At This Is Cinerama‘spremiere on September 30, 1952, historian Greg Kimble tells us, Lowell Thomas and Merian Cooper were as nervous as expectant fathers. But not Fred Waller; he sat quietly confident, and as the cheers and bravos echoed at the end, he allowed himself only the slightest of smiles. “I knew 16 years ago,” he said, “it would be like this.”
Even so, Waller never considered that night’s showing to be Cinerama in its final form; this was, in a sense, only the “third generation” version. Just as he had refined Vitarama’s 11 cameras and projectors down to five, and those five down to Cinerama’s three, he fully expected that the process would continue to evolve, and that he would be there to see it was done.
Truth be told, there was room for improvement, and Waller knew it.
Some of Cinerama’s technical problems can be discerned in this frame (frames, actually) from Search for Paradise — although to be fair, by the time this picture was shot most of them had been considerably alleviated. Most often complained about were those dividing lines between the three panels. The panels overlapped by a degree or two, which meant that the overlap area would inevitably get the light from two projectors. To minimize this over-exposure, the sides of each projector’s film gate were supplied with little devices called (spellings vary) “gigolos”. These were serrated, comb-like assemblies mounted on cams that moved them up and down, once for each frame (i.e., 26 times per second) as the film passed through the gate. This was intended to cut down on the excess light hitting the overlap, and to blur the sharp division from one panel to the next. As a matter of fact, this worked reasonably well.
Actually, when people remarked on Cinerama’s join lines, they were reacting not so much to the lines themselves, but to other technical peculiarities that tended to draw attention to them. The resolution isn’t very high on this illustration of a shot from This Is Cinerama (photographed live in the theater), but it shows some of what I’m talking about. There were often variations in color and intensity from one panel to the next (particularly noticeable in the sky here). Several factors could contribute to this: minute differences in the emulsion on the three negatives, or in the processing and printing, or in the intensity of light from the carbon-arc projectors. The carbons burned away during operation, like fireworks sparklers but more slowly, requiring constant adjustment and frequent replacement (that’s a major factor in why carbon arc projectors and searchlights became obsolete). Cinerama’s carbons multiplied the problem by three, and all three had to be closely monitored during each show to keep the light output as uniform as possible. Also contributing to this was the three lenses of the Cinerama camera, each of which was “faster” (admitting more light) at the center than at the edges. Another occasional peculiarity that can’t be shown by a still illustration was a perceptible “jiggle” between the frames, caused again by minute variations — this time in the film perforations, the sprockets in the separate camera and projector movements, or a combination thereof.
Most noticeable of all was the parallax effect caused by the fact that the Cinerama camera was really three cameras, each with its own vanishing point. Take this frame from the last scene of How the West Was Won, flying under the Golden Gate Bridge. This is taken from the DVD; the join lines have been digitally erased, and the “elbows” in the bridge (quite pronounced in the theater) have been rounded out — but the digital wizards couldn’t do anything about how the three lenses saw the bridge. Imagine yourself looking out at a vista: First you look straight ahead; then you take a step to your right and turn your head left; then two steps left and turn your head right. You’re looking at the same view each time, but from three ever-so-slightly different places. That’s how it was with the Cinerama camera. The parallax wasn’t always obvious — especially when you were careening up and down rollercoaster tracks or swooping over Niagara Falls or through Zion Canyon in Utah — but when it was, it was impossible to ignore.
These were the things, as Cinerama opened in September ’52, that Fred Waller expected eventually to fine-tune. Early in 1953, as 20th Century Fox was beginning to beat the drum for CinemaScope, Cinerama announced plans for a single-booth, single-projector system. But that may simply have been a blue-sky announcement intended to take some of the wind out of CinemaScope’s sails. In any event, nothing ever came of it, at least not until It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World ten years later — which, despite sporting the name, wasn’t Cinerama at all.
Also, by spring ’53, the Stanley Warner deal was in the works, and was finalized in August. Stanley Warner’s penny-wise-and-pound-foolish attitude toward Cinerama in general extended into the area of technical research, and Cinerama Inc., the manufacturing wing of the operation, was forced to eke out what technical improvements it could under the circumstances. New camera and projector assemblies were developed for the second feature, Cinerama Holiday, which had much greater registration accuracy than the industry standard, thus reducing considerably the jumping and jiggling of the three images. These new cameras also had improved focal ratios on the three lenses — from f/4.5 to f/2.8 — making them more sensitive to light.
As for the problem of slight variations in color, that was dependent on printing standards, which in most laboratories, as Hazard Reeves admitted, “have never been tight. If necessary,” he went on, “we’ll do our own printing.” But once again he ran up against the cheapskates at Stanley Warner. Not until 1958 did they agree to allot $200,000 for research into improved printing standards, and it wasn’t enough; Cinerama’s special in-house printers never materialized.
On May 18, 1954 Fred Waller died, and Cinerama lost its creator and conceptual genius. For all practical purposes, Cinerama remained, for the next (and last) nine years of its existence, what it was when Waller left it; the continuing evolution he envisioned would never happen — because there were no more Fred Wallers to drive it.
Waller left behind one final concept, designed to address the parallax problem inherent in Cinerama’s three-lens camera. This was a radically modified camera using a single lens that would duplicate the entire 146-degree field of vision of the three-lens camera, but on a single strip of film running horizontally through the camera 16 sprocket-holes at a time — the rough equivalent of a 102mm frame. This would eliminate the three-lens parallax, producing an image with a single vanishing point. That 102mm image could be divided in printing into three strips for projection (still necessary to cover Cinerama’s deeply curved screen) — and, as a bonus, could also be printed single-frame in any other format for conventional projection. The lens had been developed and a prototype camera was under construction in 1960 when the order came to abandon any further development.
In 1962, under Nicolas Reisini, Cinerama Inc. acquired the Photo Instruments Division of Benson-Lehner Corp. in Los Angeles, renaming it the Cinerama Camera Corp. Reisini might (and maybe should) have dedicated the new corporation to resolving the technical problems in Cinerama, perhaps even reviving that 102mm camera. But he didn’t. Instead, Cinerama Camera Corp. attempted to move into consumer products: a still camera that took 360-degree panoramic pictures, a wide-angle home movie projector, even (and I’ll bet you never knew this) a home videotape recorder. All of these ideas lost money in research and development (the videotape recorder was 20 years ahead of its time), and by 1964 Reisini had been ousted from Cinerama. The untapped potential of that single-lens, 102mm, 146-degree camera — Fred Waller’s last brainchild — is one of the great what-ifs of motion picture technology.