Cinerama: "The Next Big Thing That Was"

Link - article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams

Massive curved screens, spectacularly complex, gigantic projectors, three-eyed cameras, and "out-of-this-world" picture!

These days, it sometimes seems like there’s a new technological advance or gadget every week. There are certainly changes in the way we view movies and TV shows, with more and more people watching these on their computers. Video rentals have been consigned to history and HD, Blu-ray and other terms have entered the language (and some are on their way out already).

Yet, innovation is nothing new and the movie industry has been evolving since the first motion pictures were shown at the turn of the twentieth century. Even 3D, which is an option offered at theatres for many movies today, dates back to the fifties, although it didn’t catch on as well as expected back then.

This time at Dark Roasted Blend, we take a look at Cinerama, which was going to be the next big thing when it first appeared over half a century ago.

(images via)

Most people are familiar with the massive screen of the IMAX theatre and in some ways, Cinerama was its forerunner, although the technique and technology employed were very different. In the early 1950s, Cinerama was thought by some to represent the future of the motion picture industry. The technique was even featured in the August 1952 issue (left) of Popular Mechanics magazine.

Cinerama was the first of several new cinematic techniques introduced when the movie industry was facing increasing competition from the new phenomena of television. Movie audiences dropped as more and more people began owning TVs. Studios wanted to convince the public that the movie theatre experience was still something unique that they couldn’t get anywhere else, but the studios also needed something different, even spectacular, to entice audiences back.

(image credit: Popular Mechanics, August 1952, via)

The Cinerama technique wasn’t completely new when it first appeared and a similar method had been used to film the silent epic Napoleon back in 1927. Cinerama’s widescreen movies were created using three cameras at the same time. In theatres, three synchronized 35mm projectors were employed, with the images shown on three large wraparound screens, which created an illusion of a panoramic view for the members of the audience.

(image via)

In the picture above, we can see how the Cinerama screen was constructed in a movie theatre.

(images via)

The Cinerama projectors were very large, as shown in the pictures above, and were very complex machines from the rear as well. The film reels weren’t exactly small either (see below) and the you can get some idea of the sheer size of the projector from the bottom picture:

(images via)

This is Cinerama was a two hour travelogue, released in 1952. The movie was basically a collection of different scenes designed to promote Cinerama as the next big thing. An exciting roller coaster sequence set the stage for the rest of the film, which included this dramatic water skiing scene too:

(images via 1, 2)

Most of the films using the original three-strip Cinerama process were produced as full-length features, but were also travelogues or documentaries, such as Cinerama Holiday (1955), Seven Wonders of the World (1955), Search for Paradise (1957) and South Seas Adventure (1958):

(images via)

There was certainly an interest in Cinerama movies back then, as shown by the line outside the theatre showing Seven Wonders of the World (see below):

(image via)

Here’s a closer look at the Cinerama camera (left). The three eyes were matched 27mm Eastman Kodak lenses and took a picture 55 degrees high by 146 degrees wide. The eyes were interlocked and focused as one unit. The camera shutter was mounted at the point in front of the lenses where all the fields of vision crossed each other. The shutter made sure exposure times for all three films were always precise. The centre lens photographed the middle, the right lens covered the left third of the image and the left lens covered the right side. The Cinerama camera on the right has been recently restored, after last being used in 1957:

(left photo by Chester Hartwell, copyright "The American WideScreen Museum", see more here; right image: Michael Cahill)

The pictures below demonstrate how the flying speedboats scene was filmed in Cypress Gardens in Florida for This is Cinerama from 1952:

(image via)

However, Cinerama was costly to use and it was expensive to convert theatres so that they could feature the wide, curved screen and three projectors that were required to create the panoramic effect. Shooting films was expensive too and when studios attempted to use Cinerama for feature films, they encountered problems.

For example, it wasn’t possible to film close-ups and the actors had to look at a particular part of the camera, not at each other, if it needed to look as if they were interacting with each other. Here’s a crew member (see below) during the filming of How the West Was Won; director George Marshall is shown creating the plains sequence in the movie (bottom left):

(images via)

The Cinerama camera (below left) actually sits in a covered wagon, perhaps in keeping with the dusty plains, but also to protect it from the elements:

Here a scene from the How the West Was Won movie with Richard Widmark, another of the leading actors, gives at least some idea of what the finished movie looked like on the huge curved screen:

Eventually, the studios devised a way to get widescreen shots with a single camera using 70mm film. Cinerama continued through the rest of the 1960s as a brand name used at first with the Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen process. However, although this and other widescreen formats were advertised as Cinerama, they didn’t have the same depth that was possible with the peripheral shots using true Cinerama.

(The "Cinerama Dome" on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, images via)

So the next time you think you’re witnessing the next big thing, whether you’re at the movies, watching a show on TV, or something online, give some thought to Cinerama, the next big thing that was, more than half a century ago.

Article by Simon Rose and Avi Abrams, Dark Roasted Blend.


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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Are those B17 bomber turrets on this image?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World would have been nice to see in Cinerama as shown in the bottom picture. After all, the treasure was buried under a big W.


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