Wide Screen Movies Magazine
edited by John Hayes

Issue 2

What is …Todd-AO
Todd-AO - a strange name for a wide screen process, if you think about it. Not as catchy as "Cinerama" or "CinemaScope", perhaps, but nevertheless, the phrase, "…in TODD-AO" below the title was no less evocative of the big screen experience than its two predecessors. It was the brainchild of the irrepressible entrepreneur, Mike Todd, who had bought into Fred Waller's Cinerama process, and had even supervised the shooting of the European scenes in that system's first feature outing in This Is Cinerama.

Todd became disenchanted with what he perceived as the limitations of Cinerama; the join lines between the three panels and the constant challenge for the cinematographer to hide them and also the huge cost of installing and running the three projectors and seven-track sound system. Instructing his team to find the best optical engineer in the US, they came up with the name of Dr. Brian O'Brien, the newly appointed head of research at American Optical. Waving a cheque for $100,000 - a huge sum in 1952 - under the corporate nose of American Optical secured the services of their top man, and with Todd's oft-quoted brief to "…make it like Cinerama, but where everything comes out of one hole", he set to work.

O'Brien elected to go with a 65mm Eastmancolour negative and designed a 12.7mm wide angle lens that had a 128 degree angle of view. For closer shots, a series of narrower lenses were built at 64, 48 and 37 degrees. These interchangeable lenses were attached to a specially built Mitchell 65mm camera body, which had a 3-blade dissolving shutter with an opening of 170 degrees. Initially, the 128 degree "Bugeye" would be permanently attached to its own camera, while the three others would be used on a second unit. Eventually, Mitchell came up with a way of making all four lenses interchangeable.

The film would run at 140.25 feet per minute, or 30 frames per second, as opposed to the usual 24fps, providing a steadier and more detailed image. The frame size would be 2.02 inches wide by 0.906 - five sprocket holes - high, giving an aspect ratio of 2.2:1 Of course a new projection system would have to be devised, and the construction of this was contracted out to Philips of Eindhoven, in Holland, who worked closely with American Optical to design an all-purpose projector head, (they would be able to handle 35mm, CinemaScope, 3D and 70mm at 30 & 24fps). Westrex developed the recorders for the six-track magnetic sound, which comprised 5 channels for the screen; Left, Centre Left, Centre, Centre Right, Right and the sixth channel for the auditorium surround. These tracks would be added to a wider 70mm release print. In addition, a special "equalizer-relay-switching rack" was developed by Ampex to ensure that the Todd-AO sound was compatible with existing theatre systems

With the "Einstein of the optical racket", as Todd referred to O'Brien, and his team of one hundred technicians developing the technical side, Todd began to pursue a suitable property for his new system. The hottest show in town was Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, and Todd was determined to get it. The two composers had so far resisted all Hollywood offers for their hit western musical, but after being persuaded to attend a demonstration of Todd's baby, they caved in - for $1,020,000 and 40% of the gross!

Shooting Oklahoma! in the new system posed a couple of problems that would need to be solved if the film was ever going to run in smaller theatres as well as the larger first-run houses; film size and running speed. It was not possible to make 35mm, 24fps anamorphic reduction prints from the 65 mm, 30fps negative without mutilating the film. To get round this, Oklahoma! was shot simultaneously in CinemaScope. (The second Todd-AO feature, Around The World In Eighty Days, would be shot exclusively in 65mm, but at 30fps and 24fps, to facilitate the direct printing of 35mm anamorphic release prints)

Todd-AO was designed to be projected onto deeply curved screens, similar to Cinerama's , for example, a 52 foot wide screen would curve to a depth of 13 feet. Unfortunately, projecting at sometimes high angles from conventional projection boxes onto the curved screen resulted in severe distortion of the image. Cinerama had used head-on projection from specially - and expensively - constructed booths to minimise this effect. American Optical developed an ingenious solution to avoid this expense, by introducing a deliberate distortion into the release prints, which would automatically correct itself when projected onto the screen. The curved screen, however, would eventually give way to the more conventional flat screens.

Todd-AO would be used on several important productions, including, South Pacific; Can-Can; Porgy And Bess; The Alamo, of course, and perhaps most famously on the epic Cleopatra.

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Copyright 2002 John Hayes/Wide Screen Movies Magazine
Last revised: 5 February 2003

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