Movie News

John Ary On THIS IS CINERAMA!!

Published at: Sept. 26, 2012, 8:15 a.m. CST

John Ary here with a look back at one of cinema’s biggest technical achievements or greatest gimmicks... it all depends on how you view the format of Cinerama.  

 

This contraption here is a Cinerama camera setup.  It has three 35mm cameras that shoot 26 frames per second using 27 mm lenses, mounted together to simulate a person’s 146 degree field of vision.  The picture is then transmitted using three projectors on a curved screen.  If it was up to the technology’s creator Fred Waller, this is how Hollywood in the 50’s and 60’s would have shot and exhibited movies.
 


 
To celebrate the 60 year anniversary of Cinerama, Flicker Alley has created a simulation of what it was like to attend the first film shown in the novel format.  On September 30, 1952, The Broadway Theatre in New York hosted the first ever screening of This is Cinerama, a demonstration film that Rose Pelswick of the N.Y. Journal-American called “The most important step in motion pictures since the advent of sound.”  Audience members were treated to a ride on a roller coaster from a  first person perspective, a tour through the canals of Venice, a performance from the Vienna Boys Choir, a water ski show from Cypress Gardens in Florida and several other picturesque landscapes and artistic performances from across the world.  Cinerama promised an engrossing experience that would make people forget about a new medium that was considered a major threat to the motion picture industry: television.

The new Blu-ray begins with the 10 minute overture and the image of a curved screen covered by a blue curtain.  The curtain then opens part way revealing Lowell Thomas, a radio headliner, author, correspondent, explorer, world traveler and host for the evening.  He takes us through the history of movie technology in a very industrial-film-from-the-50’s-
kind-of-style.  Much like the segments from the rest of the movie, this introductory segment was interesting, but goes on a little too long.  The curtain is then completely drawn exposing the audience to the full splendor of Cinerama’s curved screen.  The action stops midway through for an intermission and then picks up again with footage of more landscapes and attractions.


While viewing the footage, it’s clear to see some of the downsides of the format.  For starters, the camera is fairly immobile.  With one or two exceptions it stays static, giving you a wide shot and not much else.  The output from the camera, while grand in scale, doesn’t have the capability of pulling close-up shots or shifting focus.  The only movement we do get is a dolly shot in a church or when the camera is strapped to the front of a moving object like the nose of a B-52 bomber coasting through the sky or the back of a speedboat in the water.  Also, there are creases in the screen that show exactly where one camera stops and another starts.  This can be distracting as the footage from the different cameras doesn’t always line up perfectly with the others.  Cinerama is supposed to simulate your vision, but these small inconsistencies in the creases of the screen make it hard to fully lose yourself in the images.  Also the screen itself is much different than the one you would find at your local cineplex.  
 

It’s curved and made up of more than a thousand angled slats.  The aspect ratio is also different with the middle portion of the screen measured at 2,24:1 and the outer edges butterflying to 2,62:1.   It would take a special theater to show films shot in the Cinerama format.
 
 
On the upside, Cinerama boasted a complex sound system, using between five and seven microphones during a production.  Theaters would have five speakers set up behind the screen with two others mounted on the side or near the back.  Cue sheets would be supplied to the theater for each film so the audio could be mixed appropriately for each showing.  Bosley Crowther of the New York Times attended that first performance in 1952.  Here’s how he described the sound:

"This huge semicircular picture screen is supplemented by a sound-projection system known as "stereophonic sound," which is arranged to throw the synchronized sounds of the picture to the audience from outlets around the theatre in such a way that the illusion of sound originating in sections of the screen—or from the sides or behind the audience—is achieved."

How the West was Won would go on to win an Oscar® for its sound recording process, but that was the last film to use the three camera setup.  You might have noticed on some of the older transfers how it's screen is divided by the three camera Cinerama setup. The three camera setup was later replaced with more cost-efficient single-camera 70 mm technology in the 1960’s. 
 

