Cinerama is the trademarked name for a widescreen process which works by simultaneously projecting images from three synchronized 35 mm projectors onto a huge, deeply-curved screen, subtending 146° of arc. It is also the trademarked name for the corporation which was formed to market it. It was the first of a number of such processes introduced during the 1950s, when the movie industry was reacting to competition from television. Cinerama was presented to the public as a theatrical event, with reserved seating and printed programs, and audience members often dressed in best attire for the evening.
The Cinerama projection screen, rather than being a continuous surface like most screens, is made of hundreds of individual vertical strips of standard perforated screen material, each about 7/8 inch (~22 mm) wide, with each strip angled to face the audience, so as to prevent light scattered from one end of the deeply-curved screen from reflecting across the screen and washing out the image on the opposite end.1 The display is accompanied by a high-quality, seven-track discrete directional surround sound system.
The original system involved shooting with three synchronized cameras sharing a single shutter. This was later abandoned in favour of a system using a single camera and 70mm prints. This latter system lost the 146° field of view of the original three-strip system and the resolution was markedly lower. Three-strip Cinerama did not use anamorphic lenses, although two of the systems used to produce the 70mm prints (Ultra Panavision 70 and Super Technirama 70) did employ anamorphics. Later, 35mm anamorphic reduction prints were produced for exhibition in theatres with anamorphic Cinemascope-compatible projection lenses.
Process and Production
Cinerama was invented by Fred Waller and commercially developed by Waller and Merian C. Cooper. It was the outgrowth of many years of development. A forerunner was the triple-screen final sequence in the silent Napoléon made in 1927 by Abel Gance; Gance’s classic was considered lost in the 1950s, however, known of 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 (the word “panorama” comes from the Greek words “pan”, meaning all, and “orama”, which translates into that which is seen, a sight, or a spectacle). It has been suggested that Cinerama could have been an intentional anagram of the word American; but an online posting by Dick Babish, describing the meeting at which it was named, says that this is “purely accidental, however delightful.”2
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.
According to film historian Martin Hart, in the original Cinerama system “the camera aspect ratio [was] 2.59:1” with an “optimum screen image, with no architectural constraints, [of] about 2.65:1, with the extreme top and bottom cropped slightly to hide anomalies”. He further comments on the unreliability of “numerous websites and other resources that will tell you that Cinerama had an aspect ratio of up to 3:1.”3
In theaters, Cinerama film was projected from three projection booths arranged in the same crisscross pattern as the cameras. They projected onto a deeply curved screen, the outer thirds of which were made of over 1100 strips of material mounted on “louvers” like a vertical venetian blind, to prevent light projected to each end of the screen from reflecting to the opposite end and washing out the image. This was a big-ticket, reserved-seats spectacle, and the Cinerama projectors were adjusted carefully and operated skillfully. To prevent adjacent images from creating an overilluminated vertical band where they overlapped on the screen, vibrating combs in the projectors, called “jiggolos,” alternately blocked the image from one projector and then the other; the overlapping area thus received no more total illumination than the rest of the screen, and the rapidly-alternating images within the overlap smoothed out the visual transition between adjacent image “panels.” Great care was taken to match color and brightness when producing the prints. Nevertheless, the seams between panels were usually noticeable. Optical limitations with the design of the camera itself meant that if distant scenes joined perfectly, closer objects did not (parallax error). 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 so as to center actors within panels. This gave a distinctly “triptych-like” appearance to the composition even when the seams themselves were not obvious. It was often necessary to have actors in different sections “cheat” where they looked in order to appear to be looking at each other in the final projected picture. Enthusiasts say the seams were not obtrusive; detractors disagree. 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 E. Reeves, one of the Cinerama investors, played back from a full coated 35 mm magnetic film with seven tracks of sound (five behind the screen, two on the side and back of the auditorium with a sound engineer directing the sound between the surround speakers according to a script). The projectors and sound system were synchronized by a system using selsyn motors.
The Cinerama system had some obvious drawbacks. If one of the films should break, it had to be repaired with a black slug exactly equal to the missing footage. Otherwise, the corresponding frames would have had to be cut from the other three films (the other two picture films plus the soundtrack film) in order to preserve synchronization. The use of zoom lenses was impossible since the three images would no longer match. Perhaps the greatest 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 widescreen process.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 seams clearly visible. Because they were designed to be seen on a curved screen, the geometry looks distorted on television; someone walking from left to right appears to approach the camera at an angle, move away at an angle, and then repeat the process on the other side of the screen.
Although most of the films produced using the original three-strip Cinerama process were full feature length or longer, they were mostly travelogues or episodic documentaries 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) and 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, the spectacular travelogue Windjammer (1958) was released in a competing process called Cinemiracle which claimed to have less noticeable 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 theaters 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.
The first Cinerama film, This Is Cinerama, premiered on 30 September 1952, at The Broadway Theatre in New York. 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 shock 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 Kaempffert 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.” Kaempfert also 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.
Rising costs of making three-camera widescreen 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 (McVickers’ Cinerama Theatre in Chicago) showing Cinerama’s Russian Adventure, an American-Soviet co-production culled from footage of several Soviet films shot in the rival Soviet three-film format known as Kinopanorama 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 an almost similar 2.76 aspect ratio as the original Cinerama, although it did not simulate the 146 degree field of view.) Optically “rectified” prints and special lenses were used to project the 70 mm prints 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).
The less wide but still spectacular Super Panavision 70 was used to film the Cinerama presentations Grand Prix (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) (which also featured scenes shot in Todd-AO and MCS-70) , Ice Station Zebra (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969) (which also featured scenes shot in Todd-AO).
The other 70mm systems used for single film Cinerama (Sovscope 70 and MCS-70) were similar to Super Panavision 70.
Some films were shot in the somewhat lower resolution Super Technirama 70 process for Cinerama release, including Circus World (1964) and Custer of the West (1967).
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cinerama name was used as a film distribution company, ironically reissuing single strip 70 mm and 35 mm Cinemascope reduction prints of This Is Cinerama (1972).
This Is Cinerama
Seven Wonders of The World#
Search For Paradise#
South Seas Adventure*
The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm*
The Best of Cinerama*
How The West was Won
Holiday In Spain*
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World
The Golden Head*
The Greatest Story Ever Told*
The Flaming Years*
The Black Tulip*
The Hallelujah Trail*
Battle of The Bulge
Cinerama’s Russian Adventure*
Custer of The West
2001: A Space Odyssey
Ice Station Zebra*
Krakatoa East of Java*
Song of Norway
The Great Waltz*
Run Run Joe*
(*-not in the database)
(#-added to my submission/s)