Adding the Sound to Cinerama
The 70mm Newsletter
by: Hazard E. Reeves,
Hazard E. Reeves
TRAINED as an engineer at Georgia Tech, Hazard E. Reeves has devoted his
whole career to finding belter ways to record and reproduce sound. In 1933
he founded Reeves Sound Studios, of which he has been president ever since.
He also has been associated with other companies in the sound field, not to
mention Cinerama, which he endowed with the most wonderful sound system put
into theatrical use up to now. He has been a leading pioneer in magnetic
THE IDEA of stereophonic sound is not new. As far back as April, 1940 the
Bell Laboratories had demonstrated the startling realism possible with a
multi-channeled sound-on-film system. Walt Disney's "Fantasia" later the
same year introduced directional sound for the first time to the ordinary
movie-goer - at least to ordinary movie-goers seeing it in the few first run
houses wired to handle the new technique. It used a three-channel recording
setup, and I am sure that many who remember "Fantasia" have noted some
similarities with our own Cinerama sound.
In 1940, however, stereophonic sound was premature. It died aborning, and
for a very significant reason. "Fantasia" linked a wide angled sound system to the ordinary, narrow screen. Technically, with its limited equipment, it worked very well, but practically, even aesthetically, it was wrong. It was wrong because it needed a wider picture to complete the illusion. As it was, sound seemed to emanate from Beyond the edges of the frame, falling off the screen in a way that proved more distracting than stimulating.
in 70mm reading:
The Entire Development of the Cinerama Process
The Birth of an Idea
This Cinerama Show
Finding Customers for a
in70mm.com's Cinerama page
In 1940 Fred Waller, the inventor of Cinerama, invited me to a demonstration
of his new process in the Rockefeller carriage house on West 55th Street in
New York. Like everyone else who saw it at that time, I was tremendously
impressed with it, despite its crudities, despite its all-too-apparent
limitations in that early phase. Unlike so many of the others, however, I
wanted to do something about it, but Waller had to shelve Cinerama—Vitarama,
as it was called then—because of the war. Fred had already begun work on his
Gunnery Trainer. Even so, I said to him, "Fred, when you get around to
putting sound on your picture, let me know."
In 1943 I started to investigate magnetic film as a means of achieving high
fidelity in sound recording. The motion picture industry started off using
the photographic process in sound recording which has had definite
limitations. Of course, this process took the place of the Vitaphone process
which used phonograph records in its sound reproduction. The limitations in
quality in photographic recording can definitely be defined. The frequency
response adopted by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers was a range from
approximately 125 to 7,000 cycles. These standards were set up due to the
limitations of the photographic printing process and also the amplifier and
loud speaker limitations.
These standards as originally established have continued until this day.
However, it is hoped that the advent of Cinerama and the use of magnetic
recording will drastically change them. FM, long-playing records and
especially TV, have helped to increase the public's interest in high quality
sound reproduction. The current enthusiasm for hi-fi sound in the home is
symptomatic of a new renaissance in sound. I sincerely feel a new era is
Magnetic film for sound recording has proven a great step forward in raising
the level of sound quality for motion pictures. From the very beginning both
its greater flexibility and fidelity recommended it to the documentary
people in the east. In 1948 Joseph Lerner made "C-Man" the first full-length
feature using magnetic sound. The recording was done at Reeves Sound Studios
in New York City. Now magnetic film for recording is being used almost
entirely throughout the film industry. But this development, which should
have come from within the industry itself actually was developed
independently and without industry aid.
THEATRE model of a typical Cinerama installation. Projector in each of the
three booths throws a portion of the picture onto the large, curved screen.
Above the screen the five speaker horns symbolize the stereophonic sound
installation. In actual practice the loudspeakers are located behind the
screen and also on the side and rear walls of the theatre.
The same is true for Cinerama. Just after the war, Fred Waller called on me.
