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50 years of Todd-AO
Review of the 2005 Karlsruhe 70mm Weekend

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Clemens Scherer Date: 20 December 2005
Left to right Clemens Scherer, Gerhard Schübner and Ingrid Schübner. Image by Andreas Urban

My initial encounter with true 70mm was in 1990. David Lean's "Lawrence Of Arabia" had been restored to its original version and 70mm-prints were available in Germany. After decades many people saw a real 70mm-screening - I experienced this for the first time in my life. It was pure luck, because years before many 70mm-projectors had left the booth and got replaced by smaller ones that would only handle ordinary 35mm.

In Freiburg Guenter Hertel - an enthusiastic projectionist since he saw and screened the great 70mm-classics with their initial release - had saved his 'DP70'. Now he managed to get it back into the booth of UFA theatre's 'Kurbel 1'. For the approved runtime of one week this classic of 1965 was screened in true Super Panavision 70. The effort paid off, since then I knew the 65/70-effect: like if the screen is unveiled and everything appears to be very real. This was the beginning of a search for more classics taken with a 65mm-camera and presented in 70mm.

Over the years I have attended several 65/70-events based on vintage prints. Unfortunately it has turned out to be nearly impossible meanwhile to gain a satisfying presentation. The main enemy is well known: 'dye fading' affects all prints struck on Eastman Kodak material up to the end of the seventies and Hollywood's 70mm-classics had been printed only onto this material. Sooner or later this defect causes the colours to disappear and leave solely a colouration between red and magenta. Rare enough the colours of a print are still in a good condition, but then maybe the base has altered with the years. This causes the picture to lose focus periodically. And often a 'Victoria 8' is working in the projection booth - while a 'DP70' could handle this problem way better due to its curved runner plate. Additionally now and then you have to accept different kinds of sound distortion caused by inappropriate handling of the magnetic sound tracks before. Finally such 65/70-events have been no more able to enthuse new audience for the once greatest system of the movie industry. At least evil 'dye fading' is of a certain kindliness, it attacks the 'magenta-layer' last and this layer is key for the high definition. Therefore these screenings still have borne witness about the astonishing clarity of the initial release prints. This is an important detail from a science point of view. Under the aspect of definition one can evaluate whether a new print or even a restoration succeeded.

The rare new 65mm-productions have been out of trouble. I've been able to see "In Einem Fernen Land" the German version of "Far And Away" (1993) at the 'Schauburg' in Karlsruhe in Panavision Super 70. Compared to the classics the look had changed, definition is used dynamically. More than once I've seen "Baraka" (1992) in Todd-AO and "Hamlet" (1996) in Panavision Super 70 at the 'National Museum of Photography, Film & Television' (NMPFT) in Bradford (GB).

Thereupon all hope has been put on new 70mm-prints of the considerably repertoire of classic 65mm-productions. 1994 a harsh disappointment, the restoration of the classic "My Fair Lady" (1964) in Super Panavision 70 didn't even get one single European distributor, the screening was done by 'arte' on TV.

1997 the restoration of Hitchcock's "Vertigo" (1958) - including VistaVision to 70mm printing - fortunately hit the European neighbours. But I needed three attempts to catch the 70mm-print screened with an intact 70mm-lens, sitting close enough to a screen large enough to have VistaVision enfold its impact - a drama of a special kind.

The year 2001 then gained new prints of "2001: A Space Odyssey"(1968) - not for Germany, but at least one print for the UK. I've seen it at the Widescreen Weekend of the NMPFT. Colours are saturated again, however, the ultimate effect of space - the stars only tiny dots - worked better in the 1968 print and this I had seen several times before. This meant: original high definition and good colours were only to be seen in separated screenings. It was a strange situation: one was hoping for new prints, while being afraid of new disappointments.

