Cinerama is big news again! Two authorities on the colossal format offer exciting
information about a bigtime comeback, and an upcoming documentary.
(4/24/00; UPDATED with READER RESPONSES 5/13/00 ... SEE Bottom of page!)
Savant posted a (fairly feeble) What is Cinerama? article at the birth
of the column in 1977. At that time there was an exciting recreation of the giant 3-Screen
process ongoing in Dayton Ohio.
The following are two letters from real authorities on the subject, with information that straightens
Savant out on a few issues, news on a rebirth of Cinerama by a web millionaire (a project
finally nearing fruition), and details about a stunning-sounding documentary.
The first writer is Scott Marshall, editor of the magazine Wide Gauge Film and
Video, who graciously clued me in on errors in my previous article:
This is one of my favorite subjects. I publish a newsletter about widescreen
movies called "Wide Gauge" and I've been hired to do historical research for
the documentary "The Cinerama Adventure" in production in Hollywood.
Here are a few clarifications and updates on the story of Cinerama:
1) There were more than a handful of 3-panel Cinerama theaters. At its peak
(circa 1962), there were about 120 theaters operating worldwide.
2) The Cinerama Dome in Hollywood has been saved. It is being restored, and
the three Cinerama projectors have just been installed there (for the first
time ever) and will soon once again be used to show the
3-strip Cinerama classics.
From the 35mm print-down version of Cinerama. The compositional solution to most scenes was to group the human action in the
middle and let the sides warp off into infinity.
3) The book "Wide Screen Movies" is the most inaccurate account of the
subject ever published. Film historian Dan Sherlock has compiled a list of
over 200 factual errors in the book. (Interesting ... the R.M. Hayes book is
a key source for Savant)
4) The Cinerama screen was louvered, not lenticular like the Todd-AO and
Dimension 150 screens.
5) Paul Allen (Microsoft cofounder) is restoring 3-strip to the Seattle
Cinerama theater, to start screenings in perhaps a few months.
6) In Dayton, Ohio, the New Neon has cut down its 3-strip showings to holiday
Happy to see Cinerama covered on the web. Keep up the good work!"
Editor, Wide Gauge Film and Video
Recently, Savant was contacted by the maker of the documentary mentioned by Scott above. Fellow
editor and now producer Dave Strohmaier is in the final stages of what sounds like the best
film-related show since the early Kevin Brownlow historical docus for Thames television. His synopisis
was so interesting that I asked to reprint it here intact. Savant knows the show is awaiting
completion involvement, but is eager to promote such a terrific-sounding undertaking.
THE CINERAMA ADVENTURE
Feature Documentary Synopsis
"The Cinerama Adventure" is a feature-length documentary chronicling the
amazing history of the long-lost three-camera, three-projector cinematic
process which thrilled millions around the globe in the 1950s and early
60s. It all began with a secret virtual reality aerial training device in
1942, that had a major impact on Allied war efforts. Unlike the 3-D fads that have
come and gone, Cinerama enjoyed a steady 14-year popularity playing in
over 200 theaters in most major cities around the globe.
Though abandoned in 1966, word 'Cinerama' still brings back fond
memories of sweeping aerials, documentary-style travel films, thrilling
rollercoaster rides, and other simulated virtual reality experiences
designed to lift the audience out of their seats and into the action. This
documentary provides an in-depth revelation of this unique widescreen
process which first incorporated stereophonic "Surround" sound and was far
ahead of its time. In 1952 Cinerama single handedly brought Hollywood to
its knees and ushered the film industry into the era of wide screen and stereo sound.
See the varying densities making the 3 panels stand out. As a lab
problem, making Cinerama work was no easy task.
The Cinerama story is told mostly in the words of the surviving people
who lived it. Over forty original crew members, celebrities, and film
historians have been interviewed. Audio recordings of inventor Fred Waller,
original Cinerama producers Merian C. "King Kong" Cooper and Lowell Thomas
are featured. A narrator is used only to tie together the
threads of the story and to open and close the production. The film
takes you behind the scenes for the human interest stories of the trials and
triumphs that were involved in making these films: stories of international intrigue,
hair-raising danger, critical injury and death. The Cinerama
crews were spurred on by their need to capture something unusual and
different, a form of total cinema imagery that had neither seen nor
experienced by an audience before.
