Widescreen and the Larger Than Life Cinema Experience

In the land of films there are many terms and systems thrown around regarding film technologies. The term ‘widescreen’ is a result achieved from many different processes, but ultimately and vaguely refers to pictures that are wider than they are high. Now throw in new cameras using digital technologies and the advent of Go-Pro’s creating 360 videos and the term widescreen, becomes a vague adjective for things that look bigger and have black bars on the top and bottom of a screen.

Widescreen has a lot of different names and processes that make it confusing and costly, but ultimately create some of the most cinematic experiences ever shared in the dark. In a way the play with film dimension and filmstock, which most artists had given up on at the start of the 1970’s, now makes newer films seem edgy, artistic, and awe-inspiring, but widescreen has been a wonder of Hollywood for some time now.

The standard stock, which has been this way for nearly a century, in varying degrees of popularity, is 35mm, with a resurgence of both smaller Super8 and 16mm and larger 65mm and 70mm filmstock throughout the last century. While 70mm filmstock captures a larger, crisper, more colorful image it is not the only technique used to achieve widescreen films. Through the use of special projectors, camera lenses and projector lenses a plethora of different techniques have been devised to allow films to capture more of an image.

First and foremost, the size of filmstock used will provide completely different types, sizes, and depths of images. At the dawn of film the stock/size that pre-film-standard filmmakers were using would be considered a bit odd; 63mm, 17.5 mm, and 28 all came to be used around the start of the twentieth century, but they are not all that different from the regular sizes we now have­ such as 65/70, 16, and 35. At this time, inventing was a free-for-all where large amounts of people and labs were all working independently of each other, but in parallel movements that created a large pool of different types of image recording technology that all pretty much did the same things. Each big Hollywood company was sure to scoop up the newest one as their own, and thus different approaches to capturing images; some were better at packing in more degrees of width while others were better at getting a lot of depth in a relatively large image.

In Richard Patterson’s essay from 1973 entitled “Highlights from the History of Motion Picture Formats” published in American Cinematographer, Patterson more than highlights a lot of the different film formats. His essay claimed there were some distinct choices made by the film experts of the past that deemed 35mm the standard and it all started with Thomas Edison and the Kinetoscope. Because he was working more with images meant for his devices when his multitude of image recording devices flooded the people with 35mm, other inventories were choosing to use 35mm. Thus by 1907 the standard was set, and would be reinforced time and time again. Larger filmstock had, as previously stated, been around for a while, but fell out of favor as the equipment it needed was not worth buying if most recorded images were to be in 35mm.

From the projectors that demanded 35mm stock, to the actual projection screens that were often fitted to one aspect ratio, there were some early limits on the size and scope of film. Aspect Ratio is determined by dividing the width of the image by its height. The first films were shot with aspect ratios of 1.33;1 (or 4;3). When the sound era came along with their talkies, the ratio changed to 1.37;1, because the musical score now appeared on the filmstock. In 1932 this became the Academy ratio and the go to for Hollywood, but films often played with the aspect ratio.

This does not mean that new technologies and image shapes were not being invented and created. In fact, Patterson talks about the lost large format technologies that would later be used in the creation of newer, larger scaled movies. Around the 1930’s not only was larger filmstock in use to expand film images, but new technologies that stitched together images began to pop-up. While Cinerama, Polyvision, and Reallife MGM used multiple 35mm images projected side by side, there were larger film formats such as Natural Vision (RKO) and Magnifilm (Paramount) that were using the larger 65mm format and some that used 70mm Granduer (20th Century Fox). These larger formats were labeled widescreen and demanded very specific projectors, often multiple lenses and projection screens that might have been curved.

The lack of success of these 30’s films would hinder any push for widescreen films. Perhaps the best example of this was the onetime use of Polyvision for Able Gance’s film Napoleon. The image ultimately used three 35mm images side by side and thus called for more projectors and a screen that had an aspect ratio of 4.00;1, which is massive and costly. It was the equivalent of shooting three films, but only showing one in a specially outfitted theatre. Costly films that could only be shown in a handful of places caused the widescreen film to wane from the limelight of Hollywood, until it became Hollywood’s savior, in a manner of speaking.

With the new technologies of the Post WWII boom in the 50’s not only did new motion picture technology come about, but the invention and widespread reach of the Television demanded Hollywood and the film industry rethink their approach to films. To combat the ease and casualty of entertainment right in a person’s home, the film industry began to create films that were cinematic experiences. They decided that by making an event out of going to the movies they could continue to captivate large audiences; a large audience needed a large image and thus widescreen reemerged like a beautiful costly phoenix to elevate films above their televised counterpart.

