Brief History of Large Format Film


The history of large format is long and varied. Since the Edison Kinetograph, film makers have strived to improve the end product in any way to "give the people what they want." The Large Format Film Industry has roots from the turn of the century but truly was born in 1952 with the advent of Cinerama and subsequent Wide screen formats. These wide screen formats evolved into what is known today as the Special Venue or Large Format Film Industry. Together with the "Big Screen", "Hi-Tech" sound systems and synchronization, film makers truly can "give the people what they want."


Invented by Fred Waller in 1939 for the New York World's Fair using 11 cameras and projectors running at the same time. In 1952 the process was cut down to three, called Cinerama, and started the widescreen revolution. A camera was developed that had three lenses. The sound was recorded on separate magnetic stock. Filming used standard 35mm film, but the height was increased from four perforations to six, and the speed increased from 24 to 26 frames per second. To present the film, three projectors showing their corresponding parts of the shot had to run simultaneously along with the seven-track magnetic film, thus requiring the four strips to be electrically synchronized for each showing. This also became the standard for stereophonic sound for the film industry. Although the slightly visible seems between the three images were never entirely solved; it was a huge success. In 1963, the three projector setup was replaced with a one projector setup using 70mm film. In 1961 the film speed was reduced back to the standard of 24 frames per second. This was used until 1972 when the whole process was replaced by Ultra Panavision 70, thus ending the 20 years of Cinerama.


Developed by 20th Century Fox in 1953 to compete with Cinerama, it was dubbed "The Poor Mans Cinerama." Using virtually 20 year old lens technology, CinemaScope would squeeze the image onto the negative during filming and then unsqueeze the image during projection and ultimately achieving a 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio (width to height of the film frame) that is still used today. In addition, Fox developed a multichannel magnetic sound system that was imprinted on the film. This sound track was three screen channels and one surround channel, which is essentially the same as todays cinema and home theatre surround sound.


Paramount Pictures decided to develop their own version of "wide screen" film format. Their technicians determined that a larger negative printed down to standard 35mm could provide an improved image on screens up to 50 feet wide. Paramount had in its camera department a William Fox "Natural Color" camera built in the 1920's. This camera exposed two frames at a time through color filters. With the separation between the two vertical frames removed and the camera rolled over on its side and fitted with Leica still camera lenses, the lazy 8 camera was born, so called because of its horizontal 8 perforation pull down. This process provided a useable negative area 2.66 times larger than a standard 35mm with a 1:66:1 aspect ratio. Developed at the same time was Perspecta Sound. This Optical sound track utilized three separate sub-sonic control tones mixed with the audio signal that were interpreted by an integrator and could steer the mono soundtrack to any of three speakers located behind the screen.


Mike Todd, one of the original promoters of Cinerama, did not like the three strip process necessary to produce Cinerama and set out to develop a process where everything comes out of one whole. A camera lens with an improved field of view became his first priority. Dr. Brian O'Brien of American Optics was contracted to come up with several such lenses and the format known as Todd-AO was born. The camera chosen to use these new lenses was an old 65mm wide gauge format that was available. Eastman Color 65mm film stock was used to record the images Todd wanted. Incorporating a 6 magnetic sound strip and raising the film speed from 24 to 30 frames per second for smoother film movement and less flickering all added up to become the first 70mm film format to be used for general release films. Todd-AO was one of the premier formats for picture and sound for 15 years. This system is the grass roots for todays 70mm Large Format films.


In 1954, RKO developed "The Poor Man's CinemaScope." Using a series of processes, a flat shot 35mm frame that would be optically cropped to a 2:1 aspect ratio print, then projected with a 2:1 anamorphic lens onto a 2:1 screen. In 1956 another version, Superscope 235, was created to make release prints fully compatible with CinemaScopes' ultimate 2.35:1 screen dimensions. This process entailed filming in the full silent camera aperture (no sound strips) cropping the top and bottom to a 2.35:1 AR, then optically converting to CinemScope compatible prints. This technique survives today as "Super 35."


Technirama was Technicolor's leap into the wide screen format. Once touted as the "only" color film processor, the advent of Cinerama and Eastman Color improved color processing greatly reduced their value in Hollywood. Technicolor came up with a filming process using a VistaVision camera equipped with a 1.5:1 anamorphic squeeze and using a 1.5:1 frame to record a CinemaScope compatible wide screen image. With improved grain quality and newly improved color techniques, the prints could be reduced to conventional anamorphic 35mm prints of better grain quality than CinemaScope. With the addition of an anamorphic mirror to the camera, "Technirama" was born.


Panavision's rise to prominence in the motion picture industry began by producing projection lenses for theatres in 1954. Wide Screen was here to stay and Panavision was there almost from the beginning. The first lens was a variable-width prism that allowed theatre owners to adjust the throw of the projected image to fit the size of an existing screen. Moving on to 65mm anamorphic camera lenses in 1955 (The Panavision 65) and through the 1958 Auto-Panatar anamorphic lens, Panavision concentrated mainly on lenses. Then in 1962 the Major Motion Picture Companies began closing their camera departments and Panavision began buying up all the old cameras, the idea being to build cameras to compliment their superior optics. Through their innovations they have become the world's leading camera rental company of which 13 models are available in 35 and 65mm versions. These innovations have led to 15 Academy Awards for their efforts.

Note: I am not the author of this page. No author was listed where I got this from, or I would gladly give him/her their credit.

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