Stories we have uncovered include reminiscences about filmmakers
such as Lowell Thomas, Abel Gance, Louis DeRochemont, Merian C. Cooper,
John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and even Howard Hughes. The historical
evolution of the Cinerama story includes such notable historical figures as
T.E. Lawrence - "Lawrence of Arabia", Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday,
Dwight D. Eisenhower, Henry Luce and Lawrence Rockefeller.
Many unusual and thrilling production stories were discovered and are
featured. For example, one of the world's most valuable paintings was
inadvertently threatened when Cinerama crews were filming in the Louvre museum.
A grip accidentally started an electrical fire which ignited some
furnishings and advanced dangerously close to the Mona Lisa, causing heat
damage to the smiling lady. Among the accounts of life-threatening
occurrences is legendary Hollywood pilot Paul Mantz's flight into a
live volcano to get a breathtaking Cinerama shot, just as his oxygen-starved
engines died. Cinerama became involved with foreign intrigue during the
Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. A secret screening of detailed,
low-flying aerial Cinerama out-takes, featuring key landmarks and government
buildings in the city of Havana, was arranged for U.S. military personnel
under alert for a possible invasion of the island nation. While
filming a dangerous whitewater raft sequence for Cinerama's "Search for
Paradise," the camera raft overturned in the unpredictable current and the
Cinerama camera was swept to the bottom of the river, taking the life of one
crew member along with it. Filming stunts was often more problematic in the
process as illustrated in the runaway train sequence for "How The West Was
Won". A veteran stunt man was critically injured when the train suddenly
lurched, causing him to fall underneath the wheels of three rolling flatbed cars.
The Cinerama crews
contributed to the creation of a brand-new form of entertainment where exotic
and hard-to-reach locations were photographed and exhibited in all of their
myriad splendor on the giant deeply curved Cinerama screen, with a grandeur
never before possible in the motion picture theatre.
Audiences shared in the exploits of the Cinerama crews as
they forded rivers in India, bungee jumped in New Guinea, dove through the
waters of Victoria Falls, or flew across the breathless, changing landscape
of the United States. After Cinerama won prizes in several international
trade fairs of the 1950s the Russians promptly invented a Cinerama of their
own, calling it Kinopanorama. As one would expect the Soviets claimed they
had invented it first and that America had stolen their invention. Thus a
cold war rivalry in wide screens ensued.
"The Cinerama Adventure" will take us back to one of the early conceptions of
wide screen formats, when in 1927 Abel Gance produced his silent film "Napoleon,"
an epic feature with a three-panel wide climax.
Cinerama inventor Fred Waller's gunnery trainer, built to train Allied aerial
gunners during World War II, utilized five cameras which simulated
peripheral vision and assisted the gunners to more accurately find their
targets. This audiovisual trainer was the prototype for Cinerama and was
responsible for helping save over 350,000 lives in the war effort.
Fred Waller had a legendary background directing at Paramountıs New York
Astoria Studios. Fred directed many of Jazz greats in their
musical screen debuts. Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller, Cab
Callaway and Bessie Smith worked with Fred in over a hundred musical shorts
in the 1930s, some even shot at the famous Cotton Club. Waller's talents went far
beyond movies. Over the course of this lifetime he was granted
U.S. patents for over 300 inventions. One of the best known of these is the water ski.
The first Cinerama theatrical releases were travelogue documentary adventures
which became unparalleled successes even though they first played in only a
few exclusive roadshow locations. Their audience attendance rivaled and
often surpassed those of competing Hollywood films. The first
Cinerama offering, This Is Cinerama, became the number one boxoffice hit of its
entire year playing for only three months in one theater.
