Cinerama II: The Revival!

Simulated wide screen using pictures I own.

Here is what REAL 35mm cinematography looks like.


L.A. is still where they make movies, and once in a while we get the corporate powers that be to recognize that. This is the case with the old Pacific Cinerama Dome, which was built in 1963. It's a true Bucky Fuller Geodesic dome, with a movie theater inside. The shape was perfect for the curved Cinerama screen.

A lot of movie people were involved in keeping this dome standing when its site was developed for the really cool new ArcLight Cinema 15-plex. There were city council meetings and all sorts of things like that. Now you go into the ArcLight's enormous lobby, which is excellent showmanship in itself, and then down a hall to reach the Dome.

Not only does the theater have a real nice makeover, but for the first time the booths actually have 3-strip Cinerama projectors installed. If you're a gearhead like me, often the projection booth is more interesting than the movie. Like a lot of technogeeks who wind up in film schools, I projected 35 and 70mm for USC Cinema classes, and got good enough at it to make fairly decent bucks theatrically, often in revival houses where you make up and ship two prints every day, with valiant attempts to correctly screen every format known short of IMAX. :-) I still most definitely get off on booths, lamps, changeovers, and real professional projection, as opposed to the more common motion picture machine operation, where the assistant manager pushes a button at the candy counter when the popcorn's all sold.

The Dome's booths had been built for the 3-strip format, but before Pacific opened it, Cinerama Inc. had switched to their version of Ultra-Panavision (65/70mm anamorphic, 1.25 squeeze) for its product. Therefore the 3-strip equipment was never put in the side booths, which are kind of off the large center one. I am pretty sure that How The West Was Won, a 3-strip production, actually screened to the public as ultra-pan in L.A.. In fact, if you ever saw 3-strip Cinerama in L.A., it was most likely at the Stanley Warner Theater a few blocks north on Hollywood Boulevard, in the building with the two radio towers. For a while, there was another full 3-strip Cinerama projection in L.A., at (I kid you not!) a drive-in near the L.A. airport! With its 350-foot throw onto the curved screen, they might briefly have had the world's largest non-portable projection in this pre-IMAX era.

This gets into the point of this whole story. If you saw 2001, Ben-Hur, etc. in Cinerama, you saw them in basically ultra-pan with extra optics to make it look straight and focused on a curved screen. Now, a curved screen is a good thing when you sit close enough to a 2.35 or 2.77 anamorphic flick to make it worth it. Otherwise your peripheral vision is trying to see a spherical perspective while the flat projection screen is rectilinear, and it'll seem "wrong." You will get a headache. Cinerama does not give people headaches.

However, a curved screen doth not Cinerama make. It's kind of the same trip as with vacuum-tube amplification. The simplest, cheapest, and easiest ways of doing things are not always improvements over the older, complicated, expensive ones. This certainly applies to motion picture projection. It's fine for businesses to do what they have to do, but it's not always the huge improvement it's advertised to be.

Like most of us, I'd heard of 3-strip Cinerama. I'd seen This Is Cinerama's revival in 70mm anamorphic, jittery framelines and all, and not been super-impressed, but of course I'd never seen the original. This changed when we did something rare these days - went to a movie - and caught How the West Was Won in its new Crest Labs roadshow using the real 3-strip format, as restored from well-preserved original found in a vault.

It's amazing. It's the best projection format I've ever seen, and remember that I've knocked around the tech end of the business and seen Showscan, IMAX, Omnimax, 9-camera Circlevision 360, Russian dye-transfer anamorphic, Kalmus Technicolor 3-strip IB, you name it. This stuff totally blows away ultra-pan. In fact, a lot of the stunt and process work in HTWWW was done in ultra-pan and printed to the 3 film strips, and when this footage cuts in, it looks EXTREMELY inferior, MUCH flatter, and generally grainy and dupe-y. 3-strip Cinerama simply does not have grain, even in the non-IB Crest print, and with its wider lenses, you are simply more in the action, as opposed to watching through a proscenium.