With only four conventional Cinerama theaters left in the world (Sydney, Austraila, Los Angeles, Seattle, Washington and Bradford, England), it’s practically impossible to witness the format as it was intended.  While the new This is Cinerama Blu-Ray may not be the most action-packed film you watch this year, it certainly works as an effective history lesson with its simulation of the format.  The image quality is very good, with a lush soundtrack and several extras.  My favorite being the “breakdown reel.” Whenever one of the film strips on the projectors would break, the theater had a back-up film ready to go with Lowell Thomas reminiscing with the audience for 9 minutes about his travels around the world.  Another nice touch from Flicker Alley includes the reproduction program given to attendees at the world premiere.  


After watching two hours of film in this “smilebox” format, I tend to think of Cinerama more as a gimmick than a legitimate way to produce movies.  I’m still impressed though with the technology and creativity used in the production.   This is Cinerama is like hopping into a time machine, journeying back to the 50’s and witnessing filmmaking history firsthand; definitely must-see viewing for film historians and those who appreciate the technological side of filmmaking. 
 
This is Cinerama is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD.
 
 
If you want to learn more about Cinerama, check out www.In70MM.com and www.CineramaAdventure.com.
 
 
For more news and reviews subscribe to the AICN Youtube channel and follow me on Twitter.
 
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Readers Talkback

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  • Sept. 26, 2012, 8:24 a.m. CST

    How the West Was Won

    by bill

    Back in 1962, when he was 17, my Dad and his best friend drove ~275 miles from their homes in Mobile, Alabama to Birmingham to see the nearest Cinerama theater (The Alabama Theater) showing How the West Was Won. And i thought I was a movie nerd in the mid-80's for driving across town to find a movie rental store that actually had "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen" in stock...

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 8:29 a.m. CST

    Seattle?

    by John Maddening

    Isn't the Seattle Cinerama Theater still open? The wife and I saw STAR TREK there in 2009, it was a fantastic place.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 8:33 a.m. CST

    433

    by John Ary

    You are absolutely right. Updating the article now.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 8:56 a.m. CST

    God I miss Overtures in movies

    by AlienFanatic

    I was just a kid when the last movies to use them (Star Trek: TMP and The Black Hole) were released. Though I never saw the Black Hole in the theater, the idea of the overture, to create anticipation for the film itself and allow the audience to take its places, remains so appealing to me. Well, a helluvalot more appealing than watching a procession of stupid "trailers" for shitty TV shows. As for Cinerama, I still find the idea appealing. Vast panoramas that truly fill the eye are what Cinerama and later IMAX really emphasized. And unlike the gimmick of 3D, the increase in scope created a level of immersion that was palpable. I can't imagine the nightmare it must have been, though, to film with those rigs. Imagine being midway through capturing the perfect shot when one of the tandem cameras blew a sprocket and shot the whole thing to hell.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:01 a.m. CST

    Two films I remember

    by Bill Kilgore

    The first was Grand Prix, which I saw in Sacramento, CA. at a Cinerama theater. I was probably seven years old and enjoyed the racing scenes very much. But the film which really had an impact in Cinerama was 2001: A Space Oddyssey. Viewing that film at the age of nine in the same theater was THE influential movie experience in my life. I was totally immersed in the US space program, the moon race, and was just starting to explore classical music. Kubrick's masterstroke caused my young imagination to explode with excitement, and I never really got over it. ( It's probably true that the film would have had that result regardless of where I first encountered it, but I have no doubt that Cinerama heightened the experience. )

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:05 a.m. CST

    Seattle

    by MrDexter

    Saw How the West Was One in authentic Cinerama in Seattle a dozen or so years ago. They installed the slatted screen and flew in original operators to man the projectors. The quality of the print? Looked like the movie had been made just a few days previous: pristine. The two seams were barely noticeable - very cool presentation.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:06 a.m. CST

    and speaking of overtures

    by MrDexter

    one of my favorite scores

  • Maybe it was something I read or watched about Douglas Trumbull having something to do with Cinerama..? Maybe before he got involved with 2001..? Do you know, John?

