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Dead Format Month - Wiiiiiiiidescreeeeen

In an age when we can enjoy watching DVDS, Blu-Rays and online films on a large screen TV and surround sound system in our living room (or home theater room if you're lucky), the thrill of a cinema visit isn't what it used to be. In the mid twentieth century, television sets were appearing in more and more homes, leading Hollywood to look for new ways to entice people back to the cinema. 3D was attempted unsuccessfully but what did work was the enlarging of the screen itself to give us what's now known collectively as "widescreen". Various widescreen formats competed for your dollar in the fifties and sixties. Here we take a look at the successful and not so successful variants.

Cinerama employed a curved screen which wrapped around the audience, immersing them in the action. The idea was based on a training system for US Airforce pilots which was credited for saving thousands of lives during World War II. The major drawback was the level of hassle in trying to film with a camera which housed as many as eleven lenses. Most Cinerama productions were travel documentaries as narrative film-makers considered it more trouble than it was worth. The most successful fiction film was "How the West was Won" and if you own the blu-ray you can watch it in "Smilebox", a technique which replicates the curved screen of Cinerama. Theaters were reluctant to spend money on installing the custom screens and the system disappeared in the mid-sixties. There are still three Cinerama screens working today, in Bradford, England and Seattle and Los Angeles, United States. If you live in one of those three cities you should check it out sometime, I know I would.

Widescreen as we know it today began with Cinemascope, the brainchild of French inventor Prof. Henri Chretien. He employed a technique known as "anamorphosis" which squeezed the image horizontally to twice the width when projected. The same technique is used to make the movies you watch on DVD today fill your widescreen TV. Twentieth Century Fox were the first to exploit the format with the biblical epic "The Robe" and the film was so successful that theaters were refitted almost instantly to accommodate the extra screen width. Widescreen was here to stay.

Unconvinced by Cinemascope, Paramount Pictures instead developed VistaVision, a process which produced a larger film negative rather than a wider screen. Having more space on the negative resulted in a much sharper image, making VistaVision popular with auteur film-makers like Ford and Hitchcock. "White Christmas" was the first production to utilize VV and it was employed for such films as "The Searchers" and "Vertigo". Though considered classics of cinema now, those films were relatively unsuccessful at the time, leading to a sad demise for VistaVision. If you want to show off your Blu-Ray player, stick in a copy of "The Searchers" and you'll see just how amazing VistaVision could look.


Robert Aldrich's 1954 western "Vera Cruz" was the first feature filmed in SuperScope, a cheap alternative to CinemaScope favored by smaller studios such as RKO. What made it so inexpensive was the trick of cropping a regular sized 35mm negative at the top and bottom of the frame. Essentially it was a cheat and meant the picture quality was far inferior to CinemaScope but if you were a studio head on a tight budget it was a cheeky way to compete with the big boys. The low budget classic "Invasion of the Bodysnatchers" is one of the better movies to use the format.


Named after it's developer Mike Todd Jr, Todd-AO used a 65mm negative to produce a stunningly detailed image. It was designed to be projected on the same curved screens of Cinerama but could be projected with a single projector rather than the three required by it's competitor. "Oklahoma" was the first Todd-AO release, followed by extravagant productions like "South Pacific" and "Around the World in Eighty Days". Todd Jr wasn't too good with money however and the whole shebang collapsed thanks to him spending more money on extravagant parties than developing the system.

The theory behind Technirama was to reproduce the quality of VistaVision on a wider screen. It was mainly used in the filming of historical epics such as "Spartacus" and "Solomon and Sheba" but Hollywood tired of the format relatively quickly. Disney had used it for "Sleeping Beauty" and gave it a comeback as late as 1985 with "The Black Cauldron". The technique was far more popular in Europe, particularly Italy where it was employed for many spaghetti westerns and peplum flicks.



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