Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes


But First, a Brief History of Widescreen . . .
Widescreen has been with us for a long time.

Since the 1890's and the days of the Magic Lantern Show, it had been noticed that while the various views available were, indeed, lifelike, it was as though you were seeing them through a small window. It had been realized that if you could fill the entire field of vision with an image, an even greater sense of realism would be experienced. Many entrepreneurs tried various ways of achieving this effect, including an American, Charles A. Chase, who designed and patented the "Electric Cyclorama", which he had demonstrated in 1894, and subsequently exhibited it throughout the following decade. Here is a description of the 1895 improved version from the British Journal of Photography:

"The apparatus consists of a huge lantern installation suspended from the ceiling like a chandelier. This contrivance holds the operator and eight lanterns, each lighted by an electric arc, and throwing a combined picture on a screen of cylindrical section, ninety metres in circumference and ten high. Extremely accurate registration is required, that in the junction of the views no awkward overlapping takes place. This is brought about by the accurate placing of the chandelier-like lanterns and lanternist stand. The pictures once arranged and planned for continuing in series, a further improvement is carried out by introducing kinetoscope pictures in motion, thrown upon the screen in the usual manner from a second lantern system. The apparatus is as ingenious as it must be costly, but we much doubt the commercial success of the scheme, especially at the present time, when, judging from provincial and other accounts, the public seems to be surfeited with lantern shows"

Mmm, there's a germ of Cinerama in there somewhere; but the bit about "kinetoscope pictures from a second lantern system" can be taken with a pinch of salt, as there were no efficient projection systems in America at that time.

This, and similar systems, were no doubt impressive in their day: but they were essentially "still" projections. The first practical demonstration of a "panoramic movie" was made by a Frenchman; Raoul Grimoin Sanson with his "Cineorama"; patented on 25th November 1897. This cumbersome device consisted of ten - yes, ten cine cameras arranged radially facing outwards, to cover the entire horizon, and connected to a single drive handle which required the efforts of two or three men to turn it. The plan was to construct a cylindrical building to house the ten similarly linked projectors that would be required to project a combined image on to the ten screens arranged around the walls. This system eventually became a feature of the Paris Exposition of 1900; and a truly spectacular demonstration was orchestrated by suspending the camera unit beneath a hot-air balloon, and, well, a contemporary description says it all:

"...managed in the ascent by the Count de la Vaulx and M. Mallet, two well-known aeronauts. After various incidents, rather of an alarming kind, as the machine showed a disposition to cast its moorings before its gear had been properly adjusted, the balloon, at a few minutes past five, amid the cheers of an enormous crowd, with which the Tuileries terraces were densely packed, was let off, and rose swiftly, bearing at once to the south-east. Immediately on the word "Go!" the machinery revolving the camera films was set moving with a wild whirring sound, so that the first scene which visitors to the cineorama show will view on their balloon journey over Paris will be in the foreground the friends of the aeronauts and many members of the Tero and Automobile Clubs waving their hats and handkerchiefs, and on rising a little higher the surging crowd round the terraces, with the Place de la Concorde equally thronged, and the Exhibition beyond."

Amazingly, the flight was a success, and the developed film was hand-coloured and projected triumphantly in the aforementioned cylindrical building (one hundred metres in circumference!) which had duly been constructed at the Exposition. And to plunge the audience even further into the action, Sanson placed them in a huge basket in the centre of the 360 degree panorama. Unfortunately, the basket was placed directly on top of the circular, and un-ventilated, projection booth, inside which the ten projectors whirred away, consuming 400 amps of electrical current between them and generating huge amounts of heat. The Prefecture of Police closed it down as a fire risk in spite of its undoubted success.

And had you been at the same Exposition, you could have strolled down from the Decagonal Hall where Sanson's audience quietly smouldered in their basket, to the Galerie des Machines, where the Lumiere brothers, Auguste and Louis, demonstrated a 75mm wide film projection process - the largest ever to be used in conventional cinematography - which had been developed in 1898. The frame size was 45 x 60mm which was more than 6 times the area available on the 35mm film then in use, and was projected on to a screen 20 metres wide, and during the course of the exposition, around 25,000 people attended the screenings.

