Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
Early Wide Film Experiments
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|Written by: Rick Mitchell Film Editor/ Film Director/ Film Historian. Work published posthumously ||Date: 15.03.2014|
|In his first accounts of his work in developing motion pictures, W.K.L. Dickson claimed to have initially projected a talking picture of himself on the wall of his laboratory for Thomas Edison in October, 1889. Subsequent research, particularly revelations about, and surviving examples of, Dickson’s earliest work, have raised questions about whether this incident occurred or would even have been possible using the equipment with which he was working at the time ; Edison himself later denied it in court proceedings . However, if Dickson’s original intent had been projection on a screen, especially in a theatrical setting, it’s possible he might have chosen a wider frame than 1.33:1.|
The precedence for projection had already been established. Earlier in the 19th Century, a number of devices had been developed to allow individual viewers to experience the persistence-of-vision phenomenon by flashing a series of images with elements in differing positions before their eyes in such a way as to make them appear to be in motion . Most of these involved sequential drawings and later posed sequential photographs such as those of Coleman Sellars, those from a sequential series of cameras as used by Eadward Muybridge in his motion studies, or Etienne Jacques Marey’s multiple lens “gun camera”. In 1853 Lieutenant Baron Franz von Uchatius of the Austrian army was the first to combine such a device with the “magic lantern” to project the “moving” images to a large audience. By 1877 two Frenchmen, Jean Louis Meissonier and M. Emile Reynaud, had developed a device called a Zoopraxiscope which involved the projection of the images from a rotating glass wheel through an opaque shutter disc revolving in the opposite direction. A program of such images was shown at the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, in the specially built Zoopraxographical Hall. Ironically the Edison peepshow Kinetoscope debuted at this Exhibition, and the Zoopraxiscope presentation further stimulated a desire for the projection of the Kinetoscope motion pictures as well. Edison continued to resist requests from Dickson to develop a projector, soon a source of friction between them, feeling that presenting the films to large audiences at one time would dry up interest in them within a couple of years. Events quickly proved Edison wrong.
Though not developed by them, the first motion picture projector and the first official use of a film stock and frame wider than 35mm grew out the Edison Company’s efforts to expand their library of films for the peepshow Kinetoscope by photographing as many appropriate novelties, famous personalities, and even bits of dramatic and comedic productions as they could cram into the @20 sec. running time of the 50 ft. films. Two young Virginians living in New York City, Grey and Otway Latham, thought the then very popular sport of boxing would provide appropriate Kinetoscope subjects, though the short running time was problematic. In 1894 they were able to make a deal with the Edison Company to do a prize fight film for presentation in special Kinetoscopes. A fellow Virginian, Enoch J. Rector, worked out a method of increasing the amount of film the camera could photograph to 150 ft. and developed the modified Kinetoscopes to handle it. Michael Leonard and Jack Cushing were photographed in six abbreviated rounds and the results were made available in a row of the six special Kinetoscopes, each containing one round of the fight. When the popularity of this film began to fade, the Latham brothers shot a specially staged fight between “Gentleman Jim” Corbett and Pete Courtenay.
But the Latham brothers felt their fight films would be more successful if they could be presented to large audiences by projection onto a screen. They put the question to their father Woodville, a chemist, who, after checking out a Kinetoscope, stated there was no reason the films could not be projected and set up the Lambda Company with the brothers, Rector, and Eugene Lauste to build a machine that would do so; later in his career Lauste would be one of the first to experiment with recording sound on film . Otway Latham had also befriended W.K.L. Dickson, who, frustrated in his efforts to get Edison to allow him to develop a projector, became excited about the Latham project.
One immediate problem: the Lambda partners were still following the practice of moving the film continuously past the lens and using a rotating shutter to flash the various frames onto the screen. Though acceptable for the peepshow Kinetoscope, this approach did not allow enough light to get through the film to get anything near an acceptably viewable image when projected. Woodville Latham suggested using a larger film, which would also help them evade Edison’s patents. They chose a 51mm width for reasons that have never been determined, and a wider aspect ratio, about 1.85:1, to better accommodate their chosen subject matter.
Dickson had confided to Otway Latham the necessity of an intermittent movement in the camera to allow for proper exposure of the negative. Unfortunately, the jerking involved caused the huge roll of film to break. Rector solved this problem by adding a sprocket above the lens that fed the film into a loop from which it could be jerked down past the aperture. This important development would become known as the “Latham Loop.”
On April 21, 1895, the Lambda company gave the press the first officially documented presentation of a motion picture projected onto a screen: some boys playing in a park while a man seated on a bench calmly puffs on a pipe. (According to some sources, the “actors” were Eugene Lauste and his sons.) The New York Sun immediately sought a comment from Edison, who poo-pooed the demonstration and the projector as inferior to work going on in his plant that would soon be revealed to the public . Undaunted, Otway Latham staged a fight between “Young Griffo” and “Battling (Charles) Barnett” on the roof of Madison Square Garden and on May 20, 1895 the four minute film was officially put on public exhibition.
Though the results were still imperfect, the Lambda Company continued to make and market its projector, which they called the Pantoptikon, and the films made for it, for about the next two years. The major flaw was the continuous movement of the film past the lens in projection. Working independently Thomas Armat in the United States, Robert W. Paul in England, and the Lumiere brothers in France would discover that intermittent movement was also necessary for projection; in fact each individual frame needed to be held longer for this purpose than for photography.
Armat and Paul had worked with Kinetoscope films in their experiments. Edison would buy out Armat’s patents and Armat would even supervise the debut of “Edison’s New Projecting Kinetoscope” at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York on Apr. 23, 1896. However, Edison had shortsightedly seen no point in filing for patents outside the United States, so Paul was free to figure out how to make his own camera and begin making his own films using the format developed by Dickson.
The Lumieres also went with this format but made two changes: two round perforations on either side of each frame, and a reduction of the filming speed from the Edison and Lambda rate of 40 frames per second to the 16 fps that would become the unofficial standard rate for silent films. In fact, both filming and projection rates varied according to the effects desired by cameramen and the whims of projectionists. As a result, what became the official sound speed of 24 fps derived from AT&T’s averaging of filming and projection speeds in 1925. Both Lee De Forest and Theodore W. Case did their experiments at different speeds with the latter settling on 24 fps for the sake of compatibility.
The essentially standard picture format of 1896 made it possible to print films shot with the Lumiere’s camera-printer-projector Cinematographe onto stock that could be used in the Armat and Paul projectors and vice-versa. This was apparently also the reason why the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company chose the basically 1.33:1 aspect ratio even though they were using a 68mm negative stock. This stemmed from their efforts to not infringe on Edison’s patents, something to which they were particularly sensitive because one of their founders was W.K.L. Dickson, who’d been fired by Edison in 1895. The Biograph camera did not use perforations in the negative and it used an armature, rather than an intermittent sprocket, to jerk the film past the lens. The images were initially printed onto cards that were used in a peepshow device, but a projector was later developed for the wide film and subsequently the images were reduction printed to 35mm, for which Biograph would subsequently abandon the wide negative about the time of the rise of the nickelodeon.
Enoch J. Rector, a partner in the Latham’s Lambda Company, was still fascinated by boxing films and had actually promoted a couple of fights so he could photograph them, most notably the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight held in Carson City, NV on Mar. 17, 1897. Rector had this fight photographed with special cameras he’d developed using 63mm film with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio and a filming speed of 24 fps. This was the last commercial use of wide film in the United States for thirty years.
Experimentation and occasional presentation with wider films continued in Europe through the turn of the 20th Century. In 1892, before there was any public record of Dickson’s work for Edison, Carl and Max Skladanowsky, working in Germany, slit in half the 89mm negative introduced in 1890 for the Kodak No. 2 still camera for use in a motion picture camera they’d developed. Their 30 x 40mm images were printed onto 54mm wide strips of eight pictures each spliced end-to-end with three grommets. They also perforated the edges of the print, but not the negative, and strengthened those perforations with grommets as well. In 1895, Skladanowsky designed another camera that used 63mm negatives slit from a 126mm original, which he used to take shots of Berlin and other places that were shown at the Berlin Wintergarten in Nov. 1895 . The frame was 40 X 50mm and had one 2.3mm perforation on each side of the frame line. It was printed onto 65mm stock with four perforations per frame .
Toward the turn of the 20th Century, a number of French inventors, including the pioneering Lumieres, worked with film stock larger than 35mm, up to 75mm, but with one exception, maintaining the approximately square frame. For example:
“Oscar B. De Pue, partner of Burton Holmes, in 1897, purchased a machine in Paris from Leon Gaumont for taking 60 mm. wide film then put up in one hundred foot lengths, unwinding and rewinding inside the camera on aluminum spools; not a daylight proposition, but a dark room model. This machine he took to Italy and the first motion picture turned out on the machine was of St. Peter's Cathedral with the fountain playing in the foreground and a flock of goats passing by the machine. He then took other pictures of Rome and from there visited Venice, where pictures of the canal and Doges Palace and the waterfront along the canal with views of feeding the pigeons at St. Marks with the great cathedral in the background. From there to Milan for a scene of the Plaza in front of the Milan Cathedral; thence to Paris where pictures of the Place de la Concord with its interesting traffic and horse drawn busses, fountains, obelisks, statues, bicycles, wagons, trucks and carriages were made. All the life of that day, after thirty two years, is in striking contrast to the present.
“These negatives are still in his possession although the prints for them have long since been lost track of on account of our having changed from that size of picture to the standard size.
“This Gaumont wide film camera was used for five years by Mr. De Pue and most of the negatives, many of which are of great historic value, are still in good condition, so that either full size or standard sized reduction prints can still be made from them.”
The exception was Cinéorama, a forerunner of both Cinerama and Disney’s Circle-Vision 360, presented by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson in Paris in 1900. It involved photography from ten interlocked 70mm cameras arranged in a circle and suspended from a balloon flying over a number of scenic locations. The resulting hand colored prints were shown on a circular screen to an audience seated inside a simulated balloon basket and were reportedly quite effective. Unfortunately, the projection booth was beneath the audience and the arc lights heated it to over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In light of a disastrous fire at a charity bizarre three years earlier that was traced to a projection machine and its flammable nitrate film, the police shut the show down after three days .
Cinéorama was a forerunner of the use of motion pictures in expositions such as World’s Fairs and special venues designed to exploit experimental technologies. But the commercial development of motion pictures was taking off in a direction that was more receptive to the standardization of 35mm film and the 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
|More in 70mm reading:|
Introduction to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
Prologue to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
Who is Rick Mitchell?
Rick Mitchell - A Rememberance
Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
1930's Large Format Equipment at the USC Archive
The Bat Whispers in 65mm
The Bat Whispers
Early Large Format Films
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An industry develops, especially in the United States
|Although the Lathams had given the initial public showing of their Pantoptikon films in a storefront in New York and the Lumieres had shown theirs in the basement of a Paris cafe, most early screen presentations were set up in the kind of amusement parlors that also used the Kinetoscope and Mutoscope peepshow devices, and in vaudeville houses, especially after the Edison Koster & Bial’s Music Hall presentation. As the popularity of motion pictures spread, itinerant exhibitors would buy projectors and films and travel around the country giving shows in stores, churches, and other auditoriums . (Though set twenty and thirty years later, the Australian film The Picture Show Man (1977) and the black church sequence in Preston Sturges’ Sullivan’s Travels (1941) give apparently accurate depictions of such presentations.) Some traveling exhibitors later set up permanent facilities in empty stores in smaller cities and towns, and, as early as 1896, theaters were built specifically for showing films in, among other places, Chicago, Toledo, New Orleans, and Los Angeles .|
The product being shown, however, was not much more advanced than the early Kinetoscope films: vaudeville performers, bits of comedy, etc. The smaller, hand-cranked Lumiere Cinematographe and the camera developed by Robert W. Paul in England could easily be used outside, which added international scenic views to the available material; in fact the Lumieres sold their combination camera-printer-projectors at a discount if the buyers would send dupable prints or negatives back to Paris for inclusion in the library of subjects they sold to exhibitors. By 1900, this limited repertoire of subjects began to bore audiences in fixed situations, especially vaudeville houses, which began moving them from the top spot on the bill to the bottom, hopefully to clear the house for the next show.
Something new was needed, and the popularity of the comic bits and dramatic excerpts like The May Irwin-John C. Rice Kiss (1896) and The Execution of Mary-Queen-of-Scots (1897) pointed the direction toward story-telling films. The most notable early work of this type was done by French magician Georges Melies, who started out making short vignettes that combined established stage illusions with the possibilities of trick photography he was discovering. He soon advanced to combining these tricks into narrative tableaux of up to 1000 ft. in length, his most famous being A Trip To The Moon (1902), which was extremely popular and possibly influenced Edwin S. Porter in making The Life of an American Fireman (1902), and most importantly, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
At this far distant time, it’s impossible to determine why this first western had the impact it did. In addition to the Melies films, there had been other narrative films, including some involving action and chases. But Robbery’s popularity revived public interest in motion pictures, led to an explosion in the production of simple one reel dramatic and comedic films, at least one a day from most of the proliferating production companies, and the establishment of theaters specifically set up to show them, even in small towns which didn’t have a legitimate theater or vaudeville house.
Initially exhibitors bought their films outright from the producing companies, which left them with a stock of films after their audiences had seen them. They began to exchange them with other exhibitors for their used films. One exhibitor reportedly set up a room in his building where fellow exhibitors could do this, the supposed source of the term film exchange. In 1902, Harry Miles, who two years earlier had bought a camera and shot film in Alaska, came up with the idea of buying films from the producing companies and renting them to the exhibitors, the foundation of the distribution system that exists today, and also of what would develop into the motion picture industry .
Naturally this required standardization of projectors and print stocks, which in turn called for the standardization of cameras and negative stocks. Though the Dickson-Edison 35mm 1.33:1 format dominated, there were many variations to get around the Edison patents and his constant lawsuits over claimed infringements on them.
“An advertisement in Hopwood’s ‘Living Pictures’ edition of 1899 offers the ‘Prestwich’ specialties for animated photography ‘nine different models of cameras and projectors in three sizes for 1/2 inch, 1-3/8 inch and 2-3/8 inch width of film.’ Half a dozen other advertisers in the same book offer ‘cinematographs’ for sale and while the illustrations show machines for films obviously of narrow or wide gauge no mention is made of the size of the film.”
Getting Edison’s chief competitors to pool their patents with his in the Motion Picture Patents Company resolved this plethora of formats and led to such other standardizing developments as a finally perfected film perforator by Bell & Howell.
