AskDefine | Define Cinerama

Extensive Definition

Cinerama is the trademarked name for a widescreen process which works by simultaneously projecting images from three synchronized 35 mm projectors onto a huge, deeply-curved screen, subtending 146° of arc, and for the corporation which was formed to market it. It was the first of a number of such processes introduced during the 1950s, when the movie industry was reacting to competition from television. Cinerama was presented to the public as a theatrical event, with reserved seating and printed programs, and audience members often dressed in best attire for the evening.
The Cinerama projection screen, rather than being a continuous surface like most screens, is made of individual vertical strips of standard perforated screen material, each about 7/8 inch (~22mm) wide, each strip angled to face the audience, so as to prevent light scattered from one side of the deeply-curved screen from washing out the image on the other side. The display is accompanied by a high-quality, six-track (seven-track on some films) stereophonic sound system.
The original system involved shooting with three synchronized cameras sharing a single shutter. This was later abandoned in favour of a 65 mm system shot with a single camera, though some aficionados insist that such later processes were inferior. Neither the three-strip Cinerama nor its other 65 mm descendant (Super Panavision 70) used anamorphic lenses, although Ultra Panavision 70, one of Cinerama's single-film descendants, did use an anamorphic adaptor. Later, 35 mm anamorphic reduction prints were produced for exhibition in theatres with anamorphic Cinemascope-compatible projection lenses.


Process and Production

Cinerama was invented by Fred Waller and commercially developed by Waller and Merian C. Cooper. It was the outgrowth of many years of development. A forerunner was the triple-screen final sequence in the silent Napoléon made in 1927 by Abel Gance; Gance's classic was considered lost in the 1950s, however; it existed only by hearsay, and Waller could not have actually seen it. Waller had earlier developed an 11-projector system called "Vitarama" at the Petroleum Industry exhibit in the 1939 New York World's Fair. A five-camera version, the Waller Gunnery Trainer, was used during the Second World War.
The word "Cinerama" combines cinema with panorama, the origin of all the "-orama" neologisms (the word "panorama" comes from the Greek words "pan", meaning all, and "orama", which translates into that which is seen, a sight, or a spectacle).
The photographic system used three interlocked 35 mm cameras equipped with 27 mm lenses, approximately the focal length of the human eye. Each camera photographed one third of the picture shooting in a crisscross pattern, the right camera shooting the left part of the image, the left camera shooting the right part of the image and the center camera shooting straight ahead. The three cameras were mounted as one unit, set at 48 degrees to each other. A single rotating shutter in front of the three lenses assured simultaneous exposure on each of the films. The three angled cameras photographed an image that was not only three times as wide as a standard film but covered 146 degrees of arc, close to the human field of vision, including peripheral vision. The image was photographed six sprocket holes high, rather than the usual four used in other 35 mm processes. And the picture was photographed and projected at 26 frames per second rather than the usual 24.
According to Martin Hart, in the original system "the camera aspect ratio [was] 2.59:1. The optimum screen image, with no architectural constraints, was about 2.65:1." (He comments on the unreliability of "numerous websites and other resources that will tell you that Cinerama had an aspect ratio of up to 3:1.")
Although existing theatres were adapted to show Cinerama films, in 1961 and 1962 the non-profit Cooper Foundation of Lincoln, Nebraska, designed and built three near-identical circular "super-Cinerama" theaters in Denver, Colorado; St. Louis Park, Minnesota (a Minneapolis suburb); and Omaha, Nebraska. They were considered the finest venues to view Cinerama films. The theaters were designed by architect Richard L. Crowther of Denver, a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects.
The first such theater, the Cooper Theater, built in Denver, featured a 146-degree louvered screen (measuring a massive 105 feet by 35 feet), 814 seats, courtesy lounges on the sides of the theatre for relaxation during intermission (including concessions and smoking facilities), and a ceiling which routed air and heating through small vent slots in order to inhibit noise from the building's ventilation equipment. was demolished in 1994 to make way for a Barnes and Noble Bookstore.
The second, also called the Cooper Theater, was built in St. Louis Park. The last film presented there was Dances with Wolves in January, 1991, and at that time the Cooper was considered the "flagship" in the Plitt theatre chain. It was torn down in 1992 and replaced with an Olive Garden restaurant and an office complex. Efforts were made to preserve the theatre, but at the time it did not qualify for national or state historical landmark status (as it was not more than fifty years old) nor were there local preservation laws.
The third super-Cinerama, the Indian Hills Theater, was built in Omaha, Nebraska. The Indian Hills theater closed on Sept. 28, 2000 as a result of the bankruptcy of Carmike Cinemas, and the final film presented was the rap music-drama Turn It Up. Despite support by film actors and movie industry preservationists such as Leonard Maltin, Charlton Heston, Janet Leigh, Ray Bradbury, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the American Society of Cinematographers, and others, Nebraska Methodist Health Systems, Inc., the owner, went ahead with demolition on August 20, 2001, to make space available for a parking lot for one of its administration buildings. (Ironically, on August 8, the Omaha Landmarks Heritage Preservation Commission had voted unanimously to recommend to the Omaha City Council that the Indian Hills be designated a "Landmark of the City of Omaha." The building was destroyed anyway before the council met to take action.) The demise of the theatre and efforts to preserve others throughout the nation are chronicled in Jim Fields' documentary Preserve Me A Seat.

