By Gordon Meyer
I’m a film geek, and damned proud of it. That’s one of the reasons I lobbied to do a feature on the 60th Anniversary of Cinerama which appeared in the September issue of P3 Update. It’s also the reason why I’ll be attending screenings of THIS IS CINERAMA, HOW THE WEST WAS WON and THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM at the Cinerama Film Festival this weekend.
I got a sneak preview of sorts thanks to the folks at Flicker Alley who released DVD/Blu-ray editions of two of the three panel Cinerama movies being presented at the Cinerama Dome this week, THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER. You can enjoy reissue trailers for THIS IS CINERAMA here and WINDJAMMER here.
Of course nothing can really duplicate the experience of seeing these movies the way they were meant to be seen – on 70 foot wide, deeply curved screens with seven channel stereophonic sound (five front channels and two surrounds). But since there are only three venues in the world capable of playing the Cinerama format, these discs are likely to be the closest most people will get to experiencing these rarely seen Cinerama features.
Both titles use a new technique dubbed “SmileBox” which more or less replicates Cinerama’s 146 degree curved screen. Warner Home Video used this on their Blu-ray release of HOW THE WEST WAS WON a few years ago offering both flat screen and SmileBox versions of the film on separate discs. But the producers of the THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER discs go a step further. Their intent is to replicate the entire roadshow experience, so at the beginning of each feature you see the curved screen at the Cinerama Dome covered by a curtain as the overture/walk-in music begins.
Since both films begin with prologues in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio, you see the curtain open only part way for those prologues, framing the relatively small images. Then, at the appropriate time, just as in a Cinerama theatre, the curtains open all the way to reveal the entire image on a curved screen. When it comes time for intermission, once again the curtains appear and close over the intermission card as music plays – just as audiences would have experienced at a theatre’s roadshow presentation. While it’s quite different from the usual home video roadshow presentation of a simple title card during the overture and intermission music, it’s a nice piece of showmanship on the part of DVD/BD producer David Strohmaier and his restoration team.
Both titles feature some pretty interesting bonus content, including “breakdown reels.” Cinerama was an exceptionally complex process for exhibitors requiring projectionists in three separate booths plus an audio engineer to custom mix each performance – all in separate locations. Since these were reserved seat roadshow presentations, the movies would often run in one location for a solid year or more. Naturally wear and tear on the print resulted in the occasional break. When that happened, a fourth projector kicked in with a breakdown reel to essentially stall for time and keep the audience occupied while the projectionists repaired the print. The breakdown reels for both movies are interesting time capsules capturing the style of 1950s documentary film making – meaning by 2012 standards, they’re a bit hokey, but also interesting and fun to watch at least once.
Continued in Part 2