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This Is Cinerama

Flicker Alley // G // September 25, 2012 // Region 0
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Flickeralley]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted September 17, 2012 | E-mail the Author
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The overture plays as the audience begins to settle into their seats. After a few minutes of that lovely music, the curtains start to pull back.

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In the center of this curved and startlingly wide screen is Lowell Thomas. In that boxy, black-and-white frame, Thomas charts the history of capturing motion in art, from cave paintings all the way to The Great Train Robbery tens of thousands of years later. Artistic mediums and techniques are constantly evolving, and...well, the motion picture has just stepped onto the next rung of its evolutionary ladder. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama!

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This Is Cinerama, more than anything, is an experience. Predating IMAX by nearly twenty years, Cinerama immersed the audience in an unparalleled spectacle of sight and sound. Movies up to that point had been a largely passive experience; This Is Cinerama, meanwhile, transports its wide-eyed viewers to worlds they'd likely never seen before. With a screen of such an incomprehensibly staggering size, they're not merely onlookers...they're a part of the action. There is no narrative. There are no high-wattage stars. The entrancing allure of This Is Cinerama is instead that it whisks viewers away. Feel as if you're screaming down the Atom Smasher coaster at Rockaway Playland. Sit among the cultural elite at the La Scala opera house for an incomparably lavish production of "Aida". Marvel at the bathing beauties skiing in pyramid formation at Cypress Gardens. Take a gondala ride through the canals of Venice. Soar high above the skylines of Manhattan and Washington. That list is just scratching the surface too.

Even on a television the tiniest fraction the size of a Cinerama screen, I still found myself wholly immersed throughout this two hour journey. Aided by its powerful multichannel soundtrack and the 'Smileboxing' of this Blu-ray disc -- capturing as best it can the curvature of those colossally panoramic screens -- This Is Cinerama does a remarkable job making me feel as if I really am there. It also can't be overlooked that some of the imagery captured here is simply no longer there to experience firsthand.

For quite a number of years, This Is Cinerama ranked among the most important films that hadn't yet found its way onto home video. The widescreen boom of the 1950s began with its premiere on Broadway sixty years ago this month. It introduced many audiences to stereophonic sound, recorded with such startling fidelity that its multichannel surround sound continues to impress all these many decades later. Still, the greatest impact This Is Cinerama made is undeniably on the legions who experienced it in these enormous, specially-engineered theaters. This Is Cinerama inspired a level of passion and lifelong devotion that very few films have, with its greatest fans traveling hundreds of miles for revival screenings and some even constructing their own miniature Cinerama screens in their homes. Despite only having witnessed it on the modest television in my living room, it's not difficult at all to understand why. This Is Cinerama is an engrossing, powerful experience at any scale, and it's a thrill to at long last see its arrival on Blu-ray. Recommended.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from This Is Cinerama on Blu-ray.

The only other Cinerama-lensed title on the format is How the West Was Won, and it ranks among the most lush, most vibrant, and most sumptuously detailed releases on Blu-ray to date, nevermind the fact that it's fifty years old. That release had the obvious advantages of Warner Bros.' deep pockets, the availability of more pristine elements, and a startlingly high resolution remaster.

This Is Cinerama, meanwhile, doesn't have those same sorts of resources at its fingertips. The original negatives are unusable in their current state. The best source material available was a 65mm dupe negative, one that was struck from a rejected print decades ago. That deeply flawed source is heavily faded, it's peppered with dye blobs, the panels are often misaligned, the seams frequently suffer from perf bleed, its colors flicker wildly, and it's caked in dust to boot. A restoration featurette on this Blu-ray disc delves into the extensive work performed to salvage something usable from that dupe negative, and it's miraculous...and all the more remarkable considering that so much of the heavy lifting was shouldered by one man over the course of 18 months.

On the other hand, some miracles only go so far. The thumbnail restoration shots of other Cinerama releases look to be dazzlingly colorful. This Is Cinerama isn't in that same league. Never having experienced the film outside of short excerpts before, I won't claim to be any sort of authority on how its colors ought to be saturated, but they do strike me as rather subdued. At the very least, I have a hard time imagining that fleshtones this clay-like were splashed across those massive curved screens in 1952:

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If you still have the screenshot above opened to full size, take note of its texture. Contrast is harsh and decidedly video-like, and highlights are blown out. It's mentioned in the restoration featurette that grain removal was applied judiciously to prevent introducing any anomalies of its own. Despite that assurance, This Is Cinerama looks to have been excessively filtered and then artificially sharpened to compensate. Perhaps additional aberrations crept in when reshaping the image into a Smilebox format. Whatever processing is to blame, the 'before' shots in the remastering featurette aren't saddled with that same sort of appearance:

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(feature film proper)
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Regardless of what in the production chain is responsible, there's very little in the way of fine detail. Definition is much improved over the accompanying DVD release -- and this Blu-ray disc certainly benefits from better compression -- but it's still much fuzzier and less distinct than it ought to be:

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I absolutely don't want to sound as if I'm condemning the Herculean effort that went into reviving This Is Cinerama. If the original negatives hadn't been so badly overprinted a lifetime ago, I'd likely be writing a very different review right now. To start from such a dismal source and resculpt it into what's offered on this Blu-ray disc -- especially with the limited resources on-hand -- is truly miraculous. When coupled with the Smilebox presentation, This Is Cinerama remains an entrancing, awe-inspiring spectacle on Blu-ray.

I just can't help but wonder how much more impactful a film so wholly defined by its visuals might have been under more ideal circumstances. I mean, This Is Cinerama was meant to be splashed across a 32 foot tall screen, boasting several times the resolution of a traditional 35mm film. Though it does look less like an oil painting in motion than these screenshots would suggest, I'd still struggle to name more than a tiny handful of Blu-ray discs with weaker definition and detail than this. I'd certainly say that This Is Cinerama is still well-worth experiencing on Blu-ray, but I do hope that one day there'll be a home video presentation that wholly does such an important film the justice it deserves.