The Motion Picture Patents Company licensed the use of cameras and projectors based on the pooled patents. Perhaps if they had just stuck to this, they would have brought order and discipline to the expanding industry that would have allowed it to also develop artistically. But the Patents Company set out to totally control the industry instead, stimulating opposition to its dictates , such as limiting the maximum length of all films to 1,000 ft. or insisting on only full shots in dramatic films at a time when American filmmakers were finally beginning to explore the narrative potential of the medium. Feisty Trust member Vitagraph made The Life of Moses in five reels and a version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in three (both 1909) but was forced to release them a reel a week, while D.W. Griffith and his cameraman Billy Bitzer were upsetting their bosses at Biograph by moving the camera closer for portrait length studies of his players. Griffith also made a two-reeler, His Trust (1910), but it was released as two films: His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled. However, in the case of his subsequent two reel version of Enoch Arden, exhibitors held up the first reel until the second was released, running them both together and establishing the precedence for longer films .
At the same time, just as many entrepreneurs of the era were attracted to motion pictures the way their successors would be attracted to the computer world ninety years later, it was really too late for the Trust to impose its will on the entire developing industry. Using bootleg cameras and film imported from Europe, early producers like Carl Laemmle made films that increasingly violated Trust rules. It was to get away from detectives hired by the Trust to disrupt such productions and wreck their cameras that the American film industry moved away from the New York area and ultimately settled in then primitive and almost always sunny Southern California.
No such limitations existed in Europe, especially on the continent, where serious artists had not looked down on motion pictures the way the British, and the American culture mavens who then took their cues from them, had. The French were the leaders in this regard, and in 1908, in a questionable attempt to raise the status of motion pictures, a company called the Film D’Art was formed to film excerpts from famous novels, plays, and even ballets. Surviving examples show that these were merely photographic records shot from the equivalent of front row center of performances with actors mouthing unheard dialog while gesticulating to the rafters. The “common” people who were the most dependable audience for films in France rejected these films but they did attract the middle and upper classes , and one of them initiated the next step in a revival of interest in Wide Screen.
One of the most famous stage actresses of her time, the “Divine” Sarah Bernhardt, allowed herself “to be put in pickle for all time” in a number of films made by the Film D’Art and others, the best known of which was Queen Elizabeth (Eclair; 1912), made in 4 reels . Adolph Zukor, one of the many entrepreneurs who had moved from the clothing business to nickleodeons, which he’d later sold to the Trust, bought the American rights to the film and when the Trust would not agree to its being shown in its entirety as a special presentation, approached famous stage producer Daniel Frohman about presenting it in one of his legitimate theaters, a presentation the Trust would not dare attempt to disrupt.
Although films had been shown in legitimate theaters in Europe, the presentation of this film at New York’s Lyceum Theater on June 12, 1912 cued interest in the United States in showing longer films, especially spectacles imported from Italy, in legitimate theaters, and also in building comparable palaces exclusively for films, beginning with the Strand Theater on New York’s Broadway, which opened on April 11, 1914 . That same year, Zukor, who after his success with Queen Elizabeth had formed a company with Daniel Frohman and his brother Charles called Famous Players In Famous Plays to make just those kind of films, made a distribution deal with the newly formed Paramount Pictures, as would the recently formed Jesse Lasky Feature Play Company. Within two years Zukor and Lasky had merged, Zukor had kicked out W.W. Hodkinson who’d founded Paramount, and set out to take over the industry with a vertically integrated company that produced, distributed, and exhibited films , .
Zukor attempted to buy up the major theater in every significant city in the United States, and if rebuffed, would build, or threaten to build, a bigger and more opulent house across the street. This led to competition from exhibitors who formed their own production and distribution company, First National ; William Fox formed a similar vertically integrated company while other newcomers specialized in only one or two of the three areas. All spent heavily on spectacular flagship theaters in major cities in which to open their films.
This was encouraged by a significant change in audience demographics in the United States, where the prestige presentation of longer features in legitimate theaters and the newly constructed “picture palaces” removed the stench of the blue-collar nickelodeons for the middle and upper classes. However, the shift from one @10-15 minute film a day to two @one-hour long films a week, Paramount’s approximate annual quota from 1917 until the start of sound, did not lead to better stories, which would have been impossible with so many companies turning out an equal number of films. Plot synopses from this period, quoted in a number of sources, reflect the increasing “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” nature of most of the films . Later producer and educator Kenneth MacGowan, an early film critic in Philadelphia from 1915 to 1917, observed that while he exalted the potential of the medium, he deplored “’the crude plots, the ugly crime, and the silly happiness…the disjointed mediocrity’ that filled and dominated the screen.” Yet this did not seem to bother audiences who were being brought new dramatized stories every week in parts of the country that had never seen a stage production, much less had new ones coming in every few months. . The increasing construction of theaters devoted exclusively to motion pictures around the country aided this .
Motion pictures were the first true mass medium, and by the end of World War I they had become the most popular form of entertainment in the country. But within two years of the end of the war American audiences seemed to be increasingly taking movies for granted and were turning their attention to other diversions, especially those that hadn’t been available before the war, a situation that would reoccur 25 years later following World War II. Over the previous century, major conflicts had been followed by periods of affluence for the victors and a vision of new scientific discoveries that would lead toward a Utopian future. The already begun Industrial Revolution exploded after the Civil War and there were yearly expositions around the country at which new inventions, including, as noted, early attempts at motion pictures, were displayed. World War I essentially nailed the lid on the 19th Century, especially in the United States, and a combination of factors initiated the radical change in American life that would lead to the “Jazz Age”: the social movement from a blue collar agrarian/manufacturing economy to a white collar one, from a bucolic/small town oriented society to an increasingly urban oriented one, the trend toward at least a high school education for all classes, and most significantly, increasing access to personal mobility via the automobile.
And in 1921, along came radio. William Fox claimed that he was stimulated to explore the possibilities of sound films after noting that before 1921 theater attendance was better on rainy nights, but this changed after the introduction of radio. In 1922, the industry saw a drop-off in attendance, not as significant as during the 1919 flu epidemic, but enough to stimulate interest in recovering that lost audience. Like Fox, the Warner Brothers, attempting to challenge the supremacy of Paramount, and MGM, which would become Zukor’s most serious rival after the 1924 merger of two struggling companies, would investigate ongoing experiments to add sound to films. Color was also considered, and though adding simulations of it by tinting the base and toning the silver of prints became a standard procedure for almost all films of the Twenties , the limitations of original photography in two-color Technicolor and similar processes was found wanting. Following the sleeper success of The Four Horsemen Of The Apocalypse (Metro; 1921), a film about the recent war being considered box office poison before its release, various companies embarked on a series of big budget spectacles: The Covered Wagon and The Ten Commandments (Paramount; 1923), The Hunchback Of Notre Dame (Universal; 1923), The Iron Horse (Fox; 1924), and the biggest of them all, at the time, Ben-Hur (Metro-Goldwyn; 1925). And those companies that owned theaters embarked on building even more opulent “picture palaces” in which to show them.
This increase in the size of theaters naturally affected the size of the screen and the image projected thereon. The typical 200 seat nickelodeon was about 25 ft. wide, 70-100 ft. long and had screens averaging 10 to 15 ft wide . Nickelodeons with 500 seats and a pit for a 10 piece orchestra had 24 x 18 ft. screens . Improvements in print and negative stocks, projection lenses, and illumination made it possible to project images up to this size without sacrificing quality . Screen size did not change with the building of movie palaces accommodating 3,000 to 6,000 patrons as increasing the image size would stretch the limits of the presentation train as well as the amount of illumination it was safe to subject to the volatile nitrate film. John Belton has commented on the irony of the picture seeming to get smaller as the theaters got larger . Additionally, fire laws required that the projection booth be behind, and a certain distance above, the last row of seats in the highest balcony, which also meant projecting the film at a somewhat steep angle, often corrected by tipping the top of the screen back slightly. The throw from the booth to the comparably tiny screen in many of these theaters was between 150 and 175 ft.! In 1930, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers’ Standards and Nomenclature Committee reported: “the magnification has already been pushed close to the limit set by the graininess of the film and its unsteadiness in the projector,” making “the projection of pictures of even moderate screen dimensions not altogether satisfactory.”
Increasing the picture size was also limited by the balcony overhang, a taller screen would cut off the top of the screen for those in the back of the first floor. As Zukor supposedly put it when he couldn’t see the top of the screen from those seats at a demonstration of Magnascope, “That’s $300 we lose at every full house.”
In theory, a wider image would solve this problem but no one in the industry seems to have seriously considered it at that time, though the potential was suggested by D.W. Griffith’s masking off the top and bottom of scenes involving action in a horizontal direction in Intolerance (1916); the idea was no doubt offset by his use of vertical and other masks for other scenes in the film.
That these problems were being considered on the theoretical and experimental level is reflected in the Transactions of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, founded in 1916 by C. Francis Jenkins, who had been involved with Thomas Armat in the development of his projector. Jenkins organized the Society along the lines of the type of European professional scientific organizations at which had been presented many of the papers and experiments from which the motion picture would ultimately evolve. At biennial meetings held in various cities in the United States and Canada, the technical state of the four phases of the industry: production, post-production (editing, laboratory practices, and later sound), distribution, and exhibition would be gauged, papers read on specific relevant topics, and new products described and/or demonstrated, all reported on in a similarly biennial, later monthly, publication. While there was only one specific transaction dealing with Wide Film prior to 1929, the SMPE would become significantly involved with later developments, since many of those involved in those developments were members. After its formation in 1927, members of the Technical branch of the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would similarly be involved; of course there was an overlapping of membership from Hollywood and New York.
Renewed interest in presenting larger, wider images
|In the mid-teens however, what experimentation with photographing and projecting wider images that has been officially documented was being done by independent tinkerers outside the developing studio system. Press releases on the systems officially presented to the public before 1929 implied a desire to better duplicate human vision in theatrical film presentation, as was noted in this 1921 ad for one of these systems:|
“It is generally understood that one of the greatest drawbacks to the motion picture industry is the confined vision. The single lens camera takes a picture of about 30 degrees visual angle, while the eyes have a visual angle of about 65 degrees. Thus it will be seen that a man seated in a theatre close to a screen showing a full size picture, as the camera was to the object photographed when the picture was taken, has his vision restricted at least 50 per cent.”
The earliest documented 20th Century experiments with a wider film/frame were those of Italian producer/inventor Filoteo Alberini, who was fascinated by the head and torso medium shots being used increasingly in American films, but wanted to place this intimate view of actors against a fuller and wider background . His idea was to adapt to motion pictures the principal of the pivoting lens, a “normal” focal length lens that moved across a wide aperture during exposure to get a wider field of view, one of at least 60 degrees . He supposedly began his work in 1910 and received British patent 29,875 for “Improvements in Apparatus for Taking Kinematographic Photograms”, filed for on December 29, 1913 and granted May 28, 1914, though there may have been other filings elsewhere in Europe. This was a general conceptual patent that implied the use of a negative wider than 35mm, though none was specified in the patent. World War I no doubt forestalled further development and it was not officially presented until 1922, when the process, called Panoramica , was demonstrated with a 23 x 58mm frame on a 5 perf 70mm negative and print, yielding a 2.52:1 aspect ratio. A film in the process, Il Sacco di Roma, was shown in 1923, though no reviews or comments on the process have been found ..
The problems that probably doomed that version of Panoramica are illustrated by the experiences of Martin Hart of widescreenmuseum.com., who was fascinated with the idea of adapting the pivoting lens of the Widelux still camera of a later period to a single lens version of Cinerama. This camera used such a lens to shoot an undistorted 150 degree still image on 35mm film, but Hart noted:
“First I couldn't figure out how to make a shutter that would close while the lens spun back to its starting point. The second problem was that a high speed exposure, far faster than normally used in motion pictures, is needed to freeze all movement in the picture at virtually the same instant. Without doing this, objects passing in front of the camera and moving in the direction of the lens rotation will become elongated while objects moving across the frame in the other direction become squeezed. If the camera was moving forward you would see a slight elongation of objects on one side of the frame and slight squeezing on the other.”
Another attempt that appeared at this time was Widescope. George W. Bingham’s initial patent described a system in which images from three synchronized 35mm cameras were printed onto a wide film, his next for the use of three synchronized 35mm projectors to show prints from the three negatives with the intention of giving “panoramic or cycloramic views of very wide angle”. He was aiming for a total 60 degree field-of-view, and the patent filing also noted “the various usings may be adjusted with respect to each other in the accomplishment of a perfect joinder of view sections so that no line of demarcation can be distinguished between them with the result that a well defined and smooth appearing composite view is obtained.” This sounds a lot like Cinerama, on which work was begun in the mid-Thirties! However Bingham’s process proved impractical and was replaced by a camera with side-by-side 35mm movements and two lenses stacked one above the other that each photographed half the view. Each view was then printed onto a separate film and the theater’s two projectors were to be used for exhibition . . This camera was patented by John D. Elms, the patent assigned to the WideScope Camera Company, as Bingham’s had been. A 1921 ad for this version of the process proclaimed:
“The WIDESCOPE CAMERA just doubles the angle of vision and thereby eliminates all danger of eye strain or cramped eye muscles. Every picture taken is in effect close up view.
The WIDESCOPE CAMERA has particular advantages in the photographing of moving street scenes, military and naval maneuvers, extended landscapes, sports, entire stage scenes and the many widescope objects of special interest to moving picture audiences which are so extensive in area as to be photographable by the present cameras only from a distance, thus reducing the size of the objects and diminishing the details.
The WIDESCOPE CAMERA employs standard film, requires no special manipulation or treatment and can be used with one or two films (either of which may be used in any standard projector), thus embodying the features of the ordinary camera with the additional extraordinary features possessed by no other camera.”
Elms demonstrated this version of the process to the SMPE at their May 7-10, 1923 meeting in Atlantic City, NJ. , the first Wide Film presentation to them. However, it was also found to be impractical and was then changed to a process using a single 57mm negative. On November 9, 1926 a two reel film in that version of the process, photographed by the legendary Billy Bitzer and Robert Greathouse began a commercial run at New York’s Cameo Theater under the name Natural Vision Pictures. A press release issued at the time of the screening stated:
“This series of pictures was obtained through a process perfected by John Elms after nine years of effort. He first attempted to synchronize three cameras to obtain pictures of the width and height of the present ‘natural vision’. This failed and he tried two cameras, which also proved unsuccessful. Finally by means of a series of lenses and prisms in a single camera he has obtained the effect he wanted.
“The film is twice the width of the ordinary strip of film, and the ‘frame’ is 25 per cent higher than the picture on the standard film. It was explained by a representative of the process that by means of an attachment that costs only a nominal sum the wide-vision pictures can be projected in any theatre. To take them, however, the special camera is necessary.”
After extensively studying available information on this version of the process, Daniel J. Sherlock has surmised: “It would appear from the patents, frame sample and other evidence that the ‘twice the width’ film was in fact ‘twice the field of view’ and was 57mm, not 70mm. My guess from what I have seen is that the 57mm film was optically printed to two 35mm films and projected with two interlocked projectors”. Though not mentioned after this presentation, this version may have been the foundation of a 56mm “Natural Vision Pictures” system announced in 1930, with which Bitzer was also associated.