Single-Film "Cinerama:" Ultra Panavision 70 and Super Panavision 70

Rising costs of making three-camera widescreen films caused Cinerama to stop making such films in their original form shortly after the first release of How the West Was Won. The use of Ultra Panavision 70 for certain scenes (such as the river raft sequence) later printed onto the three Cinerama panels, proved that a more or less satisfactory wide screen image could be photographed without the three cameras. Consequently, Cinerama discontinued the three film process, with the exception of a single theater (McVickers' Cinerama Theatre in Chicago) showing Cinerama's Russian Adventure, an American-Soviet co-production culled from footage of several Soviet films shot in the rival Soviet three-film format known as Kinopanorama in 1966.
Cinerama continued through the rest of the 1960s as a brand name used initially with the Ultra Panavision 70 widescreen process (which yielded a similar aspect ratio as the original Cinerama, although it did not simulate the 146 degree field of view.) Optically "rectified" prints and special lenses were used to project the 70 mm prints onto the curved screen. The films shot in Ultra Panavision for single lens Cinerama presentation were It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), The Hallelujah Trail (1965) and Khartoum (1966).
Following the use of Ultra Panavision 70, the less wide but still spectacular Super Panavision 70 was used to film the Cinerama presentations Grand Prix (1966), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Ice Station Zebra (1968), and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969), which also featured scenes shot in Todd-AO.
Two films were shot in the somewhat lower resolution Super Technirama 70 process for Cinerama release: Circus World (1964) and Custer of the West (1967). By then, what was advertised as "Cinerama" was a pale reflection of the original three film process.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Cinerama name was used as a film distribution company, ironically reissuing single strip 70 mm and 35 mm Cinemascope reduction prints of This Is Cinerama (1972).

Cinerama today

The Cinerama company exists today as an entity of the Pacific Theatres chain. In recent years hard work by dedicated enthusiasts has made possible showings of surviving and new Cinerama prints, notably at: In 1998, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen purchased Seattle's Martin Cinerama, which then underwent a major restoration/upgrade. In 1999 it reopened with a special multi-day program featuring screenings of most of the major Cinerama classics, which drew patrons from around the world.
As of 2004, the Pictureville Cinema, Martin Cinerama and Cinerama Dome continue to hold periodic screenings of three-projector Cinerama movies.
It is worth noting that the Cinerama Dome was designed for the three-projector system but never actually had it installed until recent years as it opened with the first of the single film 70 mm ersatz Cinerama films, It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.
A 2003 documentary, Cinerama Adventure, took a look back at the history of the Cinerama process, as well as digitally recreating the Cinerama experience via clips of true Cinerama films (using transfers from original Cinerama prints). And Turner Entertainment (via Warner Bros.) has struck new Cinerama prints of How the West Was Won for exhibition in true Cinerama theatres around the world.
Cinerama is widely considered the most impressive widescreen process ever to have achieved commercial success, and a process ahead of its time. Every other system -- Todd-AO, CinemaScope, even IMAX -- can be fairly described as attempts, with varying degrees of success, to approximate Cinerama at lower cost.
As a footnote, in 2007 a Cinerama fan in Maryland has fashioned a theater using 3 video projectors to project extracted portions of Cinerama DVD's onto a deeply curved ribboned screen achieving the Cinerama effect.

List of Cinerama features

The following feature films have been advertised as being presented "in Cinerama".

"Cinerama" video stretching mode

RCA uses the word "Cinerama" to refer to a display mode which fills a 16:9 video screen with 4:3 video with, in the words of the manufacturer, "little distortion." Manuals for products offering this mode give no detailed explanation. One online posting says it consists of "a slight cropping at the top & bottom combined with a slight stretch at only the sides," and praises it. The posting suggests that other vendors provide a similar function under different names. Mitsubishi calls it "stretch" mode. The RCA Scenium TV also has a "stretch mode" as well it is a 4:3 picture stretched straight across.
There is no obvious connection between this video mode and any of the Cinerama motion picture processes. It is not clear why the name is used, unless the nonlinear stretch is vaguely evocative of a curved screen. (Ironically, some widescreen cinema processes—not Cinerama—displayed a fault known as "anamorphic mumps," which consisted of a lateral stretch of objects closer to the camera).
In the U.S., RCA does not appear to have registered the word "Cinerama" as a trademark; conversely, a number of trademarks on "Cinerama," e.g. SN 74270575, are still "live" and held by Cinerama, Inc.


  • The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer. By Fred Waller. In: Journal of the SMPTE, Vol. 47, July, 1946. Pages 73 through 87
  • New Movie Projection System Shown Here; Giant Wide Angle Screen Utilized. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, October 1, 1952, p. 1
  • Looking at Cinerama: An Awed and Quizzical Inspection of a New Film Projection System. Bosley Crowther, The New York Times, October 5, 1952 p. X1
  • Robert E. Carr and R. M. Hayes: Wide Screen Movies. A History and Filmography of Wide Gauge Filmmaking, MC Farland & Company, Inc., 1988. ISBN 0-89950-242-3 Chapter II. "The Multiple-Film and Deep Curved Screen Processes" pp. 11-54
  • Thomas, Lowell: So long until tomorrow: from Quaker Hill to Kathmandu, G. K. Hall 1977, ISBN 0-8161-6553-X Chapter "The Wonderful Life and Premature Death of Cinerama"
  • "Scenium" HD50LPW165 RCA receiver; full description of Cinerama mode in the instruction book says "The image of a 4:3 video signal is centered, expanding in the horizontal direction to fill the display with little distortion" whereas in "Stretch" mode "The image of a 4:3 video signal is stretched horizontally by approximately 33% while the vertical size stays the same."

External links

  • Cinerama Detailed information on the history of Cinerama
  • Arclight Cinerama Dome On Sunset Blvd. -- The Dome can now play 3-strip Cinerama with 7-channel Cinerama Stereophonic, 35 mm Magnetic sound.
  • Seattle Cinerama Sometimes schedules special events showing original Cinerama features
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