Dreaming of Cinerama

I went to bed a night or two ago having settled on an idea for my bi-weekly blog. Then I had a dream. You know how dreams are; they're usually all over the place. But this one was more focused than usual. I was wandering along the sidewalk of an unknown city when a theater crowd appeared. There was excitement in the air, so I headed for the box office to find out why. But without inquiring about the price, the seating, or the show generating the ruckus, I simply pulled out twice what I expected the ticket price to be. The attendant gave me the ticket with no change! I still didn't know what the show was, but at that price it must have been something important.

After wandering aimlessly around the lobby and finding the doors to the auditorium, I finally glanced at the ticket. The seat was in a great location — nearly dead center and halfway back. And it was clearly labelled "6000 and This Is Cinerama." I don't recall ever dreaming anything quite that precise before and remembering it.

The dream ended there. I really wanted to see the show after spending so much money, but dreamland is rarely that helpful. I woke up that morning with Cinerama on my mind guessing that the title on the ticket indicated that the show was a retrospective of some sort for a once popular but now obsolete format. "This is Cinerama" was an actual Cinerama film, the first one, actually, but I can't imagine what the "6000" stood for. Perhaps it would have been a double bill including some fictional or never realized Cinerama presentation. In my dream-state I had clearly thought it to be a genuine Cinerama production.

Cinerama was a big deal in the early 1950s, when movie theaters (as now) were in big trouble. It wasn't a pandemic that had set them back, as is the case, today, but television. At the time TV was a primitive experience by today's standards. The programing was limited and tepid (usually 3-4 channels), in standard definition 480i. It was over the air only, via an antenna, with no cable or streaming. It was free apart from the high cost of the TV itself, which wasn't exactly an impulse buy. In today's money, the cheapest TV in the U.S. in 1954 was $990 and the priciest $9900! And that's for a 17-inch set in black and white; color was still years away. But audiences embraced it.

Pre-Cinerama the 4:3 (1.33:1) aspect ratio was almost universal, which is why our pre-HDTVs were all 4:3. Perhaps the most famous early exception to this was French director Abel Gance's 1927 silent film Napoleon. It required three projectors and a maximum aspect ratio of up to 4:1 (or 12:3 based on three 1.33:1 film strips shown side by side). It was a commercial failure; the setup needed was far too expensive for theaters for a one-off presentation. Gance had reportedly raised enough to make six films on the complete life of Napoleon, but used it all on the first film! So it only covers Napoleon's early years. It's still occasionally shown in major cities as a special event, often with a full orchestral accompaniment but rarely in its full six hour cut!

While Napoleon predated Cinerama by 25 years, I can't help but conclude that it ultimately inspired Cinerama. But those 25 years included the Great Depression and World War II, so it's not surprising that further work on widescreen formats was delayed. Even television itself sat on the shelf for decades due to those double hits.

But when they finally arrived those widescreen movies proved to be an answer to the theaters' woes. And it all began with Cinerama. The process demanded (at least in its early years) three film strips, three projectors, three projection booths, a multichannel soundtrack on a tape format separate from the film, a huge, deeply-curved screen, and multichannel speakers for that multichannel audio. As with Napoleon, this infrastructure was too pricey for any but the biggest theaters in large cities. But unlike Napoleon, it spawned several films and remained popular with city audiences for 10-15 years. Most of the films were travel-related documentaries, supplemented by gimmicky but nonetheless thrilling airplane flights and roller coaster rides. It was never perfect: the seams between the three panels were never completely invisible, and it didn't really suit the nature of more intimate, narrative films, But audiences loved it.

Despite its specialized nature, Cinerama opened the floodgates. It wasn't long before more practical widescreen formats followed. First came CinemaScope and then others with names like Todd-AO, VistaVision, Panavision, and Technirama. Some of these names survived longer than others but the point wasn't in their names. They put rear ends back in the seats. Widescreen didn't kill off TV, but it did save the movies. While movie attendance never returned to pre-TV days, it recovered enough to kept the movie studios alive (and even more so once they realized they could use their facilities not just for movies but also to film scripted shows for television!).

Of course there were growing pains. I still recall going to a Saturday afternoon kiddie show (eight cartoons and a western!) accompanied by my grandmother. It was after my hometown's main theater finally installed the wide screen and the anamorphic lens needed for CinemaScope. But they left the lens on for the 4:3 Looney Tunes'! I immediately noticed that the image, stretched out to fill the screen, looked all wrong — prepping me for a lifetime of critiquing video (and audio)!

Today there appear to be more theatrical films shot in widescreen than in more conventional shapes. If you have a disc collection of any size you'll likely find that most of them are 2.40:1 unless you lean toward art-house or film festival fare. But there are exceptions to this even in action movies. Steven Spielberg reportedly shot Jurassic Park in 1.85:1 because dinosaurs are tall!

The most common non-scope ratio today is 1.85:1, though some foreign films are shot at 1.66:1. Our TVs are 16:9 or 1.78:1 — close but not identical to 1.85:1. Oddly, the use of 2.40:1 means that some vertical resolution is lost on our TVs with letterboxed films. The pixel count in 2K at 16 x 9 is 1920 x 1080, and for 4K it's 3840 x 2160. Using 2K as the example here (the same will apply to 4K but with different numbers) the pixels used by a 2.40:1 films on video are 1920 x 800, with the missing 280 vertical lines simply used up in (and wasted on) the black bars. If the standard-setters had settled on 2.40:1 as our TV standard, we could use the full 1920 x 1080 resolution for widescreen sources. But then the horizontal resolution of 16:9 material would be lower, with black bars now at the sides! There is no perfect answer.

scottdavidweaver's picture

Thanks for your article. A Cinerama theater was build in my hometown of Albuquerque around 1961. It debuted with This is Cinerama and then Lawrence of Arabia. Both were unforgettable experiences on this huge curved screen. There was a story about the screen, which was made of full height individual screen 'ribbons' that overlapped allowing for a perfect curve as desired.

Around 1975 the theater was converted into a multiplex, sadly.

My favorite Cinerama experience was in Scottsdale AZ in 1968 or 1969 when my brother, sister and I attended 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was probably the greatest movie experience of my entire life. It forever changed me as an artist and as an appreciator of great movie making. I've seen 2001 on smaller screens, including TV's and of course it simply does not compare.

I'm looking forward to seeing the new Dune movie in a few months at the IMAX theater in El Paso TX.

ACBMemphis's picture

HBO Max has a "Zach Snyder's Justice League" movie and I was shocked to realize in 2021 this was in a 4:3 ratio and would not fill up my 4k widescreen TV!

Thomas J. Norton's picture
Of the films you mention, only This is Cinerama was a true 3-strip Cinerama production. It's also possible that the Albuquerque Cinerama theater never had the three projectors needed to do 3-strip Cinerama. I don't know this for certain, but do know that the Cinerama Dome theater in LA, built around the same time in the early '60s, didn't have three-strip projection capability when first built. Movies like 2001 and Lawrence of Arabia did use widescreen, but they were single strip films that took advantage of the deeply-curved Cinerama screen. 3-strip Cinerama productions could be shown in single-strip Cinerama theaters, but only by combining them onto a single widescreen film format.