When movies went wide

CineramaLong before IMAX, audiences were astounded by a film tech called Cinerama. Richard Holliss looks back at the pioneering widescreen format… that you can now enjoy on Blu-rayAt the end of this year, movie fans across the country will pile into their local state-of-the-art IMAX cinema to watch the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, hoping to be blown away by the sound and image as well as the return of Han, Luke, RD-D2 et al. Cinema is about spectacle – but that’s not a new idea…

A little over 60 years ago audiences screamed and gripped the armrests of their seats when, to their amazement, they found themselves lurching to and fro, not with the crew of the Millennium Falcon, but in the company of thrillseekers on a harrowing New York rollercoaster ride – courtesy of a new form of film technology called Cinerama. It was a reaction that the Hollywood studios, aiming to win back a public besotted with TV, were hoping for.In fact, the arrival of Cinerama couldn’t have been more timely. With box offi ce receipts falling by 50 per cent between 1948 and 1952, the majority of the Hollywood studios (with the exception of Walt Disney – the only producer to fully appreciate the potential of television) retaliated against home entertainment with a number of popular, if shortlived gimmicks, including 3D and Smell-O-Vision. Neither of which could rival the public’s positive response to widescreen films.Acclaimed at the time by esteemed film critic Bosley Crowther as ‘an historic event in the history of motion pictures’, the first Cinerama film This Is Cinerama (1952) opened with a brief prologue in black-and-white on an average-sized screen hosted by the documentary filmmaker and official voice of Fox Movietone News, Lowell Thomas. Then, with an explosion of seven-channel stereophonic sound, the curtains drew back to a full 146 degrees and the world’s first commercial widescreen format burst forth onto a 51ft screen. To further enhance the experience for audiences, a sound engineer sat through each and every performance mixing the audio tracks to achieve the most impressive multispeaker effect. Cinemagoers lapped it up – This is Cinerama was an enormous success, grossing nearly five million dollars on its initial release. Widescreen cinema was born, and only a year later the first CinemaScope movie hit theatres.Cinerama insideTo reach fruition, Cinerama had to overcome a number of difficulties, the most problematic of which was achieving the correct perspective when filling a movie screen that was built to extend to the periphery of the human eye.Fred Waller (the man who devised the Cinerama process and whose earlier multi-camera/projector Vitarama system had been successfully adapted into World War II gunnery training devices), used three 35mm cameras with 27mm lenses, each set up to cover one third of the complete image. To further complicate matters the cameras were designed to film across each other’s point of view. In other words, the left-hand camera shot the right-hand side of the completed picture and vice versa. In theatres, three projectors, electronically locked with selsyn motors and placed across the back of the auditorium, ensured a perfectly synchronised panorama on the newly fitted screen.Unsurprisingly, there was marginal overlap where the images combined, particularly noticeable in the earlier travelogues. For the only two commercial feature films shot in the Cinerama process – The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) and How the West Was Won (1963) – the directors would line up, where possible, the overlapping edges of the pictures against a vertical object, such as a tree or a post.The limitations of the format during filming and the cost of customising cinemas to show the films resulted in Cinerama eventually being superseded by rival single-film strip formats, including CinemaScope, Panavision, Todd-AO and VistaVision. In fact, there were only seven three-camera/three-projector Cinerama movies made between 1952 and 1963, including a total of five travelogues. The majority of these included impressive aerial photography of America’s cities and national parks, accompanied by lush musical scores from Dimitri Tiomkin, Jerome Moross and Alex North. Due to the subject matter, the movies were also considered very patriotic at a time when the Cold War dominated the headlines. Cinerama is, after all, an anagram of the word ‘American’.The last two films in the format (the aforementioned The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and the star-studded How the West Was Won) were produced by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and shot in the newly christened, but short-lived Super Cinerama. But the films’ directors, including Henry Levin, John Ford and Henry Hathaway, all struggled to cope with the unwieldy 150-pound three-lensed camera, while the studio pressured them to avoid retakes in order to save on the colossal cost of film stock.After 1963, Cinerama continued in name alone, the cumbersome technology being replaced with a single-lens 70mm format. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963) was the first film shot on one piece of film instead of three, and this was followed by a number of other ‘Cinerama’ movies shot in various Panavision formats including Grand Prix (1966) and the seminal 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).After a limited single-lens re-issue of This Is Cinerama in 1972, the format gave way to new and more elaborate largescreen systems such as Omnimax and IMAX. Ironically, like Cinerama itself had been in the ’50s, IMAX technology was first used for documentary subjects (Disney’s Fantasia 2000 being the first actual feature shot in the process). Since then, however, the IMAX format has been adapted for local multiplexes and by numerous studios and directors, added 3D to its repertoire and made a play for domestic setups… provided you have £1.8m.Skip forward to the present day, and home cinema enthusiasts can get a taste of the original Cinerama experience. Thanks to historically-focused independent distributor Flicker Alley, all five of the Cinerama travelogues are now available on Blu-ray and DVD in a unique format that recaptures the illusion of Cinerama’s original deep-curved screen. Called Smilebox, it made its debut on the MGM Blu-ray release of How the West Was Won. Restoration and Smilebox simulation of MGM’s saga of the old West was easier thanks to the excellent condition of most of the archive material. However, the only prints in existence for the Cinerama travelogues were all in poor shape, so a lengthy process was undertaken by project head David Strohmaier and specialist cleanup teams at two digital houses (Furnacecore and Image Trends), including colour grading the three separate camera negatives so they matched perfectly on screen, and digitally removing camera flaring at the image join. The final results are startling restorations from analogue film to hi-def digital masters.Of course, it goes without saying that to truly appreciate the Smilebox format and the impressive dimensions of Cinerama you need a 50in-plus TV, or, better still, a home projector. Then you can bring the white-knuckle thrills of This is Cinerama’s rollercoaster into your very own cinema room.

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