The greater picture area really makes the difference. Yes, the frame overlap lines are easy to see, and slightly intrusive. You never completely get used to them. In this case, though, the directors (4 of them) have been careful to set up with posts, trees, and such in these lines. (It actually gets a little funny after a while, waiting to see what they'll put in the seam this time.)

Also, the lines get fuzzed out mechanically, by a rather scary looking device that replaces the projector apertures with a border of vibrating pointy things. This creates a sort of smooth vignetting, and also allows the frames to overlap 2% without looking absolutely awful. I am told that this device, which is definitely by far the weirdest aperture plate I've ever seen in a world full of weird aperture plates, is called a Gigolo, as in "Jiggle-O."

Crest Labs, which actually built a Cinerama screening room on-site, has done an absolutely superior, Academy-technical-citation-level, timing job here. For those of you who really get off on lab timing, and I know you're out there, this is your flick. Just amazing.

The detail is phenomenal. It goes past the limits of what you thought could be done with motion picture photography. Everything from two feet to somewhere out there where it's too little to see anyway is in focus, all the time - no racking. It's definitely the proverbial, "Every blade of grass lit and sharp" old-school cinematography. Seriously. Every single leaf shows detail in the exterior scrub brush, and every stitch shows in the Western costumes, something that apparently caused tremendous wardrobe problems. When people talk, their teeth are razor-sharp, and in fact clear enough that dentists in the audience can probably diagnose them.

I shudder to think what a big close up would look like, but fortunately in 1963 they still had directors (John Ford was one) who knew how to compose for the big screen. In this format, medium shots really are plenty close. Meanwhile, there is always a fantastic detail of background action or scenery all over the huge screen, that you can look around and discover. Something like this is real, almost 3-dimensional, and very enveloping.

I expected, of course, to hate the clunky, choppy, manifest-destiny story, which follows a couple of pioneer families across the continent from the Erie Canal to California over a period encompassing something like 35 years of American westward expansion. This kind of stuff gets old in a hurry, but actually if you go in expecting to hate it you'll be surprised. It is NOT that bad! Someone's actually done some good screen writing here.

While there is some of that standard, dorky narration about how "Europeans were destined to tame a continent," the resulting dire effects on the environment and indigenous peoples are not ignored. Further, some of the female characters are much better thought out than in your standard back-at-the-ranch horse-opera cliches. They have strength of character, and they advance the story, doing something besides hitching up with handsome cowboys and making calves.

By the time the native Americans stampede a huge buffalo herd through the railroad camp, by the way probably one of the most spectacular looking AND SOUNDING sequences ever put on film, the audience is most likely rooting for the buffalo all the way. One interesting thing, though, is that the water tower collapse, a famous shot which is even on some of their one-sheets, seems to be missing. You see it starting to go, in Cinerama, then where it would logically cut to 65mm for the stunt men to jump off, nothing. Now I wish I'd watched more of the oddly distorted letterbox print that just showed on Turner Classic Movies, to see if it got in there.

I broke out laughing at the end, because the intervening 35 years have not been kind to the stock, "Look what these brave souls gave us" ending. This is your standard elliptical cut to a giant airplane montage of the modern L.A. freeways, giving Cinerama a chance to do what it does best, but unfortunately showing the I-110 nearly as choked with traffic and smog as it is today. Most people in an L.A. audience probably came out thinking we'd have been much better off leaving Southern California to the Indians, not that indigenous peoples ever wanted to live in most of it either.


More Technogeeking

Apparently, and I didn't know this, Cinerama started as a virtual reality gunnery simulation for the military in WWII. There are photos around showing trainees in mockup anti-aircraft emplacements, aiming at projections of five overlapping film strips for a wide and high "presentation."

