The Entire Development of the Cinerama Process
The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Fred Waller, 31.03.1950
March 31, 1950
Mr. W. L. Laurence
541 East 72nd Street
New York 21, N.Y.
As you and I agreed over the telephone, I'm going to tell a more or less
chronological story of the entire development of the Cinerama process.
It's not a short story but I'll try to keep it condensed.
My work on the process started many years ago back at Paramount. I was
doing photographic research and was looking into various inventions
which were submitted to Paramount to see if there was anything useable
or worth experimentation. I found little which was useable but my
experience did reveal one thing which was significant later on. That was
that wide angle pictures seemed to be more third dimensional than
standard pictures. Later, when I took over Paramount's trick film
department, I had the first 25 millimeter lens made. Though this lens
gave a wide photographic angle and a more real-looking picture, it did
not afford any wider projection angle. None of the processes of the day
used a screen of sufficient angle to show what dramatic improvement
could be made with the use of peripheral vision.
in 70mm reading:
The Birth of an Idea
Adding the Sound to
This Cinerama Show
Finding Customers for a
in70mm.com's Cinerama page
Ralph Thomas Walker
1939 World's Fair
Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker
Laurence, science editor emeritus of the New York Times, was the only
reporter on the story of the atomic bomb. He was at Trinity, Hiroshima and
Due to the pressure of production work in
the east, and of the trick film department which I headed, I could not
continue my experiments at that time. It was years later before work
commenced again, when I was asked to see Ralph Walker, the New York
architect, who was interested in a new type picture presentation for use
at the New York World's Fair. He suggested projection on the inside of a
spherical surface with several projectors.
This suggestion recalled my earlier experience of the dramatic effect of
the wide angle picture. But no one before, to the best of my knowledge,
had thought of projecting on a curved screen and if possible, increase
the angle so as to include most of what the human eye sees? This might
be the first practical step towards depth and realism in picture
So it was that in 1937 I started on some experiments to learn something
of the characteristics of third dimensional vision. Earlier I had become
convinced that the use of stereoscopic vision could not practically be
included with wide angle vision. So first I set out to determine just
what effects stereoscopic vision had in helping me to place myself in
space. I took a long peaked fisherman's cap, hung a long piece of black
paper around the peaked visor, cutting two small holes in front...thus
limiting my sight to the central foveal area and allowing me to see an
angle a little over one degree. This is the area of stereoscopic vision.
I found that even though this allowed me to pick up objects from a table
with ease, I could not navigate around my house without bumping into
chairs, door jambs, etc.
The next step was to enlarge these holes to allow the angle seen on a
regular motion picture screen and I found that this was very little
better than when I was limited to the stereoscopic angle. I still had no
real perception of depth and environment. Next, I reversed the
experiment, hung two small black circles on the peak of the cap, leaving
all the rest of the vision open. With a little practice I was able to
stare directly at the two black lines with my central vision and found
that I could navigate perfectly, even though I was without the help of
I carried this experiment still further by driving my car around my
driveway, staring at the two black discs and letting my edge-vision
guide me in my position on the road clearances, etc. Since I found no
trouble in doing this, my conclusion was that if we were going to have
pictures which would have realism, we would have to include most of the
peripheral angle. I concluded also that if we left out the stereoscopic
vision, there would be little lost in realism and sense of depth
perception or third dimension.
After developing these experiments further, Mr. Ralph Walker and I
decided to secure and adapt apparatus to make a practical demonstration.
Making the first Picture
The first demonstration apparatus was made
with eleven 16 millimeter cameras put together on a single frame and driven
by a single motor.
