Cinerama Adventure

Cinerama AdventureSynopsis: CINERAMA ADVENTURE is a feature length documentary chronicling the amazing history of the long lost three-camera, three-projector cinematic process which thrilled millions around the world in the 1950s and early 60s. It all began in 1942 with a virtual reality training device that was credited with saving over 350,000 lives during the war effort. Unlike the 3-D fads of the early 1950s, Cinerama enjoyed a steady 14 year reign, ultimately playing in over 200 specially equipped theatres in most major cities around the globe. These wildly popular, “Wonder Hunting” Cinerama productions were almost always listed within the top ten box office grossing films of the year with two titles landing in first place.

Cinerama’s story is told with all the same action, adventure and thrills found in the Cinerama movies themselves, as well as through the words of the surviving people who lived it. Over forty original crew members, celebrities and film historians have been interviewed. A wide selection of never before seen film clips, photos, and crew members’ home movies help to illustrate the dramatic rise and fall of this era. Cinerama Adventure takes you behind the scenes for the human interest stories of the trials and triumphs that were involved in making these films; stories of hair-raising danger, international intrigue, critical injury and death.

Cinerama Adventure 8.0

eyelights: the breathtaking Cinerama images. the thoroughness of the film.
eyesores: the somewhat weak positioning of the players in Cinerama’s history.

“You are about to see the first public exhibition of an entirely new form of entertainment. We call it Cinerama. It’s the latest development in the magic of light and sound. In fact, it is the first public demonstration of an entirely new medium. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama.”

Cinerama is a long forgotten film process that used three cameras simultaneously to create a higher resolution widescreen film like never seen before – or since. The resulting film would be projected on a curved screen through the synchronization of three projectors to create a more natural depth of perception. Combined with its groundbreaking hi-fi audio system, it was a spectacular presentation.

The system was so impressive, in fact, that they even had a short presentation of its innovative high fidelity sound system during the intermission. They also had a live mixer on hand to adapt the mix to the audience (size, type of crowd, …etc) and they tried to reproduce what the eyes and ears experience, with the film projected at the same curvature as the retina, to simulate peripheral vision.

It was essentially, for all intents and purposes, the first IMAX – except more immersive. It was a huge hit upon its release in 1952, but it became less popular as the decade wore on; the initial rush faded and audiences tired of the travelogue-type films that were being presented. The problem was that the technique didn’t work with close-ups, so traditional feature films weren’t being made.

‘Cinerama Adventure’ is a 93-minute documentary that discusses the history of Cinerama, from its origins through its overwhelming success and industry-shaking standards to its eventual disappearance. Originally released in 2002, this utterly fascinating film has since been included as a bonus feature on home video copies of the epic Cinerama feature film ‘How the West Was Won‘.

The film introduces us to the creator of Cinerama, Fred Waller. Prior to this, he had devised an 11-projector system that he called Vitarama, which was used extensively to train Air Force pilots in simulations of airborne combat. But Cinerama languished until he brought it to the attention of Lowell Thomas, who is credited for making a celebrity out of T.E. Lawrence, and without whom there would be no ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.

The first Cinerama film, ‘This is Cinerama’ was released on September 30, 1952. It would be the first of five films produced over the course of the next eight years. Even though it merely consisted of visually impressive footage, such as the canals of Venice, a bullfight, excerpts of a performance of Aida, and such, it would end up being the top-grossing film of the year – despite playing in one cinema.

It wasn’t just the innovative process that drew the crowds: it was the showmanship. It was treated like theatre, with assigned seating, greetings by the manager in a tux as cinemagoers walked in, and no concession stand. The film started with a 12-minute intro by Lowell Thomas in a standard black and white 4:3 film – and then the curtains opened to reveal the grandeur of the movie, which begins with a POV shot of a rollercoaster ride.

It was quite the spectacle.

Cinerama is credited for popularizing widescreen films, because studios were paying attention to its success and trying to steal the idea – but without the overhead, as it was an expensive process. Or the risks: the equipment was so elaborate that it was also prone to failure: the slightest mishap could halt the screening. Cinerama actually shot some “breakdown” films to give the audience updates on the status of the picture.

‘Cinerama Aventure’ briefly compares the different widescreen formats. The most popular one was Cinemascope, which was brought in by 20th Century Fox, and is considered by some as the poor man’s Cinerama, but won an Oscar for its development in 1954. Widescreen became an industry standard after that. And, amusingly enough, ‘Rama’ became the catch-all tag in an attempt to excite consumers. Cinerama changed entertainment.

Someone eventually got the idea of taking ‘This is Cinerama’ to the 1958 Brussel World Fair, in Belgium, as Cold War propaganda to boast about the American way (which is a natural given that there is a segment in which U.S. landscapes are featured to the sounds of “America the Beautiful”). It was a massive hit, so the Soviets promptly copied the concept and then accused the Americans of stealing it.

While pictures are usually a director’s medium, Cinerama was a cinematographer’s medium. Cinerama motion pictures weren’t just complicated to show (you needed the right infrastructure to do it), they were difficult to shoot. With massive cameras and the extremes they went to to show audiences something spectacular, their adventures had the filmmakers taking risks that led to injuries and even death.

Nicolas Reisini, a Greek Financier, bought the company 1956 and made it into a European traveling roadshow. It was problematic but successful – after a few false starts, wherein the inflatable cinemas that they had devised collapsed. Within a few years, seeing the decline in interest in Cinerama, they decided to make a deal with MGM to make traditional motion pictures, with a story and a cast of actors.

Although ‘Cinerama Adventure’ doesn’t make any mention of it, this resulted in ‘The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm’. Then came ‘How the West Was Won’. For the directors, actors and stuntmen, it was extremely difficult to make. They had accidents. It was expensive. The result: the industry got scared. Add to this the daunting operating costs, and Cinerama didn’t take hold – even though ‘HTWWW’ was a huge box office success.

Cinerama had financial troubles after this. They were bought out, and then 70mm films were being distributed under the guise of “Cinerama” – they even played them on curved screens starting with notably ‘It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World’. It was a massive hit, although some people who expected an actual Cinerama presentation felt ripped off. It would not be the last of its kind: many films were released in “Cinerama”, including ‘2001: A Space Odyssey‘.

Cinerama effectively died at the end of the ’60 and early ’70s. At the end, these “Cinerama” films were only being released in the UK. But there are places in the United States  and England that still play the old films now. And, recently, the films have been reproduced in what is called ‘SmileBox’ format for home video, on Blu-ray discs. It’s as close a home video presentation as one can get.

(I still don’t know why these films aren’t being reformatted in 3D to reproduce the effect of depth. Too expensive?)

I really enjoyed watching this documentary on the process: it gave me even more understanding of how the industry developed. But, most of all, it instilled in me with a respect for Cinerama and made me wish that I had been there to see it in its full glory. I really wish I had been there to see the first screening of ‘This is Cinerama’; it must have been a “wow” moment for everyone involved. Seeing it today wouldn’t be the same.

The one thing I didn’t like about ‘Cinerama Adventure’ is that there were too many talking heads and too many people being discussed; it was hard to keep up given that the film often goes right in with very little briefing on who these people are. As well, it’s only available in standard definition (even on the Blu-ray), so it doesn’t showcase the medium as well as it could. Still, it’s a good primer.

…and it was an enjoyable adventure in Cinerama.

Date of viewing: April 18, 2014

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