At the annual 'Widescreen Weekend 2005' in Bradford a big surprise was waiting for all of us. All of a sudden four brand-new prints of classic Todd-AO-titles had arrived from Hollywood on the occasion of '50 years of Todd-AO' - the initial 65/70-system. Printed within the last two years, "The Sound Of Music", "The Agony And The Ecstasy" including prologue, "Doctor Dolittle" and "Hello, Dolly!" showed a sensational quality. This has proven that Hollywood is still able to gain perfect prints of 65mm-negative meanwhile being more than 35 years old. Thereafter I've told everybody that after decades of waiting it has been finally possible to get classics in perfect Todd-AO back to the screen again.
More in 70mm reading:

Rückblick auf das Karlsruher 70mm Wochenende 2005

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The 70mm Film Festival at the 'Schauburg' in Karlsruhe

Ingrid Schübner, Andreas Urban, Gerhard Schübner, and Stefan Scholz. Andreas is from Berlin (Cinema Paris) the others from Lübeck. Image by Clemens Scherer

Over the year the 70mm-theatre Schauburg in Karlsruhe (Germany) substantiated their announcements. "The anniversary of Todd-AO will be celebrated with a festival weekend, October, 7th to 9th, 2005, showing 10 feature films of the 65/70-process". Various necessary investments had been made in time to ensure a satisfied audience. A new and perfectly fitting 70mm-lens had been acquired and the 'DP75' had got a new intermittent sprocket. A reconditioned Dolby 'CP 200' unit had been installed to manage the Todd-AO 6-channel sound driving five stage speakers. The 'Magnetic Preamplifier Unit' (MPU) had been improved and DTS for 70mm featuring 'Special Venue Channel Layout' had been installed. Standard DTS provides only three stage channels, the original sound mix could only be reproduced in a blurry way. 'Special Venue' drives all speakers of the original Todd-AO-system.

Excitement increased, the closer October, 7th came. Friends had reserved a place for the night, I tested my apartment for its capacity limit. Weekend tickets were booked in advance - some 70mm-fans imagined, whole Karlsruhe would conquer the 'Schauburg' and feared to stay without tickets. Finally Friday came, the friends arrived and after having lunch together nothing could keep us back. In the foyer a 'DP70' was on display, equipped with an original Todd-AO-lens and threaded 70mm-print. There I met familiar faces seen in other 70mm-theatres before. I recognized people from all over Germany, Switzerland, Austria and France. Nearly everyone who understood what will be shown here took this unique opportunity.

Following Todd-AO, over the years other 65/70-systems came up. They copy the essential parameters exactly, only use different equipment - like cameras and lenses. Carefully done these pictures also show the Todd-AO-effect and may not be missed with a tribute to this system. "Patton" (1970) the initial movie of the festival has been taken in the D-150-system. I was quite excited because I had missed to see this new print before. The overture plays, slowly the light on the red velvet curtain fades down and out with the last sound. The curtain opens in the dark theatre. One moment later wide stripes in red and white appear, the curtain gives way for an oversized US-flag on the curved Todd-AO-screen. Then very small but well recognizable General Patton appears at the lower end of the frame which he uses as the ramp of a stage for his flaming speech. Steadiness of frame, focus and aspect ratio were correct. This opening sequence already showed, the screening was carefully adjusted - and this cannot always be taken for
granted. The sound-expert Gunter Oehme was attendant for the whole festival to fix eventually appearing problems immediately - what he could prove.

Late Friday afternoon Todd-AO took us back to the end of the 15th century with "The Agony And The Ecstasy" (1965). '20th Century Fox' had also reprinted the prologue "The Artist Who Did Not Want To Paint". It presents the work of the Italian artist Michelangelo but meanwhile there is a second interest: historic pictures of Rome in the year 1965 are shown in Todd-AO. This introduction belonged to the feature film but was not seen in Germany before. Following Irving Stone's novel the main picture really glares by Todd-AO. The exciting story about the confrontation and interdependency of two strong characters is borne by stage-ready dialogues. The rich and detailed decoration generates a strong presence. Every decorative stitching on the gorgeous costumes, every flourish on the glistering armour, every detail of the Sistine Chapel seems it can be touched. If you want to  experience "The Miracle Of Todd-AO" in its perfection my choice among the presently available new prints is this picture.