After many months of hard work, I completed and eleven camera unit and
photographed scenes around my own place with people moving. Then I put the
camera on my car and took a running shot down one of the roads in
We then needed eleven projectors for showing these pictures. When I had four
of them connected, a good friend of mine, Dr. L. A. Jones, optical physicist
of Eastman Kodak Company, came out to my home in Huntington. In the barn
was a six foot radius spherical screen and the four projectors. That
evening, we projected these fragments of the picture of the trip down the
road. It was so startlingly real and one had such a sense of environment and spatial relationship that
Lloyd [Dr. Jones] said, "Fred, you have demonstrated to me
fully all that you and I often discussed." As a matter of fact, Dr. Jones
was so convinced that I had the answer that it was three models later before
he took the trouble to come again to Huntington to see the progress being
A Screen Too Wide
Nine months later, I had the eleven projectors
mounted and synchronized. We projected the image on the section of the
sphere 75 degrees in the vertical and 130 degrees in the horizontal, this
sphere being of a 6-foot radius with a continuous surface. When we projected
our pictures on the full screen, the effect was startling. The realism was
much greater than we had anticipated. Unfortunately, however, we had made a
mistake. I had overlooked that fact that in photographing 130 degrees in
width, I could not get away from including the opposing lens at two edges of
We proceeded to experiment with reducing the angle of vision so as to get
away from photographing the lenses of the camera itself. The amount cut down
in this particular set-up was 7½ degrees on each side. When this was done, I
found that I had lost little of the effect of third dimension. So I
rearranged the projectors and made my first series of pictures to project on
a screen 75 degrees high and 16 *) degrees wide [this seems wrong – should it
be 116 degrees or 160 degrees? – BG/ed]. These pictures were made in
Rochester, New York, with the assistance of some of the Eastman Kodak
engineers who were interested. I also made some scene on Long Island and
others on my yawl. The first demonstrations ever made to invited guests were
in a rented office at 101 Park Avenue, in New York, where Ralph Walker's
office is. We showed these to perhaps one hundred people by invitation in
the latter part of 1938. Mr. Laurance Rockefeller attended one of these
showings at that time and became interested in the process.
On November 3, 1938, The Vitarama Corporation was formed to develop the
process. The stockholders were Mr. Laurance Rockefeller, the architectural
firm of Voorhees, Gmelin & Walker, and myself.
is the logic of questioning the 16 degree figure:
He [Waller] started with 130 degrees and found that too wide so needed to narrow the
field. He says he removed 7 1/2 degrees each side so this makes 15 degrees.
130 degrees minus 15 degrees = 115 degrees, but due to tolerances etc. this
may explain the 116 degree figure.
Brian Guckian, Dublin,
Other Became Interested
At that time too, a group of engineers for
Eastman Kodak came to see a demonstration. Among them was John Capstaff who
has as sound knowledge of photographic images as anyone I know. He was
thrilled by the third dimensional effect but called my attention to the fact
that I was getting bad degradation of image due to internal reflection on
the screen. Though I had appreciated this to an extent, I didn’t realize how
important it was. John made the statement that if I could eliminate this
degradation of the image, I would then have a truly remarkable picture to
look at. That afternoon I started to work on geometrical methods of building
a screen with separate facets which would eliminate the internal reflection.
I worked out six methods of approach and filed patents for them.
At this point, our work was moved to a garage on West 55th Street, New York,
which Mr. Rockefeller made available, rent free. This was certainly an
important contribution to a young struggling company.
A screen with a louvered surface was then built in the form of a section of
a sphere. The flat surface of each louver was made to line up with a point
at the bottom of the spherical screen. After further development work and
different arrangements in the camera we found that we had actually improved
the third dimension quality of the picture, at the same time having
eliminated the degradation of the image.
Shows for the New York World's Fair
Time and Space Pavilion
Perhaps it should be added here that about
this time...late 1938..I was asked by the Eastman Kodak Company to work with
them in the development of a show for the New York World's Fair. The hope
was, of course, to dramatize the effectiveness of color picture results with
the use of Kodachrome films. To achieve this, we devised a panoramic
arrangement of eleven screen projections of Kodachrome slides. The effect
was extremely successful. Actually, by the time the Fair was over, the Kodak
show had drawn more attendance than any other commercial exhibit there.