Concurrent with this, Elms was also working on a pivoting lens approach like Panoramico. In 1924 and 1925 Walter McInnis filed for patents for a “swept lens” camera, which took a while to be published, in 1928 and 1931, and Elms added three patents to that approach as well, filed in 1927, 1928, and 1931, and published in 1930, 1931, and 1934. In August, 1927, as it will be noted, the Fox Film Corporation bought the rights to this version of the process and financed work toward improving it as an alternative to its own Grandeur process.
Carl Louis Gregory summed up Widescope in his S.M.P.E. paper as follows:
“Widescope first sponsored a double frame picture on standard film with the film travel horizontal instead of vertical; after that an Italian patent was acquired in which a wide film of about 21% inches width is held in cylindrical form about the axis of rotation of a revolving lens so that the succeeding frames are photographed on the same principle as in a panoramic still camera. Unfortunately this method of taking pictures introduces the same curvelinear distortion often noticed in circuit and other panoramic still photographs.”
The other experimental wide film process from this period was the Spoor-Berggren process, named after credited developers George K. Spoor and P. John Berggren , Spoor’s chief technician . It had interesting roots thirty years earlier in the pioneering days of film projection.
According to Ramsaye, Spoor, then a theatrical promoter, invested in a projector being developed by Edwin Hill Amet of Waukegan, Illinois which later was involved in the Edison patent wars. Spoor subsequently became an exhibitor and distributor in the Midwest and in 1907 formed the Essanay Company with G.M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson to make a series of one and later two reel westerns, first in Colorado, then in Niles in Northern California. Spoor was apparently also responsible for Bell & Howell’s work in standardizing film slitters, perforators, and camera and projector movements when he asked them to fix problems with such equipment that he had purchased from England . In 1915 Essanay scored a coup by hiring the increasingly popular Charlie Chaplin from Mack Sennett, but let him go a year later during an internecine battle between Spoor and Anderson, with the former buying out the latter and investing his profits in Chicago lakeshore real estate. Spoor did continue his motion picture interests, joining with other former Trust members Kleine, Edison, and Selig in a short-lived company called K.E.S.E., and, according to James L. Limbacher, in 1916, Essanay’s Chicago studios were closed to work on a new widescreen technique that took seven years to be worthy of public unveiling.
Spoor claims that he was inspired to embark on his research after noting in the mid-teens that theaters were getting bigger, but screens were not. . The decision to go for a wider frame, rather than an overall enlargement of the image, likely stemmed from a desire to better fit the image into the wide legitimate theater type prosceniums then being incorporated into first run movie palaces, a point made by almost all proponents of wide film in 1929-30. Unfortunately there seems to be very little accurate information about the development of this process, especially earlier versions, because the first patents were not applied for until Dec. 20, 1928 , and that for a later version of the system. There is some debate as to whether or not the earlier camera used a negative larger than 35mm. A March, 1924 newspaper item claimed Spoor was to start a film called Price of the Prairie, using a negative described as being “three times the area of that used since the beginning of motion pictures” as well as being three-dimensional, but production had to be halted because they did not have enough lights to satisfactorily illuminate the sets. It is not clear from surviving photographs of the camera from this period whether or not a larger negative was used, or how many lenses it had. One such photograph suggests it employed two lenses side-by-side to record a “panoramic” image like Widescope without infringing on their stacked lens patents, which was the claim being made for it when it was first publicly announced in 1923 ; several 1929-30 articles on the process repeat this claim.
Spoor supposedly started to shoot another film called The American around Christmas, 1926, directed by film pioneer J. Stuart Blackton and starring Charles Ray and Bessie Love. (Three-D was also claimed for The American in this deceptive quote: “Production Will Be First to Combine Natural Vision Photography with Stereoscopic Projection” .). But an article published a month later states that “Spoor explained this week that the story, ‘The American,’ has also been discarded. That story had been suggested to Blackton several years ago by Theodore Roosevelt as a series of historical incidents of the West. The story replacing ‘The American’ is yet unnamed, but is a human interest story of a small town during the period immediately following the armistice.” . It’s possible that the making of this film revealed major flaws in the process and apparently led to a redesign.
Official public presentation with Magnascope
|Although a press release on the Wide Film process Paramount announced in 1929 claimed that Adolph Zukor, like George Spoor, had been interested in using a larger or wider film as early as 1914 , both studios’ serious interest in a wider film stock and a wider frame may have been stimulated by two occurrences on either side of the 1927 new year. The second was that press release on The American and the Spoor-Berggren process, which mentioned its use of wider film. A month later, another item noted that projectors for the process were to be installed in the about to open Roxy Theater in New York, then the biggest theater in the United States. (a subsequent article about the theater’s projection booth, written after its opening, does not mention these projectors). Though not large, the Film Daily’s versions of the articles were on the issues’ front pages, just under the headlines, so it was likely to attract some eyes, especially those who had seen Magnascope.|
This was the first technique for presenting a “larger” image to be publicly shown under the auspices of a major film company, Paramount . Contrary to claims that have appeared elsewhere, there was no such thing as a Magnascope lens, though variable focal length lenses would subsequently be applied to it. The technique itself simply involved the use of a shorter focal length lens than that normally used in a given theater to show the larger image on a larger screen. As Harry Rubin, who has been credited as inventing such a lens put it:
“It should be clearly understood that no claim is made that any new engineering principle is involved or that any radical mechanical advance has been made in the development of the Magnascope. When a 7-inch lens is used to secure a picture 18 feet in width, and it is desired to secure a picture twice this width, a 3 1/2 inch lens is necessary.”
The idea was first demonstrated by Lewis M. Townsend and William W. Hennessy at the Eastman Theater, Rochester, NY on Feb. 15, and again in May and October, 1925, and August, 1926. Sequences from The Iron Horse (Fox; 1924) and North of ’36 and The Thundering Herd (both Paramount; 1925), as well as a complete presentation of The Black Pirate (United Artists; 1926) were used in these demonstrations . The presenters were unhappy with later publicity for Magnascope that claimed the technique originated with the presentation of Old Ironsides (Paramount; 1926).
Glendon Allvine, a Paramount publicist at the time, takes credit for that first official use in that film’s roadshow engagement, which began at New York’s Rivoli Theater in November, 1926. According to Allvine, he’d been asked by Paramount vice-president Jesse Lasky to come up with a way of attracting audiences to the $2,000,000 production. Allvine remembered that “Laurence” (sic) Del Riccio, while seeking a job at Paramount six months earlier, had mentioned a wide angle lens in the Bausch & Lomb catalog that could throw a big picture on outdoor screens. It occurred to Allvine that this lens could be used for an audience participation effect that would create crowd-drawing buzz by putting the special lens and a selected sequence on a separate projector. At the moment of changeover, the screen masking would be moved back to reveal the larger screen, increasing the image size from 18 x 12 ft. to 40 x 30 ft. when the curtains had were fully parted and raised . He allowed no publicity prior to the first public presentation, which was enthusiastically received, according to this New York Times clipping he reproduced:
“The scene that ended the first half of the picture was a startling surprise, for the standard screen disappeared and the whole stage, from proscenium arch to the boards, was filled with a moving picture of Old Ironsides. This brought every man and woman in the audience to their feet. Following the intermission, most of the scenes of Old Ironsides were depicted by this apparatus, a device discovered by Glen Allvine of the Famous Players Lasky Corporation. Mr. All-vine said that he called the idea or invention a magnascope. It is a magnifying lens attached to the ordinary projection machine. This wide angle lens was extremely effective.”
Future use followed this approach of starting the Magnascope presentation with a subject coming toward the camera, for example the elephant stampede in Chang and the big aerial assault in Wings (both Paramount; 1927), and could be just as effective when going back to the normal size screen with an equally appropriate one, such as with the jaws of the whale closing down on Captain Ahab in Moby Dick (Warner Bros.; 1930) . Despite the fact that the Magnascope image was dimmer, grainier, and not as sharp as the regular program, the technique became popular enough for Simplex to make a Magnascope version of its projector with a 72 degree intermittent shutter to allow more light on the screen .
On January 24, 1927 U.S. Patent 1,646,855, “Motion Picture Exhibiting” was filed by Lorenzo del Riccio of Paramount. The patent does not refer to any special lens but to “motion picture exhibiting and more particularly it is concerned with a system of exhibiting motion pictures which permits of varying size of the projected images of the film on the screen whereby certain novel effects are produced.” It was issued on October 25, 1927, but MGM, for one, got around it with its “Fantom Screen”, developed by a team of engineers including Joseph Vogel and J.J. McCarthy and introduced the following year for New York’s Astor Theater’s run of The Trail of ’98 which began on March 20, 1928. There is some debate as to whether the screen was mounted on rollers and moved toward the audience , or used a variable focal length lens. The use of a moving screen was confirmed in a SMPE progress report mentioned in a 1930 issue of Exhbitors Herald World.
It was quite common for silent film prints to be reedited to suit specific exhibition situations and this was often done to enhance the Magnascope presentations. (Allvine had done this with Old Ironsides, ordering outtakes from the Hollywood studio and moving the ship launching sequence from the beginning to just before the intermission, a violation of production head B.P. Schulberg’s final editing rights that would ultimately get him fired. ) This could not be done with sound films, but the introduction of variable focal length lenses came to the rescue , though it is not clear how many theaters actually used them, especially in the United States. Del Riccio has often been erroneously credited as having developed an early zoom lens for Magnascope in 1924 , but Grant Lobban lists the Busch Vario-Kino lens introduced in 1928 as the first . It had a range of 70-140mm with three moving elements operated by a sliding sleeve. The projector-to-screen distance was set by a focusing ring on the front of the lens and was touted as always being in dead focus. Taylor Hobson then came out with a 3 in.-5-1/4 in. lens with the change made by rotating handles protruding from the barrel of the lens .
As the Depression advanced, many American theaters dropped the regular use of gimmicks like Magnascope, but a handful around the country that had larger screens would revive the technique to enhance spectacular sequences in certain films for the next twenty years. The New York Times review of The Rainbow Trail (Fox; 1932) mentions that portions of it were shown on an “enlarged screen” in its first run engagement at the Roxy Theater . Claims have also been made of other select theaters using Magnascope for the jungle scenes and climax of King Kong (RKO; 1933), the Salt Flats chase in Stagecoach (United Artists; 1939), the burning of Atlanta in Gone With The Wind (Selznick/MGM; 1939), the orphanage fire in Mighty Joe Young (RKO; 1949), and the climax of Niagara (20th Century-Fox; 1953). It is not known whether these presentations involved a zoom lens or just a shorter focal length lens on one of the projectors. The relevant sequences of Kong and Joe were edited in such a way as to allow for the latter presentation .
David O. Selznick is on record with regard to his revival of the technique, advertised as “Cycloramic Screen” for the hurricane sequence in Portrait Of Jennie (1949):
“The situation on Portrait of Jennie was that I had argued with many people in the business that one answer to television was a very much larger size screen in théatres and suggested a return to the previous “Grandeur” and “Magnascope” effects. When Portrait of Jennie was finished, I decided to put this into effect with the last reel, containing the hurricane sequence. We learned that there were a. number of the large screens still in existence, and introduced the big screen. to this era of exhibition with Portrait of Jennie at the Carthay Circle here and at the Rivoli Theatre, New York. The results were superb: Jennie did the best business that had been done at the Carthay Circle for well over a year and had an extremely successfu1 engagement at the Rivoli. But I ran into all sorts of resistance from my own distributing heads, who felt that the expense of getting enough equipment for a national release was not warranted, and also from exhibitors. In consequence, we limited this treatment of Jennie to the handful of theatres that could be accommodated with equipment already in existence, and with a few additional pieces of equipment that we had made up at our own expense and routed through several theatres. Their judgement was wrong: the results on Portrait of Jennie without this big screen effect were not remotely comparable with those in the theatres in which we conducted the experiments.... What effect this experiment had upon the introduction of. CinemaScope and the other big screen processes, if any, I have no way of knowing.”
A proposed attempt to capitalize on the interest in “wide film” in 1930 was essentially a variation of Magnascope with the top-and-bottom masked off. It was from a newly formed B-picture company called Liberty Pictures, who claimed exhibitors need only install a wide screen and a shorter focal length projector lens to show their upcoming films wide.
Grant Lobban describes a similar use of zoom projection lenses and larger screens in England in the early Thirties. Here, often because of problems with existing prosceniums, only the width could be increased, resulting in expanded images closer to those achieved with the American wide film processes. According to retired English projectionist Robert Floyd, a reduction print from the 65mm negative of The Bat Whispers (United Artists; 1930) was shown this way at London’s Regal Cinema in 1931. United Artists supplied the lenses and special aperture plates to show the film on the theater’s Magnascope screen, and UA part owners Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, who were visiting London at the time, dropped by to see how it looked. .
The Magnascope technique soon fell into disfavor in England due to indiscriminate use by exhibitors. It was relegated to portions of newsreels and novelties, though even this use wasn’t that popular, as noted in this comment from the October, 1933 issue of The Talkie Magazine quoted by Lobban:
“The wide screen used for the news bulletins and sundry trifles in the West End at the present is one of the silliest “kids” the cinema public has had put over on them. The general appearance is that the film is twice as broad, remaining the same height, and that a panoramic view is consequently obtained. The mere facts of the matter are that in the magnification of the film to twice its breadth it is also magnified to twice its height, and to get this on the screen the top and the bottom of the screen have to be cut off. Instead of seeing twice as much scene, therefore, one only sees half the amount which means that the “wide-film” is just defeating its own ends. On top of this, the larger spread is to the detriment of clarity. The wide screen is quite alright for organ recital illustrations or fancy trifles, but for news bulletins I fail to see the object".
So far no evidence has been presented of the Magnascope technique used in any other countries but the United States and England.
William Fox and the actual advent of Wide Film
|According to Glendon Allvine, William Fox and his vice president and general manager Winfield R. Sheehan saw Magnascope at the Rivoli. on Dec. 7, 1926 , and though impressed, were very much aware of its technical flaws. Fox had retained Earl I. Sponable, who’d worked with Theodore W. Case in developing the Movietone sound-on-film system Fox had licensed, to set up a research department, not only to improve Movietone, but also to keep abreast of technological developments that might be beneficial to the company. At some point in 1927, Fox personally began financing Sponable’s secret work on developing a new wide film process. As part of that research, Sponable naturally checked out previous work that had been done. A memo Sponable wrote on June 24, 1932 detailing the development of what would come to be known as Grandeur mentions one such process that was given serious consideration:|
Aug 13, 1927 …a showing of WideScope pictures to various people of the Fox Film Corporation …confirmed my judgment that the Widescope camera as it then existed was impractical for making studio pictures due to the loss or light in panoramming the lens and the inertia on the moving parts. …Regardless of this Mr. Smith made an agreement with Mr. Elms for Mr. Fox, paying $25,000 for the invention, contract to run for ten years, Elms to get 5% interest in the pictures plus salary for himself. After completing this deal Mr. Smith assigned me to take charge of the development of wide pictures and give Mr. Elms every facility at our disposal for perfecting his camera. For this extra work I was promised $15,000 and as much stock in the wide film company as Mr. Waddell would receive.