Hollywood studios, taken aback by Cinerama's early
successes, retaliated by organizing technical teams to develop widescreen systems of
their own. Thus began an era of processes such as CinemaScope,
VistaVision, Technirama, and Superscope, all of which were eventually dominated by
Panavision. Such Cinerama films as South Seas Adventure, Seven Wonders of
the World, and Search for Paradise, truly amazed theatre audiences. At
the peak of the format's popularity there were over 230 theaters around the
globe showing 10 performances a week. In 1961 the first dramatic Cinerama productions
were produced in partnership with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
They were The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was
Won, the latter becoming the number one boxoffice champ of 1962. Due to the
expense of conventional Hollywood production within the technical restrictions imposed
by Cinerama, the bottom
line prevailed and How the West Was Won was the last true Cinerama feature.
Cinerama lived on in a 70mm version at exclusive Cinerama roadshow houses for
over seven more years. The exhibition of classics like It's
A Mad Mad Mad World, Grand Prix, and 2001 A Space Odyssey caused the
Cinerama name and logo to survive into the 1970s.
The distortion on video copies (the left and right bending radically
away) didn't happen on the Cinerama screen. Deeply curved, it brought most warped
scenes back into perpective and made the periphery seem to surround the audience.
Note the iron handrail making a 20 degree bend across a blend.
This production will be richly illustrated with a combination of recently
discovered still photographs, actual footage of onscreen and behind the
scenes action, as well as interviews with technicians and cinema
celebrities who were involved in the Cinerama process or who were inspired by
its magic. To show clips from these lost Cinerama films, a special three
panel Rank telecine process has been developed by video and film expert Gregg
Kimble in order to transfer the special 6 perf, 35mm X 3 strip full aperture
original camera negatives onto digital video. This video then goes into a
graphics workstation for the blending and curving of the images in order to
give a simulated Cinerama experience. Pacific Theatres Corp. are the owners
of the Cinerama assets and have given the filmmakers the rights to use clips
from these films exclusively in this documentary. The belief is that
this will re-kindle interest in the process; they have plans to resurrect it
for periodic screenings as part of the Hollywood Cinerama Dome restoration
project slated to begin construction in a few months. Recently the Seattle
Cinerama Theater has undergone a complete restoration under the leadership of
Cinerama fan & noted baby boomer, Paul G. Allen, co-founder of Microsoft.
This multimillion dollar restoration has included the restoration of the
historic 3 panel process and curved screen for periodic revivals.
For the past three years, 63 hours of professional video interviews have been shot
in over 13 locations in the United States, England, Norway and Ireland, with all
the surviving people involved in the eight films made in the process, and sons and daughters of
those who are deceased. This effort should do full justice to this long-forgotten
film medium, as well as to provide material for a large supplemental section
on a DVD home release of this documentary.
The audience for the production would initially consist of people who
remember seeing the process in its heyday. Baby boomers who were taken as
children to see the popular Cinerama shows of the 50s and 60s would
be a large part of the demographic, as well as the parents who
took them. Film history fans, cable network subscribers, and anyone who is
interested in the story behind this almost forgotten "ahead of its time" technology
will find the subject fascinating. This project would be a
natural for distribution to all the classic movie channels, Discovery and
History type channels as well as PBS. Cinerama was very big in Europe with
over 27 large theaters playing to capacity crowds in the mid 1950s to early
60s, so foreign interest should be brisk as well.
Last October principal photography was completed and there only remain some
stills to be photographed and a few more stock footage shots to be located.
Editing continues weekly and the show exists in a 72 minute offline digital
"first cut" form. This production is still privately financed at this time.
Frankly, Savant hopes that this unique project gets snapped up right quick, as in print it really comes
off as a lot more exciting than the majority of what passes for documentaries on television. While
we're waiting, I thought it would be as interesting for Savant readers as it was to me. GE
A crowded freeway .... another glorious Cinerama vision of the future
in How the West Was Won .. was a strip mine! Watching this at age eleven, I
remember thinking the whole Cinerama theater was floating and spinning in the air, looking
down at a freeway.
READER RESPONSES: The Cinerama aritcle brought some quick and informative
emails, which round out the sketchy information in Savant's article above.
Thanks as always to contributors, for making DVD Savant more
interesting, and more coherent!
Great to see interest still alive in Cinerama. I still have my souvenir
program from This Is Cinerama when it opened in Chicago.