Also at the fair I produced a show using both motion and still pictures to
get a third dimensional effect. This was done for the American Museum of
Natural History and was called, "Time and Space".
I also approached the idea in the ten columns of marching figures on the
inside of the Perisphere at the same fair.
Work on a New Sound System
As work continued on the motion picture
process, we felt we had to study the possibilities of a new sound system. We
had to have effects which were as third dimensional for sound as we had
achieved for pictures.
Our first work in sound was done with three parallel cuttings on a single
disc, each of the three grooves being supplied by sound from a separate
source and the sound from each of the three pickups being amplified and fed
directly to three loudspeakers. This setup proved to be another real
improvement, not only in the sound itself, but in total effect. For the
first time we had seen a wide-angle, three dimensional true perspective
picture with realistic sound which enhanced the effect.
The great deal of production research followed with this equipment. Scenes
were made in black and white and in color and of different types of subjects
from different angles. The process reached the point where we were about to
start production for theatrical release, intending to have out first showing
in the Center Theatre. At this time war broke out in Europe. It was obviously a
very poor time to bring out a new motion picture process. I decided to take
a cruise on my yawl for a much needed vacation. This was in early 1940.
The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer
Just as I was about to leave, an old friend,
who had retired from the Navy, came to see me and made a suggestion which,
as it turned out, carried the process many steps further along the way. My
friend had majored in gunnery at Annapolis years before and had had broad
experience in it. He said that in his opinion the Cinerama screen had all
the essential qualities needed to present a moving target for a flexible
gunnery trainer to teach machine gunners to shoot down aircraft. The problem
was to work out a technical apparatus to determine the correct point of aim
and let the gunner know when he was on that point.
In motion picture trick work, when you cannot solve a problem the regular
way, you see how it should work out backwards and that approach solved the
gunnery problem. That is, we started with the bullet in the target, put the
bullet back into the gun and put the target back to the point it was at when
the trigger was pulled. The more we thought this plan over the better it
seemed to us. I went to work to adapt the equipment for a baby model of the
gunnery trainer. We used the experimental screen already built and the
eleven camera set up. The Army Air Force cooperated with us in allowing us
to take pictures for demonstration purposes. These were made at Mitchell
Field in the fall of 1940.
I won't go into the subject of the Gunnery Trainer here, for the story of
its development and its operation are included in a blue folder entitled
"Waller Gunnery Trainer", and also a piece I wrote for the Journal of the
Society of Motion Picture Engineers. Both of these are enclosed for your
The Gunnery Trainer did a good deal to advance the process for it gave us
the opportunity not only to show the feasibility of the basic idea of taking
and projecting wide angle pictures but also work out many of the smaller
bugs which are bound to come up in any development of scope. I might add
that at the time a great many people said that it was not possible to turn
over a device requiring multiple projectors to inexperienced people and
expect to get efficient performances. There were eighty-five trainers built
and each one of them ran millions of feet of film. Often they ran schedules
of as much as 15, 18 and even 24 hours a day...seven days a week. The
operation of the equipment proved entirely practical, after a short period
of training for the operators, which we conducted ourselves. I felt we had
knocked down conclusively the doubters who said the equipment might be
difficult to operate.
At the war's end, an Air Force publication at Wrights Field gave the Waller
Gunnery Trainer credit for saving over 350.000 casualties.
The Vitarama Process for Still Pictures
We finished work on the Gunnery Trainer in
December 1945. I was anxious to get back to work on the use of the process
for theatre use. Just as I started, I was called in by Time Inc., upon the
recommendation of the Eastman Kodak Company, to develop special equipment
for a show they wanted to build for promotion purposes for LIFE Magazine. We
worked out for them a set of projection equipment to show still pictures on
wide five-panel screens. Again, this was the use of the wide-angle
principle...but this time made portable so that their presentation should be
shown on a few hours notice. A presentation called "The New
America" ..meaning the new post war America.. was made by TIME, Inc. It proved
to be spectacular. It served their purpose well and was used all over the
country at business men's meetings, conventions, etc. Later the State
Department asked to borrow the equipment because they felt the presentation
would make fine propaganda for the United States. Time, Inc. agreed and in
1948 and 1949 the presentation was used in Germany with our portable
equipment. Another set was sent to Japan, at the request of the State
Department. Reports we received on showings in these countries, at opposite
ends of the Earth, were excellent. The show was ideal for propaganda purposes.