Work was immediately started to develop equipment that would combine sound with the wide pictures. Mr. Elms, Sr. chose to build a camera in a small job shop of Stoeger & Company, 94 E. 10th Street, New York City, without design work or drawings and few tools to work with. This was started in September, 1927. Some sample pictures were made in February, 1928. The job was never practically completed and cost $3,505.17.
Oct. 7, 1927 The attached copy of memorandum written by Mr. Smith mentions that all Widescope charges are to be paid by Mr. Fox personally.
The following entry in this memo suggest that the name had been chosen and work was already progressing on what would become Grandeur:
Oct., 1927 The attached copy of memorandum from Mr. Smith to Mr. Wm. Fox gives the status of the Grandeur program and may be of interest.
As does this passage in a letter Sunrise director F.W. Murnau wrote to William Fox at the end of 1927, in which he “inquired about the possible use of the wide-screen 70mm process Fox was developing for use in a picture he was already planning to make in the coming summer. The tentative title was Our Daily Bread : “‘A story that will tell a tale about ‘WHEAT’ - about the ‘sacredness of ‘bread’- about the estrangement of the modern metropolitans from and their ignorance about - Nature’s sources of sustenance, the story adhering to the stage play The Mud Turtle. I believe that this theme would be a great starting vehicle for the Grandeur Film.’ ”.
Meanwhile, another development associated with the introduction of sound, and Fox’s specific involvement therein, also created a climate that was potentially receptive to the introduction of a new film format. While sound-on-disc systems retained the full aperture 1.33:1 silent frame, in his experiments, Lee De Forest had placed his optical track along its left side, inside the perforations. Case and Sponable had followed this approach when they developed their variable density system and, for the sake of compatibility, it became the unofficial standard for other developers of sound-on-film systems, such as RCA with its variable area Photophone track. The approximately 100 mil. devoted to the track shaved the existing picture aspect ratio to @1.15:1 , which appeared taller than square on the screen , especially in theaters with steep angles of projection, and necessitated two sets of aperture plates and adjustable masking for theaters which used both sound-on-film and sound-on-disc. . By early 1929 some first run theaters had their aperture plates for sound-on-film cut with reduced height to return to the 1.33:1 ratio and used shorter focal length lenses to project this image onto the same size screen used for sound-on-disc films, though this cut off heads and feet in full shots, and resulted in grainier and not-as-sharp pictures. (Until mid-1930, only Warner Bros.-First National distributed its films exclusively with sound-on-disc; other companies either varied between the two formats or released films both ways, as well as silent versions with title cards.)
Also, despite differing sound recording and playback systems, everybody had to pay license fees and royalties to AT&T for the amplification equipment. This further stimulated William Fox’s interest in developing a new format: to set some kind of new standard for the industry for which everyone would have to pay him royalties.
Although the media conglomerate that is the successor of the company he founded is now primarily known by his last name, William Fox himself is the forgotten man of film history as is much of the history of the company before it was merged with Darryl F. Zanuck and Joseph M. Schenck’s 20th Century Pictures in 1935. The latter is due in part to most of its silent films being lost and the surviving pre-merger films rarely being shown, but in the former instance because, after making a major contribution to the development of the industry, Fox appears to have kept a low profile until about 1926. Unlike Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner, he was uninterested in personal celebrity, once telling a publicity man, “This mug of mine will never sell any tickets, so just concentrate on getting the stars into magazines and newspapers and forget about me.” This is strange considering that in a business run by megalomaniacs, Fox was perhaps the biggest of them all, with a voracious appetite for power that would ultimately lead to his downfall. (Fox would occasionally appear in the company’s newsreels with dignitaries, also in a clip showing his golfing skill with an arm permanently crippled in a childhood accident.)
There appears to be no really objective image of William Fox like that of his contemporaries Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor. Allvine claims his interaction with Fox was mostly positive, but that’s the exception; neither Alexander Walker or Scott Eyman, writing about his involvement in the introduction of sound, could find any positive comments about him personally.
The most revealing portrait of the Fox of the late Twenties and early Thirties comes from Upton Sinclair in his introduction to his book on him. Sinclair had built his reputation on a series of muckraking books on small businessmen destroyed by big banks and Wall Street. In 1933, at a party in the home of a screenwriter friend, he was asked why he was wasting time writing books on men worth $150,000 being ruined when he could do one on a man worth $50,000,000 in a similar situation: William Fox. The very next day Sinclair got a call from Fox requesting an interview for such a book. When Sinclair didn’t seem interested, Fox showed up at his home the following day and poured out a tale of woe that changed his mind. Unfortunately Sinclair accepted Fox’s version of his then ongoing downfall without getting any counterbalancing comments from others.
Like Paramount’s Zukor and Universal’s Carl Laemmle, Fox was a poor Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe who prospered in the clothing business and invested his profits first in nickelodeons, then in his own exchange, The Greater New York Rental Company. When the Trust was formed and approached him about acquiring his exchange, he would have sold out if it had met his price. When it didn’t, he capitalized on President Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign against other big business trusts by bringing a series of lawsuits against it, which ultimately broke it apart.
In 1914, Fox went into production with a company first called Box Office Attractions, later the Fox Film Corporation. Initially working out of studios in New Jersey, in 1917 he began West Coast production at what had been the Selig Studio in Edendale near Mack Sennett’s, with operations put in the hands of his chief lieutenant Winfield “Winney” Sheehan, a refugee from the criminal activities of New York City’s Tammany Hall. The following year he bought a studio that had been built on both sides of the southern corner of Sunset and Western and had previously been owned by Thomas Dixon, author of the novel The Clansman that was the basis for D.W. Griffith’s The Birth Of A Nation (Epoch; 1915). . The main historical significance of the Fox Film Corporation for the next decade was its stars, Theda Bara and Tom Mix, and in giving impetus to the directing careers of Raoul Walsh and John Ford. He also began building first, a national, then an international theater chain. In the mid-Twenties Fox bought a plot of land southwest of Beverly Hills on which, after his purchase of the Theodore Case sound process, he would build the first studio specifically designed for making sound films.
According to plot synopses in various publications, notably the American Film Institute’s Catalogs for the Teens and Twenties and in filmographies in other publications, the bulk of the Fox films made between 1914 and 1925 were on a par with Universal’s: simplistic bucolics aimed at small towns, as opposed to the increasingly sophisticated urban oriented fare being done by Paramount and the two major rivals to it that emerged in the mid-Twenties, MGM and Warner Bros. (In 1921, theater magnate Marcus Loew had purchased the struggling Metro Film Company and when its fortunes hadn’t improved by 1924, had negotiated a merger with the equally struggling Goldwyn Pictures and brought in efficient independent producer Louis B. Mayer to run the new combine. The result was the first company to successfully challenge Zukor’s supremacy, followed very closely by the upstart Warners, who’d gotten involved in exhibition in the nickelodeon days, distribution in 1914, and serious production in 1918.)
According to early film historian Benjamin B. Hampton, Fox became aware of a drop-off in the popularity of his company’s films in the early Twenties , and 20th Century-Fox historian Aubrey Solomon documents his initial efforts to redress the situation. Scott Eyman dates those efforts to 1926. Earlier, he had begun expanding his theater holdings, especially in major cities, including what would become his flagship, New York’s Roxy, and announced that for the new season starting that September, “Fox takes another great step forward through the production of the world’s best plays and popular novels of high screen value.” In addition to the statements Fox made to Sinclair, Eyman states that the appeal of sound for him also stemmed from an interest in gimmicks that would attract more people to the boxoffice; his interest in Grandeur would have been in the same vein, but was also stimulated by press reports of early attempts at television.
Like Warners, Fox had used his Movietone system to add music and sound effects to silent features, but he’d also made sound shorts and started a newsreel, which had had the good fortune of filming, and recording, Lindbergh’s take-off, and triumphal parade in New York. However, Fox appears to have been as blind to the prospects of “talking” features as Warners. Dialog sequences did not begin appearing in Fox films until late summer, 1928, and then only sporadically for the rest of the year, supposedly because they were continually improving their recording techniques, while Warners and other studios were putting dialogue scenes in practically everything they were releasing. But Fox’s first all-talking feature was a major breakthrough for sound films: In Old Arizona, shot primarily on location using a Movietone newsreel sound truck, and released at the end of the year.
Curiously, contrary to the accounts by Eyman, Walker, and other historians, the trade papers of the time, Film Daily, and Variety and Exhibitors Herald World, which were weeklies, were quite blasé about the advancing sound revolution. Film Daily’s review of The Jazz Singer not only does not mention any use of dialog in the film, but has no account of the first night audience reaction described by sound historians. They appear to have not taken sound seriously until mid-1928, when, after an increasing number of features with synchronized sound effects, music, and dialog sequences of increasingly greater length, there came the first “all-talking” feature, Warners’ Lights Of New York. After that, the sound vs. silent debate would continue through 1930, when Fox Film Corp. declared it would make no more silents and the other studios soon followed suit, though as late as 1931, small town exhibitors were still hoping silents would come back, according to letters from them printed in Exhibitors Herald World.
Naturally there was no mention of any of the Wide Film experiments going on at that time. Fortunately we have the Sponable memo for an idea of what was happening at Fox:
Jan.23, 1928 Realizing that the results with the Elms type camera would likely be impractical I started a regular news camera for Grandeur film, at the shop of the J.M. Wall Company. This was completed on February 6, 1929 and cost $7,000.
Feb. 1, 1928 The Mitchell Camera Corporation was also requested to build a camera of standard Mitchell design, but adapted to use with Grandeur film. This camera was delivered August 6, 1928 and cost $12,040. The results of pictures made with this camera were satisfactory.
Oct. 14, 1928 The second oscillating lens camera [WideScope] was started at the. J.M. Wall Machine Company under the direction of Chas. D. Elms, Jr. Work on this was carried on until August 8, 1929, and project abandoned. Cost over $8,000.
November 1928 Mr. Fairbank came to the Fox Case Corporation and advised he was in position to promote a sale of the Mitchell Camera Corporation.
Dec. 5, 1928 Grandeur equipment was transferred to the West Coast studios for the purpose of tests preliminary to making a feature picture.
Dec. 7, 1928 Letter from W.G. Fairbank indicates E. I. Sponable leaving for Los Angeles to look over the Mitchell Camera Corporation in connection with the Fox deal.
Dec. 23, l928 Three Grandeur Mitchell cameras were ordered like first sample delivered at a price of $1,500 each.
Jan. 14, 1929 Letter from Harley L. Clarke to Courtland Smith containing notes referring to formation corporation to market and exploit WideScope projector.
Some of the tests mentioned may have been done on the set of Hearts In Dixie; Kann, a columnist for Film Daily, refers to it as having been shot in Grandeur on January 16, 1929, but this is unlikely given the already dubious commercial potential for an all black cast film; the 35mm version was released about a month later and there was no mention of Grandeur in association with it.
Also, there is no information on what Fox did with WideScope beyond the above descriptions of the process as it existed before they licensed it, and, as noted, experimentation was ultimately abandoned in August, 1929 when demonstrations of the other two processes in development gave Fox confidence that Grandeur was superior to them all.
The effects of sound on Wide Film Developments
|In the 1929 press release issued with the first demonstration of Paramount’s wide film process, it was claimed that Lorenzo Del Riccio had been put to work on developing the new process by Adolph Zukor “right after” the launching of Magnascope. He was to eliminate the obvious flaws in the technique with consideration of the balcony overhang problem and with minimal changes in existing sound and projection equipment. The mandate for “no changes in sound equipment” is unlikely if Del Riccio had actually begun his work early in 1927. No more information has been found on Del Riccio’s work between then and the official unveiling of his results.|
As noted with the Aug. 13, 1927 entry regarding WideScope, and given Earl Sponable’s background and William Fox’s involvement with sound and hopes for Grandeur, sound, especially sound-on-film, had naturally been part of that process’ initial design as well. Though all the studios but Fox, Warners/First National, and RKO initially experimented with both film and disc systems and, except for Warners/First National, made their films available in both formats through 1930 , only that studio and Educational Pictures, which made comedy shorts, were adamantly for sound-on-disc. A provision for a 100 mil. optical track like that on 35mm film was made for Magnafilm. It was apparently the Movietone/Western Electric variable density type, as that was the sound-on-film format licensed by Paramount.
At some point in 1928 Spoor and Berggren decided improvements in their process were far enough along to consider adding sound to it. It’s not clear why they chose to approach RCA for this purpose beyond the fact that its system was cheaper than either Movietone or Vitaphone.
The previous year, radio pioneer David Sarnoff, seeing a potential new market in sound films, had his engineers develop their own sound-on-film process, which they called “Photophone.” To promote his system, Sarnoff bought the small FBO Pictures company then owned by Joseph P. Kennedy and the Keith-Orpheum Theater chain and merged them into a new company called RKO (Radio-Keith-Orpheum) Radio Pictures (or Radio Pictures as it was known until 1937). Unfortunately, he was unsuccessful in selling the process to the other majors, and for the next decade low budget independent companies would be RCA’s primary other customers.
For some reason, RCA chose not to put a track on the Spoor-Berggren film itself, but to use a double system format, essentially a film equivalent of Vitaphone, in which an RCA optical sound head was attached to the side of the projection head, both driven by the same motor.
Wide Film Officially Goes Public
|Although rumors about Wide Film developments began appearing at the beginning on 1929, as noted with the item in Film Daily’s Kann’s column from that time, apparently the first acknowledgement of it was in the April, 1929 issue of International Photographer, a publication of the Hollywood camera local which had just elevated itself from a homey newsletter for members to a serious technical periodical. It was an article entitled “70mm Film Versus Other Sizes” by George A. Mitchell of Mitchell Camera and extolled the virtues of the Grandeur camera his company had built for Fox versus the other then rumored sizes and included photographs of the prototype camera and its being used for tests at Fox’s New York Movietone studios. Mitchell claimed that the camera was the basic Mitchell body with wider sprockets and aperture plates .|
Finally, on May 24, 1929 a private demonstration of the improved Spoor-Berggren process was given at the Gramercy Studios of RCA Photophone in New York. Called a new system of “natural vision” photography, an Associated Press release claimed it represented ten years of research and laboratory development to overcome the limitations of the “present-day” screen and to “project pictures of characters and scenes with lifelike size, detail and perspective on a vast panoramic screen.” First, a scene from the first act of the currently playing Broadway musical Lady Fingers was shown in standard 35mm.