The theatrical system was the brainchild of Fred Waller, a visionary who helped invent the roadshow - the big, long, wide, hard-ticket, deluxe-presentation, movie-palace epic that would be an event, like the circus or a famous Broadway play coming to town. Old exhibitors' publicity packets contain detailed instructions for playing up Cinerama itself, independent of cast or story. The idea was to get a major buzz going, and to get incrasingly mobile Americans to drive to the show from far away. It worked, because in 1952 This Is Cinerama was the biggest gross. Yes, it had high ticket prices, but remember there were maybe 30 screens in the world to show it. HTWWW repeated the feat in 1963, being the year's top gross, though presumably it hit more screens with its ultra-pan version.

Presumably, Cinerama is short for something like "Cine Panorama," which in fact is what the Russians called their version. The name had a tremendous effect on pop marketing language, leading to all those 50s gas-o-ramas, used-car-o-ramas, laundroramas, and of course more than one strip joint called a Sinnerama!

The ArcLight complex, meanwhile, is the kind of theater Hollywood should have had all along. In my time, Hollywood's been kind of funky and utilitarian, like Akron, Ohio with more street hookers. It's always been a great place to get dailies synced or raw stock stored, but in my time never much on the exhibition side. This is changing.

The people at ArcLight appear to be MOVIE people. They're in business to make money, but they grok FILM as opposed to just entertainment. The newly fitted out Dome is like the ultimate revival house, coming just in time for a round of screenings for SMPTE and such worthy groups, celebrating Cinerama's 50th anniversary in late 2002.

They have one of the old Cinerama cameras out in the lobby. It's not as big as I would have suspected. The camera is very radical, especially for 1949. It has three of what look like Mitchell magazines that have been fitted with synchronized movements, and all three then mounted to a vertical camera body. In the front there's a weird smiley-face opening with three diverging and TINY 27-mm hard lenses, not much bigger than human eyes. This opening houses a huge shutter in FRONT of the lenses. The 3 films run in sound sync at 26, not 24, fps, and with 6-perf full width, not 4-perf Academy. This is a BIG negative, folks. No anamorphics - they weren't developed for cinematography yet - but three HUGE flat images. These were called Able, Baker, and Charlie after WW II radio phonetics (!), as were the projectors running the finished prints. They still use this nomenclature, even though nowadays they'd be Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie.

I doubt the registration was real terrific on these cameras. It doesn't look from the movements like it would be, and the various image weaves and jiggles that you see up on the screen are definitely the weakest part of this process.

In 1958, a group of engineers split off and tried a Cinerama refinement called Cinemiracle, that became the property of National Theatres. This was photographed by a HUGE rig, which looked more like some kind of WWII anti-aircraft weapon, and weighed something like 600 pounds. Cameras appear to be three modified rackover Mitchells, interlocked, and using two mirrors to get the proper framing. The mirrors were also set up to blur the frame lines, eliminating the need for the projector "Gigolo." Two differently placed mirrors were used in the single projection booth, putting the three projectors much closer together.

Presumably, the twin-pin movements in the Cinemiracle camera were a lot steadier. People seemed to think so anyway. The only movie I know of that was actually shot in Cinemiracle was Windjammer, a very spectacular roadshow following the crew of a training sailing ship around the world. This one premiered at Graumman's Chinese (no Mann's yet), footprints and all, in the late 50s. Apparently, Cinerama, Inc. bought the process back after that, and distributed one reprinted 65mm Todd-AO flick as a roadshow with Cinemiracle projection, but never rented the cameras out to anybody before it all went ultra-pan.

From the beginning, Cinerama was a synchronous process, with production sound recorded by an interlocked mag film machine putting 6 or 7 tracks onto fullcoat. Hazard Reeves, a big time sound person, helped develop this system. While the un-blimped camera was not huge, the whole setup in its sound blimp was absolutely enormous, and weighed in the hundreds of pounds. It was also very scary looking, like a lot of old sound production gear. Presumably, the blimp was thick. Three 6-perf pulldowns at 26 fps would certainly make for a very noisy camera.

Synced at full picture speed, 26 fps, the magnetic film is running darn near 30 IPS, and with sprockets you can forget about tape slippage, resolution to sync, and all that nonsense. Mag film machines are built like tanks anyway. HTWWW was shot at 24 fps (to save film and print size?) but that is still around 27 IPS, and just awesome. This is probably about as good as analog recording ever got. Until direct disks became the vogue, a lot of audiophile demo records were made this way.

