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Visit biografmuseet.dk about Danish cinemas


All-Around Cinema
Ernst A. Heiniger's Swissorama

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Lukas Piccolin, 28. August  2004. Many thanks to: D.J. Sherlock, Ph. Hayes, S. Hofer, Swiss Museum of Transport and Communication Date: 1. October 2004
Swissorama Theatre. Image by Damian Amstutz. Copyright Swiss Museum of Transport. Press image for enlargement.

On July 2nd 1984 Swissorama, a new 360° projection system opened at the Swiss Museum of Transport and Communication in Lucerne. After over a decade of research and experimentation Ernst A. Heiniger finally presented the world’s first large format seamless 360° film within a special theatre to the public.

An audience of 400 people could experience feature "Impressions of Switzerland" free of distortion as a moving panorama on the seamless circular screen, 5m high and 60m in length. The theatre had no seats and was about 20m in diameter. Shows were held every hour and no extra admission was charged. Up to 1991 Swissorama was very popular among museum visitors, then attendance figures started to decrease constantly. By the end of March 2000 the theater was temporarily closed due to high maintenance costs and technical problems. Growing competition within the museum after the opening of an IMAX theatre with its changing program reduced public interest furthermore. After the last „farewell“ shows, held on the 9th and 10th of March 2002, the Swissorama was removed and replaced by another exhibit.

Nevertheless in 16 years over 1.8 million people in about 20,000 shows saw "Impressions of Switzerland".

Ernst A. Heiniger was not the first filmmaker who was fascinated by the idea of 360° cinema. As a direct descendant of the painted 360° „panorama“ image, which became a major attraction in all the large cities in 19th century Europe, the possibilities and the effect of the panoramic format fascinated photographers and filmmakers since the early days.

The World‘s Fair in Paris 1900 saw the run of the first 360° movie, shot and projected with a 10 camera/projector system called Cinéorama, invented by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson. Due to high temperatures and an accident in the projection booth, the attraction was closed by the authorities after only 4 days. (1)

More than 50 years later it was Walt Disney who revived the idea of 360° cinema.

With the opening of Disneyland he wanted the visitors to experience an 360° film in a special theatre – called Circarama. While visiting Switzerland in 1952, Disney was impressed by photographs he saw at an exhibition in Lucern and arranged a meeting with the artist: Ernst A. Heiniger. At that time Heiniger not only had a reputation as a photographer but had started also working as a cameraman for films, winning a prize for "Sul Bernina" at the Biennale in Venice 1948. According to Heiniger, Walt Disney hired him on the spot to work for the Disney Company and they became personal friends. Heiniger moved to Los Angeles soon after, while retaining his office and apartment in Zurich as a base in Switzerland.

Working behind the camera as well as directing and producing several Disney productions up to 1962, Heiniger learnt a lot about filmmaking. He not only met his future wife Jeanne in the Disney studios but one of his projects also made him travel to Japan, where he stayed for over a year. The Disney films he contributed to were successful and two of them were awarded with an Oscar: "Ama Girls" from the TV series "People and Places" for the best documentary in 1957 and "Grand Canyon", a visual interpretation of Ferde Grofe’s Grand Canyon Suite, for the best short film in 1959.

According to Heiniger, he learnt from Walt Disney personally about the Circarama project as early as 1952 and was fascinated by it. I have no information as to what extent Heiniger was involved in the development of the 11 camera/projector Circarama system. Working for the Disney Company he must have had the opportunity to follow the project closely and talk to those involved.

The Circarama theatre opened with "A Tour of the West" on July 17th 1955 at the American Motors Company building in Disneyland’s Tomorrowland and became very popular according to the press. In Europe the system was presented for the first time in the US pavilion at the World‘s Fair in Brussels 1958 with the film "America the Beautiful" and immediately became a major attraction of the fair.

