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Old March 8th, 2004, 10:05 PM   #1
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Cinerama: How the West was Won

Well I just completed a bit of a nostalgic journey; a couple days ago I stumbled across a used $5.00 copy of the widescreen DVD of HOW THE WEST WAS WON. I saw the original movie at Martin Cinerama in St. Louis when I was about 13 years old, and really had not revisited it since then.

All I can say is "WOW". What a monumental undertaking that film was. If you like that whole widescreen epic genre and aren't already familiar with this film then you really owe it to yourself to watch it. And for some really fascinating background you'll want to have a look at Martin Hart's Cinerama Section on his American Widescreen Museum website.

Aside from the unbelievably complex logistics of filming this epic on location with an 800 pound camera, I was fascinated by the unique optical quality of this film which was created by the panoramic effect of blending three separate cameras. There are noticeable lines between the three image panes (which I still remember from watching the theatrical version in the 1960's), but they really didn't interfere with my enjoyment. Each of of the three 35mm cameras was outfitted with 27mm lenses which create a mesmerizing perspective effect such that lateral movement across the wide screen appears as an arc. I really don't think I've seen anything comparable to this before.

You fans of shallow depth of field may not care for the effect however as the wide angle lenses create nearly infinite DOF. Take a look at some of the photos here where you see the actors were actually inches from the camera, yet the distant backgrounds are still in focus.

This all got me thinking that we could have a new Cinerama revolution using multiple DV cameras and video projectors! Well, maybe that would be more trouble than it's worth, but it does pretty much convince me that I need to get the 37mm Century anamorphic lens and put it on my PDX-10 in 16:9 mode and see what it looks like... maybe this summer?

Anyway, I was surprised that this movie still evokes such a strong reaction from me some 40 years after seeing it for the first time. In spite of some cliches from the early 1960's the visual impact is really unique. And aside from that, it really makes me miss the days when going to the movies was an "event"; this film has an overture, and entr'acte and exit music.
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Old March 9th, 2004, 12:24 AM   #2
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Good stuff, Boyd!

I haven't had the treat of seeing actual Cinerama projection. I managed to miss the re-opening of the classic Cinerama dome in Hollywood a couple of years ago ("This is Cinerama" was screened in 3-strip).

I did get to see a sparkling new 'Scope print of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World" on the massive curved screen at the Dome this year, and it was amazing. Just as you mentioned, there was overture and intermission music (and original, restored "radio calls" that played during the intermission throughout the theater). I loved every minute.
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Old March 9th, 2004, 12:39 AM   #3
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Good, indeed!

That "How the West Was Won" dvd is a goodie. They really stretched to present those three Cinerama panels as well as possible. I did see the original humongous projection of the film when I was a young 'un (about 8). I just remember feeling engulphed by it. Of course those were the days when westerns ruled the screen.
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Old March 9th, 2004, 09:19 AM   #4
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Where was the Martin Cinerama, Boyd? I guess I'm not that old :)

There are the rumblings of new productions coming out in the next couple of years being filmed on 8-perf 70mm film for general theatre distribution. A new theatre is being built (in Chesterfield, Boyd) that will have an 8/70 projector in it.

70mm is normally 5 perforations tall. Imax is 15 but photographed horizontally.
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Old March 9th, 2004, 09:53 AM   #5
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Bob, it was located around 4200 Lindell. It was built about 1960 and I remember being in awe of it as a kid, it had modern plush velour covered seats that reclined, and a huge motorized curtain around the curved screen. Scroll down the page and there's an old ad for it here. Also a photo here. It really looked just about exactly like that photo of the Martin in Seattle.

It's been closed for a long time, but I think it was torn down relatively recently. I remember seeing it as a derelict building on various trips to St. Louis (my parents lived at 4400 Lindell for years).

That 70 mm format sounds interesting. Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was indeed a fun movie. I also saw that one at Martin Cinerama, as well as 2001. But if you read the info at the Widescreen Museum website, you'll see that these were really just 70mm films and not the "real" cinerama with 3 individual panes. And I think that's what really struck me while watching How the West Was Won last night. It has the strange perspective that you get when you make a panorama out of 3 separate pictures. Everything curves around in a surreal sort of way such that you can see around corners and linear movements become arcs. It really makes it more theatrical I think, and the cinematography is exceptional, the shots are really composed to take advantage of the quirky perspective.
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Old March 9th, 2004, 11:48 AM   #6
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I know about Cinerama's multiple cameras. I was just pointing out the new big screen stuff coming out.

That's a nice website about the theatres. Now that I see it I recognize it. I think I even went to a show there once but it isn't in my neck of the woods. (Though I did go to St. Louis U.)

I'm surprised they list Powell Hall, which is used for the symphony, but they don't show The Fabulous Fox Theatre. You probably know they mainly do Broadway shows and singers now but they do the occasional specialty film.

And, yes, the Fox is as spectacular as ever.

Did you know the Singer's? I dated a girl that lived around there once.
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Old March 10th, 2004, 04:23 PM   #7
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How good is the resolution of the dvd version of How the West Was Won? Does it survive projection to a 100"+ screen (via dlp, dla, or crt)? With HD discs so near, I've put off watching many widescreen movies which demand a large viewing screen. The few hi-def tapes which JVC puts out each month (like Speed and Alien) make me spoiled about watching lesser resolution dvd.

One oldie laserdisc of the Cinerama movie, The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, looked very disappointing as they tried to piece together 3 screens in a non-anamorphic format. This film would look great on HD, assuming the elements have not deteriorated badly (a big if).
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Old March 10th, 2004, 04:44 PM   #8
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It's a shame that the classic Cineramas are becoming increasingly rare. They were a real treat when I was growing-up. Fortunately for us, the one here in Seattle has been refurbished and is going strong. It gets lots of attendance.
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Old March 10th, 2004, 04:45 PM   #9
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Unfortunately the res isn't the greatest, it's not anamorphic, just cropped. Also I believe I read somewhere that it was made from the 70mm single film transfer. Some material has definitely been cropped from the right and left sides, although standard TV overscan is responsible for at lease some of that I'm sure. Yes you can clearly see the 3 separate panels, especially in scenes with lots of sky. Too bad they don't restore it since it would be possible to blend the panels much better with digital technology. Even so, I still find it fascinating to watch; the quality isn't too bad on a normal sized TV. I find myself overwhelmed by the epic nature of the production and what they were trying to convey. But admittedly, it might not have the same impact on me had I not seen the original in all its glory 40 years ago.

After watching some of the film again I realized what it is about the cinerama process that creates the strange perspective. Since it was filmed with three separate lenses on negatives placed at different angles, there are actually three separate vanishing points to the composite scene. That causes objects to recede into the distance to the left, right and center and creates the interesting arced movement partterns.

There simply isn't any way to create that effect using a single camera, no matter how wide the angle of view is. Digital imaging would make a 3-lens system like this much more practical today. Maybe I need to pick up two more VX-2000's ;-)

BTW, I just learned that "Cinerama" is an anagram of "American"... fascinating article here.
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