The First Entirely New Experience in Entertainment Since Pictures Talked
January 4, 2014 1:46 PM   Subscribe

"The rise in popularity of television is credited with inciting the move to the widescreen systems that flourished throughout the 50s, 60s, and 70s. This is only partially true. In the early 1950s, studios did begin to compose their movies so that the top and bottom of the picture could be chopped off and a wider screen would show the center of the old 1.37:1 frame. The aspect ratio used by the various studios varied from about 1.5:1 up to the common 1.85:1. But the real reason for the birth of a multitude of widescreen and large format systems was the 1952 opening of a movie made in a process that had its roots in a World War II aerial gunnery trainer. This Is Cinerama (modern YouTube trailer; Wikipedia) shook the industry to the core. The public and reviewers loved it. Its giant screen filled with three oversized 35mm images and an incredible new sound system called Stereophonic were a marvel to behold, and the studios immediately rushed to find something that could do what Cinerama did (Google books preview of the August 1952 issue of Popular Mechanics)."

Cinerama was just one of a number of widescreen film formats used over the years, but the ungainly set-up resulted in a mere eight films being captured in the original three-camera format, though an additional 21 titles were filmed in other formats and presented at Cinerama facilities. In fact, there are a number of Cinerama theathers around the world (Google cache and a 2012 capture, if the site is down).

But if you can't make it to one of those theaters, fans and preservers of the original Cinerama films came up with what they call Smilebox, a way to capture and simulate the Cinerama experience on a flat screen, as seen in this test clip, and here in other restored trailers.

If you'd like to see more about Cinerama, The Last Days of Cinerama is a 24 minute short documentary on the making of In the Picture, the first Cinerama film made in 50 years. For a lot more modern clips from news coverage and Cinerama showings, check out YouTube user larry41onebay's uploads, including threading three projectors during intermission of How the West was Won (Vimeo clip on the original Cinerama process; Wikipedia page on the film).

For some glorious posters of Cinerama films and other promotional material, plus the inspiration for the title, check Dark Roasted Blend's post. And for a TON of material in a rather overwhelming format, In 70 mm (previously) has a Cinerama page.

Also, Widescreen Museum, previously.
posted by filthy light thief (21 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
For those who don't have time to go through all the links, Cole Porter wrote an executive summary, presented by Fred Astaire and Janis Page.
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:17 PM on January 4, 2014

Er, that's Janis Paige
posted by Longtime Listener at 2:33 PM on January 4, 2014

I saw This is Cinerama in NY on its release. I am old now, but wasn't old then. I remember:
Nothing, NOTHING of the content (I think it was kind of a travelogue).
It was pretty overwhelming. Stunning. Amazing. Wowful.
The lines where the separate images joined were quite visible. Also quite unimportant.

A friend of mine does programming for planetariums (planitaria?). Modern planitariums use two projectors, one for each quarter-sphere. A camera, located between the projectors, is used to calibrate the pair so they match without visible artifacts.
posted by hexatron at 2:38 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Do people still get kooky about the black bands resulting from proper formatting?
posted by sidereal at 2:39 PM on January 4, 2014

I can say from personal experience: there's nothing like watching How the West was Won letterboxed on a 15 inch TV with all the actors in the middle third of the screen in nothing closer than medium shot.
posted by evilcolonel at 2:43 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Turner Classic Movies did an entire day devoted to Cinerama films a few months ago. They showed This Is Cinerama and How The West Was Won and a lot of shorts and some other films which I can't remember off the top of my head. All were presented in Smilebox format. It was a lot of fun. I wish they would make it an annual event. Cinerama Day, or something.

Interestingly, the (non-Cinerama-format) documentary they showed that day about the development of Cinerama, Cinerama Adventure (trailer), suggests that the hooked, wrap-around windshields popular in cars at the time were inspired by Cinerama screens.
posted by hippybear at 2:46 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm peripherally involved in releasing Cinerama titles on Blu-ray in the Smilebox format. Even in HD on an 84" screen it's just not the same.
posted by infinitewindow at 3:10 PM on January 4, 2014

Even in HD on an 84" screen it's just not the same.

No, it's not. I saw How The West Was Won in true Cinerama in a theater back... oh, I think it was in the 80s in Albuquerque, NM. (I could be wrong about the location, but it was definitely in the 80s.) It was breathtaking.

The closest experience, actually, an even more immersive cinema experience (although it has never been for mass audiences and has never had anything other than a travelogue film made for it) is Soarin' Over California, the elevated,-suspended-seat-hanging-in-the-middle-of-a-convex-screen ride featured at Disney's California Adventure. The ride is under 5 minutes long. I had goosebumps for about 15 minutes after the ride, it was so exhilarating.