It's worth noting here that at this time, whilst Edison's 35mm film was in general use, it was by no means the Standard Gauge. It was still early days when it came down to the quality of the photographic materials available, and many film makers preferred the larger formats for projection - the better to minimize the inadequacies in the film stock of the day during the tremendous magnification that projection involves. While the Lumiere's 75mm process was the largest, some other notable formats were the 60mm Demeny-Gaumont system of 1896; the Viventoscope machine, built by A.S. Newman for Blair in England used 48mm wide film; and the 68mm Biograph system was in use well into the 20th century.

By 1922, an American, John D. Elmes, was ready to demonstrate his "Widescope" process. A special camera exposed two 35mm films running side by side, each of which recorded half of a panoramic scene. It required two interlocked projectors to produce the combined "Widescope" image, presumably 2.66:1, but the system never went into general use and was confined to a few trade demonstrations.

It will become apparent as we describe some of the systems that were to come along much later, that some of these early, and sometimes, bizarre attempts to produce a wide image would be resurrected in a modified or more practical form. Basically, some of them just needed a little more work. Or, to be precise; improved technology. They were ahead of their time! One such idea was proposed in 1924 by a Mr. J.H.Powrie, a pioneer of early colour processes for still cameras. A 48mm wide film running horizontally through a camera, and with a frame size of 50 x 38 mm would be reduction-printed on to 35mm to produce an improved image with greater detail. Now at the time this idea came to nothing; but it would re-surface in 1953, with slight "modification", as VistaVision!

Also in 1924, a man named Alberini adapted a method of producing panoramic images that had previously been used in still photography. This involved mounting a lens on a revolving drum that would scan an angle of about 65 degrees at each revolution, and would record a 24 x 40mm image on to 35mm film moving horizontally through a curved gate in the camera.

In 1927, the indomitable Mr. Elmes bounced back with a similar idea for his "Improved Widescope" process. This time the revolving lens recorded a 60 degree angle of view on to 57mm wide film.

Now, at this time, most cinema screens were actually quite small, compared to the size of the proscenium stage in which they were usually mounted. So a different approach was tried by Lorenzo del Riccio with his Magnascope system. A huge screen, which filled the entire proscenium was fitted and then masked down to conventional size. The next addition was in the projection booth. A Simplex projector, capable of high light output, was installed, and fitted with an enlarging lens. This would be used during the "Special Sequences" of the Magnascope Presentation, which went like this:
The film would be projected on to the conventional screen by the first projector. At a given signal, and just before the end of the reel, the operators would draw back the masking and switch over to the Simplex; flooding the giant screen with a bright and much enlarged image. The system was first used for the naval battle sequence in the film, Old Ironsides, which premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York in 1926. It was used several times after that, most notably for the elephant stampede in Merian C. Cooper's Chang. Another battle sequence, this time in The Big Parade; and also for the aerial sequences in Wings. It was a simple idea, but an extremely effective one; and it would continue to be used in some of the larger theatres for a number of years.

A variation on this idea was proposed by Mr. George Palmer, the chief projectionist at London's Marble Arch Cinema. He would use an early type of zoom lens to continuously enlarge the picture, while his assistants would slowly draw back the masking. The "Giant Expanding Pictures" was demonstrated on 7th July 1930, and a major flaw in the system soon became apparent. The larger the image became, so it became dimmer. The same projector was being used throughout the enlarging process, unlike the Magnascope system, and it was simply too under powered for the giant screen. In spite of this, by the end of the summer of that year, nine British cinemas had installed the system, and a further thirty five were planning to. Amazing.

In 1927, Abel Gance produced his Napoleon in a system that had been designed and patented by Andre Debrie the previous year. The "Triple Ecran" system involved the use of three screens and three mechanically linked projectors (Cinerama again!) to produce a triptych of a central image with different images either side - occasionally left and right scenes were mirror images of each other - or a wide, wide panoramic image across all three screens. This film was rescued and restored some time ago by film historian Kevin Brownlow, and is still impressive.