Luckily for Hollywood these films were not only lucrative, but very quickly became classics that still bring acclaim and wonder to the studios, directors, and the widescreen experience. The first widescreen film that drew acclaim was This is Cinerama from 1952. Cinerama was not a new process, in fact it was first used in 1939 World’s Fair where 11 projectors created one image through the use of overlapping images on a deeply curved screen, but it was revamped for This is Cinerama. Patterson discusses in his article how the 50’s version of Cinerama used three interlocked cameras using 27mm film that when projecting had to be slatted together and blended to create one image.

While This is Cinerama was more of a screen test for what these newer 70mm large aspect ratio films could do the industry fell in love with the large images, the beautiful pictures, and the addition of Stereophonic sound that created the total film experience the industry desperately needed (http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/intro.htm). As the Film industry began to use these widescreen technologies, newer forms began to be created. From Cinerama came Cinemascope which used an anamorphic lens− angled with a wider view− to capture larger images on filmstock that was smaller. The technology for these lenses had been around since before the twentieth century, but as they came back into favor in the 50’s the big studios took notice. Cinemascope became the brand of 20th Century Fox and many of their films from 1953 on were filmed with its use.

After This is Cinerama more and more epic films were beginning to be produced. The first of the massive epics released by Hollywood in the 50’s and 60’s was Oklahoma from 1955 by Fred Zinnemanns, which used a newer and simpler version of Cinerama. The newer adaptations were done by Michael Todd and American Optical using 70mm filmstock. Aptly named Todd-AO, this new version would be used on such films as Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music (1965), Around the world in Eighty Days, South Pacific, and later on in the 60’s Cleopatra.  While Todd-AO did not use anamorphic lenses, it’s process was to take 65mm negatives and transfer the images to 70mm filmstock leaving 5mm for the magnetic sound score. This process would open the door for an entire array of new film techniques to come.

MGM also tried getting their hands on a widescreen process and went to Panavison hoping to develop their own, which more or less they did. After not creating a feasible process quick enough to combat their competitors, MGM grew restless, so instead of creating something new they simply found old technology that they revamped to solve their new problems.

Back in the 30’s MGM had created their Reallife process that was used on the film Billy the Kid, but not much else until the 50’s when the camera and parts were made into the MGM Camera 65. This new system in conjunction with Panavision was known as Ultra Panavision and was used to shoot films like Ben-Hur (1959) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), Mutiny on the Bounty (1962) Battle of the Bulge (1965) and Kartoum (1966). These films were gorgeous cinematic master pieces. What made Camera 65 and Ultra Panasonic, so important was how it could capture large breadths of images beautifully. The classic chariot race in Ben-Hur would have been nothing without the cameras, lenses, and processes developed by MGM and Panavision.

Ultra Panavision can also be found in far more recent films. According to the Special Roadshow Engagement playbill Quentin Tarantino’s film The Hateful Eight (2015) was able to restore and use equipment and lenses originally used in the filming of Ben-Hur. They mostly retrofitted new cameras for the use of the older parts and the result is quiet the stunning experience.

Panavision did not stop at Ultra Panavision though, they developed their processes further by adding spherical lenses. This new process Super Panavision would go on to be used in the biggest and best widescreen productions of the era including Exodus (1960), West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), 2001 Space Odyssey (1968) and many more from this era were shot using this technique, because it allowed for massive shots where everything could be seen regardless of where the main action may be. Musicals employed this often so that at any point any dancer or actor could be seen; these films saw everything and began to allow the audiences to choose what they wanted to focus on.

Super Panavision is also making a resurgence in more recent times having been used on such films as the action sequences of Tron from 1982, Far and Away (1992), and the 1997 version of Hamlet. The resurgence in the 90’s came about due to a newer form of widescreen. 1991 saw the advent of Panavision System 65 which was still a Panavision process, but with new tech for newer cameras. More and more films are taking this turn back to the epic images of the 50’s and 60’s. You can see Dunkirk (2017) and Murder on the Orient Express (2017) in Panavision System 65 at a theatre near you.

The films of this decade that come out in widescreen are ‘revolutionary,’ because they are making an excursion back into the old style of film formats. This is only possible though as newer technology both inside and outside of the film industry progresses. TV’s, laptops, phones have left behind their square screens and each year turn more rectangular which allows anyone to watch a widescreen movie and miss less and less of their beauty and depth. As these technologies become more and more affordable and filmmakers Christopher Nolan, Paul T. Anderson, Quentin Tarantino continue to push their widescreen agendas into a new wave of widescreen movies to capture audiences with their stunning quality and larger-than-life pictures.

Maranda Davis

Maranda is a Las Vegan writer and recent graduate of Texas Christian University. She has a degree in Theatre with a minor in TV, Film, and Digital Media Studies. Her passions are writing, theatre, and Youtube. While one day she hopes to write for TV and film, she currently is working on writing plays of many genres and styles.

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