The State Department was pleased.
Cinerama Corporation Formed
This interrupted hardly at all our work on the
picture process. Towards the end of 1946 it seemed time to set up a separate
corporation to concentrate work on the picture process. Cinerama Corporation
was formed in November. Mr. Rockefeller and Time, Inc., some of whose
executives had by that time become interested in various aspects of my work,
agreed to finance the building of certain minimum equipment for the
production and showing of pictures in the Cinerama process. They wanted me
to be able to demonstrate the effect of the process in sight and sound...to
show what it might do as a process for commercial entertainment.
Further Screen Development
There was still a good deal of development
work to do. A difficult problem was the adaptation of the spherical screen
to some form practical for theatre entertainment. The spherical screen was
satisfactory for the gunnery trainer. Each of the four men it would
accommodate was at, or close to, the center of the screen. But for a large
theatre audience this was not practical. It was apparent that vertical lines
would become distorted when viewed from seats at the side. Imagine the
effect of a mast of a boat, for example, viewed from the side of a spherical
screen. Our plans thus called for a cylindrical screen. Louvres then were
mounted in straight lines rather than arcs. The next consideration was
Size of screen
For a fair-sized theatrical audience, we felt
it was necessary to have a screen triple the height and four times the width
of the normal screen. This meant a total area of twelve times. When images
are magnified too many times, however, the power to resolve or define such
images is lost. Therefore, more photographic area was required than was
available in the standard sized motion picture frame. Five such frames were
found necessary on the gunnery trainer but for theatrical use, it was
impractical. I conceived the idea of using a standard motion picture
projector but with a large frame. We arranged to pull down six perforations
per frame instead of four, thus providing a frame 1.12 inches high instead
of 0.75 inches high and, of course, one and one half times the area of the
standard frame. By using three of these frames to project the total image,
we would have four and half times the film area available; consequently,
four and a half time the definition. This still allowed the use of standard
motion picture film, so desirable because of its established manufacture,
processing, handling, etc. It also gave us a film frame that was more nearly
square than the standard oblong frame. As the diagonal of a square is
smaller in proportion to the area of the square than is the diagonal of the
oblong in relation to its area, we achieved an optical advantage; all
lenses, light beams, etc., being circular in cross section and a square fits
into a circle more efficiently than an oblong does.
Having settled the size of the frame and the screen, we moved on to the
building of the screen. We chose steel for our first louvres for ruggedness
and to allow few supports; but this proved impractical. They reverberated
to sound and put up a continual hum. Later we came to the use of strips of
conventional screening material which we now use and find satisfactory.
With our first 16mm models - and in our 35mm
gunnery trainer - the joints between
the screen areas were simple, straight lines. They showed as sharp dark or
light joints. The best way to conceal these joints was to have the edges of
the images gradually fade out and overlap the fading edges so that you could not see just where one
started and the other ended. We experimented with and patented an optical
system and a photographic vignette printed on the film but both of these had
bad features. The ideal method was to have a lineal attenuation of the light
on each side. One morning I got the idea of taking advantage of the ability
of the human eye to integrate or average to total illumination of different
length light flashes so I designed our present device which we have given
the nickname "Jigalo" because it moves rapidly up and down. This is really a
light chopper made with saw tooth edges which move faster than the eye can
perceive. The end of the teeth give a very short dark period and a long
light one and gradually as you approach the base of the teeth the condition
is reversed; a very long dark period and a very short light one until
finally it is all dark. This patented method gives a truly lineal lessening
of light and when the two edges, one growing dark to the right and the other
to the left, are overlapped, the joint has practically disappeared.
