Glorious Widescreen in Three Panels
Completed 6 years ago and seen only in theatrical venues, David Strohmaier's nostalgic documentary on the revolutionary wide film format finally makes its DVD debut as part of Warner Bros.' How the West Was Won [HTWWW] set on Disc 3.
Cinerama is significant because it kick-started the second attempt at bringing wide film formats to mass motion picture audiences after an early burp of widescreen films between 1928 and 1930, which included UA's The Bat Whispers (1930) in Magnifilm, and Fox' The Big Trail (1930) in the Grandeur format. But in 1952, the Cinerama's timing benefited from studios desperately trying to find some way to lure audiences back from the influential and very free programs on TV.
When This is Cinerama debuted in 1952, the film astonished audiences and studio execs alike, and prompted Fox to develop and implement CinemaScope ASAP, a cheaper anamorphic process that spawned a whole slew of imitators, like Superscope and VistaVision. Cinerama, however, was a process owned by a handful of investors and was exhibited in specialty theaters no longer wholly controlled by the major studios. It was, in essence, an indie outfit who made their own rules, refined the technology through each production (largely travelogues for suburbanized nuclear families), and remained for a while the upscale wide film format before the travelogues it relied on became tiresome, and the shift towards dramatic productions was inevitably made, beginning and ending with the MGM co-productions The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and HTWWW in 1962.
So why so few dramatic films?
Like the original 3-strip Technicolor format in use from the early thirties to the mid-fifties, the Cinerama camera had three film magazines that recorded images from three separate angles. Technicolor used a prism to split colours into each roll of film for a single ‘square' image (1.33:1) projected onscreen, whereas Cinerama had a lens for each angle, and each roll of film constituted one panel. The three film panels, when projected side-by-side, produced an image roughly 2.58:1 – a massive panorama designed to fill one's peripheral vision.
Rival anamorphic, single-lens format CinemaScope, which began as a 2.55:1 ratio and settled down to the now-standardized 2.35:1 was big, but Cinerama was also projected on a curved 120 degree screen that enveloped a smaller audience base, placing them closer to the giant visuals. The curved screen, which wrapped around and filled an audience's peripheral vision, was also louvered to allow the extensive 7-track discrete sound system to hit audiences hard with rich sound and music tracks. In terms of showmanship, Cinerama rocked, but in terms of expense, it was a costly format requiring a lot of exhibition gear in far fewer theaters than those who had converted screens and sound systems for Fox' CinemaScope and 4-track Perspecta surround sound playback.
With travelogues falling out of vogue and single-lens widescreen formats like CinemaScope and Panavision emerging as the format winners, Cinerama was also more problematic for dramatic film directors and actors because the choice of shots, angles, compositions, and actor blocking had to be different. From what the interviewed cast members of HTWWW recall, while impressive on the big screen, it was a pain to adapt to a more fluid, cost-efficient style of shooting. Why go through the multiple camera lens/film reel/projection headaches when single lens formats like Ultra Panavision 70 (aka MGM Camera 65) offered more versatility in films like Ben-Hur (1959), albeit projected at an average 2.5:1 ratio?
HTWWW is part of the doc's closing section, but without question, the most amazing chapters deal with the ingenious and crazy personnel who created the format, and pioneered wide film cinematography as well as surround sound.
Strohmaier's research is filled with wonderful nuggets that isolate some of the company's most colourful characters, including co-investor Michael Todd (who shot part of This is Cinerama before he was ousted and setup his own wide film format, Todd-AO), sound engineer Hazard Reeves (who developed the 6 and subsequent 7 track discrete magnetic audio system), cinematographer Harry Squire, pilot Paul Mantz, film producer Lowell Thomas, and the format's chief inventor, Fred Waller.
Waller was a truly brilliant man, because Cinerama was derived from his prior invention, Vitarama, which used 11 lenses linked to 11 film camera that spat paneled image in a domed theater. Debuting at the 1939 World's Fair, Vitarama later found use as a flight simulator for WII gunners, training them to hit fast-moving targets prior to their term in airborne bombers. The system played like an electronic videogame, with each of the two trainees wearing headphones that played sound effects as well as beeps whenever they hit a target.
The complete peripheral vision sphere that Waller perfected for military use was ‘decommissioned' after the war, and was distilled into the 3-lens Cinerama system in 1952 and ran for ten years before it was replaced by a single lens system, and then lived only as a brand name for 70mm exhibition - It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Krakatoa, East of Java (1969), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) - and straight distribution under the Cinerama Releasing moniker (Bluebeard, Ben), until it disappeared for good in 1978.
Film fans know the allure and prestige the name still conjures, and it's arguably a dream for film buffs to experience true Cinerama at least once in their lives, because there really was/is nothing like it. (Today's IMAX and the domed OMNIMAX formats, as well as Showscan, owe a greta deal to Waller's processes.)
Strohmaier painstakingly covers the format's development as well as its novel exhibition practices, the traveling international shows, and some of the adventures crews had while shooting travelogues in isolated and raw pockets of the world.
In addition to many stills, behind-the-scenes footage, interviews with former technicians, associates, and historians, there are film clips from rare films like This is Cinerama (1952), Cinerama Holiday (1953), Seven Wonders of the World (1956), Search for Paradise (1957), South Seas Adventure (1958), and Seven Wonders of the World (which includes an insane flight over and around a smoldering volcano). MIA, however, are clips from The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.
Warner Bros.' new DVD of HTWWW presents that film in a flat letterboxed format, whereas Strohmaier uses a ‘smilebox' format for the 3-panel clips – a kind of pinched screen that gives an impression of what it was like to see the screen as it seemed to expand outwards at the edges. It takes a few seconds to get use to, but it works quite well. (In addition to the flat version, the Blu-Ray edition of HTWWW includes a smilebox version as well.)
Strohmaier's film is a great testament to a unique format that had a potent impact on how we see and hear movies today, as well as videogames. Cinerama was a participatory format, and it offered exotic images from far away places average folks had never seen before, hence the travelogue popularity. Cinematically, the genre and exotic elements ultimately morphed into mondo films (celebrating cruelty and weirdness in place of splendor) during the sixties, and aurally one had fifties exotica albums that ran with the stereophonic format in gimmicky concepts designed to ‘evoke' exotic lands through music styles distilled into easy listening and lounge schmatlz.
Even if one's impression of HTWWW is less than favourable, the set is worth picking up for the Strohmaier's doc, which manages to build anticipation as various images and sounds simulate the format's debut in front of a wowed audience. On the plus side, Warner Bros.' set gives Strohmaier's film total international distribution on home video, but one suspects had the film been given its own DVD release, it would've come packed with its own set of exciting extras.
Now if only the original Cinerama films would exist on DVD…
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan