By Gordon Meyer
Since 1962 was the last time the original Cinerama process was used for a feature, normal film to digital transfer systems simply aren’t able to handle Cinerama. For us cine-geeks, it was very interesting to watch the features on how both of these movies were digitally restored. Unfortunately, the original Cinerama color elements of both films had deteriorated to the point that it would have been cost prohibitive to restore their color and use them for this restoration.
Let’s face it. The commercial market for these films is pretty modest at best, so the folks at Cinerama, Inc. (sister company to Pacific Theatres), couldn’t exactly cost justify the kind of restoration that Warner Bros. did for HOW THE WEST WAS WON. In addition, because a frame of Cinerama film is 50% taller than normal 35mm film (six sprockets high instead of four) and at 26 fps runs slightly faster than standard 35mm movies, finding a telecine operation that could even handle the transfers was a major challenge. But considering the source material and budgetary constraints the restoration teams had, they did a damned good job and both discs include comprehensive documentaries on what was involved.
In the early 1970s, a 70mm version of THIS IS CINERAMA was re-released to theatres. The 65mm negative from this version was the basis of the THIS IS CINERAMA transfer, while a faded, 35mm archival print of WINDJAMMER from the Swedish Film Institute served as the source material for the latter film. In both cases, the restoration team was able to clean up scratches and dirt while largely bringing back the faded color, which was especially challenging for WINDJAMMER. While the featurettes on how these films were restored gets a little techy for most members of the general public, they still tell an interesting story of the challenges of restoration – especially restoration on a modest budget – and indirectly underscore the importance of film preservation.
The movies themselves are frankly more curiosity pieces than great cinema, though they were incredibly popular in their time. THIS IS CINERAMA is admittedly a technology demonstration more than anything else. The film is a collection of short segments of various length, including capturing stage performances at the La Scala Opera House and the Vienna Boys Choir, spectacular aerial footage of various parts of the United States and, of course, the iconic roller coaster ride at the beginning of the film. On a big screen, that roller coaster ride is still one of the most spectacular pieces of cinema ever filmed. But on my 23” HD monitor, the impact frankly loses a lot, though it’s still fun to watch.
WINDJAMMER, produced by Louis de Rochemont, is more of a cohesive story. In Norway, a group of young men and boys volunteer to go on an old fashioned 200 foot sailboat from Oslo to New York and back as part of a training program. This film was actually shot using the competing Cinemiracle process that was more or less a Cinerama clone and was in fact shown at numerous Cinerama venues around the world since its three projector process was fully compatible with Cinerama.
But de Rochemont’s team did something I only saw in one other three panel widescreen film, Abel Gance’s NAPOLEON. During the New York segment of the film, they actually treated each of the film’s three panels as separate images that complemented each other. In some cases, the filmmakers actually have multiple images in each of the three panels resulting in over a dozen images simultaneously projected. This was probably my favorite part of the movie.
As I said in my P3 Update article, the success of Cinerama triggered the development of CinemaScope, Todd-AO, VistaVision, Technirama, Panavision and a couple of decades later, IMAX. As a matter of film history, these movies are priceless treasures and slices of both cinematic and world history. For that reason, they belong on any serious film buff’s shelf.