“It seemed like a postage stamp on the vast area of the new screen employed for the projection of the Spoor-Berggren film.” Immediately following this, the identical scene photographed on the wider film was flashed across the 30 x 52 ft. screen from a 144 ft throw:
“The line of a musical comedy chorus, dancing and singing in rhythm across a stage that extended the entire width of the studio, was caught in its entirety by the camera and projected upon the screen. With the vast screen reaching from the floor to the vaulted roof of the RCA Photophone studio, it seemed as if the whole musical comedy chorus were walking in among the audience of motion picture producers, engineers and newspaper men gathered to view the demonstration.”
This was followed by a shot of Niagara Falls:
“So perfect is the focus attained by the camera…that details in the picture as far as five miles away from the camera lens, stood out as sharply as the figures in the immediate foreground.”
At this time it was specifically stated that the system used two lenses side-by-side “resembling two ‘eyes’,” whose images are combined and transferred to the film through a “duplex lens system.”
“In explaining the relation of the lens system to the eye, it was stated that the double perspective or image action of the eye was eliminated, retaining only the double angle shadow effect which in normal vision gives objects their three-dimensional characteristics. The human eye normally represses double perspective, except in cases where intoxication or a similar condition paralyzes automatic control of the optical system, causing the eye to see two images. In this respect, again, the new camera duplicates the human eye, except that it continually corrects for the double image photographing only the double-angle shadow.
By means of this double-angle shadow, motion pictures that are flat and two-dimensional, will simulate three-dimensional objects with all the warmth of light and dark shading which gives depth and space in normal vision. The contours, flat areas, vistas, and panoramas in the range of the Spoor-Berggren camera ‘eyes’ will be recorded on film as they are; delicately shaded in curvature, or reaching back in straight lines of true perspective; in other words, modeled…in their true physical and optical proportions as the eye seems them with normal vision.”
This grandiose statement may have been the source of subsequent claims that it was a 3-D process, a claim made for all the Wide Film processes demonstrated at the time, but Spoor officially denied that in a later interview .
East coast production of a short entitled Campus Sweethearts was announced as the first Spoor-Berggren production , actual production unconfirmed.
In late June, 1929, Weekly Variety ran its first article on the subject, mentioning the Spoor-Berggren screening, Fox’s plans to show tests of Grandeur within the month, and that Paramount had made a short in its Magnafilm process at its New York Astoria studios.
On July 18, 1929 Paramount gave a private demonstration of 56mm Magnafilm, so named to capitalize on Magnascope, at New York’s Rivoli Theater with test shots and the specially shot four reel comedy You’re In The Army Now. While Film Daily and Exhibitor Herald World’s comments were favorable, other reviews were more critical about the brightness falloff and lack of sharpness of the image especially at the edges, no doubt due to the use of lenses not designed to cover the wider frame in both original photography and projection. Paramount ultimately decided not to exhibit the process publicly and assigned Del Riccio to do further research on Wide Film. (The Associated Press release that claimed Zukor, like George K. Spoor, had noticed as far back as 1914 that theaters were increasing in size but screens weren’t also claimed he had then inaugurated wide screen/film experiments with Edwin S. Porter that were lost in a laboratory fire the following year. )
The negative comments about Magnafilm were probably good news to William Fox at a time when he needed cheering up. 1929 had started off propitiously for him, with the success of the first all talkie shot primarily out-of-doors, In Old Arizona. This was followed few months later by his biggest corporate coup, securing ownership of a major rival.
Two years earlier, Marcus Loew, founder of Loew’s Theaters and initiator of the merger between his Metro Pictures and Goldwyn Pictures, had died. With financial arrangements too complicated to go into here , Fox managed to buy not only the Loew family’s stock, but that of now company president Nicholas Schenck, thus making him owner not only of the Fox Film Corporation and Fox Theaters but also Loews Theaters and MGM! But a nearly fatal auto accident that summer would sideline him, and the slow recovery would hinder his efforts to fight off opposition to the deal initiated by Louis B. Mayer, who had important connections in Washington. This situation would be acerbated by the October stock market crash.
At this point however, Fox’s machinations were not impacting the fortunes of his company and he took the bold step of launching Grandeur publicly at New York’s Gaiety Theater on Sept. 17, 1929. The program included not just the usual test subjects, which, like all the Wide Film demonstrations of 1929 included shots of Niagara Falls, but also a special Grandeur version of Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 that had been shot concurrently with the 35mm version released the previous April. Press and public reaction was enthusiastic. H.F. Jermain, who monitored the program during its two week run noted in a memo to E.I. Sponable that “the [first night] audience was very critical and there was no doubt that they were there to study Grandeur as a scientific achievement. Practically all of the shots of Niagara as well as the numbers in the newsreel were applauded.” Of later audiences, he wrote: “The audience on this occasion also was quite critical and they were there principally to observe the advantages of Grandeur. Niagara and the newsreel received considerable applause.” (Sept. 18), “Both the afternoon and evening shows were run off smoothly to a full house. At the evening show every available seat was sold and everyone seemed to be pleased with the showing.” (Sept. 21), and “The audience seemed to be more like the standard moving picture audience and were there to appreciate the picture rather than the means of obtaining it.” (Sept. 24) .
According to Richardson and some other contemporary sources, the filming speed was 20 frames per second, like that of Spoor-Berggren . Again, this was likely done to conform to the sound standard of 90 feet per minute. Unfortunately none of the early Grandeur films have survived for confirmation of this. Another interesting idea tried at the time was to match the size of the picture with a kind of pseudo-stereophonic sound achieved by playing the monaural track through different speakers placed around the auditorium. According to Jermain, however:
“A switching device was introduced to switch the tone from one horn to the other so that the person monitoring might make this changeover quickly to give a binaural effect. It was decided that the feature was not readily adaptable to this sort of manipulation and the switching device was taken out.”
Reportedly this was also attempted a year later with the showing of the Grandeur version of The Big Trail at Grauman’s Chinese in Hollywood, the use of the additional speakers being cued by notches along the edges of the print, a technique Warner Bros. would revive in 1940 for its “VitaSonic” sound.
As with the Spoor-Berggren and Magnafilm demonstrations, commentators described Grandeur as being “stereoscopic” . To those around during the 3-D boom of 1953 and times since, this term means true binocular stereography, but few examples of motion pictures in the process had been seen by the late Twenties, so the constant application of the term, which would be applied through to the last of the Wide Film presentations at the end of 1930, is curious. Press reports from the Chicago premiere of the Spoor-Berggren Danger Lights (RKO; 1930) claimed for example:
“Chicago to see for the first time pictures that show not alone height and width, but also depth...”
“By this process the performers seem as if about to step from the screen to greet the audience... the figures take on depth and become life-like... as if they stepped from the screen to meet you.”
Of course Spoor denied his process was truly stereoscopic, as did the Fox engineers, who officially stated “Grandeur achieves a stereoscopic effect by the size of the screen, not by a bifocal or stereoscopic camera as with Spoor-Berggren.” John J. Finn of The Motion Picture Projectionist had this comment on the issue:
“This writer has witnessed showings of all three systems now available-Spoor.Berggren (RCA), Magnaf'ilm (Paramount), and Grandeur-but he failed to see in any one of these anything even approaching a stereoscopic effect. As previously stated in these columns, the mere illusion of depth which is conveyed by all wide film does not lend a stereoscopic effect. Wide film does offer the opportunity for panoramic background and marvelous detail of objects far distant from the camera, but these advantages must not be construed as stereoscopy. ”
Aside from the sharper and less grainy images stemming from the larger contact prints from larger negatives being projected by longer, more efficient lenses, one possible reason for this perception stems from the spatial distortion caused by the exaggerated bending of light rays at the outer edges of images photographed on the wider film with lenses of a 50mm focal length or shorter, an effect apparently not noticed in the square frame, but definitely so in the wider frame, especially in panning shots.
Fox’s gamble with publicly, rather than privately, demonstrating Grandeur paid off in the most positive response of the three formats shown, though with one exception, the other studios kept their interest private. The success of Grandeur did lead RKO to grab the rights to the Spoor-Berggren process and announce it would be used on their upcoming big budget musical Dixiana .
The Fox Film Corporation was the only company to constantly promote its wide film production activities. In November, 1929, Sponable was sent to Hollywood to see to the ordering of fifty additional Grandeur cameras beyond their initial ten from Mitchell Camera; additional cameras were also ordered from the Wall Camera Company. . (Bell & Howell may have also made an experimental 70mm camera for Sponable, such a camera in the style of 35mm Bell & Howell cameras of the time, but with no manufacturer markings, was discovered recently; it had come from Sponable’s collection.) Some of the other Grandeur cameras were to go to the special Grandeur newsreel units Sponable was setting up. How much 70mm newsreel footage was actually shot, beyond the few pieces that have been found and preserved, by Karl Malkames, is unknown.
Fox’s first official Grandeur feature, Happy Days, another all-star revue musical, was put into production in October, 1929. They later announced that The Fox Movietone Follies of 1930, a film starring Irish tenor John McCormick, and the Will Rogers film So This Is London would be shot in Grandeur ; only the McCormack film, Song O’ My Heart, directed by Frank Borzage, was shot in Grandeur, but for reasons not yet uncovered, that version was never released. Then, Fox production head Winfield Sheehan announced that all future Fox films would be available in three versions: sound, silent, and Grandeur .
Unfortunately, there is little reliable documentation of the other studios’ Wide Film activities over the next year; there is nothing in the Warner Bros. files archived at the University of Southern California on its Wide Film Vitascope system, for example. We are therefore forced to use dubiously reliable press releases that appeared in the trade papers Exhibitors Herald World, Film Daily, and Variety.
Oct. 29, 1929 occurred during this period, though the industry wasn’t immediately impacted by the problems with the stock market. Several theater chains put wider screens in their flagship houses in major cities: Fox in Washington, Detroit, St. Louis, and Atlanta, Loew’s screens called Trans-Tone in seven of its theaters, Warner Bros. in 35 of theirs ; with the exception of the Spoor-Berggren version of Danger Lights (RKO; 1930), it’s unclear if any of the wide film versions of subsequent films were ever shown outside New York or Los Angeles. Paramount also put wider screens into many of its Publix Theaters where they were used for the Magnascope presentation of selected newsreel subjects and lighting effects augmenting the standard picture. “The Mirror-A Column of Opinion” in Film Daily offered this opinion:
“Four major chains are equipping for wide-screen pictures. Exhibitors should not interpret this as an indication that wide pictures will panic the industry before it regains its breath after the sound avalanche. So far only a few are definitely set for wide film projection and these are largely experimental in objective. A general diet of enlarged-vision pictures is still a long distance off.”
The Wide Film versions were initially to be limited to those major cities first run palaces with regular 35mm versions to be shot concurrently for subsequent runs.
It’s not clear if any of these initial Wide Film presentations beyond Grandeur were seen in Hollywood, but word-of-mouth on them were causing flurries of controversy at meetings of the Society Of Motion Picture Engineers and in technically oriented publications like the American Cinematographer and International Photographer. W.D. Rayton of the Bausch & Lomb lens manufacturing company felt that “the larger frame was needed to accommodate the ‘reality’ of sound, reducing the height was better than having extraneous space over actor’s heads, and reducing the height of the 35mm image and blowing the result up onto a larger screen yields technically inferior results.” He also mentioned the possible use of anamorphic lenses to achieve a wider image, the earliest reference to consideration of this option.
Fox Film claimed that it had chosen 70mm for Grandeur because it was exactly twice the width of 35 mm film and meant no wastage of stock for film manufacturers. Opposing voices claimed that the camera and projector transport systems could not maintain tension over stock of that width; 60rnm was the maximum width possible. The SMPE lobbied for 50mm as involving the minimum alteration of existing cameras and projectors and a return to the 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Fred Westerberg, ASC proposed a system using a 47mm negative with a 1.68:1 aspect ratio printed onto a 51mm positive whose optical sound track would be printed outside the perforations. (This was a frequently proposed idea to correct the aspect ratio problem for regular 35mm sound-on-film that was ruled impractical because of both transport difficulties and potential damage to the track.) Except for Spoor-Berggren, the other processes were @2:1. Like Westerberg, many critics felt this was too wide; 1.75:1 or 1.66:1 were considered preferable. Though the opinions of cinematographers were not canvassed, art directors favored the wider frame as it meant they did not have to build sets as high, and production managers favored it because it was felt the larger, clearer images would eliminate the need for closeups and the additional time to shoot them.
Filoteo Alberini, who had developed Panoramico, and an Englishman named George Hill promoted a process involving 35mm film photographed horizontally with a frame 10 perforations wide, stemming from a US patent, 1,680,498-“Panoramic Moving Picture Apparatus” filed on July 18, 1924 and granted August 14, 1928, issued to a Corrado Cerqua but assigned to Alberini. A similar technique was proposed by Captain Ralph G. Fear, president of the Cinema Equipment Company, a cameraman, and early equipment manufacturer (the Fearless Dolly) (See Appendix). Though he claimed to have applied for patents for every aspect of his process, Fear’s version apparently never went beyond the schematic stage, though the idea continued to be experimented with by others over the next twenty five years. Fear, who would also become the SMPE’s chief correspondent on wide film developments, then announced that he was working on a controversial viable alternative to Grandeur, a camera that could photograph 35mm, 65mm, or 70mm.
Then the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America got involved. This organization had been formed in 1922 by a coalition of all the studios primarily to fight censorship but it was also a lobbying body whose goal was to prevent government regulation of the industry. Already the vertically integrated companies were being challenged by independent exhibitors who felt they were being treated unfairly in getting access to high profile films from the majors, challenges that would ultimately lead to the Divorce Decree in 1948. Some independent producers would also challenge the major companies’ control of first run houses in major cities, as Howard Hughes later considered doing in the contretemps over The Outlaw (1941). In issues like this, where the various studios spoke as one voice, it came from MPPDA head Will H. Hays, but it’s extremely unlikely that strong entities like Fox, Laemmle, Mayer, or Zukor would suborn themselves to Hays or his successors in internecine industry affairs. Indeed, an overview of MPPDA/industry relations over the years reflects that various executives felt free to ignore MPPDA edicts as long as it would not cause outside political problems.
For example, early in 1928, though the MPPDA attempted to put a brake on the encroachment of sound, Fox and Warners continued to wire theaters, make sound shorts and newsreels, and Warners added increasingly longer talking sequences to their features until finally doing an all-talkie. The success of these “goat-glandings”, as they were colloquialized at the time, led the other studios to quickly follow suit. There was no objection from exhibitors because the public clearly wanted sound, but Wide Film was another matter, especially since only one example had been shown publicly, and that apparently in only one city (it’s unclear if the Grandeur version of Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 was publicly shown in Los Angeles).
Late in 1929 the MPPDA announced that there would be no change in film formats until all companies changed to a mutually agreed upon one, though they did not preclude various companies continuing to experiment on their own. The Fox Film Corporation continued its development of Grandeur.
