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The Widescreen Revolution
Expanding Horizons--The Spherical Campaign
by Rick Mitchell

From the Summer 1994 issue of the Operating Cameraman

Hollywood was not too alarmed by Cinerama. Its unique three-lens filming process was poorly suited for exhibition in regular movie houses because it required the installation of three separate projectors which could run in interlock with the soundtrack. Instead, it was CinemaScope, the widescreen process introduced by Twentieth Century-Fox in 1953, that sent shock-waves throughout the industry.

In CinemaScope, a cylindrical, or anamorphic, lens was used to "squeeze" picture information onto the negative. Almost any theater could show a CinemaScope picture by simply swapping its projection lenses for ones that could unsqueeze the release print.

This easy widescreen process was cause for general panic. Fox's rivals had amassed large unreleased inventories of 1.37:1 aspect ratio films. They feared the nightmare of twenty-five years earlier--when the overnight success of The Jazz Singer and Lights of New York made silent films obsolete--would be repeated.

Paramount Pictures was particularly disturbed. Paramount had over a year's worth of unreleased features in its vaults. While other companies could exhaust their inventories as they produced their first CinemaScope films, Paramount was faced with the unattractive prospect of writing off a significant number of pictures.

As early as January 1953, Paramount assigned the head of its research department, Loren Ryder, to investigate the feasibility of obtaining a "widescreen effect" by masking off the top and bottom of the projected image and using a shorter focal length spherical lens to throw the image onto a wider than normal screen.

Warner Brothers had already rejected this technique, after privately screening a widescreen version of Night and Day (1946), because they felt it compromised the visual integrity of the film. But Paramount's Ryder felt that by using an aspect ratio of 1.66:1, favoring the upper two-thirds of the image, most films could be shown without too disturbing a loss in composition.

Of course, Ryder's conclusions may have been based in part on the fact that image composition in the fifties was considerably looser than it is today. First, since feature films were customarily shown on large screens, cinematographers and directors preferred wider shots. Second, non-reflex cameras that used side finders were less precise so a margin of safety was added to the original composition. And third, many movie theaters habitually masked the projected images much tighter than industry recommendations. As a result, tight "choker" close-ups were rarely used.

The most common camera set-ups were the medium shot, the two shot and the over-the-shoulder. Rarely was important information placed at the extreme top or bottom of the frame.


Spherical widescreen responses to CinemaScope came swiftly. The day after Fox presented its first public demonstration of CinemaScope, Paramount screened Shane in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on a huge, slightly curved screen specially set up on stage 15.

The viewers were impressed.

As a result, Paramount boldly announced that Shane would premiere on the wide screen. Not to be outdone, Universal answered Paramount the following week by holding a press screening of Thunder Bay in a wider-screen 1.85:1 version, using a separate interlocked three-channel stereo sound track. A week later, Columbia also came out in favor of the wider 1.85:1 image. MGM opted for a third wide-screen size, 1.75:1, and premiered Julius Caesar that way in New York with a separate stereo sound track.

By the summer of 1953, most "A" features first-run engagements in major cities were shown in one of the three widescreen ratios, even though all had been originally composed for 1.37:1 in the camera.

Many films, especially those shot in 3-D, were shown with stereophonic sound by using a separate "dummy" soundtrack reel running in interlock with the standard monaural optical track on the release print. In most instances, the dialog track was monaural and obvious sound effects and music were in stereo.

The search for the perfect aspect ratio was only just beginning. At its Thunder Bay screening, Universal also had presented test footage composed for projection at a 2:1 aspect ratio. Near the end of April 1953, Universal announced that all its feature pictures would be composed for projection at the wider ratio, claiming that 2:1 would preserve the height of the original 1.37:1 image. In contrast, Paramount announced all of its feature pictures would be composed for the 1.66:1 image.

