This Is Cinerama (1952) is neither documentary nor drama. It’s a pageant, a showcase, an immersive experience, or so it was for those audiences who saw the film the way it was designed to be seen: with three individual projectors trained on the biggest movie screens anyone had ever seen — almost three times as wide as it was high — with a heightened visual clarity and image intensity and a seven-channel stereo surround soundtrack.
The roots of Cinerama go back to the 1939 World’s Fair, where special effects cameraman Fred Waller unveiled Vitarama, a cinema in the round that featured eleven projectors. He fine-tuned the technology in World War II with the Waller Gunnery Trainer, which projected films of enemy planes from multiple projectors on a spherical screen to give American fighter pilots a three-dimensional effect in simulation cockpits. The curved screen was the breakthrough, claimed Waller, in immersing the viewer in the effect. For the theatrical incarnation, Waller settled on three projectors and an aspect ratio up to 2.65:1 — wider than CinemaScope and far sharper, but with visible seams where the separate images met. CinemaScope, an anamorphic process that launched a year after Cinerama, squeezes the image into a single standard 35mm print and then expands back out to widescreen through the projector lens. Cinerama uses three separate strips of film, shot by three carefully placed cameras and shown via three synchronized projectors on to a screen made up of hundreds of separate vertical strips placed side-by-side in a smooth, graduated curve, an arc of about 146 degrees. Needless to say, it demanded special equipment and carefully calibrated set-ups in theaters specially built or redesigned to showcase the process.
Plays on TCM on Thursday, October 18
Also available on DVD and Blu-ray.