Cinerama was devised by Fred Waller, special effects engineer and prodigious
inventor. Waller was also responsible for, among other things, water skis, a
360-degree panoramic camera, a remote sensing maritime anemometer and the
Waller Gunnery Trainer, which could be considered a forerunner of arcade
games and the modern flight simulator.
Wide-screen processes had previously been tried, in the late 1890's and
again in the late 20's, without success. The film industry generally tried
to suppress such innovation for two reasons. First, exhibitors were
reluctant to invest in the necessary new equipment required to present these
non-standard formats and, secondly, studios and distributors feared that the
success of any new process might seriously diminish the value of millions of
dollars' worth of existing films held in vaults, in circulation or, as yet
The idea for Cinerama originated with Waller's work on perception of depth.
He believed that stereoscopic vision was an actuality only for close-up
sight. At greater distances, the human brain relied more on other visual
clues such as perspective and parallax effects. Experimenting with a
home-made contraption which limited his field of view to straight ahead, he
realised that it was peripheral vision - what was visible out of the corner
of the eye, which was the key to the perception of reality. He decided that
in order to duplicate reality on screen, he would have to reproduce the
entire field of human vision. However, to do this on a conventional cinema
screen would require one of impractically excessive width.
Asked by architect Ralph Walker to collaborate in developing an audio/visual
exhibit for the 1939 world fair in New York, to be housed in a spherical
building, Waller suddenly realised that normal vision is arc-shaped and
therefore the solution to the problem was to use a curved screen. Walker and
Waller patented a multi-camera and projector system utilising eleven,
interlocked 16mm cameras, which they called Vitarama and formed a company,
the Vitarama Corporation, to exploit the concept. Despite securing funding
from Lawrence Rockefeller and Time magazine, they were unable to convince
their original sponsors to install the system at the fair and the film
industry itself ignored them.
Previously, Abel Gance had employed a three-projector process, Polyvision in
his silent production, "Napoleon" (1927) and Fox had tried to introduce a
wide-screen 70mm format, Grandeur in 1929. Although a few films, such as
"The Big Trail" were issued in Grandeur, as well as newsreels, exhibitors
were not convinced at the time, and the state of the American economy did
nothing to encourage them. Widescreen died out again until the introduction
of Cinerama in 1952. Even an attempt by David O. Selznick to use a
two-camera system on "Gone With The Wind" in 1937 failed. The Atlanta fire
sequence was apparently filmed in the process, but the expense of outfitting
theatres to show it and the limitations it imposed on the extent of release
in that form caused the idea to be dropped in distribution.
With the onset of the Second World War, Waller turned his attention to
gunnery training, modifying Vitarama to project film of attacking aircraft
from five cameras onto a hemispherical screen and devising a system to
simulate the firing of machine guns and providing positive feedback to
gunners and trainers in real time as to which bursts had hit the target. The
Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer improved the accuracy of gunners whilst
saving the cost and inconvenience of having to tow a target behind an
aircraft, wait for the target to land and examine it, not knowing of course
which of their bullets had hit the mark.
Following the war, Waller tried to make the system, now called Cinerama,
more commercially viable, reducing the number of 35mm projectors to three
and enlisting the help of a sound engineer, Hazard E. Reeves, to develop a
multi-channel, directional sound system to go with his wide pictures. The
film industry remained unconvinced and in 1950, both Rockefeller and Time
pulled out of the venture. Unable to attract a major studio, Cinerama Inc.
set out to demonstrate the potential of the process by producing and
exhibiting their own, independently financed film, forming Cinerama
Productions to do so.
"This Is Cinerama" opened on 30 September, 1952 at the Broadway Theatre, New
York with massive public interest and media coverage, subsequently running
for 122 weeks. The process quite caught the attention and imagination of the
nation. Within weeks everything became a rama - launderettes were renamed
launderamas, car dealerships autoramas. A stripper even dubbed herself the
However, the three projector system was very costly to install and required
a large staff to operate. Additionally, Cinerama required level projection
to prevent distortion, resulting in the loss of seating capacity to
accommodate three additional projection boxes in the stalls (existing
balcony boxes were retained from which to project the standard, black and
white 35mm prologues which introduced the five travelogues.) The operational
expenses typically consumed half of the gross box-office turnover, which did
not encourage exhibitors to accept the system.
Because of internal problems, Cinerama failed to capitalize on its initial
success, and the follow-up to "This Is Cinerama" did not materialize until
1955, by which time the major studios had recovered from the surprise
success of Cinerama and had regained the initiative with their own, more
Largely because of its spectacular nature and the patriotically titled
"America The Beautiful" section of "This Is Cinerama", Cinerama acquired
considerable propaganda value. In 1955, it transpired America was not
adequately represented at the industrial fair in Damascus, Syria and to
rectify this situation, the State Department, at short notice, formally
requested the use of the first production. "This Is Cinerama" duly opened
there and was an instant success, by all accounts eclipsed everything else
at the fair.
A few months later, Cinerama Inc. was once again requested to present the
film, this time at the world trade fair in Bangkok, Thailand. On this
occasion the Soviet Union was exerting a heavy influence. Nevertheless,
Cinerama proved extremely popular with visitors and resulted in the US
winning the exhibit competition. The Russians, not accepting this loss of
face, promptly claimed prior invention of Cinerama and responded by
developing their own version, KinoPanorama. It must be credited that the
KinoPanorama camera did in fact successfully address a number of the
technical problems associated with the Cinerama one. It was this camera
which was used to shoot "Great Is My Country" which went on to win for the
Russians at the Brussels World's Fair three years later.
In 1961 Cinerama eliminated some of its competition by acquiring
CineMiracle, another three-strip process with which Cinerama was nearly
compatible. Only one title had been completed in CineMiracle, and through a
previous agreement, had been exhibited in Cinerama theatres since 1958.
Purchase of the rival system enabled Cinerama to project all three prints
from a common projection room.
At the same time, Cinerama concluded a deal with M-G-M to shoot two
narrative features in the process, although, for "How The West Was Won",
Ultra Panavision was used for a number of sequences for which it was felt
the three-strip camera was unsuitable. For the travelogues, Waller had
adopted a running speed of 26 f.p.s. in order to reduce the perceptible
flicker on such a large screen. In negotiating with M-G-M, Cinerama had to
agree to use 24 f.p.s. to allow the films to be printed in conventional 35mm
anamorphic form after the initial exhibition in Cinerama.
Persistent problems with the three-strip technology and its inherent
expense, combined with the belief that the audience would not notice the
difference anyway, Cinerama switched to 65mm Ultra Panavision photography
from 1963. This became known as single-strip or Super Cinerama, but lacked
the impact of the original process. Existing theatres had their multiple
projector system stripped out and 70mm equipment installed in its place,
while three-strip was exhibited around Europe in a succession of tents. The
final demise of the Cinerama process proper came in 1972, following a
lengthy retrospective run of all the three-strip films in Paris.
Cinerama also diversified into other formats, using its name to market
films, made in a variety of widescreen, 35mm anamorphic and 70mm processes,
through Cinerama Releasing Corporation. Cinerama Incorporated was liquidated
in 1978 after mounting debt forced it to call a halt to its activities.
©Copyright 1995 Mark R. Baldock.