Whenever movie industry people talk about the introduction of CinemaScope, a wide screen process that produces an image two-and-a-half times as wide as it is high, they usually expound on the fact that Hollywood was motivated by fear of the new upstart rival television. They contend that the studios had to find a presentation so much more spectacular so as to entice audiences out of their living rooms and back into theatre seats. There is some truth in this -- by the mid-fifties Hollywood was becoming quite paranoid by the threat of the fast-growing new free entertainment medium. They saw theatre attendance drop dramatically as the small magic box with its ghostly blue flickering image ferreted its way into more and more American living rooms. But that is only a half-truth. The fact is, that in 1951 the Cinerama company launched a spectacular wide screen process that so captured the public's imagination that the rest of Hollywood began running catch-up to get onto the wide-screen bandwagon. It was was the fantastic success of Cinerama that motivated the major studios to find a way to mimic the wide-screen presentation that Cinerama provided. The fact that such intense visual and sonic presentation would blow the pants off the miniscule TV with it's 10 inch screen and 4 inch speaker, well, all the better.
Fact is, long before television was a thought in Dumont's mind, film-makers were
fascinated with the possibility of presenting film in an aspect ratio (the relationship
between the height and width of the picture image) that more closely resembled human
sight. Experimental wide screen systems were tried even in the silent film era -- one of
the more publicized is the Abel Gantz film, NAPOLEON which used a triple screen process
for some sequences which he called Triptych. These were one-time attempts that utilized
various non-standard technologies and were used only for the individual, specific
But Cinerama changed all that by introducing a spectacular, three-panel wide system (nearly three regular movie screens in width projected on a deeply curved screen) that would be set up in Cinerama theatres and would then present any Cinerama production that the company released. The public loved this visual treat, even though the first few films that were shot in the Cinerama process were not true feature films but elaborate travelogues that allowed the Cinerama camera to capture exotic sights.
Unfortunately, the process was fraught with technical problems....the three projectors which were used to project the massive image had to kept synchronized or interlocked, otherwise the picture would not meet properly at the two ever-present seams that were at best, slightly visible, but at worst, were so conspicuous as to undermine the feeling of a panoramic view. Often the two seams running from top to bottom of the screen gave the viewer the feeling being behind large window frames, rather than being outside the window in the midst of the scene.
New, multichannel magnetic stereophonic sound was added to the Cinerama format. This was a monumental leap forward in sound technology from the mono/optical sound process found on conventional 35mm film that had been around since the first talkies. The magnetic sound was truly "high fidelity" compared to what patrons had been used to hearing in theatres. Coincidentally, poor quality, low fidelity mono sound was all that television offered, making the movie experience that much more impressive.
In Cinerama, a magnetic sound filmstrip which contained
7 soundtracks, as well as the three picture film strips were all on separate pieces of
35mm film and all had to be interlocked to each other. If any one element went out
of synchronization, everything had to be stopped, appropriate frames for all for
filmstrips had to be found and re-started again from a single, in-sync starting
point. The system even had a fifth, standard "non-sync" projector located
in the center booth which was always on stand-by with a 15 min short that explained the
complexities of the Cinerama process. This film could be run during a breakdown to pacify
the audience....it was needed more than the designers, theatre owners or patrons would
All this high tech and very expensive operational costs made Cinerama installations profitable in only the largest markets. But the public in those markets were so enamored of the Cinerama process that Hollywood set about looking for a copycat wind screen system that was relatively inexpensive to install and simple to operate and which could be used in even the smallest neighborhood theatres. Twentieth Century Fox found the answer in a single filmstrip, single lens optical system which produced a picture that, although not as wide as Cinerama nor as high definition, was still more than double the width of the standard "Academy" ratio screen that people had been looking at for 30 years. In addition to providing a dramatically wide image, the process also provided substantially improved, high fidelity sound by borrowing the same idea of multichannel magnetic, stereophonic sound (with a surround channel) from Cinerama. To say the least, it was a very impressive system indeed. Hollywood, as we know, never ever says the least when it has the opportunity to say more. The system was called CinemaScope. And it was, quite frankly, a revolution.
Fox's publicity department heralded its first CinemaScope production of THE ROBE with the usual Hollywood conservative understatement ... "more spectacular than the eye has ever seen...the greatest achievement in the history of motion pictures....the miracle that you see without glasses (the last quote appeared on every THE ROBE poster; its intent being to make people believe that the process was a type of 3D that could be seen without glasses, which, of course it wasn't...it was wide, it just wasn't 3D).
Theatres across the country closed for a week for the installation of the CinemaScope system, which consisted of a new, wider and curved CinemaScope screen (CinemaScope's screen used a mild curve, not nearly as deep as Cinerama's but still very effective in making the viewer feel that he/she was being immersed in the picture). The sound system employed three channels of behind-the-screen speakers for the stereophonic soundtrack and wall speakers for the surround channel. The psychological impact alone of theatres all over the country closing their doors made the anticipated first night opening of THE ROBE take on the quality of a major, national event. [Ed. note: To a young boy who loved movies to begin with, seeing "closed for the installation of CinemaScope" on every theatre marquee in town, cause it to take on the scale of a magical, mystical event of monumental proportions....to try to understand its impact, one must translate it into an analogous situation today: it would be as if every television station went off the air for a week to switch over to a new broadcasting technique. You can imagine the anticipation that kind of thing would generate].
