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The Widescreen Revolution
by Rick Mitchell

From the Winter 1993 issue of the Operating Cameraman

Over a century ago, motion picture standards for photography and presentation basically were set and have only been altered significantly on two occasions: first by the innovation of sound in the late Twenties, and second by the "widescreen" revolution that began in the early Fifties and continues to this very day and into the future with the growing popularity of widescreen television through "letterboxed" videotapes and laser discs as well as the anticipated introduction of high-definition television and Digital Video Disks (DVD).

In this series of articles on the latter of these fundamental alterations to the art of motion pictures, we have presented an overview of the most notable widescreen photographic techniques and processes, the changes within the motion picture industry which gave rise to their introduction, the responses of the movie-going public to each innovation, and the widescreen's pervasive and lasting effect on motion picture production and exhibition. Previous installments have covered the aborted attempt to introduce a wide film in 1929-30 and the successful introduction of Cinerama in 1952 and the consequences that flowed from 20th Century-Fox's subsequent announcement of a new widescreen process that was less cumbersome and easier to install in existing theatres than the giant screen, three-projector, Cinerama process.

To recap, in January 1953, Fox licensed Professor Henri Chretien's Hypergonar lens, which he had developed in France during the latter part of the Twenties. During photography, this cylindrical, "anamorphic" lens would record almost twice as much horizontal information as its spherical counterpart. By optically compressing or "squeezing" the horizontal image by a factor of two, the anamorphic lens was able to record its wider image on the same 35mm filmstock while employing the same motion picture cameras that were already being used by the major studios. To project the widescreen image, existing theatres merely needed to equip their projectors with a similar cylindrical lens that would unsqueeze the image and spread the picture across an appropriately wider screen. Fox called its new process "CinemaScope" and sought to make it a new industry standard.

Almost overnight, other studios, especially those with a large backlog of unreleased spherical films, panicked and began to look for other ways to jump on the widescreen bandwagon. Many of these studios simply chose to mask off the top and bottom of the 1.37:1 photographed image during projection, creating the illusion of a wider image. The resulting, and competing, aspect ratios used by the various studios were 1.66:1 (Paramount, RKO, Republic), 1.75:1 (MGM, Disney, Warner Bros.), and 1.85:1 (Universal, Columbia, Allied Artists). Once they had released their inventory backlog, these studios began to establish this type of widescreen process as a standard by instructing their cinematographers to compose images so that no important action would be lost during projection. By 1956, the studios had decided unofficially upon 1.85:1 as the standard for this masked widescreen method.

Another approach to widescreen photography and projection occurred in 1954, when Panavision and Superscope developed lenses for optical printers which made it possible to make anamorphic prints from spherical negatives. The Superscope system, which had a brief spurt of popularity in the mid-Fifties, transformed entire spherical features into anamorphic. The Superscope system was used under such names as Superama and Megascope until 1963, when it was supplanted by the introduction of Techniscope by Technicolor.

Techniscope was conceptually the same as Superscope, except that cameras using this process needed to be modified to pull down two perfs rather than the customary four. This yielded a 2.35:1 aspect ratio image that was then optically stretched and squeezed in the printing process.

In the early Eighties Superscope was revived as "Super 35". Because of the many cost-saving and photographic advantages of this system - spherical lenses need less light and have greater depth of field than their anamorphic counterparts - both Super 35, and its counterpart Super 16, are widely used today in feature film and television production.

Challenging the CinemaScope Standard

Soon after the introduction of CinemaScope in 1952, many anamorphic challengers began to appear on the horizon. When it set up CinemaScope as a new standard, 20th Century-Fox thought it had covered all legal bases. Fox intended to own the use of the process and license it to other companies. Unfortunately, Fox soon discovered its rights were limited to the patents it had obtained from Professor Chretien and H. Sidney Newcomer, an American who had also been experimenting with anamorphic lenses in the Twenties. CinemaScope's other basic design patents were considered to be in the public domain. So, as soon as the principles behind CinemaScope were published, a number of competing manufacturers began to announce anamorphic lens systems. One of the challengers, interestingly enough, was Professor Ernst Abbe of France, the original developer of the anamorphic lens.

Around this time, Fox's most serious challenger was Warner Bros.. Some believe that Fox beat Warners in the race for Chretien's patent. According to one account in Daily Variety, Jack Warner had seen a private screening of CinemaScope long before it was publicly introduced, and had attempted unsuccessfully to purchase a one half interest in the process. Rebuffed, Warner was determined to develop his own process and, to that end, solicited bids from several American and European optical companies, finally making a deal with Germany's Zeiss Optical Company for a system that he would initially call "WarnerSuperScope". The announcement of this newcomer caused yet another panic among motion picture exhibitors, who were already upset by the seemingly unending stream of technological changes that were being foisted upon them. At the insistence of these exhibitors, Warner shortened the name of the Zeiss process to "WarnerScope".

