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Cinerama

From Academic Kids

For the UK rock group, see: Cinerama (band)

The original Cinerama system is a widescreen process which works by simultaneously projecting images from three synchronized 35 mm projectors onto a huge, deeply-curved screen, subtending 146º of arc. The screen is made of adjacent vertical strips, each of which faces the audience, in order to prevent light scattered from one side of the curve from impinging on the other side. The spectacular display is accompanied by a high-quality, six-track, stereophonic sound system.

The original system involved shooting with three synchronized cameras sharing a single shutter, but this was later abandoned in favour of an 65 mm system, shot with a single camera. (Aficionados, however, insist that the later processes were inferior.) Although one of Cinerama's single-film descendants, Ultra Panavision 70, used an anamorphic adaptor, neither three strip Cinerama or its other 65 mm descendant, Super Panavision 70, used anamorphic lenses, although 35 mm anamorphic reduction prints were produced for exhibition in theatres with anamorphic Cinemascope-compatible projection lenses.

Contents

History

Cinerama was developed by Fred Waller and was the outgrowth of many years of development. A forerunner was the triple-screen silent Napoléon made in 1927 by Abel Gance; Gance's classic was considered lost in the 1950s, however; it existed only by hearsay, and Waller could not have actually seen it. Waller had earlier developed an 11-projector system called "Vitarama" at the Petroleum Industry exhibit in the 1939 New York World's Fair. A five-camera version, the Waller Gunnery Trainer, was used during the Second World War.

The word "Cinerama" combines cinema with panorama, the origin of all the "-orama" neologisms. ("Cinerama" is also an anagram of "American.")

Cinerama was introduced in September, 1952, at the Broadway Theatre in New York.

The photographic system involved three interlocked 35 mm cameras equipped with 27 mm lenses, approximately the focal length of the human eye. Each camera photographed one third of the picture shooting in a criss-cross pattern, the right camera shooting the left part of the image, the left camera shooting the right part of the image and the center camera shooting straight ahead. The three cameras were mounted as one unit, set at 48 degrees to each other. A single rotating shutter in front of the three lenses assured simultaneous exposure on each of the films. The three angled cameras photographed an image which was not only 3 times as wide as a standard film, but photographed a wide angle image photographing 146 degrees of arc, close to the human field of vision, including the peripheral vision. The image was photographed 6 sprocket holes high, rather than the usual 4 used in other 35 mm processes. And the picture was photographed and projected at 26 frames per second rather than the usual 24.

In the theater, Cinerama projected from 3 projection booths shooting back in the same criss-cross pattern as the cameras. They projected onto a deeply curved screen made of over 1100 strips of material mounted on "louvers" like a sideways venetian blind. This was a big-ticket, reserved-seats spectacle, and the Cinerama projectors were usually adjusted carefully and operated skillfully. Vibrating combs called "gigolos" were used to provide a linearly-ramped shading at the edge of each frame, so that they joined without a grossly obvious line or seam. Great care was taken in to match color and brightness when producing the prints. Nevertheless, the joins between the three panels were usually noticeable. Optical limitations with the design of the camera itself meant that if distant scenes joined perfectly, closer objects did not. A nearby object might split into two as it crossed the seams. To avoid calling attention to the seams, scenes were often composed with unimportant objects such as trees or posts at the seams, and action was blocked to as to center actors within panels. This gave a distinctly "triptych-like" appearance to the composition even when the seams themselves were not obvious. Enthusiasts say the seams were not obtrusive; detractors differ. Lowell Thomas, an investor in the company with Mike Todd, was still raving about the process in his memoirs thirty years later.

In addition to the visual impact of the image, Cinerama was one of the first processes to use multitrack magnetic sound. The system developed by Hazard Reeves, one of the Cinerama investors , played back from a 35 mm 6 and later 7 track sound film, through 5 speakers behind the screen for truly directional sound. A surround track [later two] played back through speakers in the auditorium with a sound engineer directing the sound between the surrond speakers according to a script. The projectors and sound system were synchronized by a system using selsyn motors.

The system had some obvious drawbacks. If one of the films should break and be repaired with the damaged frames cut out, the corresponding frames would have to be cut from the other two films in order to preserve synchronization. The use of zoom lenses was impossible since the three images would no longer match. Perhaps the biggest limitation of the process is that the picture looks natural only from within a rather limited "sweet spot." Viewed from outside the sweet spot, the picture is annoyingly distorted. But these problems certainly did not stop moviegoers from appreciating this innovative wide-screen process.

Worthy of note is the special Cinerama screen, which consisted of hundreds of separate vertical strips. This design eliminated cross-reflections on the deeply curved screen. Anyone who has seen the washed-out appearance of an IMAX Dome presentation will appreciate why this was important.

The impact these films had on the big screen cannot be assessed from television or video, or even from 'scope prints, which marry the three images together with the joins clearly visible. Because they were designed to be seen on a curved screen, the geometry looks distorted on television; somebody walking from left to right would appear to approach the camera at an angle, move away at an angle, and then repeat the process on the other side of the screen.

During the fifties, Cinerama was presented as a theatrical event, with reserved seating and printed programs. Patrons would dress up to attend.

Although most of the films produced using the original three-strip Cinerama process were full feature length or longer, they were travelogues or collections of short subjects such as This Is Cinerama (1952) the first film shot in Cinerama. Other travelogues presented in Cinerama were "Cinerama Holiday" (1955); "Seven Wonders of the World" (1955); "Search for Paradise" (1957); "Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958). There was also one commercial short, "Renault Dauphin" (1960). Even as the Cinerama travelogues were beginning to lose audiences in the late 50s, "Windjammer" (1958), a spectacular travelogue was released in a competing process called Cinemiracle which claimed to have less notceable dividing lines on the screen thanks to the reflection of the side images off of mirrors (this also allowed all three projectors to be in the same booth). Due to the small number of Cinemiracle theatres, specially converted prints of "Windjammer" were shown in Cinerama theatres in Cities which did not have Cinemiracle theaters, and ultimately Cinerama bought up the process.

