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:: Saturday, February 12, 2005 ::

The lights dim. The curtains begin to part. And they don't stop.
The flickering on the screen intensifies, and the curtains are still pulling back, all the way to the side of the theater walls. The credits begin, and when the first images appear, the grandeur afforded the size is simply breathtaking. You can't believe what you are seeing. You hear Spencer Tracy begin to tell the story of the American West, and you are transfixed, because you are actually there, flying above the mountains and the plains.
Soon you are floating on a river, and in the distance is a mountain man rowing a canoe. It is Jimmy Stewart, and you almost feel wet as you are there in the river with him. Is this a dream?
No, This Is Cinerama.

Last year, the Cinerama Dome on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood resurrected the three projector Cinerama system, and showed the second (and last) non travelogue Cinerama feature, "How the West Was Won", a movie so big it was directed by not one, but three directors, Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers", "The Plains", "The Outlaws"), John Ford ("The Civil War") and George Marshall ("The Railroads"). Starring the aforementioned Jimmy Stewart, Debbie Reynolds, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Henry Fonda, Robert Preston, and with John Wayne and a cast of thousands, the movie fills not one, but three screens, and is projected with three projectors. The moderator at this special event screening introduced the members of the Projectionists Union (a dying breed now that digital cinema will eventually replace projected film in most of the muliplexes) who would be "running the film". I attended the screening on a Saturday afternoon, and the theater, which is enormous, in keeping with it's history, was packed with film buffs. I conversed with many people that afternoon, prior to the start of the picture, and when it did start, the experience took me back over forty years.

In 1962, when in the second grade, I attended a showing of "How the West Was Won" at the old Warner's Cinerama Theater on Hollywood Boulevard with my class. It was the first time I had even seen a movie projected on a large screen inside a theater. The process of Cinerama was invented in 1952 when television was in the process of invading American homes, and the theater moguls were looking for "bigger" and better projeciton methods to "bring audiences" back in the theaters. This same fear and mode of thinking spurred the development of many other "widescreen processes" including Techniscope, Cinemascope (now called Panavision), Vistavision (which was sometimes used for pre digital special effects) and also brought about the introduction of three dimensional or 3-D filmmaking, which used two projectors. Most widescreen processes involved one camera and projector, either using compression and special lenses to "squeeze" and "unsqueeze" the image, running the 35mm film sideways (Vistavision) or utilizing 70mm (2x35mm) frames (Techinscope and later Todd-AO). Cinerama was a completely different process, utilizing three cameras and projectors, and was very bulky. Because of the super wide picture, which consisted of three conventional screens butted together, there were a lot of problems with what would be basic cinematographic techniques, and for the first decade of it's short existence, the form was basically remembered for the many Lowell Thomas documentaries it inspried. Sort of like Imax in the early days, the filmmakers couldn't figure out how to adapt the format to conventional story telling.

George Pal, who was well known for his special effects extravaganzas ( "War of the Worlds", "The Time Machine") produced "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm", but it is generally accepted that "How the West Was Won" is the nadir of existence of the form. Even if you have seen "HTWWW" in a theater or on home video (a 2:35 version was produced which later showed up as a VHS tape, laserdisc, and DVD) you haven't "seen" this film. The only way is to see it in three screen Cinerama. The image is 3x wider than it is tall.

I have written one of my many "essays" on my experiences at the (now, sadly destroyed) El Monte Drive-In Theater, where I saw my first movie. But HTWWW was my first indoor film experience, and it has cemented my love of movies since the second grade. Seeing it again last year, repeating the experience (at a theater, the Cinerama Dome, which believe it or not, never showed a Cinerama film after it was built in 1963) I not only felt young again, I fell in love with the movies all over again. This was a benchmark event for me in 1962. Most of the people in the audience related their first experience seeing the film in Cinerama theaters across the nation. Now that the Dome has the equipment installed, there are plans to project not only the documentaries, but "Brother's Grimm" as soon as the elements are found.

The two most glaring problems the filmmakers faced are the fact that everything has to be shot with an extremely wide angle lens, and because of the size of the screen there are no close-ups. There were some rather interesting shots in the movie because of this, and when seen on television, ESPECIALLY in pan and scan (the process of panning a widescreen film to be able to "follow" action from one side of the screen to another on a standard square (1:33) television image) some of these scenes look really strange. Not so blown up to full size Cinerama.

I have been a "fan" of letterboxing for many years, and now that HDTV screens can show films in their widescreen glory at home (the increased resolution of the digital image allows one to see actors in master shots that were 60 feet tall in the theater with clarity on a television screen) one can "almost" replicate the theater experience at home. (You have to remember to dim the lights when watching, too!) Modern technology is fast advancing where eventually "media" will be released simultaneously, in theaters, and beamed to the home (for a price, and probably a steep one) at the same time.

But no amount of technology is going to replace the emotion I felt in 1962, repeated again in 2004, seeing "How the West Was Won" in the full three screen Cinerama projection process. I love movies, and that experience cemented this love for all time.

Click here for an article which offers an overview of the widescreen process and Cinerama in particular.

My "Home Theater" in the Media Room, with an actual sceen shot from "Moulin Rouge" 2001

The HDTV from another angle, with my media stack, and with the red velvet curtains set up for "square movie" viewing. Click on the photos for the full size images.

:: Michael Nyiri 5:20 AM Leave a Comment on this Post ::
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