1930-The crucial year for Wide Film
|Contrary to the condensed version of history normally presented, the Depression did not descend on the world on Oct. 30, 1929, but gradually affected its economies over the next year. One of the industries not immediately impacted was entertainment, particularly motion pictures and then burgeoning radio. As the trade papers were pointing out by Nov. 1, 1929, most entertainment industry stocks had already rebounded. Only William Fox, whose troubles had begun before Oct. 29, was seriously affected. Thus, the film industry continued on with business as usual, including curiosity about Wide Film, which Fox was continuing to push. The other studios did not want to play catch-up again, as they’d had to do with sound.|
It’s possible that they also didn’t want to be in a position to pay royalties to Fox, which may be the reason there was greater interest in a 65mm format already being worked on by Paramount, versus Fox’s 70mm. What difference 5 silly millimeters would make seems strange today , but at a New York Section meeting of the SMPE in Dec., 1930, Norbert M. La Porte of Paramount-Publix Corp. gave this rationale for their 65mm format: that by raising the height of the 35mm frame 1 perf, it allowed for a 2:1 aspect ratio and a wide sound track on wider stock that could fit into the bodies of existing cameras and projectors ; interestingly this claim about fitting into existing cameras and projectors was made for almost all the widths proposed at this time. Because no illustrations of this format were published, it is not known how it compared with other proposed 65mm formats, such as Capt. Ralph Fear’s, the subject of the following argument in favor of 65mm:
“The fact that one of the largest producing companies in the industry is using this camera at this width indicates that there must be a lot of merit attached. Also the fact that several other large companies while not publicly announcing their plans are known to have decided upon the use of 65 millimeter width film would indicate that the final decision as to a new standard lies practically between the 65 millimeter and the 70 millimeter widths. Mr. Fear declares the 65 millimeter width is ‘the ideal width for perfect picture reproduction’
As in the case of the Grandeur film, the 65 millimeter width gives the great advantage of a wider sound track, which naturally, makes for better tone quality and greater volume range in recording. Then, too, in the matter of the ‘frame,’ the 65 millimeter has advantages over the 35 millimeter standard that has been breaking the hearts of the cameramen for months. The ‘frame’ of the 65 millimeter width is 22 mm. x 45 mm. , and those who are advocating 65 mm. width to be the ideal frame size for perfect reproduction on the screen. The same claim to stereoscopic depth that is visible in the Grandeur is claimed by Fear and other advocates of the 65 mm. width. Fear also claims that the 65 mm. film is of such size that the lens covers the entire field, which is one of the problems in the use of the 70 millimeter width.”
Earlier, George A. Mitchell had had this interesting comment about Grandeur’s lens:
“Our [camera] lenses won’t permit [the projection of proscenium filling images] with adequate sharpness at the margins at the present time.... Put your principal action in the center and let the margins go fuzzy. (We will have better lenses some day.) Better to fade off fuzzy than to have a black border.”
There is also the matter of color, which would seem to be a necessity for a truly lifelike wide screen image. While Spoor-Bergrren’s Niagara Falls footage had been hand tinted, all the other Wide Film presentations were in black-and-white. Unfortunately, true three color motion picture photography was impractical at this time, though, as noted earlier, adding tints and tones to release prints and sequences shot with two color photographic techniques were increasingly popular during the Twenties. Technicolor’s development of its imbibition process, which eliminated the projection problems that plagued its earlier films, especially The Black Pirate (United Artists; 1926), increased its attractiveness over other two color processes being promoted at the time, and led to a short lived explosion of partial or all color films, especially by First National and Warner Bros.
In January, 1930, Fox announced that it was working on its own color process, Fox Nature Color and that a Grandeur version would be done, possibly for use on an upcoming all Grandeur production, The Oregon Trail . This was a two color process which exposed two frames at a time on the same negative like Technicolor’s two color process, using a split lens rather than a behind the lens beamsplitter, and it has been confirmed that at least one Grandeur camera was modified for this process though nothing is known about any test footage from it. (Projection was apparently to be done via a reversing of the process: through a split lens with proper filters and a prism superimposing the images on the screen; problems with this technique, similar to those Technicolor had encountered with its initial similar approach, as well as Fox’s increasing financial problems, probably led to its abandonment,. )
RKO announced that its upcoming musical Dixiana would be shot in Spoor-Berggren and Technicolor and Technicolor’s Herbert T. Kalmus later stated that Technicolor’s cameras could be adapted to any wide film format .; had some company taken him up on this, wide film dye transfer printers might have been built which would have been an asset to the company in the Fifties and Sixties. Colorcraft, a New York laboratory, feeling that 65mm would be the format ultimately adopted, announced it was putting in processing and printing equipment for that film size ; nothing more is known about Colorcraft and its color process but given the proprietary patents on their processes held by Technicolor and Fox, the assumption is that it was some variation on the twin film bipack technique used earlier by Prizma Color, and then being reworked by Multicolor, which, after being taken over by Howard Hughes later in 1930, announced it could also do wide film, if requested.
The SMPE set up a committee to study Wide Film standardization. Its members included Earl Sponable, fellow sound pioneer Lee De Forest, Technicolor’s L.T. Troland, and camera designers Andre De Brie and J.A. Dubray, who jointly voiced objections to the square frame in a Transactions of the SMPE paper reprinted in Film Daily.
Fox’s first official Grandeur production, Happy Days, opened in mid-February, 1930 in New York and a couple of weeks later in Los Angeles. It was not only a musical, a type of film that had become popular in 1929, but one of the last of the Ziegfeld Follies-type revues the studios were doing, in which contract players were seen in musical numbers or comedy sketches. The Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (and its 1930 successor), MGM’s Hollywood Review of 1929, Warners’ The Show of Shows, Universal’s The King of Jazz, and Paramount on Parade had all been part of this particular offshoot, Happy Days standing out also because it had a framing plot based around a Mississippi River showboat singer’s attempts to succeed in New York. Film Daily’s “The Mirror’ columnist commented:
“…[Grandeur presented] a more real perspective, some illusion of depth [italics author’s], modulation in voices, spectacular effects, unusual camera angles and less shifting of scenes [apparently fewer cuts]…these are the main advantages of the wide screen…. The 42 ft width may be found to be a little too much for the eye to grasp without discomfiting effort, but the advantage of a reasonably wider screen is established beyond question.
Grandeur doesn’t help the perspective of the patrons who are front row but the gang in the balcony gets a swell break.”
Variety’s reviewer Push. had these comments about the presentation at the Roxy:
“The wide angle justifies itself at the getaway. Here it is used for effects that would not be possible in any other way. Three-quarters of the footage is devoted to scenes of spectacular stage ensembles that are eye-openers in screen pageantry, numbers involving masses of people and bigness of backgrounds…
There is, for instance, a whole minstrel first part, with four tiers of people in the ensemble, numbering a total of 86 and all of them screened in proportions that give them individuality.
One minor flaw in the enlarged image technique is that fast action in close-ups – such as fast eccentric dancing – is inclined to flutter or flicker.
The house is not spreading the screen entirely across the [proscenium] opening but allowed it two-thirds of the stage width.
The new sized screen and its spasmodic spectacle flashes had the audience talking it over throughout the picture and the general impression is that all class A & B houses will have to go to the big screen sooner or later. That’s surefire when the boys turn loose color in conjunction with the big film which, incidentally, isn’t so far away.”
The Grandeur version of Happy Days apparently was apparently very successful in its New York and Los Angeles engagements , the only two cities in which it is known to have played . This was apparently sufficient encouragement for other companies to continue their experimentation in Wide Film, though with little public fanfare. Unfortunately, for the most part we are forced to rely on often conflicting and frequently technically confusing trade paper items for what happened with Wide Film in 1930, items whose number would diminish as the year went on.
The biggest blow to Wide Film development was the loss of its major proponent, William Fox, who lost control of his company in March, 1930. His successor, Harley L. Clarke, slowed Wide Film development, countering the “Grandeur-ous” announcements made earlier in the year , only The Big Trail being given the go-ahead.
In February, RKO announced that Dixiana was being postponed due to changes in the Spoor-Berggren camera, which may have included losing the dual camera lens; the version of the camera used to film Danger Lights (RKO; 1930) had only one lens, according to the memory of Linwood Dunn, ASC, who worked on it. (Dixiana would be shot in standard 35mm with sequences in two-color Technicolor. ) Later, they stated the reason for canceling the Wide Film version was that characters in Wide Film tests seemed to race across the screen too fast. This was probably due to the 20 fps filming and projection rate, which, because of the larger frame, left an even greater frame-to-frame gap between photographed movements, especially when projected onto larger screens.
It should be noted that Dickson had chosen a rate of 40 fps, which results in surviving Kinetoscope films appearing to be in slow motion when projected at 24 fps, but the Lumieres, apparently to conserve film, settled on 16 fps as the minimal acceptable rate for motion picture photography. Since there was no precedence for the presentation of photographic recordings of motion, there was no problem in getting the public to accept this, especially when viewed on the relatively small screens being used in projection situations over the first decade and a half of motion picture exhibition, and making it an unofficial standard for the next thirty years. As noted, 24 fps was chosen for sound because it was a rough average of the speeds at which silent films were actually being photographed and projected in 1925, and by 1930, people were used to the “smoother” movements stemming from the higher frame rate, though for another five years or so, studios would continue to shoot non-sync sound material at 18-22 fps ; action sequences would continue to be shot at those speeds into the Sixties, when, unless a slower filming rate was used to create the illusion of faster subject speed, “overcranking” action was standardized at 22 fps.
Although the above Variety review has the only reference to filming speed problems in commentaries and reviews of either the 1929 Spoor-Berggren tests or the Grandeur presentations, this may be the reason why Grandeur also upped its filming speed from 20 to 24 fps.
There may have been another reason for Grandeur’s change. One of the few other clients Mitchell Camera got for its 70mm cameras was MGM, which decided to take its own approach to Wide Film: shoot a 70mm Grandeur negative which would be reduction printed to a 35mm print at a 1.75:1 aspect ratio for projection on larger, wider screens with short focal length lenses; the sound being on disc so the full width of the imagining area could be used. A photograph of a 70mm to 35mm reduction printer was shown in the Feb. 1931 issue of the Journal of the SMPE. Exactly who came up with this idea has never been documented, but it ultimately could have been Louis B. Mayer’s final riposte to William Fox, who’d had to divest himself of his Loew’s/ MGM stock in his efforts to maintain ownership of his own company.
Reduction printing went back at least to the dawn of the 20th Century when prints from 1.33:1 frames on larger negatives like Biograph’s were made on 35mm stock. According to an American Cinematographer article on the Kodascope Library of professional films sold to the home market in the mid-Twenties, the 16mm reduction prints were made from specially prepared 35mm dupe negatives, but the specific method used was not described in the article .
Primitive optical printers had been developed by 1930, basically cameras, usually Bell & Howell 2709s, focused on a projection head with a diffused light source behind it, a common shaft guaranteeing both camera and projector shutters would be open at the same time. Such devices were necessary for composite work in the Frank Williams traveling matte process, among other uses. But release printing by this method would have been a slow and cumbersome process if a large number of prints were needed, though Technicolor and other laboratories would make 70mm prints by this method in the Fifties through Eighties. It’s possible that MGM planned to show its Realife versions, as they called their process, in only a few cities.
It was about this time that Capt. Ralph G. Fear introduced his 65-35 camera and announced a major studio was doing a film in it. This was the only other Wide Film camera to be extensively documented at the time (information on 65mm projectors is not as extensive) and has implications 25 years later. Its specifications can be found in the appendix.
The Fearless 65mm frame was five perforations high as opposed to Grandeur’s four or Spoor-Berggren’s six, but since no frame samples specifically identified as being shot with a 65mm Fearless camera were published then or have otherwise been uncovered, no definite dimensions can be given. Indeed there is no definite proof of any 65mm film being shot with the Fear Superfilm camera in 1930.
However, the Fear Superfilm camera does figure into one of the biggest unsolved mysteries of the 1930 Wide Film boom. Director Roland West decided to do a sound remake of his silent film The Bat (United Artists; 1926) in both 35mm and a Wide Film process he called Magnifilm . In a release prepared for the pressbook of the Wide Film version, West gives this rationale for his decision:
“Larger theatres are being built. They require larger screens because we have reached the last magnitude of the old 35mm. film. If theatres enlarge the narrow film it loses its sharpness. The new 65mm. film on a huge screen gives" full detail. It also enhances the stereoscopic effect só that there is no distortion of the players to patrons sitting at the extreme side of a theatre.”
West himself bought the 65mm camera used and an Ernemann projector to view dailies on a specially set up stage on the United Artists (later Goldwyn, now The Lot lot). It has always been speculated, most notably by Michael H. Price and George E. Turner in an American Cinematographer article on The Bat Whispers, that the camera was a Fear Superfilm. However, after the publication of that article, Turner, then editor of the Cinematographer, was contacted by Stanley Cortez, ASC., who had been the assistant cameraman on the 65mm version, who told him that the camera had come in a case from George K. Spoor in Chicago! Since RKO had announced that the Spoor-Berggren process was being changed from 63.5mm to 65mm to conform with the other studios, this has led to speculation that a modified Spoor-Berggren camera was used, though published frame blowups from the Wide Film version of the later Danger Lights have measured out to 63.5mm. This has led to the conclusion that the camera West purchased was a Fear camera that had been sent to Spoor as a guide for modifying his process. More recently, it has been learned that Mitchell had done at least one previously unacknowledged 65mm modification of a Grandeur camera, which also might have been used for The Bat Whispers.
Coles claims, without attribution, that Paramount was considering re-filming the silent Light of the Western Stars in 65mm and Warner Bros. were planning to film Life of the Party in a 65mm process they were calling Magnaframe, though there is no evidence that either did. Pathe, Universal, and the recent formed minor Sono Art World Wide were all reported to be experimenting with wide film; Universal supposedly starting, then abandoning The King of Jazz on wide film, gauge unknown . In a later interview, Universal’s Carl Laemmle stated the studio was experimenting with Wide Film, but no further details were given.
Some companies apparently felt shorts were a better, and less expensive, testing ground for public acceptance of Wide Film than full features. Warners is known to have filmed at least one short, The Larry Ceballos Revue, in 65mm. Toward the end of 1930 Paramount announced plans to film shorts in its revised 65mm Magnafilm process , but apparently never did. And Universal supposedly did a short, We! We! Marie!, in 65mm , possibly with a Fear Superfilm camera. This film was copyrighted in October 1930, but that may have been for the 35mm version; there is no other record or mention of a wide film version .
As testimony to the film industry’s initial resistance to the economic problems overtaking the country, there was also experimentation and press releases from some of the smaller companies of the time. Sono Art-World Wide, one of the instant “minors” that managed to get corporate financing in the early sound days announced it was working with a 56mm format called “Natural Vision” , which would work on standard projectors by merely replacing the 35mm picture head with one for 56mm; no mention was made of the sound process being used. It was subsequently revealed that this process had been developed by Robert Greathouse and its chief cinematographer was Billy Bitzer, suggesting that it was really the version of Widescope exhibited in 1926 under the name Natural Vision Pictures, but with 56mm contact prints from the original negative, rather than being optically divided and printed onto two 35mm prints for use in two interlocked projectors. No more was heard about this process beyond these initial announcements though the name “Natural Vision” would reappear at the end of the year.