This Is Cinerama has been encoded with AVC and spans both layers of this BD-50 disc. As previously mentioned, this presentation has been 'Smileboxed', more effectively recreating the way the film looked when splashed across a towering, curved Cinerama screen. The second disc in the set is a DVD with an anamorphic widescren Smilebox version of the film on one side and its extras on the other.

This Is Cinerama made groundbreaking use of sound, decades ahead of the curve with its seven discrete channels. This 5.1 remix -- presented in 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio -- frequently sounds as if it could've been recorded last Thursday. The clarity and fidelity of the score in particular are simply astonishing, full-bodied and thundering from every speaker. This Is Cinerama takes full advantage of the many channels at its disposal to immerse the audience in really make them feel as if they've been dropped into a two-thousand seat opera palace or careening toward the ground in a rollercoaster. Outside of a bit of hiss during the more dialogue-driven interstitials, I honestly can't find any fault with the audio on this Blu-ray disc. Simply wonderful.

A lossy stereo track has also been included. There are no dubs, subtitles, or captions.

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This Blu-ray disc is a lavish love letter to Cinerama, and it's a joy to see the film score such an expansive special edition.
  • Audio Commentary: The commentary track for This Is Cinerama is by any standard an essential listen. Cinerama Inc.'s John Sittig is joined by Cinerama Adventures' Dave Strohmaier and Randy Gitsch, and original crew member Jim Morrison offers his insights as well. It's a consistently engaging, nicely-edited, and startlingly comprehensive conversation. Every segment is explored in marvelous detail, delving into the subjects featured within the film as well as the specifics of the production itself. Among the innumerable other highlights are notes about original Cinerama productions being shot at 26fps rather than the industry standard 24, the challenges of projecting a film like this, a hidden cameo by Mary Martin and Larry Hagman, and even what kind of snacks audiences were allowed to munch on in Cinerama theatres. They're also able to cite very specific numbers and dates, such as when various theatres opened and how much This Is Cinerama grossed at each of them. It's really a feature-length documentary presented as a soundtrack, and it complements such a visually-oriented film more effectively than just about any other commentary I've come across.

  • Remastering a Widescreen Classic (19 min.; HD): As detailed in the 'Video' section of this review, remastering This Is Cinerama required a colossal effort, and that's explored in great detail here.
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  • This Is Cinerama Breakdown Reel (5 min.; SD): In the event that one of the three reels broke during a screening, Cinerama had a pre-prepared film to hold the audience's attention for a few minutes. It's a very terrific addition to this Blu-ray disc. Although this reel is encoded in HD, the meat of it has been upconverted from standard definition, complete with some moire effects in that necktie.

  • Alternate Act II Opening for European Version (2 min.; HD): This Is Cinerama returns from its intermission with a more American-oriented segue into Cypress Gardens. This alternate intro, presented in high definition, approaches things from more of a European perspective. This is the only three-panel feature on the disc that hasn't been Smileboxed.

  • Fred Waller Radio Interviews (15 min.; HD): Two interviews from 1952 -- one for "Luncheon at Sardi's" the night of the premiere on Broadway, followed by a Long Island radio interview in the wake of its success -- play over a high resolution slideshow.

  • This Is Cinerama Trailer (3 min.; HD): A new theatrical re-release trailer, done very much in the same style as the original, has been provided here as well.

  • TV Spots: This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World (2 min.; SD): A pair of vintage TV spots round out the video promotional material.
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  • Tribute to the New Neon Movies (14 min.; SD): A decades-long passion for This Is Cinerama -- complete with a homebrew Cinerama home theater! -- lead to a wildly successful revival in Dayton, OH. This infectious labor of love is well-worth taking the time to watch.

  • Tribute to the New Cooper Theatre (3 min.; SD): This montage of photographs looks back on the majestic Super Cinerama theater in Denver that was demolished in 1994.

  • This Is Cinerama Behind the Scenes Slideshow (6 min.; HD): A high resolution montage cycles through publicity shots, photos of the crew during production, theatrical stills, and even a couple of posters.

  • Promotion and Publicity Image Gallery (HD): A second, manually navigated photo gallery offers sixteen sets of promotional stills, technical documents, and advertisements.

This Is Cinerama arrives in a Criterion-sized transparent case, and tucked inside is an expansive reproduction of the program guide from the film's premiere sixty years ago.

The Final Word
The impact of This Is Cinerama -- on the way movies look, on the way they sound, and most of all on its wide-eyed audiences -- cannot be overstated, and it's such a thrill to at long last see the film find its way to home video. Flicker Alley's Blu-ray release of This Is Cinerama is a labor of love in every sense of the word, from its meticulous remastering to an impressive selection of extras. If the film had been better cared for decades ago, there's no question that This Is Cinerama would've scored DVD Talk's very highest recommendation. It's just that as remarkable as this remastering is, given the dismal condition of the source material, it's still perhaps the most problematic large-format release on Blu-ray. The detail and clarity that define these films just aren't there.

Despite all that, and even though my measly 60" TV can't hold a candle to an 86'x32' Cinerama screen, I still found myself wholly entranced by This Is Cinerama. Its magic hasn't faded over these six past decades, and it remains so immersive and so powerful an experience even at this smaller scale. I can't completely overlook the issues with the presentation, though, especially given the disc's not-inconsiderable price point of $40 (though it's currently available through Flicker Alley for under $30). Here's hoping that one day, the funds will be found to do a full restoration of the original negative. In the meantime, I'm very glad to have this edition of This Is Cinerama in my Blu-ray collection. Recommended.







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