Even though Fox had tested the CinemaScope process thoroughly, no one was quite sure that everything would work the way it did on paper and THE ROBE was simultaneously shot in standard 35mm as well as with the new CinemaScope system....just in case. Once the Fox technicians saw how impressive were the first rushes, they abandoned the second camera unit that was filming non-anamorphic..
The CinemaScope system utilizes the standard 35mm film strip, with its conventional, nearly square frame; but a special anamorphic lens is placed in front of the camera lens which "sees" a picture that is twice as wide as it is high and then compresses it by a factor of two. It is this compressed or "squeezed" picture which is then photographed onto the standard 35mm film. The process is reversed in the projector; a decompressing anamorphic lens is used to "stretch out" the compressed image and project it onto the curved CinemaScope screen. The film handling in all stages of the process was no different than standard 35mm film, making the system very cost effective and user-friendly. The projectionist (in smaller towns and in second run theatres, usually the least technically competent of anyone in the film chain) needed only to change lenses and aperture plates to correctly run CinemaScope films.
Click for pictures of what anamorphic images look like on film.
The addition of the magnetic stereo sound tracks became a slight stumbling block because it required more technically astute expertise in setup, running and maintenance, all of which always means more cost to the theatre owner. Additionally, in 1953, there was no stereo FM and no stereo records, no stereo cassettes or 8 tracks. Theatre owners constantly complained that audiences didn't even know what stereophonic sound was, so why should they have to spend money to install it and maintain it?
Fox reluctantly began releasing standard mono versions
of their CinemaScope films with standard mono/optical (instead of magnetic stereo)
soundtracks. But despite slight readjustments in the system, CinemaScope and THE ROBE were
a phenomenal success. In 1955, only two years later, over half of Hollywood's movie output
was shot with the CinemaScope lenses. Although many of the other studios would have liked
to have their own wide screen system become the industry standard, Fox was first
and CinemaScope dominated. Fox even let other studios use the CinemaScope logo. As the
dust settled, Paramount remained the only holdout, trying desperately to perfect their
VistaVision process, which although wider than the "Academy" ratio that
preceded it, was no match for the 2.55:1 aspect ratio of Fox's process.
VistaVision did not carry magnetic Stereophonic sound either. So while Paramount was
tinkering, everyone else was releasing CinemaScope after CinemaScope titles.
Today the CinemaScope anamorphic lenses once made by the highly respected optical company Bausch & Lomb have been improved and replaced by Panavision anamorphic lenses. Although the CinemaScope moniker has been dropped, today's anamorphic system of compressing and then decompressing the image to produce a wide screen presentation remains essentially the same as the original CinemaScope specifications. The Panavision process perform exactly the same compression and decompression of the film image as did the original CinemaScope lenses - the system being identical in every other respect. Economics and the proliferation of the "theatre-in-a-closet" multiplexes have seen the original curve specification of the CinemaScope screen replaced by a flat (cheaper) screen of the same aspect ratio.
It must be noted here that some unscrupulous theatre owners have taken to loping off the left and right sides of the anamorphic screen so they can use the same screen for standard movies as well as anamorphic wide screen movies. Over time, the CinemaScope logo has been abandoned and one now sees the Panavision name on films. But despite the demise in the CinemaScope name, everyone in the industry from gaffers to projectionists to ushers still refer to anamorphic movies as "scope" films. Our deference to this milestone is quite apparent....look at our masthead; listen to the opening music which we use for BROOKLYN CENTER CINEMA when the curtains open....this is the Fox Fanfare which was composed by Alfred Newman specifically for the then new CinemaScope frame which was added to their normal searchlight logo frame. The piece's official sheet-music title? Twentieth Century Fox Fanfare with CinemaScope Extension.
20th Century Fox Logo with CinemaScope Extension
Using this music to open our shows is just our way of recapturing that feeling when a young boy sat in the Fresh Meadows Theatre in Queens, standing room only, and the curtain opened...and opened...and opened and revealed a huge curved CinemaScope screen that went from floor to ceiling, wall to wall, and THE ROBE began. That same 900 seat flagship theatre was eventually twisted and tortured into the Cineplex Odeon Quad, which became the Loew's 7-plex which is now the Sony 12-plex....something Brooklyn Center Cinema's Whitman Theatre will never become -- 'plexed.
* This can cause some confusion for the public as the name Panavision can be seen in the credits of many a film which was not filmed in anamorphic wide screen. This is because the Panavision name not only given to their anamorphic system. but it is the company's name also. Therefore the name Panavision can be used when their other, standard lenses are used in a production. In such cases you will see a credit line like, "Panavision Lenses," or "Lenses by Panavision." This is not the same as "Filmed Panavision," which is meant to indicate an anamorphically shot wide screen film using the Panavision anamorphic lenses. -- FA
This side-bar appeared with the above article:
AND THE WINNER IS... Alfred
Newman, for Best Original Musical Score.
Newman seemed to live by the
adage that, if they liked it in one film, they're going to like it in another. If you
listen carefully to the score of THE ROBE (1953), you will find that a complete march
theme as well as the entire closing theme music for the "The End" title are
lifted in toto, right down to the chorale arrangement, from THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME
(1939). And why not...it was good enough to get him nominated for the Academy Award the
first time around.
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