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:18 a.m. CST

    Looks like I'm going to have to visit Dayton sometime soon

    by Kentucky Colonel

    Isn't there a big deal Cinerama complex in LA?

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:20 a.m. CST

    Cineramadome in L.A.?

    by davida4348

    I think that one is missing from the list.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:32 a.m. CST

    If I am not Mistaken...

    by NubtheSquirrel

    The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood still exists as well, does it not? I saw Return of the King there and it was incredible to see it in the Cinerama format. I mean, I know they built an extra complex there and whatnot but I believe it is still there and showing movies in Cineramas well.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:35 a.m. CST

    Cinerama Dome and 2001

    by John Ary

    Crap! Cinerama Dome should be on the list instead of the Dayton theater which stopped showing three projector Cinerama in 1999. Will fix ASAP. I believe 2001 was shot in Super Panavision 70 (single camera, 70mm, 6 audio channels) and then converted over to Cinerama with a wider 2.59:1 aspect ratio.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:38 a.m. CST

    kentucky colonel

    by John Ary

    I'm afraid Dayton stopped showing Cinerama in 1999. Hope I didn't get your hopes up. Will fix ASAP.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 9:43 a.m. CST

    Thanks, John.

    by Astronut

    You're a good man. This was a nice piece. The site needs more original material like this as well as "exclusive" and "breaking news" type stuff. As it stands, AICN posts news ** after ** it has already been reported on other websites. It really is kind of depressing because I do like coming here. But I swear it's 90% because of the Talkback boards. It doesn't have to be this way. Harry and/or the hired help should really do something about it. Otherwise, some day this place is going to get flushed into the toilet for good. And even the Talkbacks won't be able to save it. Just my two cents. 'Cause I care.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10 a.m. CST

    astronut

    by John Ary

    I appreciate the feedback. We've got some some plans for more original material over the coming months for AICN. Stay tuned!

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:03 a.m. CST

    You Ass-Hat!

    by Kentucky Colonel

    Get me all fired up for a quick road trip to Dayton...only to find that the "New Neon" aka the Neon did indeed show true Cinerama three strips...for three years in the 1990's. Now it's an arthouse theater and long gone is the Cinerama equipment. Douche.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:06 a.m. CST

    You won't let your website be run by fact checkers

    by Kentucky Colonel

    FACT!

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:12 a.m. CST

    I hear George Lucas is re-releasing Star Wars in Cinerama...

    by DiamondJoe

  • ...and its a hell of a nostalgia trip. The creases in the screen are definitely noticeable and the camera doesn't really move, but it still works as an immersive, if dated, piece of cinema. If you can go and see it, do so. Only thing is - the opera scene and the Viennese boys choir bits are both pretty boring. Venice, the Edinburgh Tattoo and the helicopter bits are all really good, and its pretty amazing to see the 'real world' from 60 years ago in full colour on a cinerama screen.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:19 a.m. CST

    And further to what Astronut said...

    by DiamondJoe

    ...if you want to improve the site (which is pretty great to be honest) someone has to stop Harry from reviewing. I say this honestly and without malice - he can't write and his judgement is beyond weird.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:27 a.m. CST

    Cinerama

    by utz_world

    After How The West Was Won, "Cinerama" was only used as a marketing label for 70MM lensed films like "Grand Prix" and "2001." No films were "converted" into Cinerama like an earlier poster said. Every film you see after HTWWW with the Cinerama logo is nothing more than a film shot in 70MM. Incidentally, "This Is Cinerama" is playing THIS COMING SUNDAY at the Cinerama Dome as part of a Cinerama 60th Anniversary celebration. I've got my ticket (since August) and will be there with bells on!

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 10:49 a.m. CST

    utz_world

    by John Ary

    You're correct about the conversion of 70mm to the three projector format. Here's the best article I could find about 2001's relationship with Cinerama: http://www.visual-memory.co.uk/amk/doc/brown1.html

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 11:42 a.m. CST

    I think

    by Ricardo

  • Anamorphic lenses and "converted" into Cinearama, right

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 11:56 a.m. CST

    ANOTHER Valuable Cinerama Resource

    by utz_world

    The American Widescreen Museum - http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/wingcr1.htm This site has the 411 on almost every big screen/wide screen format ever projected on a movie screen.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 1:15 p.m. CST

    Watched a BD and made judgment?

    by JackSmack

    Let me get this straight, John. You watched a Blu-ray disk of a film process that properly requires three projectors, a big theater, and surround sound. Then you decided that Cinerama was a gimmick. Excellent way to flush critical credibility. For those who are interested, the Cinerama Dome in L.A. is about to do a one-week Cinerama retrospective that will include some three-strip projection prints.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 1:20 p.m. CST

    Panavision 70 & Cinerama

    by JackSmack

    Beginning with M4World, Cinerama movies were no longer three-strip (and, therefore, not really Cinerama.) They were shot in Panavision 70. Then the prints were optically altered (rectified) to compensate for projection distortion caused by the deeply curved Cinerama screen. However, they were not converted to three-strip, they were projected with a single projector.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 1:27 p.m. CST

    jacksmack

    by John Ary

    Absolutely it was a gimmick. The three camera system was completely impractical for production and exhibition. I'm sure it was an impressive sight to witness in person, but it seems like a cumbersome setup for filmmakers and distributors. 70mm is another story though.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 1:46 p.m. CST

    2001 and Cinerama

    by Bill Kilgore

    It is true that 2001 was filmed in Superpan 70 ( which was actually a 65-mm format ) and not true Cinerama. But once the lights go down, the stylised MGM lion appears and that 32hz C begins to emanate from the organ along with the basses of the Vienna Philharmonic, it really doesn't matter... you don't care once the camera starts to rise above the plane of Kubrick's ecliptic. It was the aspect ratio which counted, not the process by which that AR was arrived at.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 3:43 p.m. CST

    DANG, THIS IS ONE OF THE SHORTEST T.B. BOARDS I'VE EVER SEEN...

    by Astronut

    You'd think there would be more people showing up to bathe in the nostalgia of this.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 5:09 p.m. CST

    They've all logged off to watch the opening of 2001...

    by Bill Kilgore

    ... as I am about to do. ;)

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 6:07 p.m. CST

    Astronut: You are not confused ... I saw 2001...

    by Brett Peacock

    back in 1968 in Auckland, New Zealand at the Queen street Cinerama theatre... (now sadly demolished in 1991)... in FULL 168 degree Cinerama process.... And it blew my 11 year old mind! I remember it clearly because I had begged my mother to let me go see it, while we were on a day trip from our home over 100 miles away. She went shopping and I went to the movies! In those days I practically lived at the movies. 2001 ran on Queen Street in the Cinderama for almost a whole YEAR! (I got to see it one more ti,me shortly before it ended it run. (BTW I saw the original Planet of the Apes in 70mm in our local fleapit in my home town.) Since then I have only ever seen 2001 onscreen in 70mm, and that looks small by comparison. Nearest now would be Imax and that is way headachy to watch. Cinerama was just stunning, and yes i noticed the seams...just didn't care about 'em.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 6:21 p.m. CST

    Respect

    by Kentucky Colonel

    for manning up & admitting a mistake. Something you don't see a lot of these days. I'm making plans (seriously) to visit Seattle in the not too distant future & now I have another reason.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 6:43 p.m. CST

    Cinerama theaters with the BIG CURVED SCREENS

    by Mace Tofu

    Films like 2001 were not shot in the 3 camera set-up but were shown on those BIG CURVED screens. I saw HEAVY METAL at the Cinerama dome in LA back in the 80's and it was really cool to see even a regular movie on that curved screen. Objects during a simple pan would move away from you and gave the animation a 3D feel. Man I miss the curved screens : ( as most theaters today are 100% flat.