He was ready to go ahead, working out the theatrical possibilities of his
Vitarama, trimming down the Gunnery Trainer into a medium for the theatre. I
joined with him, Laurance Rockefeller, Time, Inc., and several others to
form the Cinerama Corporation. Fred moved into that now-famous tennis court
in Oyster Bay to develop his camera and projection mechanisms. At the same
time, my group began to build Cinerama's sound system.
To me it was a real challenge. This would be the first multiple magnetic
sound recording equipment ever devised. Since we could establish our own
sound standards, we decided to go all out for high fidelity. We concluded
that five loudspeakers behind the screen was the very minimum for a good
stereophonic effect. (Ideally, there should be an infinite number of
speakers behind the screen). In addition, we wanted speakers in the rear and
to the sides of the house to create offstage effects when desired.
An additional control track was also available for special use. In producing
a Cinerama film, five microphones are placed about the scene to cover all
the action within the range of the camera. Other mikes may be placed off to
the sides, to the rear - anywhere - to record offstage effects.
By spring of 1949 our equipment was complete and we had shot a number of
short films to use as demonstrations. Then began the really heart-breaking
part of the business. We invited everyone we could think of out to Oyster
Bay - leaders of industry, leaders in the theatre, movie executives, writers,
technicians. Everyone was impressed. But there was a terrifying inertia
about their enthusiasm, too many "buts." It was fine, but there were too
many technical problems. It was great, but it was too expensive. It was marvelous, but what would become of all the fine films in vaults out in
Hollywood if this thing should ever take over?
Actually, less money was spent between 1947 and 1949 in the creation of
Cinerama and its first test films than is generally spent on the average
Grade B movie. But it looked big, and people were afraid. Then in July of
1950, Time, Inc. backed out, followed by Mr. Rockefeller. They generously
afforded me the opportunity of acquiring the assets of Cinerama Corp. I felt
it would be wrong to let this thing die without giving the public a chance
to decide its merits.
The next few months were spent in an effort to interest a potential producer
in making a first feature on Cinerama. The trips out to Oyster Bay were
resumed. We invited producers, both film and theatrical. We even took out
This time, however, I was resolved that the process had to sell itself.
Either our future Cinerama producer was going to be vitally interested in
it, or we weren't going to be interested in him. I decided to take literally
that old kiss-off line, "Don't call us, we'll call you." And we did get some
Hal Wallis, the movie producer, began negotiations. It was even announced in
the trade papers that he was going to produce the first Cinerama feature.
But he changed his mind. Then Lester Cowan, together with a group of theatre
Owners, became seriously interested.
It was just at this time that Lowell Thomas dropped in to see me. He had
recently returned from Tibet and was filled with stories. Then, quite
casually, he asked me what I was doing. I told him about Cinerama, and a few
days later showed it to him. There was no mistaking Lowell's enthusiasm. He
was all for it. He wanted to get the ball rolling immediately and, with
Frank Smith and the theatrical producer Michael Todd, Lowell formed
Thomas-Todd Productions. Frankly, I couldn't have been more delighted.
Lowell was a showman, but not chained to the thinking, the superstitions,
the inhibitions of the motion picture crowd. There would be no, "We can't do
this because it has never been done before."
Our first picture, with Cinerama as the only star, opened the eyes of the
public to a new kind of motion picture entertainment. I like to think that
it also opened their ears to a totally new kind of sound in the theatre.
Their acceptance of both has meant a great deal to me. But I know that we
can do more. Fred is still working on the development of the cameras and
projectors, and on a number of new patent applications. I know how much more
can be done with the sound. Used to present musical comedy or opera, it can
give audiences a greater sense of "presence" than even a live show. We can
create a wholly new kind of theatre. The potential powers of stereophonic
sound alone can achieve a new entertainment form.
Everything about Cinerama can be improved, made less expensive, made more
effective. Its future as an entertainment medium, I firmly believe, lies
completely in the hands of those technicians, engineers—and artists—who have
been called upon to develop the potentialities that I know are within the
process itself. The public has already demonstrated its willingness to
- top - back issues
- news index