The name “Widescope” also reappeared at this time, as “Gloria Widescope”, this version reportedly developed over a ten year period by Englishman Edwin Clark. It was demonstrated using a 36 x 24 ft. screen, and was called “the best wide screen presentation to date. ”. No details on the process have been found.
And, as noted, the equally minor Liberty Pictures unofficially applied Magnascope technology to what they called “Giant Screen”, achieving a “wide screen/wide film” effect requiring only a change of projection lens and screen. Producers M.H. Hoffman and Victor Halperin announced plans for 20 films to be presented by this method. Though no details were given, it apparently involved composing the films for projection by this method as non-anamorphic 35mm films would be done after April, 1953, but as few Liberty films from this period have survived, it is not known if any were actually so composed or if two versions were shot.
In the same vein, an attempt to address the problems of the small exhibitor was proposed by cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton, ASC. Noting that most theaters, especially those involved in secondary runs, had screens smaller than those in the huge deluxe palaces and would not really benefit from wide film, he suggested going in the other direction: halving the 35mm frame, which he felt would not result in the degree of image degradation on small screens as blowing up the regular 35mm frame onto large screens had done. Important action would he kept in the center of the frame so a 1.33:1 version could he extracted optically if desired. With the aid of C. Roy Hunter, head of Universal’s lab, Warrenton shot some tests, frames from which were published in the October, 1930 issue of the American Cinematographer, but by then, interest in the subject was waning. In 1963 this idea would be revived by Technicolor Rome, combining half frame cinematography with an anamorphic squeeze in the lab to achieve an economical wide screen image compatible with CinemaScope. Called Techniscope, its chief user in Hollywood, ironically, turned out to be Universal. A variation of the technique, which involved full 1.33:1 original photography with all key action contained within the center of the frame for extraction and squeezing in the lab for a CinemaScope compatible image appeared in 1954 as Superscope and was revived in the Eighties as Super 35.
As 1930 progressed, the majors increasingly lowered the trade paper profile of their Wide Film activities, with one keeping their work secret up to just before the release of their first film. Fortunately, there exists a memo sent to Fox head of production Winfield Sheehan by H. Keith Weeks, who’d surveyed Wide Film activity as it was going on in mid-July, 1930. Although some of his comments don’t gibe with information from other sources and raise questions regarding some of those conflicts, such as RKO/Spoor-Berggren going to 65mm, it is still the most accurate picture of what was happening in the industry at that time uncovered to date:
Wide Film activity, by H. Keith Weeks
|July 18, 1930|
TO: MR. W. R. SHEEHAN FROM: H. KEITH WEEKS
RE: WIDE FILM ACTIVITIES
The Fox Film Corporation and Metro Goldwyn Mayer are the only producing corporations using 70 mm. negative and 70 mm. photographic cameras and equipment. Warner Brothers First National, Radio Keith Orpheum, Paramount Famous-Lasky and United Artists have standardised on 65 mm. It is my understanding that this standardization was reached by means of agreement but I have no proof and have been unable to get any definite information concerning this agreement.
An outline of wide film activities, studio by studio, follows.
WARNER BROTHERS FIRST NATIONAL 65 mm
(All sound on disc)
From all observations, Warner Brothers First National are attacking the wide film problem more aggressively than any other studio. They have worked intensively developing 65 mm cameras and projection equipment for the past several months.
Completed: "A Soldier's Plaything" (Feature)
"Larry Ceballos Revue" (Short)
I am also informed that they have completed other shorts but they have not been able to learn the titles. The "Larry Ceballos Revue" was projected in conjunction with the stage revue at Warner Brothers Theatre in Hollywood the week of July 6 to July 12.
The camera equipment is being built by the Fearless Camera company, Santa Monica Boulevard, Hollywood, California
Four cameras are in operation at the studio. Ten cameras are on order and all in process of construction. This camera is the so called Fearless Super Camera .. They are supplied with the necessary conversion sprockets for using either on 65 mm. or 35 mm. These cameras can also be fitted with sprockets to take 70 mm. film. They have developed a new type of magazine for this camera which will take either 35 mm., 65 mm., or 70 mm. film. It is so constructed that the throat is entirely removable and the light trap utilizes no pressure pads but is simply a light lock. They have also developed and manufactured a new type of tripod which is giving excellent satisfaction.
Activity concerning projection equipment may be divided into two parts:
1. Mr. Fear, of the Fearless Camera Company, in addition to manufacturing cameras, is converting 35 mm. standard Simplex projectors to 65mm. wide film projectors at a cost of $750 each.
2. Research and development work on projection equipment and the development of two new types of projectors, all of which is handled in a separate mechanical laboratory, employing eleven men, for this process alone, on the Warner Brothers First National Lot. In this laboratory they have evolved two new types of projectors:
a. A projector with a revolving turret which has mechanisms for both the 35 mm. and 65mm. film. This makes it possible to utilize one base and one lamphouse and, by means of rotating the turret, change the mechanism from 35 mm. to 65mm. and vice versa.
b. They are also developing a double head in line projector which has the same attributes as the revolving turret, except that the 35 mm. and 65 mm. mechanisms are moved in line rather than by rotating.
They have not yet determined on a standard type of projector. There are two 65 mm. projectors installed at present in the Warner Brothers Hollywood Theatre.
They have one printer in their film laboratory, which was built in their own machine shops.
Warner Brothers First National have evidenced an interest in the reduction of 65 mm. to 35mm. standard film but as far as I can determine they have not purchased or manufactured a reduction printer for this purpose.
All additional laboratory equipment required to process 65 mm. film was built in the Warner Brothers-First National machine shops.
The film is purchased from the Eastman Kodak Company and perforated according to specifications given by Warner Brothers. The perforations are smaller than Grandeur (Fox 70 mm.) and larger than the standard 35 mm. Mitchell or Bell Howell perforations.
METRO-GOLDWYN-MAYER - 70 mm
(All sound on disc)
"Billy The Kid" Shot on both standard 35 mm. and 70 mm. photographic negative. Sound entirely on disc.
Metro Goldwyn Mayer obtain the effect of a wide screen very similar to Grandeur by photographing with Grandeur cameras, using the ordinary 70 mm. Grandeur film, and by means of an optical reduction printer, reduce the size of the picture and print it on standard 35 mm. positive stock. It is then projected in a standard projector with a short focal length lens.
Four Grandeur cameras manufactured by the Mitchell Camera Company.
They are using standard projection machines with shorter focal length lenses.
Their optical reduction printer, for the purpose of reducing 70 mm. to 35 mm. was built by the Mitchell Camera Company.
Their additional laboratory equipment to process the 70 mm. negative was built in the MGM machine shops.
The Eastman Kodak Company supply 70 mm. Grandeur stock similar to that used by the Fox Film Corporation. It is reduced and printed on standard 35 mm. positive stock.
('Sound on separate film 35 mm. Double film projection)
One picture, "The Record Run" is the only picture produced on wide film by R K O. It has just been completed.
R K O started originally with the dimensions of 63.5 mm. but after conferences with Warner Brothers and Paramount and possibly others (I can get no proof of these conferences) they changed their standard to 65 mm.
The original R K O hook up with respect to wide film was between Photophone, the Radio Corporation subsidiary, and Spoor of Chicago. From my conversations with Mr. Sammis, the Chief Engineer for Photophone on the Pacific Coast, I am led to believe that any contractural arrangement between Photophone and Spoor is considered by Photophone to be of a very temporary nature.
65 mm. cameras; five available for production; manufactured for R K O in Chicago.
Seven available on the Pacific Coast, two of which are at present installed in the R K O Theatre in Los Angeles; manufactured for R K O in Chicago.
All laboratory processing, developing, printing, etc. is now handled in Chicago.
There is no provision on the R K O wide film for the sound track. The sound track is recorded separately on standard 35 mm film, using the new R K O type S 4 sound cameras, and in projection it is handled by double film projection; that is, the picture is projected on one machine and the sound projected on another.
If there be any activity with respect to wide film at Paramount, it is been carried on with the utmost secrecy. It is my belief that there is no activity concerning wide film at the studio, although they state that they have adopted 65mm. as a standard.
Several months ago Paramount were building some experimental 65 mm. cameras, but I believe work in this field has been suspended for the present.
George Mitchell of the Mitchell Camera Company informed me that he has adapted a Grandeur Camera to handle 65 mm. stock and sold it to United Artists, and that they intend to do a full length feature, shooting it both with wide film and standard. I have been unable to learn the name of the feature. It sounds rather difficult with one camera unless they are using it only for experimental purposes.
I have been unable to discover any wide film activity at the Universal Studios, although they have made inquiries of George Mitchell concerning a reduction printer.
FOX FILM CORPORATI0N - 70 MM
(Movietone Sound and picture on same film)
Pictures produced "Movietone Follies of 1929".
"Song Of My Heart"
"The Big Trail"
Various short subjects and newsreel shots handled in
New York City by the Newsreel Department.
3 Grandeur photographic cameras.
2 Grandeur single system cameras.
34 1,000 ft. Mitchell magazines.
2 Grandeur sound cameras.
2 Super Simplex .70 mm. projectors complete
3 Reconditioned Simplex 70 mm. projectors complete
Note: Two of these projection heads are now installed in the Re recording Department, making it possible to re record sound from 35 mm. to 70 mm. or vice versa. This will be very practical and useful in "The Big Trail”.
1 70 mm. Bell & Howell printer.
1 70 mm. negative and positive developing machine.
All additional laboratory equipment, such as reels, rewinds, etc. sufficient to care for two Grandeur productions at the same time.
70 mm. film Supplied by the Eastman Kodak Company, perforated according to Fox Film Corporation specifications for 70 mm. film. The Fox Film Corporation owns the perforators used and has placed them with the Eastman Kodak Company in Rochester. The Eastman Kodak Company now have their own perforators in Rochester in addition to those owned by the Fox Film Corporation.
The Weeks memo also includes this intriguing subject for further research:
Douglass Panorama Lens
The Douglass Panorama System consists of two pieces of equipment, used only as attachments to standard equipment: A panorama lens, which is attached to the photographic camera, and a Prism arrangement, which is attached to the projection machine. The equipment is entirely standard throughout, with the exception, of the two pieces mentioned above. In other words, with the Douglass panorama system, the standard Mitchell or Bell & Howell photographic camera is used. Standard 35 mm. stock is used. There is no change whatever in laboratory processing or printing.
The actual result on the film of the use of the panorama lens is a spherical aberration of the image causing horizontal distortion. In other words, the picture is crowded in from the sides but no change is made in the height. In projection, the prism arrangement, attached to the projector which may be attached to any projector brings the distorted picture back to normal proportions, except that the width of the picture is increased approximately 50 per cent. For example, consider the normal Movietone picture projected on a screen to give an image 10 feet high by 12 feet wide; the result of using the Douglass panorama lens and prism would cause the projected picture to be 10 feet by 18 feet.
This panorama equipment is part of twenty six pieces of trick photographic apparatus for the use of which the Fox Film Corporation has contracted with Mr. Leon F. Douglass of Menlo Park, California, for the period of one year at a cost of $5,000. The contract is renewable at the same cost for one additional year at the option of the Fox Film Corporation. Some of these pieces of trick equipment are of no particular production value, but at least four of them have been used on various productions and have saved the cost of the contract many times over by saving of time, labor and construction. Some examples of the panorama process are being sent with this report along with the prism attachment for the projection machine. These examples were photographed side by side with one of our regular Grandeur cameras. This Grandeur film is also being sent for your analysis and comparison.
As the Douglass panorama lens and prism arrangement has only been in the possession of the Fox Film Corporation for a few days, it has been impossible to make sufficient production tests to know all of the disadvantages of this system. The advantages are all cited above. Summarizing they are:
1. All standard equipment used.
2. The cost of the Douglass panorama lens and projection
prism is practically negligible.
3. No change in laboratory processing.
The disadvantages known to date are:
1. Additional lighting is required to get the same exposure as is now obtained with an equivalent lens.
2. The proportion of the picture, that is, approximately 3 x 1, may be pleasing to the eye.
This sounds, of course, like an anamorphic lens. It is fairly well known that in France, Prof. Henri Chretien had developed his Hypergonar lens in 1927, which he had attempted to promote in the United States, as had an American born former student of his, Sidney H. Newcomer, with a lens of his design.
The Ultimate test
|With four of its major members involved in Wide Film production, the MPPDA could not hold to its prohibitions and in August, relented, granting them the right to show their already shot productions in ten cities. As it happens, Wide Film presentations have been verified in only three: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.|
While Harley Clarke, who by the end of the year was also out of Fox, was not all that enthusiastic about Grandeur, Winfield Sheehan and the executives who’d been there during its development continued to be supportive. Thus The Big Trail got the biggest publicity hype of all the Wide Film releases of 1930. In the month prior to its Los Angeles opening, eighth page size ads were taken on each day’s issue of Film Daily with stills from the film in the Grandeur format, though there was no mention of the process itself. And there was no mention of Grandeur in the magazine’s review , though Exhibitor Herald World’s did, but just in passing . Unfortunately, at that time, the Los Angeles Times was not reviewing films regularly, though The Big Trail got favorable comments from its film columnists, such as this:
“Happy Days had three shots pointing to the potential of wide film but aped musical comedy theater but The Big Trail throws off the shackles of indoor finite conception and socks the great wide open spaces.”
The Grandeur version opened after Billy The Kid in New York and both the film and the process underwhelmed Variety’s reviewer.
Billy opened Oct. 16 at the Capitol in New York City and the Criteron in Los Angeles.
Variety claims the Realife version would play twelve cities and Coles, without attribution, lists the Paramount Theatre Detroit, Oriental Chicago, Aldine Pittsburgh, Fox Atlanta, Stillman Cleveland, State Providence, Midland Kansas City, Columbia Washington D.C. as being among them. It also pointed out that the extreme 170 ft. throw at New York’s Capitol would be the severest test of the format. Its reviewer Bid. commented:
“Panoramic exteriors look good spread across the stage. Vidor evidently wanted to impress that fact early for the initial shot is an imposing peek at what may be the Grand Canyon. That view alone, plus the thought of how it would look in color, is enough to indicate wide film as an important feature factor.
He also commented that at the Capitol, the feature was preceded by a trailer in which a scene from the film was shown as it would look on the standard screen. “Then the borders pull back and the title flashes for the full stage width, the booth making the changeover on the machines between the trailer and the feature.” Of the film itself, he felt that it was “not good, just another western otherwise.”
The New York Times’ Mordaunt Hall commented,
“The views on the wide screen were so compelling that when one goes to see a picture on an ordinary sized screen the standard image looks absurdly small. ”
He also noted that the additional height was an advantage over Grandeur, contributing to a major point in the discussions of the various formats for the rest of the year, one that would also be revived 23 years later.
