Friday, October 24, 2008

"This Is. . . . . . Cinerama!!"

The most incredible movie experience of my life happened in the summer of 1962 when my parents and I went to see This Is Cinerama. Even 46 years later I can recall the impact of the opening roller coaster shot and how I literally had the physical sensation of motion------including up and down movement-----during it. More contemporary big screen formats, like IMAX, pale in comparison to Cinerama. It was as close to "virtual reality" as motion pictures have ever come.

Cinerama's astonishing visual impact was based on a simple idea: to capture and reproduce the same image normal human vision would see of a scene. That works out to a field of vision equivalent to 146 degrees. This meant Cinerama could approximate our peripheral vision------what we see out of the corners of our eyes. Since peripheral vision is responsible for our visual perception of motion, balance, and depth, the Cinerama picture could produce those perceptions in the audience.

To achieve this wide field of vision, the Cinerama camera simultaneously exposed three roles of film using a common motor drive and shutter for uniform focus. The camera used three lenses offset from each other by 48 degrees; each filmed one-third of the final Cinerama image. To reduce "flicker," Cinerama movies were filmed (and projected) at a speed of 26 feet per second (fps) instead of the standard 24 fps used for 35 mm film.

When Cinerama films were shown, the filming process was reversed. Three spools of film were simultaneously projected using a common motor drive to synchronize the three parts of the image. To enhance the peripheral vision effects, the screen was curved so the left and right parts of the image were closer to the audience. The image below is one I scanned from a This Is Cinerama souvenir program, and shows the layout of a typical Cinerama theater:

In the image above, note the speakers behind the screen. Cinerama's sound system was just as revolutionary as its visual system. It was recorded on a separate 35mm magnetic tape at a speed of 29 inches per second (ips); this was at a time when tapes used to make phonograph records were recorded at a speed of only 15 ips. Sound was recorded in seven separate channels, with five of the channels behind the screen, one to the side of the audience, and one behind the audience. The system was 100% analog, meaning it could reproduce sound more accurately and clearly than today's 100% digital CDs and MP3 files. The recording and audio playback equipment used vacuum tubes, which likewise produced better sound than today's solid state audio gear. (Don't take my world for it; ask any professional musician who still uses a tube-based Marshall amp, for example.) Acoustics were a key design element for all Cinerama theaters. All of this is why I am much less than impressed with today's theater audio systems, like THX. Their harsh, overly processed sound is much less realistic than what I remember from Cinerama.

What was it like to be in the Cinerama audience? Here's an image I scanned from a This Is Cinerama souvenir postcard. It gives a good idea of what the screen looked like from your seat; the picture was overwhelming:

Cinerama was the brainchild of Fred Waller, a jack-of-all-trades inventor with over 1000 patents to his credit (his other great invention was water skis!). Cinerama grew out of his work in World War II to develop an aerial gunnery and bombing trainer for pilots. The system he devised used five separate 35mm cameras and projected the image on a spherical dome screen. Students were able to move around inside the dome to simulate tracking and firing upon enemy fighters. And those students raved about how realistic the training was; it was easy to transfer their skills to actual aircraft.

Waller incorporated Cinerama, Inc., in 1946 to adapt the system for commercial motion pictures. And it's here where things get controversial. Waller claimed the three projector Cinerama system was solely his idea, but a similar system had been briefly used by French director Abel Gance at the end of his 1927 epic Napoleon. Gance wanted a spectacular conclusion to his film, and the final five minutes of the movie, featuring enormous battle scenes and Napoleon's pet eagle soaring overhead, were filmed with three separate, overlapping cameras and then projected with three separate, overlapping projectors on a wide screen.

I had the opportunity to see a restored print of Napoleon in 1981 at New York's Radio City Music Hall, and the effect in the closing sequence was eerily like Cinerama. There was a pronounced sense of depth and motion (something I have never experienced in any other black and white film, especially a silent one!). Gance was a well known director when Waller began his career, and Napoleon had played New York during the time Waller lived there. I have not found any quote from Waller, or in Cinerama's promotional materials, acknowledging Gance's pioneering work with a three camera/three projector process, but it's difficult for me to believe Waller was unaware of Gance's technique-----the similarities are just too numerous and immediately obvious to even casual observers. Thus, I think Gance deserves just as much credit for Cinerama as Waller.