Technically improved and reduced to 9 cameras/projectors the Circarama was renamed Circle-Vision 360 in the 1960‘s and the Disney Company successfully promoted the system for the production of special format films.
Further in 70mm reading:

Circle Vision 360

Circarama at the "EXPO" in Lausanne, Switzerland

The true history of Circlorama 1962-65


The fact that there are no press reports on a opening ceremony of the Cinéorama, on public screenings or on an accident / the closing of the attraction, indicates that the Cinéorama might not have been operational at all during the Fair. The information about the accident in the projection booth and the authorities closing the attraction after 4 days can be found in Raoul Grimoin Sanson's autobiography "le film de ma vie" published in 1926 - and might be a legend. (Information added in Sept 2013)

Swissorama projector. Image by Damian Amstutz. Copyright Swiss Museum of Transport. Press image for enlargement.

After Fiat’s "Circling Italy" for the Italia 1961 exposition in Turin, the Swiss National Railways decided to produce a Circle-Vision 360 film for the Swiss Expo 1964 in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was easy to find the Swiss director/producer who had the required experience and qualifications for the planned 20 min feature "Magic of the Rails", suiting both the Disney Company and the Swiss National Railways: Ernst A. Heiniger. Shot in 1963 throughout Switzerland with Ub Iwerks as technical adviser, the film was displayed in a theatre 26m in diameter with 9 screens of a total length of about 90m. Over 1200 people at one time could attend a show.

Although like in Brussels and Turin the 360° movie format was a success and very popular, Heiniger was not entirely satisfied with the possibilities of the Circle-Vision 360 system and the technical quality of his work. He began to think of ways to improve and simplify the technology of 360° film systems. Over the years Heiniger came up with 3 basic principles, which should define his new system: only one lens, only one film and only one projector.

The advantages were obvious. Shooting with a single camera meant working with far less equipment than before and eliminating malfunction as well as synchronization problems of multi-film systems while shooting or projecting the film. Furthermore there was no „dead zone“ to this system where objects could vanish between views. In short production of films would become cheaper and less complicated. As the single projector was intended to be installed in the center of the ceiling of the theatre, no more black panels separating the screens and hiding the different projectors were needed. Swissorama would be the world’s first large format seamless 360° camera and projection system.

From the late sixties on Ernst A. Heiniger experimented with different techniques in collaboration with the Swiss engineer Walter Dätwyler. Finally after more than 10 years of work, the use of extreme wide angle lenses, specially designed by Nikon, lead to a solution of the problems. In the system Heiniger patented in 1978 a 65mm camera was equipped with a 220 field of view fisheye lens that was mounted downwards on top of a plexiglass cylinder. The center of the field was masked, so that a tripod could be installed under the plexiglass cylinder to support the camera. With a field of view of 360° x 35° the image suited projection onto a cylindrical screen. The exposed film looked like a double circle with the actual image on the outer ring and, due to the mask, a black center. The negatives were copied onto 70mm film and the projector was mounted in the center of the ceiling of the Swissorama theatre, projecting downwards through a similar lens. Films were projected with 24 frames per second, which meant that with its 10 perforation per frame over 1.5m film per second had to be pulled through the projector.

Unfortunately I know little about Heiniger‘s parallel efforts to find partners to realize a Swissorama film/theatre. According to Heiniger the first Swissorama film "The Spirit of Adventure", including scenes of river rafting on the Colorado River and sequences of climbing the famous Eiger north face, was ready for production by 1981 and there were plans to build theatres in London and New York. Both projects were not carried out.

After all of his efforts, it was Switzerland where the first Swissorama film and theatre were established. The Museum of Transport and Communication in Lucerne along with the board of Tourism were interested in the possibilities that Heiniger‘s system offered. After the Migros Company (the biggest retailer in Switzerland) decided to be part of the project as the main sponsor, contracts concerning the production of a feature film as well as the construction of a Swissorama theatre were signed in 1982.