Soon all the other studios followed suit. RKO and Republic decided to shoot their pictures in 1.66:1. Disney, MGM and Warner Bros chose 1.75:1. Allied Artists and Columbia went with the wider 1.85:1. United Artists, because it was primarily a distributor for independent producers, left the choice of aspect ratio up to the individual producing company. And in the Fall of 1953, Fox--even though it had announced it would not make any more spherical pictures--set up a subsidiary, Panoramic Pictures, headed by Leonard Goldstein, to produce a series of spherical "B" pictures in 1.66:1.

After the successful opening of Fox's CinemaScope release of The Robe (1954), most theaters began to install wider screens. They adopted masked projection techniques for spherical releases, thus establishing masking as the new standard for 35mm non anamorphic projection. According to exhibitor periodicals of the time, 1.66:1 and 1.75:1 appear to have been the most popular aspect ratios.

Consequently, it is somewhat unclear how, in time, 1.85:1 came to be the accepted industry standard. In fact, the earliest reference to 1.85:1 as the predominant medium appeared as late as 1956 in a paper read to the SMPTE by Merle Chamberlain, then head of projection for MGM.

To this day, however, there is no consistent adherence to the 1.85:1 standard. In truth, the projected aspect ratio in any given screening facility is based on a combination of three elements: (1) the projector-to-screen distance, (2) the size of the screen, and (3) the focal length of the projection lens. Where possible, theater designers try to come as close as possible to 1.85:1. But there are many older theaters that still project images at 1.66:1 or 1.75:1. Some of the newer, smaller multiplex auditoriums use a 2:1 ratio for spherical features. And some theaters even show all features--whether spherical or anamorphic--at one ratio, by masking anamorphic features down to 2:1 or 1.85:1.


Initially, Fox hoped to establish CinemaScope as the feature film standard and secured the rights to the anamorphic lens patents filed in the 1920s by Professors Henri Chrétien and H. Sydney Newcomer. Fox also hired Newcomer to be its CinemaScope advisor. Unfortunately, Fox soon learned it had merely purchased scientific rights. The basic design patents for the anamorphic process were, in fact, legally considered to be in the public domain.

Consequently, as soon as Fox had demonstrated CinemaScope and articles about the principles behind the process had been published, a number of competing lens systems were announced by various sources, including the developer of the first anamorphic lens, Professor Ernst Abbe.

Robert E. Gottschalk, who first became interested in the underwater use of anamorphic lenses, formed Panavision, Inc., to manufacture projection lenses. Gottschalk had come up with a new idea for developing lenses using prisms instead of cylindrical elements, thereby allowing the squeeze of the image to be varied by the turn of a knob.

Unbeknownst to Gottschalk, Irving and Joseph Tushinsky of RKO's camera department were working on the same principle, which they called "SuperScope." Both Panavision and RKO publicly demonstrated their new line of anamorphic lenses in March 1954. Most significantly, both companies also introduced optical printer lenses which could be used to either un squeeze anamorphic footage or squeeze spherical material.

Aside from The Robe, which was photographed in both anamorphic and spherical versions, Fox filmed all its productions in CinemaScope. Other studios, however, still felt the need to protect their investments by concurrently filming two versions so the spherical version could be shown in theaters that were not yet converted to anamorphic projection. With the advent of the new optical printer lenses, it was no longer necessary to film two versions. In addition, studios could now incorporate spherical stock footage into CinemaScope pictures.

The Tushinskys took their innovation a step further by proposing the use of SuperScope optical printer lenses to make CinemaScope-compatible prints from spherical photography. Under this process, a studio could use standard cameras and lenses so long as all important action was kept within a 2:1 aspect ratio. The 2:1 image was chosen because it was the widest aspect ratio that could be handled by the majority of theaters at the time. After principal photography, the 2:1 picture information would be optically extracted and then given a two-times squeeze during the making of the matrices at Technicolor, the lab that printed all the color films released in this process.