Now, most people are used to the modern kind of multitrack recording where monophonic tracks done at different times are mixed, panned, and processed until they sound right. Cinerama recorded its originals live, with multiple mikes, arranged in an arc kind of like the speakers would be in presentation, and WITH a live mix to the surround track, up to a point. Like any live recording, this is a far more natural sound.

There was one disadvantage. Let's say you're the gaffer and you've got an interior, and your camera picks up 147 degrees. Now you're also lighting around the boom, but in this case the boom is a rig going across the whole set, right above camera. Ouch! They were giants in those days.

Movie sound used to pay a lot more attention to matching mike perspective to the wideness of the shot. We were taught to do this at USC, and of course promptly forgot it and shot everything as if it were going straight to TV, just like they do out in The Industry. Mike perspective is definitely a lost art. However, the Cinerama recordists were legendarily true to this, to the point where one production still from HTWWW shows a rig of the 5 or 6 mikes mounted on 2x4s right by the piston of a steam locomotive. This is wild sound (I believe), and matches a close shot of this piston that occurs in the train scene at the end. It's quite remarkable to hear steam hissing from a cylinder in 5-track plus surround this close and in-perspective, sounding not a bit contrived or gimmicked like most movie FX tracks these days.

Distribution was also in multitrack mag, meaning no compromise of picture area for sound tracks, and VERY good reproduction by another huge strip of fullcoat 35mm running at picture speed, again around 30 IPS. BIG reels, and lots of them. This kind of reproduction has been described as sounding like tube audio, even on solid state playback equipment.

The sound of HTWWW definitely makes one remember what "High Fidelity" USED to mean, before it meant huge bass and wall-thundering dynamics. This track really does have a transparency and a warmth you just don't hear in theaters anymore. As recorded by the obviously talented production mixers, the result through the 5 stereo tracks behind the screen and the split distribution-line surround is just as totally enveloping as the picture. One is reminded that mixing for the big screen is as lost an art as composing for it is, which is why so much of the time these days you wish movies had never gone all-talking, all-dancing, all-singing in the first place.

The only thing you don't get is the spectacularly dynamic FX punch that THX, Dolby, and digital have trained audiences to expect. You don't miss this punch in Cinerama. Oh, there's one shot (shown twice because it is a winner) where a row of cannon go off, and the audio booms pan right across the screen with the flashes, in full live surround. I suppose it would have been nice to shake the theater a little when this happened. Otherwise, such a track would sound very unnatural, and again you would get a headache.

Of course, separate sound has another advantage. It can run with no picture. All these old roadshows had overtures and callback music playing before the lights dimmed, the curtains opened a mile, and the picture began. A big movie needs big showmanship. It's a good piece of trivia that 2001: A Space Odyssey has overture music in roadshow, but since it was never made in the 3-strip process, this had to be done by distributing Reel 1 with black leader instead of picture. (Check for scratches flashing on the curtain next time they screen it.)

There was never any problem getting enough foot-Lamberts in THIS process, and the curved screen is nice and bright, but this makes spill from one side a problem for the other. The problem was solved by installing a custom screen, made of vertical strips instead of one continuous sheet. The strips point at the audience, and reflect light out into the auditorium, but not back onto the screen. They still make these screens (for a price), but for various reasons the Dome didn't spring for one. Money was mentioned, as was the problem screening non-Cinerama prints through the new, THX-rated, JBL speakers. Presumably, the heavy bottom of modern prints would move enough air from these speakers to defocus the screen on loud FX.

At the time, there was some complaining from movie types about this, and it even got into the L.A. Times. Indeed, if you look at the corners of the screen, you'll see some spill washing out the blacks, although they are fine in the middle. Fortunately, you have to be a photographer to notice this.


Where'd Cinerama Go?

