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Vitarama Goes to War
When the Vitarama was rejected by fair organizers as “too radical” Fred, disciplined inventor that he was, simply moved on to phase two – five 35mm cameras arranged 2 over 3.With war looming in Europe, Waller adapted his idea to an extremely practical use – an aerial gunnery trainer, which saved fuel, freed up pilots and aircraft for actual combat and eliminated the very real problem of unskilled gunners hitting the aircraft and not the tow target. Since shooting at a slowly towed target didn’t begin to mimic actual battle conditions, most gunners never really learned their job until they were in actual combat – and casualties were high.
The Waller Flexible Gunnery Trainer was the first virtual reality experience – decades before the term was coined. Trainees wore headsets with actual battle and engine sounds, and a sophisticated photoelectric system scored their hits on the photographed planes diving in from out of frame. So realistic and effective was the trainer, that 1 hour was equivalent to 10 of real flying practice. The first group of graduates hit 80% of their combat targets and suffered no losses. At the end of the war, it was calculated that over 350,000 lives were saved by the trainer. Enthusiastic graduates wrote to Waller, wanting to see this amazing technology used in a more commercial way.
Waller, not surprisingly, was way ahead of them.
The Secret of Oyster Bay
While installing the 75 gunnery trainers contracted by the US Navy and British Admiralty, research and construction was still going on at new facilities in an indoor tennis court out in Oyster Bay, Long Island. Reflections within the sphere had been a real problem on the trainer, so Waller dropped the 2 upper cameras and projected the remaining 3 images – totaling 146° of horizontal angle - onto a curved screen. But the reflections remained, so the screen was rebuilt as 1100 1” vertical strips, all parallel to the viewer. This solved the problem, but made for a costly install. The cameras and projectors were also custom made, as the new system used frames 6 perforations high instead of the usual 4, and ran at 26 frames per second instead of 24. Total exposed negative area was 6 times that of a standard academy aperture. The camera, while not the monstrosity the 11-header had been, was still a behemoth. Unblimped, it weighed over 200 pounds and made an awful racket. With its lead-lined blimp, it tipped the scales at 800 lbs. The lenses, custom made by Kodak for Waller, were the size of a contact lens, with a focal length of 27mm – the same as the human eye.
This huge expanse of screen real estate could hardly be complemented by a standard monophonic sound track, so Waller brought in sound engineer Hazard Reeves who developed a 7-channel discreet surround sound system. To accomplish this, Reeves invented fullcoat magnetic film – the first use of magnetic media in an optical sound industry. He proved invaluable in another way. When the Rockefellers and Time pulled their funding, Reeves kept the company afloat by buying the assets – for $1600.
Reeves made one other important decision. He hired Mike Todd, a Broadway showman who had yet to produce a feature film, as his Cinerama producer, reasoning that his boundless enthusiasm and sales ability was a necessary asset to the new company. Todd also had a relationship with Rodgers and Hammerstein, and promised to bring their hit musical Oklahoma! to the new company to be filmed in Cinerama.
One by one, heads of all the majors trouped out to Oyster Bay to see “Waller’s Wonder.” The 15 minute film included the roller coaster at Rockaway Playland and the Long Island Choral Society singing the Messiah, which had been recorded in the church, then photographed to playback on a set constructed at the tennis court.

Both were in black and white. There were also traveling shots of fall foliage and scenes aboard the Rockefeller yacht, which marked the first use of the new Kodak monopack color negative film.
Impressed as they were (instinctively turning around as the choir came in on the rear surrounds) they nonetheless knew that exhibitors would never endure the huge conversion costs, and correctly saw how impractical and expensive it would be for regular production. Compliments all around for Fred - and no callbacks.
Waller realized that if Cinerama was to succeed, it would be without the help – and financing – of the established picture industry. Fortunately, Waller’s Wonder had some very important friends.

page 32 cinema technology - december 2002


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