Saturday, February 25, 2017

This Was Cinerama: Placing the audience into the movie

In 1952, people lined up around blocks in major cities to witness some new, fresh and dramatic that had arrived at their local movie theaters.


After decades of viewing movies on traditional-sized theater screens, the wide screen format had arrived thanks to Fred Waller, a Brooklyn-born inventor and special effects artist working at Paramount Studios. Waller had devised a revolutionary wide-screen process that combined footage shot simultaneously using three cameras at separate angles. Projected together, they created a single, very wide image.

From Wikipedia:

The photographic system used 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 crisscross 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 that was not only three times as wide as a standard film but covered 146 degrees of arc, close to the human field of vision, including peripheral vision. The image was photographed six sprocket holes high, rather than the usual four used in other 35 mm processes. The picture was photographed and projected at 26 frames per second rather than the usual 24.

Although Waller was an innovator, his invention sat on the proverbial shelf for several years. Waller and his friend, Hazard "Buzz " Reeves, one of the country's top sound engineers with whom he had first worked at the Eastman Kodak exhibit at the 1939 World's Fair, shared it with journalist and broadcaster Lowell Thomas.

Thomas, with prominent film producer Mike Todd and, later, producer Merian C. Cooper, produced the first film to use this new process, a travelogue entitled "This is Cinerama," which opened at the Broadway Theater in New York on September 30, 1952. It was a huge event attended by numerous VIPs. It was even featured on the from page of the New York Times.

As audience members sat in the darkened theater, a black-and-white film began that featured traditional movie footage, followed by Lowell Thomas introducing the film. With his words, "This is Cinerama!" the curtains opened as Thomas image was replaced with dramatic wide screen point-of-view footage of a roller coaster, the Atom Smasher from Rockaway's Playland, ascending the tracks, launching a stunning, immersive audience experience.

View it here.

While the Cinerama experience was indeed remarkable, it was also very expensive to produce. Also, the image wasn't quite seamless, as there were visible lines where the three images joined. Still, it was a novel approach to entertainment that audiences enjoyed for a few years.

Only a few Cinerama films were made before the process gave way to other, newer (though less dramatic) widescreen formats like Cinemascope. Years later, the IMAX and Omnimax dome formats would take audience immersion to new levels.

If you'd like to know more about Cinerama, check out Dave Strohmaier's excellent documentary "Cinerama Adventure."

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