  • Sept. 26, 2012, 7:09 p.m. CST

    Long live the UPTOWN in Washington DC

    by Kentucky Colonel

    35ft by 70 ft (or better) of curved cinema screen. Sigh. I still don't miss the traffic, though.

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 4:13 a.m. CST

    Dayton and CINERAMA

    by Heartland

    David Strohmaier has been the force behind getting these movies saved so that they can be watched. This week the CINERAMA Dome in LA is showing the archival work done on these travelogs and the two feature films made in three strip CINERAMA. There were other films up-converted to play on CINERAMA screens using one projector as a cost savings. I saw these films many times in Dayton during the three years they showed here due to John Harvey and his personal collection of films and projectors. Before he brought his "home theatre" to the Neon Movies he had gutted his living room (actually most his house) so that he could set up three giant CINERAMA projectors and the the audio track. T went to his home with a group of film students to see CINERAMA and was blown away. Yeah the lines are anoying at times but when you are in the "sweet spot" in the theatre the picture overwhelms and gives you the experience of 3D without the headaches or eye strain. The sound mix was 7 channels of sound plus an 8th speaker directly behind for some special effects. If you get the chance to see the 3-strip CINERAMA in one of those theatres you will see why CINERAMA brough wide screen films to the forefront of the battle against TV in the fifties.

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 8:31 a.m. CST

    2001 was shot in Super Panavision 70, not Cinerama..

    by 2for2true

    ...as was Grand Prix, which I saw as a child back in the sixties. And yeah, it was an incredible experience. I clearly remember the opening of Grand Prix, which began with the roar of a race car's engine at top volume about 10 seconds before the picture came up. It scared the shit out of everyone in the theatre...but man, what a thrill. When something sticks with you that long, you know it's special.

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 11:37 a.m. CST

    Saw This is Cinerama on a school trip to Bradford

    by darthflagg

    It was so laughably bad we all walked out before the end. Would have killed to have seen 2001 in the format, though.

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 1:48 p.m. CST

    No more CINERAMA in Dayton!

    by JJ

    It was awesome while it was there, but there hasn't been Cinerama in Dayton in over ten years.

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 3:36 p.m. CST

    RE: No more CINERAMA in Dayton

    by Heartland

    Yes its too bad because John Harvey and Larry Smith of the New Neon Cinema did so much work to try to keep it going all the while fighting with his partners to keep the theatre from being divided into two postage stamp theatres. Larry now in Virginia working with the Library of Congress as a nitrate specialist, and John has had a major illness that forced him to liquidated his CINERAMA materials. You can thank them both for the resurgence in interest here in the USA and UK (John supervised the installation in Bradford) and David Strohmaier who brought a film crew to interview many participants, actors and crew who came to Dayton. David made a great documentary called "Cinerama Adventure" a few years back from those interviews and more in California that has really was needed. (by the way its an extra feature on the How the West was Won Blue ray and dvd).

  • Sept. 27, 2012, 3:48 p.m. CST

    BLU RAY WAS VERY GOOD!

    by Heartland

    I got my This is CINERAMA Blu-Ray and cranked up the sound system. Yes it is corny at time and thats what makes it great! My granddaughters (5 and 8) watched it with me and were entertained. I loking forward to watch Winjammer this evening. Lots of extras that are fun. The best of the travelogs is "South Sea Adventure" and I will be first in line to buy it. I agree with bill kigore that 2001 was awesome in its presentation. I got my fifth grade teacher to take our class to see 2001 at a roadshow perfomance in Detroit. I was close to the sweet spot. I have seen that movie literally hundreds of times but that presentation gave me a love for movies that has stayed with me all those years. As bill said "But once the lights go down, the stylised MGM lion appears and that 32hz C begins to emanate from the organ along with the basses of the Vienna Philharmonic, it really doesn't matter... you don't care once the camera starts to rise above the plane of Kubrick's ecliptic." Showmanship is missing from todays presentaions, and i miss that.