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The Cinerama Experience

Updated on September 3, 2017
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Cinerama: A New Kind of Film Experience

A big part of the movie going experience that thrilled audiences the 1950s has for the most part fallen into obscurity. Some of the most popular films from that era, have rarely been seen since that time. They don't appear on television, and until recently have not appeared on DVD or Blu-ray. They were big audience pleasers when they were released, but because of the requirements for showing them they have until recently largely disappeared.

I'm speaking about movies filmed by a technique called Cinerama. Big spectacular productions which enthralled millions, and were a box office bonanza. The backers of Cinerama expected the process to become the way films would be made from then on. And for awhile it looked like they might be right.

Cinerama was promoted to battle the big glass eye of television which had began invading people's homes, and siphoning off potential customers to movie theaters. As film receipts dwindled, movie studios began offering glossier, more colorful films to draw patrons away from home. And Cinerama was the biggest spectacle of them all. When patrons entered the theater, they would be anticipating a big event.

But sometimes when the movie first started, it would be in black and white, and on a regular screen. Many moviegoers must have thought they had been conned. However after about ten minutes, the curtains would pull back showing a curved screen much larger than a regular screen, and the film would switch to color. Then the three projectors would push out the amazing images and incredible sound of Cinerama, and people would watch in amazement.


Invention of the Process

Cinerama was invented by a man named Fred Waller who already had quite a track record for bringing new items to the market place such as a panoramic camera, and water skis, which were invented by a man named Ralph Samuelson in 1922, however Waller got the patent a few years later (something Samuelson didn't bother to do). While working on a projection picture project in the 1937 World's Fair in Chicago, Waller came up with the basic idea, but it would be another decade before he perfected it.

While Mr. Waller was trying to interest investors into putting capital into this new venture, he met the men that would help Cinerama take the next step. Lowell Thomas was once a household name in the U.S. due to his being a well known radio news reporter, and the voice of filmed newsreels which preceded motion pictures. Thomas was also the man who made T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) famous due to his lecture tour about him. Cinerama acquired a bold innovative producer in Merian Cooper, who had produced King Kong, and was a big early backer of Technicolor. With a production team and strong support in place, the first Cinerama feature was started.

A Panoramic View

The true Cinerama films were made with three 35mm cameras situated on one unit. The three cameras would mimic the vision of the human eye including side vision which normal films couldn't offer.Watching a Cinerama film gave you a panoramic view of what was being filmed. Seven microphones were used to create a multitrack stereophonic sound. When being shown at a theater, the Cinerama process required three projectors to run the movie, one on the left, one on the right, and one in the center. It was an awesome spectacle.

There were some flaws however. Close -ups were tough to do because it would distort the rest of the widescreen. You couldn't use zoom lenses either. When shown on television or video, the seams between the three cameras is noticeable. But Cinerama was still a achievement in what could be possible on the silver screen.

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Competing Processes

The early success of Cinerama led to competing processes like Todd-AO, CinemaScope, and Ultra Panavision 70. Todd-AO was introduced by producer Mike Todd, and used higher resolution 70mm film with a curved screen. Todd had been an early producer for Cinerama. Ultra Panavision used similar 70mm film, but could be shown on a flat screen. CinemaScope was filmed with an anamorphic lens which could shoot a widescreen movie on 35mm film. What all these processes had in common was that they could be shown on one projector which made them much more economical than Cinerama.

The Cinerama Features

The first Cinerama movie “This is Cinerama” released in 1952 became a huge box office hit. It featured a roller-coaster ride, and a water skiing routine at Cypress Gardens. It also showed some of the wonders of America from a low flying aircraft which was a pretty remarkable sight in the wide screen format. In fact documentaries of wonders from around the world in a day where travel was far more costly and time consuming seemed to be the ticket for Cinerama features. Most of the future Cinerama films would follow a similar format.

In 1955, the next feature “Cinerama Holiday” hit screens around the country. This feature followed two couples on extended vacations: a Swiss couple visiting America, and an American couple visiting Europe. Highlights include an fun bobsled ride which is almost like being on the bobsled yourself, 1950s Las Vegas and New York, a New England country fair, and nightlife in Paris. I also enjoyed the flight over the Swiss Alps near the beginning. Fun to watch and a bit of a time capsule as well.

The next year brought us “The Seven Wonders of the World” which offered up a runaway train, the pyramids, Angel falls in Venezuela, and a flight over a live volcano. “Search For Paradise” arrived in 1957, followed by “South Seas Adventure” (1958)

Another feature released in 1958 was “Windjammer” which was the story of the “Christian Radich” a Norwegian sail training ship. It was filmed in a competing process called “Cinemiracle” which was purchased by Cinerama. The view of the sailing ship crossing the Atlantic on the three panel screen is pretty amazing. However by the time 1960 rolled around other cheaper processes like CinemaScope won the day, and Cinerama wound down.

Two last hurrahs were filmed by Cinerama, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm”, and the excellent “How the West Was Won”. After that Cinerama faded from the scene, and the films sat on the shelf for decades. Recently a process called Smilebox has allowed the Cinerama classics to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD. They are still entertaining to watch, as well as being a window on another vanished world.

Cinerama Holiday Trailer

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