Since the Tushinskys did not impose a color-only limitation on SuperScope, the optical squeezing process became attractive to low-budget companies who would make release prints from a fine-grain squeezed dupe negative to minimize grain and contrast.

Allied Artists released three films in this process, including Don Siegel's original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). American Releasing, a precursor to American International Pictures, also released optically squeezed films. In England, a reissue of Henry V (1945) used optical squeezing. And Disney used the process in a most unusual manner in its 1956 reissue of Fantasia, in which the orchestra and "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequences maintained their original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and proper image shapes, while the other cartoon sequences were stretched to fill the wide screen.


In 1963 two engineers at Technicolor Italiana, Rome, Doctors Giulio Monteleoni and Giovanni Ventimiglia, developed a variation on the SuperScope idea. They altered their cameras to pull down film stock two perforations at a time. By using half of the height of the full aperture frame, they were able to photograph a 2.35:1 aspect ratio image that could later be given a two-times optical squeeze when preparing the Technicolor matrices. Monteleoni and Ventimiglia called the process Techniscope. Techniscope became extremely popular with European low-budget filmmakers who have continued to employ this technique until as recently as 1985.

In contrast, Techniscope was not as popular in the United States, where it was used primarily by Universal. Only a few American low-budget producers used it in the sixties, but by the mid-seventies, its use has so declined that Technicolor stopped printing it.


During the seventies, high-quality lenses were developed which finally made it possible to make acceptable spherical negatives. The spherical negatives, however, presented some unique problems. Initially, spherical negatives were blown up to the full 2.2:1 projection aspect ratio of 70mm. Unfortunately, this resulted in a noticeable loss of sharpness and increase in grain.

Then in 1978, 70mm release prints of Days of Heaven were made retaining the 1.85:1 aspect ratio by using black borders at the sides of the frame. This yielded a higher quality image, despite the fact that it was slightly narrower. Over the next four years, more and more producers used this approach for spherical blowups. Then after Stephen Spielberg used the process on E.T.-The Extraterrestrial (1982), it became the industry standard.


Also in 1982, widescreen buff and equipment dealer Joe Dunton planned to make a 35mm "rockumentary," Dance Fever, on which he wanted full-width 70mm release prints. Remembering SuperScope, he shot the film to fill the full aperture by re centering the spherical lenses and scribing new viewfinder markings. In this manner, he was able to frame the important action for a 2.2:1 aspect ratio.

Dunton's work came to the attention of Les Ostinelli of Technicolor London who was dealing with a similar problem in the production of the film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan of the Apes. Producer Warner Brothers wanted to release full-frame 2.2:1 70mm prints, but cinematographer John Alcott hated anamorphic lenses. Alcott additionally felt the slower anamorphic lenses would be impractical under the difficult lighting situations he would face in the dense jungles of Africa. As a result, Ostinelli and Alcott made tests with re centered lenses and chose to shoot the film with them, a technique they called "Super Techniscope."

The success of Greystoke interested many other cinematographers and directors who wanted a widescreen image, but either disliked anamorphic lenses or planned to shoot in low-light situations. The new process soon became generally known as "Super 35." Producers also became interested in the format because they could use the same negative to make a 35mm anamorphic print, a full-frame 70mm print and a video release that would not require the images to be "panned and scanned."

Super 35 release prints are made on modern, fine-grain film stocks by an updated version of the basic method used in SuperScope. First, a timed contact interpositive is made from the cut original negative. Second, a squeezed internegative is extracted. For a small number of 70mm prints, the prints are made optically from a 35mm squeezed internegative. If a larger print run is desired, a 65mm internegative is optically made so the 70mm prints may be contact printed.

One notable exception to this scheme was Silverado (1985) for which a 65mm interpositive was first made from the cut original negative, form which the 65mm and 35mm squeezed internegatives were struck.