Typing this, I begin to imagine Gravity presented (even in non-3D) in that format, and my brain turns to jello.
posted by hippybear at 3:26 PM on January 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

The only Cinerama screen in Albuquerque was the Fox Winrock, and I don't think it survived to the '80s. (The Cinerama screen itself, I mean — the theatre hung on until last month, when it was finally demolished. But it was converted to a six-screen house ages ago.)
posted by Lazlo Nibble at 3:45 PM on January 4, 2014

I was in that Cinerama theater in Seattle a few years ago. Didn't get to see a Cinerama feature (saw Wall-E) but that is an awesome venue.
posted by octothorpe at 3:58 PM on January 4, 2014

Always wondered what the "Cinerama" logo was on the defunct (now demolished) ABC Coliseum in Glasgow.
posted by scruss at 4:00 PM on January 4, 2014

Kubrick made 2001: a. Space Oddesy specifically for Cinerama (link). I was lucky enough to see it reproduced during a Cinerama festival at The National Media Museum in Bradford, England. It was utterly splendid and such a pity that the format was not continued.
posted by MrMerlot at 4:29 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took a date to the Cinerama theater in St. Louis in 1969 to see Krakatoa: East of Java. It certainly was a unique experience.

IMAX is also unique, as was the 360 degree format in which I saw a film (courtesy of Canada, with lots of Mounties, as I recall) at the World's Fair in Montreal (Expo 67), which also featured another sui generis format, a combination of live action and three screens, hard to describe briefly: Laterna Magica, courtesy of Czechoslovakia. Expo '67 also had "Kaleidocope," an infinite mirror kind of psychedelic experience…cinematic experimentation was the thing in Montreal. Not to say that USA's huge spherical Fuller-dome with monorail threading in and out wasn't amazing.

Anyway: Cinerama. Yeah. Unforgettable, with the giant curtains ceremoniously sliding back (as was usual in old school theaters back then, but more impressive with Cinerama, with its huge screen). A barrel of monkeys. Better than some of those 50's not-so-sensational gimmicks.
posted by kozad at 5:15 PM on January 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

Laterna Magica is amazing. They're still active in the Czech Republic; they have a theater in Prague with fairly inexpensive tickets if you're ever in the area.
posted by Itaxpica at 5:45 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took a date to the Cinerama theater in St. Louis in 1969

Where was that, Kozad? I remember Six Flags having something super-widescreen in the 70s that i think showed a Chevy promotional film, but I presume it wasn't Cinerama per se.
posted by Horace Rumpole at 6:07 PM on January 4, 2014

I was coming here to post that exact clip, Longtime Listener. Great minds and whatnot.
posted by sardonyx at 6:58 PM on January 4, 2014

MrMerlot: such a pity that the format was not continued.

I'm actually surprised there aren't more interesting experiments in "film" now that video recorders and projectors are so (relatively) inexpensive, and software can allow for more people to do what was some pretty advanced video editing. With the proliferation of 3D rigs and gear in recent years, it seems like it would be a minimal extension to get into syncing 3 cameras, or using other methods to capture a really broad range, in such a way as to display it onto a curved screen. There are also a number of programs that support surround sound audio editing, so you can go crazy in a "bedroom studio," doing by yourself what would have taken a much larger crew (and budget) in years past.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:38 PM on January 4, 2014

Also, for home distribution, I think a 3-camera views could be distributed digitally, played through a HTPC-type set-up, for those who wish to show the 3-camera view at home, without having to deal with the limitations of official DVD and BluRay formats.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:57 PM on January 4, 2014

Horace Rumpole, the St. Louis Cinerama was on Lindell Blvd:
posted by Nat "King" Cole Porter Wagoner at 9:55 PM on January 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

the 360 degree format in which I saw a film (courtesy of Canada, with lots of Mounties, as I recall) at the World's Fair in Montreal (Expo 67)

It's a variation of IMAX in which the film is filmed through a distorting fisheye lens for dome projection. With some other lensing they could also comfortably project a normal 4:3 ratio IMAX film on the same dome. Used to be called OMNIMAX, and now it's called IMAX Dome. More of IMAX diluting its brand, as far as I'm concerned (I know, nobody's asking).

The Seattle Aquarium had an Omnimax dome theater until an renovation about 10 years ago. The Pacific Science Center bought the projector for a song and displays it on the lobby of one of its IMAX theaters. The Omnimax projector has a different form-factor than the IMAX projectors (also displayed between shows) so the Omnimax has overhead clearance, rather than a bulky cooling system atop the projector for its gloriously hot xenon lamp.

I too have seen This is Cinerama and HtWWW in Cinerama-- it's astonishing how much action can go on the screen. If the central action is off to stage left, for example, stages center and right still have plenty of visual space to fill, and HtWWW really uses it, whereas TiC is really all about the soaring panoramic shots of landscapes, and lacks any narrative drama going on.

There's an annual convention for the large-format film industry called Giant Screen Cinema Assoc. Convention. It is an industry convention, but they still manage to send up all sorts of temporary screens, though mostly for previewing upcoming films, not really for capturing all the different formats in one place. Buddy of mine was an IMAX projectionist, and GSCA was one of the highlights of his year.
posted by Sunburnt at 1:06 PM on January 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

Dayton Ohio had (IIRC) the last Cinerama theater operating, in the 90s. The saddest thing was not that it eventually closed down, but that I never went to see anything there.

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