The evening performance was reserved for Barbra Streisand in "Hello, Dolly!" (1969). This movie proves that musicals may not be boring at all. Only the contemporary fashion to soften close-up views of female main characters is irritating, but Barbra Streisand had insisted on this. So Harry Stradling Sr. shuffled high definition frames with soft filtered close-ups. This creates a strange dynamic in definition with Todd-AO. On the other hand the movie increases speed continuously to culminate to the ultimate Todd-AO-firework with Dolly's appearance at 'Harmonia Gardens'. You have to experience personally leaving the cinema singing together "Say hello Dolly...". Afterwards at the 'Come Together' in the foyer there was occasion for exchange or simply to give way for own enthusiasm while receiving some festival souvenirs.

Saturday started with a 'Big Breakfast Buffet' at the Schauburg. This was a  good basis for survival if one intended to see all movies of the day. The lift-off was done by a competitive system again. Like expected, David Lean tells the story of "Ryan's Daughter" (1970) in 'Super Panavision'. Now a vintage print of the German version was screened, despite 'dye fading' it was still in good condition. The projection team rendered outstanding service with sensitive tweaking of focus whenever the main interest was led to the very side of the curved screen. Like with his previous pictures, David Lean inspires by watching closely his protagonists and their interwoven relationships.

At the early afternoon "Doctor Dolittle" (1967) was back together with his huge animal kingdom running from England to the south sea. We follow a chain of fantastic adventures on the search for the great pink sea snail. Beside the everlasting pink all colours are restored with this new print. It's very enjoyable to see how this picture is best supported by Todd-AO.

Right afterwards "Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines" (1965) swished through the Todd-AO-screen. I was very excited to see this new print  for the first time. Again I could laugh especially about the German officers of the 'Kaiserreich'. The elaborate reconstruction of historic airplanes enjoys the eye with plenty of details. The typical humour of this British production ensures this very funny movie to be a comedy highlight.

Saturday night was reserved for a gala performance. The 'Schauburg' had asked for evening dress and the audience followed in large parts for "My Fair Lady" (1964). Especially this event intended to attract the broad audience of Karlsruhe. Therefore the German dubbed version was presented, which linguistically moves the plot from London to Berlin. But the restoration provides only the original English version. So a vintage print was shown with 'dye fading' not to be ignored. However - as if professor Higgins suspected it - he gets Eliza a breathtaking evening dress in black and white. Murmur went through the audience when Audrey Hepburn enfolds an untouched impact wearing this.

Sunday started again with the mandatory breakfast buffet. The events of this morning were embraced by the theme 'Size does matter' and the 'Schauburg' had invited their audience to sneak in for free. For getting to know the 70mm-format in all its aspects nobody should be kept away by entrance fees.

After Herbert Born had welcome the audience Thomas Hauerslev took us back to 'The Early Days Of Todd-AO'. The lecture touched the impressive but complex 'CINERAMA'-system, which Michael Todd intended to simplify and improve with Todd-AO. Graphics enabled everybody to catch the points quite well. Design and development meant a demanding task for every engineer involved. Precise requirements determined the scope of development. As evidence Thomas Hauerslev presented the evolution of the special purpose printer 'Mark III'. Contemporary theatres adapted to present Todd-AO would eventually show three different optical distortions on the curved screen. 'Mark III' was designed to compensate them all right on the print. The highly complicated technique actually worked, but was dropped on the long run due to new arising problems with print quality. Although this part of the process was of no meaning for the later pictures it shows the idea behind Todd-AO quite plainly. This is all reported by then involved Walter Siegmund. His substantial interview by Thomas Hauerslev forms the completion of the festival's booklet.

Furthermore he had sent a cordial message of compliment for the audience of the Karlsruhe festival. At the end the comparable systems following Todd-AO remained untreated, this would have exceeded the given time frame. However, mentioning their existence and names could be helpful. Because the later shown 70mm-trailer of "Far and Away" concluded: "First Picture in Panavision Super 70" - and this in 1993. The non-professional audience reacted slightly irritated.