Only two films with traditional story lines were made--The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won. In order to make these films compatible with single film systems for later standard releases, they were shot at 24 frame/s, not the 26 frame/s of traditional Cinerama.

Single-Film "Cinerama:" Ultra-Panavision 70 and Super-Panavision 70

Rising costs in making three-camera wide-screen films caused Cinerama to stop making such films in their original form shortly after the first release of How The West Was Won. The use of Ultra-Panavision 70 for certain scenes (such as the river raft sequence) later printed onto the three Cinerama panels, proved that a more or less satisfactory wide screen image could be photographed without the three cameras. Consequently, Cinerama discontinued the three film process, with the exception of a single theater showing Cinerama's Russian Adventure shot in a copycat Soviet process in 1966. Cinerama continued through the rest of the 1960s as a brand-name used initially with the Ultra-Panavision 70 widescreen process (which yielded a similar aspect ratio as the original Cinerama, although it did not simulate the 146 degree field of view.) Specially modified "rectified" prints were necessary to project this onto the curved screen. The films shot in Ultra Panavision for single lens Cinerama presentation were It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Khartoum (1966).

Following the use of Ultra-Panavision 70, the less wide but still spectacular Super Panavision 70 was used to film, Grand Prix (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968), Krakatoa, East of Java (1969), and Song of Norway (1970).

Two films were shot in the somewhat lower resolution Super Technirama 70 process for Cinerama release, these were Circus World (1964) and Custer of the West (1967). By now what was advertised as "Cinerama" was a pale reflection of the original 3 film process.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cinerama name was used as a film distribution company, ironically re-issuing one-camera Cinemascope reduction prints of This Is Cinerama (1972).

Cinerama's premiere

Cinerama premiered on September 30, 1952. The New York Times judged it to be front-page news. Notables attending included: New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey; violinist Fritz Kreisler; James A. Farley; Metropolitan Opera manager Rudolph Bing; NBC chairman David Sarnoff; CBS chairman William S. Paley; Broadway composer Richard Rodgers; and Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer.

Writing in the New York Times a few days after the system premiered, film critic Bosley Crowther wrote:

Somewhat the same sensations that the audience in Koster and Bial's Music Hall must have felt on that night, years ago, when motion pictures were first publicly flashed on a large screen were probably felt by the people who witnessed the first public showing of Cinerama the other night... the shrill screams of the ladies and the pop-eyed amazement of the men when the huge screen was opened to its full size and a thrillingly realistic ride on a roller-coaster was pictured upon it, attested to the sock of the surprise. People sat back in spellbound wonder as the scenic program flowed across the screen. It was really as though most of them were seeing motion pictures for the first time.... the effect of Cinerama in this its initial display is frankly and exclusively "sensational," in the literal sense of that word.

While observing that the system "may be hailed as providing a new and valid entertainment thrill," Crowther expressed some skeptical reserve, saying "the very size and sweep of the Cinerama screen would seem to render it impractical for the story-telling techniques now employed in film.... It is hard to see how Cinerama can be employed for intimacy. But artists found ways to use the movie. They may well give us something brand-new here."

A technical review by Waldemar Kaempfert published in the Times the same day hailed the system. He praised the stereophonic sound system and noted that "the fidelity of the sounds was irreproachable. Applause in La Scala sounded like the clapping of hands and not like pieces of wood slapped together." He noted, however that "There is nothing new about these stereophonic sound effects. The Bell Telephone Laboratories and Prof. Harold Burris-Meyer of Stevens Institute of Technology demonstrated the underlying principles years ago."

It is unlikely that Cinerama was ever presented better than at its premiere. Nevertheless, Kaempfert noted:

There is no question that Waller has made a notable advance in cinematography. But it must be said that at the sides of his gigantic screen there is some distortion more noticeable in some parts of the house than in others. The three projections were admirably blended, yet there were visible bands of demarcation on the screen.

Cinerama today

The Cinerama company exists today as an entity of the Pacific Theatres chain. In recent years hard work by dedicated enthusiasts has made possible showings of surviving and new Cinerama prints, notably at:

As of 2004, the Pictureville Cinema, Martin Cinerama and Cinerama Dome continue to hold periodic screenings of three-projector Cinerama movies.

A 2003 documentary, The Cinerama Adventure, took a look back at the history of the Cinerama process, as well as digitally recreating the Cinerama experience via clips of true Cinerama films (using transfers from original Cinerama prints). And Turner Entertainment (via Warner Bros.) has struck new Cinerama prints of How The West Was Won for exhibition in true Cinerama theatres around the world.

Cinerama is widely considered the most impressive wide-screen process ever to have achieved commercial success, and a process ahead of its time. Every other system--Todd-AO, Cinemascope, even IMAX, can be fairly described as attempts, with varying degrees of success, to approximate Cinerama at lower cost.


References

  • New Movie Projection System Shown Here; Giant Wide Angle Screen Utilized. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, October 1, 1952, p. 1
  • Apparently Solid Motion Pictures Produced by Curved Screen and Peripheral Vision. Waldemar Kaempffert, The New York Times, October 5, 1952 p. E9
  • Looking at Cinerama: An Awed and Quizzical Inspection of a New Film Projection System. Bosley Crowther, The New York Tiimes, October 5, 1952 p. X1

External links

  • Cinerama (http://cinerama.topcities.com/) Detailed information on the history of Cinerama
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