Final Sound Development
Throughout the long years of development, my
concept was to give an audience an entirely new experience in a medium of
entertainment. I knew that this could not be achieved without a sound system
which would provide as much perspective and realism as did the pictures. We
had to have something far superior to anything developed to date.
We experimented with the new magnetic sound medium and made tests with three
sound channels, feeding three loudspeakers behind the screen. This was good
but gave us gaps in the sound as sound sources moved across the screen, so
we tried five channels. We found this system not only gave us uniform volume
for sound sources moving across the screen but also greatly enhanced sound
perspectives; i.e. difference in sound as it moves toward and away from the
audience. We decided to take this up to six channels in order to have sound
follow the action out beyond the screen limits.
In working originally with this system, we assumed we would have to monitor
or modify quality and volume on the individual channels manually. But as we
worked with it, it became much simpler than that. We found that by setting
the microphone in the same relationship to the scene being photographed as
the speakers were to the scene when projected, we achieved a realistic
quality far better than was possible before.
No sound reaches the human ear entirely from a single point. A great deal of
it is reflected from surrounding objects so that the ear receives sound from
many source, each reflection having its own particular quality. This is also
true of the multiple microphones and it is the combination of all these
qualities that so well reproduces the sound and the changing sound
perspective in the present Cinerama process.
Basic Reasons for Realism of the Process
Our modern researchers in physiological optics
and psychology have generally agreed that our interpretation of the image
our retina receives, which is sight, depends on our experience. Through this
experience we have developed a number of clues, our judgment of which gives
us the ability to place ourselves in space, to judge the distance to objects
in our surroundings, to know how fast we are moving and how other
objects are moving in relation to us. All of this is our reality.
Some of the more important clues are - Atmospheric or color perspective,
i.e. the gradual graying or blueing of objects which are further away.
The known size of objects - Objects which we recognize and know the
size of help us to judge their distance.
Overlay - The fact that an object which is in front of another hides part of
its image or overlays it.
Relative brightness - usually objects closer to us are brighter than ones
Movement parallax - The use of this clue is one of our ways of checking our
distance to objects. When we want to find out just where they are we usually
unconsciously sway our bodies or heads slightly sideways and in this way
cause the objects close to us to move more than the ones further away.
Movement Perspective - When we are moving forward, as when walking, driving,
etc., all the surrounding objects move in a definite pattern from a plain
enlargement of those directly in front to a rapid movement of close objects
on our side. This pattern, particularly in our edge, or peripheral, vision
is one of our best clues to the speed of our movement and the distance to
objects at various distances.
All of these clues to spatial relationship - and many others that we use in
sight and sound - are included in the Cinerama process. Therefore, Cinerama
That is the story of the Cinerama development. There are still some things
to be done by way of refinement but the basic work is done and the
demonstration sequences made.
During the last six months we have shown our demonstration to a few people
to get reactions and suggestions. By and large, these have been most
favorable. We are ready now for the production of our first picture and are
negotiating with several groups to bring that about.
Since the organization of the Cinerama Corporation the latter part of 1946
some $400.000 has been spent to further develop the process and make test
shots. The ten years of experimentation and development by The Vitarama
Corporation, including the experience gained by building, installing and
running gunnery trainers, started Cinerama Corporation off with an extremely
This letter is long. I have done my best to
condense the story of a twelve-year development. Needless to say, there are
dozens of aspects not touched upon here, any of which I'd be glad to go over
I appreciate your interest, Bill, and hope you'll call on me for anything
else you need. An article written by you would certainly be a grand thing
Fred Waller - President
PS I am enclosing mimeographed description of each piece of Cinerama
equipment as it is today; also two pieces re. gunnery trainer. Would
appreciate return of the latter as they are all that's left.
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