I don't know, but I suspect it was a money issue. This is a hugely labor-intensive format. It was capable of pulling enormous grosses, but the nets weren't real terrific.

Cinerama, Inc. produced This Is Cinerama after the studios passed on the idea. They made back their nut, and then some, but I don't think anyone wound up living in Bel-Air mansions from it. Studio films were always essentially co-productions, as Cinerama owned the process, and the equipment.

Old 3-strip exhibition required 5 projectionists: three on the machines, one on sound, and a chief engineer to pull it all together. As the cool guy at the ArcLight said, though, all our nice technology we have today has enabled us to get this down to only 5 projectionists - three on the machines, one on sound, and a chief engineer to pull it all together.

On the production side, one can only imagine what producers, production managers, and ADs went through. Everything from 2 feet out to the horizon, and 73 degrees either way, is in-frame, in-focus, and very, very visible. It's completely unforgiving of most of the tricks used to make things look good on camera. Then they move the camera 3 feet, and it's time to dress another 200 acres. At least it keeps the Teamsters nice and busy, moving the production vehicles every setup.

Cinerama, Inc. made the probably fatal decision to chuck the 3-strip and go with ultra-pan on the curved screen. There was probably no financial alternative. The new setup was a nice looking format, especially in the dye transfer, separation-master, Metrocolor process used for 2001. Eventually, though, Cinerama was just another anamorphic process in an IMAX world, and people forgot what all the fuss had been about. The company liquidated in 1978, but I believe there is still a corporate entity by this name that owns the Cinerama trademark.

Also, of course, these huge, hard-ticket, roadshow epics aren't especially common any more. Disney's sequel to Fantasia, shown in IMAX in a huge tent near the 405 Freeway, was the first NEW event-movie I'd seen in quite a while. Even Trumbull seemed more inclined to run Showscan in pizzerias. Cinerama, like Norma Desmond, is still big, but the pictures got small.

Far as I can tell, a few old-time projectionists, and a few movie techs, the SMPTE and ASC, and a few fans kept the flame going for the old 3-strip process. It finally reached a point where now it's possible to talk the occasional theater into actually installing restored equipment, and someone to actually pay for new prints. The name John Harvey comes up a lot. He did some great work in refusing to let this system die. He is said to own complete, original, 50 year old, IB (Technicolor) prints of This Is Cinerama and How The West Was Won, plus enough equipment to exhibit them, including the stripped screen!

Right now, we have an audience as used to mall-box theaters as the 50s were to 1.33 Academy with scratchy optical tracks. It'll be fun to exhibit some BIG movies again, and watch the eyes pop out.


BONUS: Movie Aspect Ratios
(Projection WILL vary due to masking!)

1.33 Unmasked 16mm
Standard TV
(NB: TV is overscanned, AND masked!)
1.37 ~Super 8,
~16mm (masked),
35mm Full Academy (0.825x0.602)
(Wide-angle IMAX for dome projection)
~1.44 Standard IMAX
(horizontal 15/70)
1.65 Super 16
(Nearly always blows to 35)
1.66 Some European restricted aperture
(approximates "golden section")
~1.7 VistaVision 35mm horizontal
1.78 16:9 TV/ HDTV
1.85 Most US restricted aperture
(hard or soft matte)
2.0 Vitascope
(Warner's 65mm, 1930)
2.2 Flat 65/70mm,
incl. 70mm Todd-AO
(70mm is release with tracks,
camera stock is 65)
2.35 Most 35mm anamorphic (0.839x0.715 )
(Often projected with Academy aperture plate - WRONG!),
Super 35,
2-perf 35mm Techniscope (4-perf projector pulldown, greatly restricted aperture, w/interlaced reel)
2.55 35mm anamorphic (0.912 x 0.715)
(Technirama, some CinemaScope)
2.59 Cinemiracle (1958 Cinerama variation)
~2.77 Cinerama (all versions),
Kinopanorama (Russian Cinerama),
Dimension 150 (Todd-AO),
Ultra-Panavision 65/70mm anamorphic