After the lecture exceptional examples for the usage of the 70mm-format were shown. First Oliver Brunet's "Fanny's Wedding", a French avant-garde film of the year 2000. This picture uses the high definition of the 70mm-print to play with the different character of 35mm- compared to 65mm-negative and black-and-white compared to colour. It surely eludes a definite interpretation, however, amongst others you could take it as an extreme tribute to the 65/70-process: whenever photographed in 35mm/b&w life of the protagonists is endangered by fascists, in 65mm/colour they have escaped to modern times, to safety.
Guenther Hertel and Daniel Heinrich from Freiburg. Image by Clemens Scherer

For "A Year Along The Abandoned Road" (1991) Morten Skallerud provided such an unbelievable effort that the use of the 'Panaflex 65' camera was more than justified. Above an abandoned road we float around a fiord in Norway while the hours and days pass by in different time lapse. To the music of Jan Garbarek, Morten Skallerud composes his impressions. People at the ferry's quay, a view to the stars of the night sky orbiting us. Always the way leads us further around the fiord towards the next season.

This program was completed by numerous interesting bits and pieces in 70mm. Advertisement, movie extracts, documentaries and trailers showed the maximum width of what was printed onto 70mm. The reason was not always Todd-AO picture quality. In later years only the increased colour density of the 70mm-film and the 6-channel magnetic sound were used - you are listening the 70mm-print. The flimsiest reason is simply the possibility to splice the prelude program to the feature film in 70mm. Therefore it is not right to call every 70mm-artefact "Todd-AO" - like 70mm-theatres always tended to do. Because then the label "Todd-AO" gets damaged and the huge effort to provide a pin sharp picture to the audience gets meaningless at the box office - especially if the number of screenings is very limited. For not confusing the audience one may accept that the numerous, comparable 65/70-systems are embraced by the term "Todd-AO", but everything else is solely "presented in 70mm".

The festival's last afternoon began with "Airport" (1970). The first Todd-AO picture with the plot residing in production's present. We reached the seventies, decoration is modern plain - at least compared to the possibilities offered by historic plots. With the dawn of our modern times the continuous usage of all 65mm-recording-systems soon ended. For the short term, the advantage at the box office was judged to be marginal, smaller than the increased effort of a 65mm- compared to 35mm-production. Furthermore 70mm-prints have been struck - now a 'blow up' of a 35mm-negative - and advertised like before.

"Airport" was presented in a vintage, German dubbed version. Despite slight 'dye fading' it still proves, that Todd-AO even here supports the intension of the movie - to attract the audience - in a natural way. Later 35mm-productions try to compensate for the reduction of picture presence by increasing 'action'. This cannot work entirely. Many were impatiently waiting for the next to last movie of this festival.

40 years after production this presentation was the German premiere of "The Sound Of Music" (1965) in full length. The story of the Austrian family 'von Trapp' is based on true occasion. Surely this heart touching plot arrests the attention of the audience. Therefore the Todd-AO-process being slightly compromised is hardly recognized. Arguably with respect to the numerous child-actors of all age, production abstained from the usual strong lightning and close approach of the camera. So Ted McCord often had to open aperture and to apply longer focal length. Both causes smaller depth of focus and asks the 'focus puller' for high-precision. So the familiar Todd-AO-definition cannot reach everything around. However, focus is always at the spot where Robert Wise needs it.

The festival closed with "2001: A Space Odyssey". In 1968 Stanley Kubrick managed to create the perfect illusion of weightless habitation in hostile space - using the ultimate help of Super Panavision 70. Returning with Apollo 8 from first orbiting the moon the astronauts were asked how it had been in space. Their answer: "Indescribable... - just like in Kubrick's 2001".

Every owner of a weekend ticket could leave this great festival with a frame of "2001" cut out of a redundant piece of vintage material. For this weekend Karlsruhe became centre of the world from a cinematographic point of view.

The next day was October, 10th, 2005. Right on the day fifty years ago the very first Todd-AO feature film "Oklahoma!" premiered in New York City. No way to beat the celebration of this anniversary. Our thanks to Herbert Born and the whole team for this successful festival. With good hopes we now await the rebirth of more classics.

We are curious about the coming festival '100 years of Schauburg' already announced for October, 6th to 8th, 2006. After decades The Miracle Of Todd-AO - we nearly lost believe in - is back in full vitality, for me this still appears to be a miracle.
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Updated 21-01-24