WarnerScope did not meet with success. Although Warners originally had planned to use the Zeiss lenses on Rear Guard and the Judy Garland/James Mason remake of A Star is Born (1954), the lenses were not ready in time. Instead, on Rear Guard, which began shooting in July 1953, Warners used a lens system called "Vistarama", that had been developed by the Simpson Optical Company for Carl Dudley. By September, when the Zeiss lenses finally arrived at Warners, the studio tested them by shooting footage of the Hollywood Premiere of The Robe which it planned to use for a sequence in A Star is Born. When Warners reviewed the footage, however, it found, much to its dismay, that the Zeiss lenses had poor resolution and were unsuitable for feature production. As a result, Warners chose to shoot A Star is Born in spherical three-strip Technicolor.

According to the late film historian Ron Haver (who spearheaded the restoration of Star! (1968) in the early Eighties), when A Star is Born was being restored, the only version that could be located of a scene in which Judy Garland is seen working as a carhop was one that was shot with the WarnerScope Zeiss lenses. Curiously, in the late Fifties, Warners would revive the WarnerScope name for three features that actually were shot in the Superscope/Super 35 format.

While the production costs were rising on A Star is Born, Warners' treasurer, Albert Warner, who was impressed by the grosses from The Robe, convinced Harry Warner to go over Jack's head to arrange with Fox to use CinemaScope. Jack Warner was finally convinced by the test CinemaScope footage shot by Milton Krasner, ASC, and decided to scrap the first ten days of shooting and start over.

As a part of the new CinemaScope deal, Warners agreed to release the Vistarama Rear Guard, now called The Command, as a "CinemaScope" picture. When the picture opened, critics noticed that the images were not as sharp as those shot in conventional CinemaScope. Some critics even noticed that the image was darker near the edges of the screen, an attribute noticed during the test screenings of Vistarama in 1953.

Foreign Rivals

Outside of the United States, various foreign film companies began to develop CinemaScope-compatible anamorphic lens systems. The quality of these systems was somewhat uneven. One of the most significant systems was developed in France by Prof. Abbe, father of the anamorphic lens, and was called CinePanoramic. CinePanoramic was the basis of the French DyaliScope and FranScope processes as well as other processes used on the Italian "sword 'n' sandal" epics of the early Sixties.

An American company, Republic Pictures, arriving late to the widescreen party, purchased rights to CinePanoramic, and called it "Naturama". An interesting aspect of these anamorphic lenses, which were a separate unit, was that each anamorphic lens was collimated to work with a specific prime lens and camera. The Naturama system, as recently seen on a rare 16mm print of Lisbon (1956), the second Republic film to use the process, appeared to have less of a problem with anamorphic "mumps" than CinemaScope. Mumps occur when anamorphosis decreases as the lens is focused closer. This moniker came from the fact that actors' faces, when photographed in close-up and then projected, appeared noticeably fatter, as though they had mumps. As a result, directors using CinemaScope were forced into staging scenes with wider shots, seriously limiting their editorial choices.

Republic's Naturama lenses had a concave distortion, which was most noticeable in pan shots, and was apparent in every focal length of lens. By contrast, CinemaScope and Panavision lenses only caused concave distortion in their shortest focal lengths. Although Republic offered to license Naturama to other film companies, it found no takers. Ultimately, Republic amortized its investment by shooting the rest of its films with Naturama lenses.

CinemaScope in Black & White

One confusing name appearing on films of the Fifties is RegalScope, which is really a pseudonym for low-budget, black and white CinemaScope. Originally, Fox only licensed CinemaScope for "A" pictures shot in color. Yet, once the process had been established, some filmmakers wanted to use the CinemaScope lenses on dramatic pictures about subjects that were better suited to black and white photography. In early 1955, two pictures, Trial and Nicolas Ray's Rebel Without a Cause, started principle photography in black and white CinemaScope. When Fox found out, it objected. As a result, Trial was shot with spherical lenses, while the producers of Rebel Without a Cause elected to shoot the teen drama in color.

MGM was particularly rankled by Fox's absurd prohibition on black and white. For a while, MGM toyed with the idea of shooting pictures in color and releasing them in black and white. Finally, in the Spring of 1956, MGM put The Power and the Prize (1956) into production on black and white negative under the photographic supervision of George Folsey, ASC. This time, Fox did not object.

Having established the CinemaScope standard, Fox quietly began to modify its strict anti-black and white attitude. Fox made a deal with independent producer Robert L. Lippert for a series of anamorphic low budget "B" films. To distinguish these low budget films from higher class color CinemaScope productions, Fox coined the name "RegalScope" after Lippert's production company, Regal Films. Of course, Regal's films were photographed with Bausch & Lomb CinemaScope lenses. Curiously, the first released Regal film, Stagecoach to Fury (1956), bore a CinemaScope logo, though the size of the logo was much smaller and less prominent than it had been on "A" pictures. Around the same time, Fox began to break its own color barrier. Without fanfare, it began production on a black and white "A" picture titled Teenage Rebel.

The most famous "almost" Regal film was The Fly (1958), which Fox plucked from the Regal program when it decided to jump on the late Fifties sci-fi bandwagon. One year later, when Fox negotiated a new "B" picture contract with Regal, Regal changed its name to Associated Producers and its pictures were then officially advertised as being shot in CinemaScope. As Associated Producers moved into the Sixties, however, its used the anamorphic process less and less.