Glad you liked the scans. (the images of the booklet here are Bill's - GE) The whole brochure is a treat to read. I
saw every Cinerama movie as soon as it was released starting with the
first in Chicago, then when a theater was opened in St. Louis. I saw
the last one here in San Diego.
The Cinerama theater carried that name until about six years ago, even
though showing regular big screen films, and has now been made into a
fourplex. What a shame! - Bill Pritchett
Cinerama was NOT the first to incorporate stereophonic "Surround" sound.
This was done almost 10 years earlier in Fantasia's "Fantasound".
And as for the "3-D fads", I admit to being a 3-D fan but really its run
was about the same 15 years as Cinerama. Hey, and IMAX is still making them. :)
Some cool info on 3D films can be found at:
http://www.stereoscopy.com/3d-movie-magic/index.html - Eddie. PS. great site!
On a sad note, Cinerama is coming to its end here in Dayton, Ohio, as
the New Neon Movies theater has decided to end the showings entirely
(due to the dropoff in interest and the economic costs of giving up the
seating capacity necessary for the Cinerama setup).
I do have to say that watching How the West Was Won was quite a treat,
especially with the remarks by Mr. Harvey on the whole process. - "sylvain"
"Cinerama. One of my favorites. Saw This is Cinerama at
Theatre in New York a week after it openned. I was 9 at the time. Got
hooked and saw all the films through the years.
By the way, the subhead says "3 screen". Not true. It was one screen with
3 panels. The Cinerama documentary you mentioned should be interesting.
Several years ago when I joined John Harvey's Cinerama Preservation Society,
I received a video of Cinerama related odds and ends. Included were some
interviews to be used in The Cinerama Adventure. The comments by Carroll
Baker were very amusing.
It's interesting to note that Pacific Theatres, who purchased the rights to
the Cinerama travelogues and Cinerama Technologies, was most responsible for
the demise of the original 3-camera process. William Forman, the president
of the theatre chain (now deceased) shut down the development of a single
lens system, not the 70mm films released as "Cinerama" but a lens developed
by the engineers that used 35mm film running sideways in the camera ( a la
VistaVision) about 12 or 13 perfs wide that provided 146 degrees of view,
just like the original 3 camera system. It would have been interesting if
this system had been fully developed. One of things that made the 3
projector exhibition so exciting was that each one had its own light source
which meant that the image on screen was incredibly bright. A single lens
would have probably dimished the brightness, in my opinion. But we'll never
Back to Forman. After buying out Cinerama, he authorized the production of
a new film, Millie Goes To Budapest (later retitled The Golden Head).
Filming started in 3-camera, but was changed to standard 70mm after a few
days. This was done because he realized that it was a cheaper way to make
the film. The film played, as far as I know, only in London for a couple of
weeks. People who saw it say it was terrible. Some of the scenes used the
3 panel stuff converted to 70mm (the join lines were apparent). Another
film started in 3 camera Cinerama was The Greatest Story Ever Told. After
a few days of shooting, director George Stevens had the filming converted to
standard 70mm. None of the 3 camera material has ever seen the light of
Cinerama eventually gave way to inferior single strip projection and the
rest is, well, history. It's a fabulous story and I look forward to the
As far as Dayton goes, they will cease showing Cinerama in a few months.
Robert Allen's refurbished Seattle Cinerama has all the equipment on hand to
show true 3 panel films. But, there are presently no new prints. John
Harvey cobbled together a complete version of How The West Was Won for
Dayton, but that print is not in the greatest of shape. His print of This
Is Cinerama is OK, but Cinerama Holiday and Seven Wonders Of The World
are badly faded to pink. Members of the Cinerama Preservation Society paid
for a new soundtrack for Seven Wonders since the one previously used was
Martin Hart of the American Wide Screen Museum site told me that there is a
problem with the Seattle Cinerama theatre setup. Test projection of John
Harvey's How The West print showed that the top of the images never
reached the deeply curved Cinerama screen because the ceiling was too low in
the auditorium. Perhaps the projection booths were too high. I don't know.
But you can certainly contact Martin to find out the latest info.
Cheers. - Peter Kline
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson