CINERAMA @ 60
Cinerama’s legacy continues today, with widescreen and the more direct descendant, 70mm IMAX continuing the traditions. IMAX, before its recent wholehearted adoption by mainstream cinema, was generally a medium for large-scale documentaries. Space, Underwater and more exiting subject, such as the 1992 film, Fire Of Kuwait were the theme of these shorts, as they could take us into places which we could only imagine, and IMAX 3D has pushed that format even further.
Ironically, does IMAX now face a similar fate to its forbearer? Cinerama failed because it was too costly and inefficient to be adopted as a mainstream medium and began its end by being phased out, from 3-strip 35mm to 1-strip 70mm. IMAX is going digital and the native ratio of 1.44:1 is being compromised by feature film being shot in 1.85:1.
“LIE-MAX” theatres, as they’ve been dubbed by angry patrons are springing up, so-called IMAX cinemas which have compromised the format as much as possible with smaller screens and purely digital set ups. The more commercially viable IMAX becomes less faithful to its roots and intentions.
Cinerama began it’s life in a similar way, with series of Travelogues, beginning with the 1952 top grossing film, This Is Cinerama. Soon followed by Cinerama Holiday (1955), Seven Wonders Of The World (1956), Search For Paradise (1957) and South Seas Adventure (1958). In the same year, we had Norwegian film, Windjammer: The Voyage Of the Christian Radich, which was originally shot in a rival format, Cinemiracle, the only time that this was used. It soon converted to Cinerama and distributed under its banner.
The main comparison between IMAX and Cinerama is that there goals were to bring scale and awe inspiriting imagery to the screen. IMAX probably has more going for it in general story telling ability than Cinerama, which was, lets face it, pretty useless, as close-up were simply impossible in a format hell-bent on scale! But both formats work at their very best when taking us on a journey.
IMAX has shown us space, water, microscopic worlds and grand landscapes. Cinerama took its audience to places that they simply could afford too, or safely travel. In fact, there were several deaths and injuries incurred on those of produced the daredevil footage for these travelogues.
The result was some of the most outstanding and ambitious cinematography ever seen, certainly up until that point. IMAX would continue this legacy up until the present day. will it survive its plundering by the mainstream, in the same way that Cinerama didn’t? Soon after the second full narrative feature, The wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm (1962), Cinerama went to 70mm, Unltra-Panavision 70. This would be comparable in my opinion, to 70mm IMAX going digital. A more convenient and practical method of exhibition.
But when they showed films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) with a single strip of film on to a curved screen, there was an unnatural distortion, as you might imagine. The comprise became a flaw and that flaw finished the curved screen off once and for all. And very understandable too. IMAX will end up being nothing more that a big screen, louder version of the tradition cinema, and will only last as long as the audience are prepared to pay more the so-called experience, and the brand name, IMAX.
That experience is slowly being diminished by basically showing widescreen films on a 4:3 TV, though be it a very large one, even though that is shrinking as well!
At the moment though, with film makers such as Christopher Nolan championing the IMAX format, as he has done with his Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception, IMAX can continue to enjoy its popularity. In the meantime, Cinerama will have its fans, and the latest and the first 3-strip production of a Cinerama film for 50 years, short, In The Picture (2012), is being premiered this weekend in the U.S. to celebrate the 60th Anniversary. Shot with the last working 3-strip camera, it’s quite an achievement but I wouldn’t expect a mainstream revival, or nor would I want one.
But in the week which has seen Flicker Alley release both This Is Cinerama & Windjammer: The Voyage Of The Christian Radich on Blu-ray & DVD, it’s nice see some evidence that the other travelogues may make an appearance soon too. South Seas Adventure (1958) (Trailer above) has already been restored for theatrical exhibition and will hopefully be making its way onto our small screens too, along with talk of the second film, Cinerama Holiday (1955).
So, today we celebrate 60 years since Cinerama premiered in New York, and 50 years since the last 3-strip feature was produced (1962), but IMAX has pretty much taken up the mantle and massive screen entertainment lives on. I just hope that it remembers that it was about scale and experience over simply up-scaling traditionally shot feature films and showing them bigger and louder than a conventional theatre.