Panavision's Better Quality Lenses

In 1953, Panavision was founded by Robert E. Gottschalk, who had become interested in anamorphic lenses while he investigated wide-angle lenses for underwater use. Panavision first developed a set of variable squeeze projection lenses. The high quality of these lenses, in comparison with Fox's Baush & Lomb lenses, greatly impressed MGM's research director Douglas Shearer. Shearer joined with Gottschalk in developing a line of high resolution 35mm and 65mm anamorphic lenses. These lenses also eliminated the "mumps" problem so that they could maintain a 2x squeeze ratio throughout the range of focal distances.

MGM was one of the first studios to use the new Panavision lenses on Torpedo Run (1958), Party Girl (1958), and Green Mansions (1959). Due to MGM's contractual arrangement with Fox, however, these films were advertised as being shot in CinemaScope. At Gottschalk's insistence, the films also bore the separate credit: "Photographic Lenses by Panavision". As one might expect, many film historians have been confused by these dual credits.

The first film to give exclusive credit to Panavision was Frank Capra's A Hole in the Head (1959), released by United Artists, a distribution company that was not bound to a blanket contract with Fox because each of its individual producers negotiated their own equipment licensing deals. Actor-producers Frank Sinatra and John Wayne also became strong boosters of Panavision, and insisted on using Panavision lenses and cameras on most of the films produced by their companies. By 1960, Paramount, which had resisted CinemaScope (even though it had released a film shot in Technirama) also began filming in Panavision.

Although Panavision shot tests for George Stevens' The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Fox resisted using the obviously better lenses, most likely at the behest of its president Spyros Skouras, who had been CinemaScope's biggest booster. It wasn't until 1966, four years after Spyros was deposed after the Cleopatra debacle, that several of Fox's top flight directors of photography began to shoot in Panavision. Charles Lang, Jr., ASC, used the sharper lenses on How to Steal a Million and The Flim-Flam Man. Joe MacDonald, ASC, used them on The Sand Pebbles and A Guide for the Married Man.

That summer, Fox filmed its last CinemaScope pictures, to be released the following spring, In Like Flint and Caprice, the latter photographed by Leon Shamroy, ASC, who had started it all on The Robe and makes a cameo appearance in the film. Some sources at Panavision claim that Von Ryan's Express was shot with Panavision lenses at the insistence of Frank Sinatra. Yet, while this may have been true for some scenes, there are others in which the anamorphic mumps and other aberrations associated with CinemaScope lenses are quite obvious.

In the late Sixties, Panavision modified the Mitchell BNC to make it a reflex camera which Gottschalk named the PSR (Panavision Silenced Reflex). By 1970, Panavision dominated 35mm anamorphic photography throughout the world. With the development of the lighter and more compact Panaflex camera, which was first used by Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC, on Steven Spielberg's Sugarland Express, and a line of high quality spherical lenses, Panavision solidified its position as the industry leader.

Later Anamorphic Systems

From the early Seventies on, several companies have joined the anamorphic fray by developing lenses for use with Arriflex cameras. In 1971, Todd-AO licensed a line of Japanese designed anamorphic lenses, primarily for use with Arriflex cameras, which it marketed under the name "Todd-AO 35". The Japanese lenses were used on the Academy Award winning documentary The Man Who Skied Down Everest (1976), although the crew that lugged the bulky 35mm cameras and anamorphic lenses up the world's highest mountain might well have wished for lighter 16mm equipment.

In 1976, an Italian company, Technovision, introduced a line of Cooke spherical lenses that had been modified for 35mm anamorphic photography. The Cooke anamorphics were particularly popular with Vittorio Storaro, ASC, who used them on Apocalypse Now (1989), The Last Emperor (1988), and the 35mm portions of Little Buddha (1994).

In 1981, widescreen buff and equipment developer Joe Dunton also came out with a line of anamorphic lenses which were used by Dino De Laurentiis, who housed Dunton's American headquarters at his North Carolina studio, on films he produced such as Tai-Pai ( 1986) and Maximum Overdrive (1986). Other films using Dunton's lenses were Invaders from Mars (1986), The Sandlot (1992), and Rob Roy (1995).

In 1989, Germany's Isco Optic developed a line of anamorphic lenses especially for Arriflex, which were given the moniker "Arriscope". The Arriscope lenses were first used by Warner Bros. on Body Snatchers, the second remake of the Don Siegel sci-fi thriller.

With today's tightly-grained film stocks and high resolution anamorphic and spherical lenses, there are many ways to produce rich and beautiful widescreen 35mm motion pictures. Whether this might have been envisioned in 1953 at the birth of the widescreen revolution is not known. For at that time, each method involved great compromises in image quality: the CinemaScope lenses had mumps and masked spherical images wasted a significant part of the photographed image. As soon as these techniques were launched, industry technicians began to seek ways of improving image quality. Through their efforts, the movie going public has greatly benefited. Yet, on a parallel plane with the optical improvements in 35mm photography just discussed, some studios chose instead to improve image quality for their premiere pictures by going to a larger negative.