Cinerama was conceived as a way movie theaters could compete with television, and Cinerama movies were intended to be exhibited much like Broadway plays-----one performance nightly, matinees on weekends, reserved seats, souvenir programs, an intermission, and premium ticket prices that were three or four times the admission of ordinary movies. A Cinerama movie was intended to be an event! Below is a souvenir program for This Is Cinerama I have in my collection:

This Is Cinerama had its world premiere in New York City on September 30, 1952. Despite playing only three months at one theater, This Is Cinerama was the highest grossing film of 1952. In the years that followed, new Cinerama-equipped theaters opened around the country and world. The high water mark was reached in 1963, when over 130 theaters worldwide were equipped for Cinerama.

But Cinerama never became the commercial success its backers expected. One problem was the lack of a plot in 1950s Cinerama movies. Cinerama, Inc., was a movie technology company, not a movie company, and its films reflected a total lack of storytelling skill. Cinerama movies were glorified travelogues in which the "plot," such as it was, involved people traveling around the world to gape at incredible sights or to take high speed trips aboard airplanes, trains, speedboats, etc. The titles reflected their content: Cinerama Holiday, South Seas Adventure, Seven Wonders Of The World, Search For Paradise, etc. They all seemed like home movies of a vacation to exotic places, except for being filmed in Cinerama instead of 8mm. And the audiences for each film declined from the previous one. By 1960, Cinerama, Inc., was struggling to stay afloat financially.

Cinerama got a reprieve in 1961 when it entered into an agreement with Metro Goldwyn Mayer to produce new feature films in Cinerama. Two pictures emerged from this venture: The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm, a biographical film of the two fairy tale authors that featured plenty of special effects, and How The West Was Won, a sprawling historical/adventure epic with stars such as Jimmy Stewart. Below is a scan from the latter's publicity materials; it gives you a good idea of what it was like to be inside a Cinerama theater:

Unfortunately, MGM discovered Cinerama to be too costly a process to justify its continued use and ended its association with Cinerama, Inc., in early 1963. Unable to find another filmmaking partner, Cinerama stopped making new movies altogether. They felt the name "Cinerama" still had value, however, so they developed an alternative to three camera/projector Cinerama. This, dubbed "Ultra Cinerama," used a single 70mm camera and a "squeeze" lens to compress a larger image onto the film; a special 70mm projector "unsqueezed" the image, producing a widescreen image that had the same aspect ratio (that is, height and width) as an original Cinerama image. However, its field of vision was only 80 degrees instead of the 146 degrees provided by original Cinerama. This was too narrow to simulate the effects of peripheral vision, so the result was a much less spectacular visual experience than original Cinerama. In many ways, Ultra Cinerama is much like IMAX; both produce large images but without the field of view or resolution that made original Cinerama so remarkable.

Cinerama licensed Ultra Cinerama for use in various movies (the most notable being 2001: A Space Odyssey) but it was not enough to keep the company solvent. In 1978, Cinerama, Inc. was acquired by Pacific Theatres, and they were mainly interested in the theater properties Cinerama owned and not the Cinerama filmmaking process.

Today, only three theaters in the world are still equipped for Cinerama and still show films made in original three camera/projector Cinerama: the Pictureville Cinema at the National Museum of Photography, Film, and Television in Bradford, England, the Seattle Cinerama in Seattle, WA, and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood, CA. Ironically, the latter was built by Cinerama, Inc., to show Ultra Cinerama films and showed no three camera/projector Cinerama films until it was renovated in 2002!

It's a shame no Cinerama theater is operating in a place that receives a ton of visitors, like Las Vegas. But if you ever find yourself in Los Angeles, Seattle, or Bradford and a Cinerama film is playing, by all means see it! It will be the greatest movie experience of your life.