There are three major considerations to filming in Super 35. First, the width of the extracted image can only be as wide as the narrowest aperture plate on any camera used in the production. While most cameras have a frame width of .980", some, such as the Arriflex, are narrower. To accommodate the possibility of negative damage in the perforation area, some manufacturers and labs recommend using a slightly smaller extraction: Panavision recommends .945" while Technicolor prefers .930".

Second, it is unsettled whether the lens mounts need to be re centered to prevent vignetting. John Bailey, ASC, for example, did not re center the lenses used on Silverado. For Bailey, it was important to be able to press into service cameras such as Eyemos for a stampede sequence. By avoiding re centering, Bailey was able to use prime lenses as short as 17mm and the 5:1 Cooke zoom lenses at 20mm without encountering any vignette problems.

Third, a decision must be made about vertical composition and how it affects theatrical and video releases. The image can either be composed between scribed frame lines equidistant from the center of the full aperture ("common center" or "symmetrical") or from the top frame line downward ("common top line"). Symmetrical was the preferred approach for SuperScope films and recently was used on Top Gun (1986) because it was easier to line up jet-mounted cameras for a centered frame.

Director James Cameron, currently the industry's foremost exponent of Super 35, prefers the common top line approach because a medium shot in a theatrical version becomes a tight full shot on video. Common top line additionally eliminates the problem of keeping the microphone further away from the actors to protect for video.

Both John Bailey and special effects cinematographer Peter Anderson agree that when shooting in Super 35 it is important to have a rich, fully exposed negative to minimize grain and increase contrast. Forced development should be avoided. The fine-grain high speed stocks recently developed by Eastman, Agfa and Fuji have helped to minimize many of the problems of optical extraction inherent in Super 35 photography. There are no longer valid objections to using Super 35 for pictures with a lot of optical effects. This has been adequately proven by such action and effects pictures as Deepstar Six, The Abyss, Star Trek V, and, most notably, Terminator 2.

During production, a Super 35 matte and realigned projector are all that's necessary for previewing a contact work print. If a Super 35 matte is not available, film dailies may be projected satisfactorily with a 1.85:1 matte. Squeezed dailies are not recommended because the optical printer and ink coding may risk the negative, something that became a nightmare for the producer of Greystoke.

For editing, Super 35 picture modules have been developed for KEM editing machines. And if the venerable Moviola is being used, the editor may mask off the proper area with tape and simply turn the film over if she needs to view part of the image in the former soundtrack area.


Ten years ago it looked like Super 35 might be a passing fancy--the "thrill of the moment"--soon to be discarded for more established formats. Yet with the advent of high-definition television (HDTV) looming on the horizon, Super 35 has gained greater acceptance. Super 35 may be the best format for creating "all purpose" negatives, an idea first advanced by the Russians in the late seventies. By filming a full-aperture image on a frame three perforations high, filmmakers can easily protect height for theatrical releases and width for conventional or high-definition television.

Despite the fact that Super 35 is a great process to protect a wide range of distribution channels from theaters to videotapes, its use for high-quality theatrical films is still a subject of debate. While the quality of release prints form the six major laboratories making Super 35 prints has continued to improve, no Super 35 release print can compare to one struck from a negative made with state-of-the-art anamorphic lenses. Thus, after forty years of anamorphic and spherical widescreen photography, the choice is still not easy. In the end, the most important consideration is the degree of image quality the decision maker--whether producer, director or cinematographer--wants for the theatrical release.


The author would like to extend special thanks to all those who provided insight and guidance: Peter Anderson; Fred Austin, DeLuxe Labs; John Badham; John Bailey, ASC; John Baptista, Anthony Bruno, James George, Trent Hilton, Chester Luton and Roger Mayer, formerly of MGM Labs; Doug Knapp; Sal Lomita, Orion Pictures; Takuo Miyagishima, Phil Radin, Panavision, Inc.; Joseph W. Schmit and Drake Woodworth, Technicolor, Inc.; Phil Scott, formerly of Universal Pictures; Film Editor Howard Smith; Bill Taylor, ASC; and Joseph Tushinsky.