With an over all budget of 2.5 Million Swiss Francs, Heiniger started to shoot "Impressions of Switzerland", a 20 min touristic journey throughout Switzerland in the same year. Because there were no dialogue sequences in the film, Heiniger intended to support the images on screen with exclusively composed music.
Swissorama Camera. Image by Damian Amstutz. Copyright Swiss Museum of Transport. Press image for enlargement.

During postproduction the relationship between Heiniger and his partners became more and more tense. In the beginning there were disagreements about reshooting the helicopter scenes due to unsteadiness of certain sequences, then the Migros Company criticized Heiniger for not having the company displayed sufficiently in the film, and shortly before the opening the board of the museum along with the sponsor decided to rerecord the entire soundtrack. As a reaction to the interference within his artistic work, Heiniger refused to give a speech at the opening ceremony. Although the advantage of seamless projection was appreciated by the press, the brightness and in certain passages the steadiness of the images were criticized. Visitors of the museum didn’t mind – in the early days Swissorama was a public success. I assume the popularity of the exhibit helped the parties to compromise and settle their arguments by 1985.

But Heiniger’s secret hopes to present his invention internationally at the 1985 World’s Fair in Japan were in vain. Over the next year despite his efforts Heiniger didn‘t find partners in Switzerland to produce another film or to invest in another Swissorama theatre.

But it wasn’t the end of the story.

Heiniger refused to give up on his dream of a network featuring the new technique with easily interchangeable films. In 1986 he returned to California, shipping his camera to Iwerks Entertainment. Ub Iwerks‘ son Don, the cofounder of the company in 1985, had worked for 35 years previously in the management of the technical engineering and manufacturing department at Disney. With Iwerks he wanted to concentrate on the development of special venue theatres.

Heiniger collaborated on refining the Swissorama system. To get a brighter, sharper and steadier image, minor changes to the camera were made and the projection equipment was considerably redesigned. Heiniger filed for a patent in 1986 for an improved large film transport mechanism, which was issued the following year. The system was renamed Imagine 360 and Heiniger contributed to additional productions with the new equipment as artisitc supervisor/director.

The first Imagine 360 film "Shikoku Alive" was successfully presented in 1988 at the Shikoku Bridge Expo at Kagawa, Japan. 

By the end of 1989 "Destination Berlin", a short history of Berlin, opened on the Kurfürstendamm in Berlin in a spectacular, newly constructed blue domed theatre. The German production company reached an agreement with Iwerks, calling for the development of film and theaters throughout Europe under license.

Would Heiniger‘s dream finally come true?

Unfortunately not. I have no detailed information as to why there were no further films produced or other theatres built in the following years. When I visited Berlin in 2001 the blue dome was serving as an MTV TV-studio. I assume high investment and maintenance costs might be one reason as well as the success of IMAX as the worldwide special format network of different films and theatres. Besides Disney‘s Circle-Vision 360 system was still operational and up to this day over a dozen different films were produced and displayed at Disneyland/Disneyworld/ Disneyland Paris, and at World’s Fairs or in museums all over the world.

What if Walt Disney hadn’t died in December 1966 – would he have supported Heiniger‘s work and promoted the new system?

To my knowledge the last film ever presented to the public with the Imagine 360 system was "My Basque Country", a 9min film about a family vacation in their Basque homeland. The film was produced for the World‘s Fair in Seville, Spain 1992 and was shown at the Basque pavilion.

Paradise F.X. in California shot a demonstration film in the process called "California Beach Party" in 1999, but apparently it was not presented to the public.

Ernst A. Heiniger died in July 1993 at the age of 84 in Los Angeles. Iwerks Entertainment kept on designing and producing camera and projection systems for special format films, today they offer a variety of different products besides the Imagine 360 system.

Swissorama marks an important step in the innovation of camera and projection technology of 360° cinema. Hopefully the Swiss Museum of Transport and Communication will find the means to preserve the projection system and film as well as the existing models of the Swissorama camera and the theatre.

All further information on the subject is welcome
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Updated 21-01-24