A significant event in the History of Widescreen occurred in 1927 when Professor Henri Chretien appeared before the Societe Francais de Physique to describe the principle of anamorphotic photography, first employed by E. Abbe as far back as 1897, and whose system he had refined. Abbe had designed a cylindrical lens that would compress an image laterally but not vertically; a circle photographed with this lens would appear on film as an ellipse stood on end. Chretien had constructed such a lens, which he called a "Hypergonar", that would compress an image, twice as wide, into a standard film frame, when attached to a normal camera lens. This process would be reversed by attaching the Hypergonar lens to a standard projector, which would then "unsqueeze" the compressed image on to a wide screen. This is the lens that, when purchased by 20th Century fox some twenty years later, would become CinemaScope. But, although the Hypergonar went into commercial production in 1928, and was even demonstrated in America, no one was interested there at the time! A film was produced in France, using Chretien's lens; Pour Contruire un Feu. This film, produced in 1929 by Claude Autant-Lara, also contained split-screen and variable masking sequences, and ran for several months in Paris. And even though Professor Chretien used Hypergonars on two interlocked projectors to throw an image 60 x 10 metres wide on to a screen fixed to the facade of the Palace of Light at the 1937 International Exposition, the film industry remained uninterested, and the Hypergonar/CinemaScope lens and its inventor quietly slipped into the shadows to await their eventual return in the passage of time.

1929 saw a surge of interest in wide screen presentation, and a return to the wide film method, rather than anamorphic compression. Various systems began to emerge - with various widths of film to go with them - but we won't go into them in great detail at this point, as I want to cover them more fully in a future issue. Suffice it to say that the enthusiasm for widescreen was not shared by the trade. Many - probably most - of the exhibitors were understandably reluctant to shell out for yet more new equipment so soon after installing the last innovation: - sound. But before we consign widescreen to the wilderness for what would be nearly twenty years; a short hop across the Channel to England would find engineer George Ford, and F.W. Watson Baker working on their "Fulvue" process. More or less identical to Chretien's system, it had much the same impact, or lack of it, with British exhibitors, in spite of some favourable reviews. Over in America, The Victor Talking Machine Company found their similar system equally unsuccessful. The C.P. Goertz American Optical Company produced a cylindrical lens attachment, designed by Sidney H. Newcomber, under the name "Cine-Panor", but with no luck there either; except for limited 16mm use. Widescreen would languish for many years; through the Depression era and then World War II, until its resurrection was "triggered" , to coin an apt phrase - you'll see what I mean - by the man who invented ... Water Skis!

Fred Waller really did invent the water ski; but he had also dabbled in wide screen and multiple projection systems - a notable one having been demonstrated in the Perisphere at the New York World's Fair in 1939 - as usual, to public acclaim and professional indifference. After America entered the war he was approached by the War Department to come up with an idea that would improve the training of aerial gunners. As a result of this, "The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer" was created. A complex, but effective, system whereby up to four gunners at a time could shoot at filmed images of enemy planes projected on to a hemispherical screen by five synchronized projectors. An optical/mechanical linkage system recorded the aiming position of the realistically vibrating "guns", registering an individual gunner's "hits" or "misses". The trainer was extremely successful, and it has been estimated that the lives of up to 30,000 aircrew had been saved by the end of WWII. After the War, Waller, spurred on by the numbers of airmen who would ask, "When are we going to see real movies like this?" got down to work. He began to refine the projection system; reducing the number of projectors to three, and changing the shape of the screen from the hemispherical to the cylindrical, made up of hundreds of narrow vertical louvres. The frame height was increased from four sprocket holes to six; and the film running speed was increased from 24 frames per second to 26. A separate 35mm magnetic track was added to provide seven channels of sound, and Cinerama was born!

The opening of the first feature, This Is Cinerama, at the Broadway Theater, New York, on 30th September 1952, was a sensation. People flocked to experience this new phenomenon; and this time the Industry did sit up and take notice. A film that had no stars; no plot and could only be seen at one cinema in the world, and still manage to break box office records, had to be taken seriously. Obviously it was the big curved screen and superlative sound that was dragging the public away from the new enemy: Television. So, naturally, all the studios wanted one - but how? Spyros Skouras, head of 20th Century-Fox, was quickest of the mark. Having a vague recollection of some French professor trying to sell a wide screen lens in America, years ago, he grabbed the first plane to France and persuaded a bemused Chretien to dust off the old Hypergonar and sign it over to 20th Century-Fox, ahead - just - of the opposition. Fox re-named their acquisition "CinemaScope", and the rest, as they say, is history.

And that is where we are going to leave this "Brief History of Widescreen". There is much, much more to be told about all these things that we have merely touched on, but that will be for another day. With Cinerama and CinemaScope, however, the Wide Screen Era had finally arrived, and this time it was here to stay!


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Copyright 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 18 June 2002

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