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In 1787, English artist Robert Barker was awarded a patent for developing the perspective techniques to give a continuous painting the appearance of all-around vision. His creation was the Cyclorama, a 360° painting, first displayed in a purpose-built cylindrical building in Leicester Square in 1793.
To view London From the Roof of the Albion Mills, you stood on a platform built to resemble a rooftop, with the painting all around you, just as if you were standing atop the actual mills, just blocks away. It was sensationally popular, and cycloramas became a major attraction in all the large cities. You may still view one today in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania at the battlefield museum there.
It wasn’t long before photographers were creating a truncated version of the cyclorama. Panoramic photography used three or more exposures to cover a viewing angle that a single lens could not encompass. Perfectly suited to landscape photography, the technique was often used to document Civil War battlefields at the end of fighting.
While Disneyland’s “CircleVision” is the direct descendant of the cyclorama, it was not the first use of the motion picture camera in this way. Surprisingly, the 1900 Paris Exposition featured a 10- projector simulated balloon ride. Patrons stood on top of a projection room dressed like a giant balloon basket, under a huge prop balloon. The images were projected on a full 360° screen around them. Closed after only a few days as a fire hazard (the booth was unvented) the exhibit had a prescient name – Cineorama.
The first use of a 3-projector panorama in a motion picture was in 1927 (curiously, the same year the anamorphic lens was invented). French director Abel Gance felt that the climax to his 5- hour Napoleon needed a big finish, so he shot the final scenes with three cameras mounted over- and-under, and was pleased to see that his “polyvision” really worked. No one would attempt it again for 25 years.
Fred Waller was head of the effects, and later, short subjects departments at the Astoria, NY studios of Paramount Pictures during the 1920s & 30s. When he noticed that pictures photographed with very wide angle lenses had a slight impression of depth, he embarked upon a quest to reproduce, as nearly as possible, the full range of human vision.
He succeeded - spectacularly.

Fred Waller
The man who accomplished this was always something of a prodigy. Born in 1896 in Brooklyn, he was repairing his own bicycle – and his friends’ – at the age of 4. His father was the first commercial photographer in New York, and after a bout of teenage pneumonia, Waller left Brooklyn Polytechnic at 14 to join him, no doubt to the relief of his physics teachers who were forever losing arguments with him.
While there, he invented many labor saving devices he kept secret, and patented the first automatic printer/timer for still photographs. When a shortage of photo supplies during WWI led to the closing of the business, he opened an art studio for the creation of silent film intertitles, working exclusively for Famous Players Lasky (later Paramount Pictures).
In 1924 Fred joined Paramount directly as head of Special Effects at their east coast production facility in Astoria, Queens. While there, he produced a cyclone for D. W. Griffith, a shipwreck for Cecil B. DeMille, turned Cinderella’s pumpkin into a coach and four and in 1925 built the studio’s first optical printer. He was intrigued when he noticed that just as a telephoto lens will compress an image onto a plane, a wide angle lens does the opposite - gives a sense of depth – without any cumbersome 3-D apparatus. Thus began an intense study of perception that would last over a decade.
Paramount closed Astoria in 1927, but Waller didn’t waste the hiatus – he went into the boat business and invented the water ski. Returning to Paramount in 1929 as head of short subject production, he became the favorite director of Duke Ellington, Bessie Smith and other major black talent of the day. His musical shorts were distinguished by their creative camerawork and high production value.
All the while, Waller was continuing his study of perception. He recognized that each human eye sees two-thirds of the total viewing angle, but we see in 3-D only where the two eyes overlap – directly ahead. Everything further than a few dozen yards away is a flat plane. Often found walking around the house with toothpicks stuck in the brim of his hat, he conducted experiments that surprisingly revealed that it was peripheral vision – and not straight ahead vision that mattered most in spatial perception. Subjects with this center portion blocked navigated a room full of furniture without incident. Those with their peripheral vision obscured (like a horse wearing blinkers) fell about. Only one facet eluded him – a panoramic depiction of reality would require an enormous flat screen, perhaps hundreds of feet wide.
About this time, Waller was contacted by some exhibitors at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. For Eastman Kodak he provided several multi-panel slide displays for their Hall of Color. But it was his first glimpse of the interior of the theme building that made it all come together. The Perisphere was curved. Imagine Waller clapping his hand to his forehead with the 1939 equivalent of “Duh!” flickering across his mind. Human vision is a curved – not a flat – field.
Ready at last to turn his studies into a practical motion picture system, he set up shop in the carriage house of boating pal David Rockefeller’s Manhattan mansion. His first generation system worked – but was far from “practical”. It used 11 (!) 16mm cameras to shoot a combined hemispherical image of 2 over 4 over 5 individual films. Connected by external drive belts which synchronized the cameras, the “11-eyed monster” was used for several test films which revealed that the angle of view was so large that the outside cameras were photographing each other. Waller called the contraption the VITARAMA.


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Copyright ©2002 Greg Kimble, HTML Transcription Copyright ©2003 The American WideScreen Museum