also rid the images of their distorted anamorphic form.

3. That the technique of reducing 55mm to 35mm which existed at Fox was re-activated half a decade after the abandoning of this procedure is not to be excluded as a possibility, though is improbable.

It must be admitted, then, that it is possible that the existing 70mm copies of THE KING AND I were not drawn from the 55mm negative but rather “blown up” from some 35mm intermediary film-stock. We cannot determine this with any certainty, since nothing appears to have been documented regarding the path of copying running from 55mm to the manufacture of the 35mm Technicolor matrices. Perhaps the showing of the contemporary 70mm copy at this year’s Todd-AO Festival will shed new light on this question!

It should be added here that CAROUSEL was restored in 2004 by the post-production facility Cineric on commission from 20th Century Fox. The 55mm camera negative, which had slightly shrunk, was reduced by optical copying onto a 35mm duplicate stock; some passages were digitally restored in 4K resolution (4096x3072 pixels per frame) and then exposed back onto the film; the Scope copies thus succeed in reproducing, at the cost of a slight vertical letterboxing, the original 1:2.55 aspect ratio.

CinemaScope 55 was the attempt to solve the quality problems of the early 35mm CinemaScope format as these came to expression both in filming and in copying processes. It proved possible indeed to achieve a reduction in graininess here; the shortcomings, however, of the anamorphic lenses then in use acted as a significant brake on the development then underway toward greater clarity and definition of image and also necessitated lengthier and more complex processes during filming.

To end, another quotation, this time from the film trade journal BOXOFFICE of 21st July, 1956:

“Although BOY ON A DOLPHIN will be the third 20th Century-Fox film to be shot in the company's new CinemaScope-55 process, present plans are to make it the first to be released on 55mm film, according to producer Samuel G. Engel.“

This promise, however, was never kept, because, after the box-office failure of CAROUSEL, Fox had begun a programme of decisive cut-backs. Among the many involuntary sins of CinemaScope 55, then, counts the circumstance that its swift demise deprived the public of the delightful sight of Sophia Loren climbing out of the waves of the Mediterranean in order to lend emphasis to the format’s publicity slogan: “More than your eyes have ever seen.“ (Logo to be faded in here)

More in 70mm reading:

German Version

"Carousel" screening

Restoring Cinemascope 55

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