MGM had done one other film in Realife, The Great Meadow. Exhibitor Herald World’s Douglas Hedges claims he saw this version at a preview screening, not stating whether it was at the studio or in a theater. There is no record of this version ever being shown to the public.
Although, according to the Weeks memo, the short Larry Ceballos Review was shown in 65mm at Warners’ Hollywood Theater during the summer, this presentation was apparently not publicized or reviewed. Warners waited until a week before the New York opening of its first release, Kismet, before beginning its media blitz for the process it was now calling Vitascope , (The 65mm version of A Soldier’s Plaything had been deemed unsuitable for release; the concurrently shot 35mm version was released the following year.) According to a Film Daily item, the process used a 65mm projection head that could be easily substituted for the 35mm; the sound was on disc. Although that publication’s capsule review of Kismet did not mention Vitascope , Exhibitors Herald World felt the wide image worked only in full shots but “should not have been used for intimate scenes and close-ups.” Variety’s Bid was equally underwhelmed, feeling that the only purpose for using the process was to help make its star, veteran stage actor Otis Skinner, as successful with younger film audiences as George Arliss had been. . He felt that the claim for universal focus worked only spasmodically. Like Billy The Kid, the New York presentation was preceded by a specially prepared trailer demonstrating the difference between the 65mm presentation and 35mm. There is no record of the 65mm version being shown anywhere else, but Warners’ final 65mm production, The Lash, was shown in Los Angeles, the Wide Film version in Warners’ Hollywood Theater, while the 35mm version was shown concurrently downtown. None of the reviews in Exhibitors Herald World, Film Daily, or Variety mentioned Wide Film or made any comparison between the two.
Given the publicity hype for its “stereoscopy”, it’s ironic that RKO’s Danger Lights was closer to the 3-D quickies released in the summer of 1953 than the more prestigious Big Trail or Billy The Kid. Its romantic triangle plot set against a background of great masculine activity had been a stable of B-westerns and adventure films since the nickelodeon days. What gives the film any value is its documentary look at railroading of the time, as noted by railroad historian Les Hammer , based on viewing the concurrently shot 35mm version. This is probably why this project was chosen to try and get back RKO’s investment in the Spoor-Berggren process, inspired by the revelation that Fox, MGM, and Warners were now doing outdoor pictures rather than musical revues to exploit their Wide Film processes and anticipating Fritz Lang’s off-quoted statement about CinemaScope in 1953, that it was only good for photographing “funerals, trains, and snakes.” (According to Hammer, George K. Spoor had once been an engineer on the Chicago and North Western line.) Hammer’s research resulted in the following description of the Spoor-Berggren process:
“ …a motion picture camera with two lenses that captured images through one aperture. When a nitrate print was struck from the exposed negative, the result was a stereoscopic image that could be projected in standard or wide screen format. However, the results were not always satisfactory.”
Danger Lights’ location shooting took place in or near Miles City and Lombard, Montana and on the route from there to Chicago on tracks of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific Railroad. Hammer singles out sequences shot in the Miles City roundhouse and the “race-for-life” to Chicago, which, if the Wide Film camera duplicated the setups for the 35mm version, would have been extremely effective. However, Danger Lights had a difficult time getting into theaters. While the 35mm version opened in August in limited Midwestern engagements that were unsuccessful , and the Wide Film version was slated to be shown in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Boston, Detroit, Kansas City, Philadelphia, St. Louis, and San Francisco , it was announced that due to difficulties in editing the large negative, “Studio officials have been unable to assemble it in a manner satisfactory for exhibition.” It finally opened at the State-Lake Theater in Chicago on Nov. 15, the Spoor-Berggren process now called Natural Vision. The Chicago Tribune’s whimsically named reviewer “Mae Tinee” had these non-technically oriented comments:
“You have duly noted, I trust, that the bill at the State.Lake is a double¬decker this week, presenting two "third dimension" films. Both the scenic picture. "Niagara Falls." and the feature, "Danger Lights." were photographed by the "natural vision" process patented by George K. Spoor and P. John Berggren of Chicago, and are shown on a screen approximately twice as wide as the ordinary silver sheet. This process does away with the flat effect of regulation photo-graphy, creating that of depth. The pictures are recorded on standard panchromatic motion picture film that is twice as wide as the everyday variety, filling the entire stage opening.
"Niagara Falls' is revolutionary and wonderful. Some of the shots are so grand, so vividly real, as to be almost unbelievable. There you are, sitting in a theater on State street with the beauty, and magnitude of the falls passing before your eyes. You see the tumbling waters, the river, the surrounding country, the tourists. You take the trip on the staunch little boat "Maid of the Mist" The thunder of the falls isn't in your ear, nor the spray in your nostrils, but otherwise the illusion is perfect.
I was thrilled to my toes!
"Danger Lights," a good, old fashioned railroad melodrama, did not seem so radically different, except as to size, from the usual movie. It has some flashes of scenery, however, that make you realize the value of the "natural vision" process. The piece sings of trains and the men who run them and most of its action was photographed along the Milwaukee road. As you follow the interesting story of two men, who love a girl you learn a lot about railroads and the camaraderiê and cooperation which keep the danger lights flashing at the right times
Direction and photography are fine and all the men in the cast play up in great shape. Jean Arthur as the heroine is rather wooden. ...Action is swift, and in the main, convincing. Sound and synchronization were execrable during the showing of the first half of the film at the premiere performance Saturday morning. Chances are, however that whatever was wrong at that time baa been remedied by now.
Be loyal, Chicagoans! Get over to the State Lake and give a greet big hand to our native inventors, George K. Spoor and P. John Berggen. They deserve it! And I guarantee that both pictures will entertain you. (They, and a Walt Disney comedy titled, if I remember correctly, ‘Monkey Symphonies.’ It's lovely!”
Exhibitors Herald World called it “quasi-stereoscopic” and had these comments:
“The film had impressive POV shots…was said to be 65mm wide with a 54 X 24mm frame…the State-Lake’s throw was 148 ft. at an unfamiliar 26 degree angle. The projector intermittent is 1/5 slower than standard and it is possible to put the sound track on the picture film. The wide film version would only be roadshown. The Niagara Falls footage shown with a green filter also impressed and there was also a 35mm short.”
Its review of the film itself was not as flattering. Variety’s reviewer stated “eternal vigilance to the projectors was necessary”, gave their cost as $22,000, and noted “at all times the projected picture is bright, clear, and perfectly defined to the smallest detail.” The projection equipment was then moved to New York, where it opened on December 12. The New York Times reviewer stated that 63mm film was used and felt that “the background was not as sharp as the foreground in interiors.” The Times’ Mordaunt Hall had these additional interesting comments about Wide Film:
“It is quite evident from the results so far of some of the wide film pictures that a new technique in direction is necessary for this enlarged screen to be more effective than the mere successful showing of expensive panoramic views. It means little to gaze upon gargantuan shadow images with voices of ordinary size human beings but, of course, one doesn’t want them louder. At The Mayfair, where the latest process of this sort was on exhibition last week, it was not especially helpful to the story, such as it was, to be confronted by a screen, that seemed too large for the theater, with close-ups of persons so enormous that one felt as though. one .ought to be a hundred yards or. more from them to get the proper perspective of the action of. the picture.
This particular production, ‘Danger Lights, ‘ an old fashioned type of melodrama, was filmed by the Spoor-Berggren process, to which the producers optimistically refer as ‘natural life.’ It might be a good deal nearer this description were the figures not so huge, for except for the fine views. of the countryside through which a train is speeding and other glimpses of the open, the scenes in this film are merely twice the dimensions of the standard picture without any. advantage. Instead of grouping the players or taking a leaf from the stage’s book, this motion picture clings to the same style as the ordinary size work.
With supervision that would meet the requirements of the wide screen, many film works could be improved. To accomplish this the director would have to bear in mind that he was dealing with a screen virtually the same size as a theatre stage, a screen which not need close-ups and on which one could see the actions of several characters at once.
In the Wide-screen works it will also be necessary to give the spectacular more time to look at the scene for he must see more than the central figures; and the persons in the background or remóved from the center of the stage should so far as it is possible be in focus, which in this Spoor-Berggren film they decidedly are not. With the proper technique the wide-screen obviously has distinct advantages, for in the standard size features there are often scenes in which one person is talking to another and only one of the players is beheld, the other being sometimes off-screen even when he speaks a line. It also seems that for indoor action the lighting ought to receive even more attention in the wide film subjects than it does in the standard size productions, as every action should be visible on the wide screen, without poking the camera lens close to it, for then, while the size is relative, we would, have mice bigger than cats and sheep as big as oxen.
There is no record of the Wide Film version being shown in Los Angeles.
|The 65mm version of The Bat Whispers was preview screened in Los Angeles in November, but didn’t open until January. There is some debate as to whether or not an actual 65mm print, or a 35mm reduction print was used in the film’s New York and Los Angeles engagements. Variety’s Sime commented on the presentation at New York’s Rivoli:|
“Wide film permits the scenic end of the film, which includes directorial and photographic touches, to become somewhat grandiloquent, bits of direction with the camera aiding, particularly early, are very engaging. They send forth an impression of big and good production with the wide screen probably the forceful factor, although the same effects will come in a lesser way on the standard size.”
These final presentations were no doubt efforts on the part of the various companies to get back what they could on their Wide Film investments, for, at the same time, trade publications and even the Los Angeles Times were hanging crepe for Wide Film; “it came in like a lion and went out like a lamb,” Times columnist Philip K. Scheuer noted.
Back to the Future
|The American motion picture is notorious for the cavalier attitude it has historically taken toward its product. In fact, in 1915 the Supreme Court of the United States had declared films items of commerce, not works of art, and therefore censorable, a decision not reversed until the Fifties. Film preservationists have long pointed out that over 50% of the films made before 1950 have been lost; it’s actually more surprising that 50% have survived! After striking the 100-500 prints off the original negative for a film’s initial release, that negative would be stored, not always under ideal conditions, to only be brought out if a major re-release was to be done or if intermediate elements were needed, a dupe negative for subtitled foreign prints or 16mm prints for the military or non-theatrical markets, for example. Many of these volatile nitrate negatives would be lost through vault fires as well as deterioration of the base. On lesser films, surviving prints and negatives were often melted down to recover their silver. At least one studio is known to have melted down the negatives of its silent films to make room in its vaults for new negatives. |
Naturally, the elements for oddball formats would not be considered worth preserving and at the time of the revival of interest in Wide Screen in the early Fifties, though some of the cameras and projectors from 1930 were found and used, it was assumed that, except for short clips, none of the films still existed. In the mid-Seventies, 20th Century-Fox donated the surviving elements of its silent and sound films, much of which had been lost in a 1938 vault fire, to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Subsequently it was discovered that the picture and track negatives of the Grandeur version of The Big Trail, and some Grandeur newsreels, was among this material. While Karl Malkames, ASC, who had restored a lot of early silent footage, got the assignment to work on the newsreels. Peter Williamson, who headed the restoration project for the Museum chose Ralph Sargent of Film Technology laboratory in Hollywood to work on Trail . Because the Grandeur format was incompatible with that introduced by Todd-AO in 1953-5 and few of the venues where a restored 70mm print might be shown are equipped for the format, the decision was made to do all the restorations to 35mm anamorphic elements.
The restored Big Trail premiered at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Nov. 18, 1985 (it was shown there again on Nov. 4, 1997 during California State University at Long Beach’s Wide Screen Film Festival, and “letterboxed” on cable tv) and proved to be a revelation. Contrary to its reputation, it was not a dull film let down by the inexperience of 23 year old John Wayne in his first starring role; today Wayne and the other young actors come off as far more natural than the stolid recruits from the stage, whose ranks included the father of future star Tyrone Power. The film is best summed up in this comment from Oscar winning sound editor Richard L. Anderson: “It was like Matthew Brady had taken a film crew along on the trek.” Director Raoul Walsh had bummed around the West 25 years earlier and what he saw of what was left of pioneering days and what he’d heard from surviving old timers clearly influenced the film . The Grandeur version was shot primarily in full and medium shots, apparently with a 50mm lens that had been specially designed for the wide frame as there is no vignetting or fall-off of focus at the sides of the frame that occurred during the previous year’s tests. Walsh and Grandeur cinematographer Arthur Edeson, ASC, keep the camera close to the action, giving one a sense of being in the middle of it, staging dialog scenes occurring while the wagons roll from a dollying camera just in front of the subject wagon at eye level so that as much of the other wagons as possible is seen in the background, an approach Walsh took to two of his later CinemaScope westerns, The Tall Men (20th Century-Fox; 1955) and The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (20th Century-Fox; 1958); one wonders why he wasn’t chosen to do a sequence, if not all of How The West Was Won (MGM-Cinerama; 1962). Three key sequences: the lowering of wagons down a cliff by ropes, the inevitable Indian attack, and the fording of a river during a thunderstorm, with burned-in hand drawn lightning, could have benefited from more intercutting between close and wide angles but it was apparently felt this was unnecessary for such a big image.
Walsh was one of three directors of Wide Films in 1930 who would work in Wide Screen 25 years later. Billy The Kid’s King Vidor would do Solomon and Sheba (United Artists; 1959) in Technirama, and Michael Curtiz, the 65mm version of whose A Soldier’s Plaything would not be released, would do six CinemaScope films and four in VistaVision. All but one of the ten films Walsh did in the last decade of his career were released in the anamorphic ratio , The Naked and The Dead (RKO/Warners; 1958) having been shot spherically composed for 2.35:1 and optically squeezed as in the Superscope/Super 35 technique.
The other wide film from 1930 to survive was Roland West’s The Bat Whispers, an interesting “accident” of film history. Mary Pickford had purchased the rights to the film in the late Thirties with the intention of remaking it with Lillian Gish and Humphrey Bogart. In those pre-tv syndication days, when one company bought the rights to a previously made project from another, they usually got the original cut negative and dubbed track, and other pre-print elements like fine grains and dupe negatives, which is why films bought by MGM from other studios like Rio Rita (RKO; 1929) and Showboat (Universal; both 1927 and 1936 versions) have survived and been preserved while materials from other films made by those original companies are often lost. Preprint elements for both the 35mm and 65mm versions of The Bat Whispers ended up in Mary Pickford’s vaults. While Pickford refused to allow any of her films to be shown after her retirement, she had insisted they be stored under the best state-of-the-art conditions, so the Bat elements were in terrific shape. The 65mm elements included the original negative, a 65mm master positive lavender, a 35mm optical sound negative for the Magnifilm version recorded at 112-1/2 ft. per minute, and a 35mm positive optical track for the Wide Film version recorded at 90 fpm and labeled for “reduced version”, suggesting that West or United Artists had made a provision for a “Realife” type 35mm release.
More significantly, the 65mm picture negative turned out to be exactly the same format as that adopted for Todd-AO in 1953, the same perforations and perforation pitch and same frame height, with an allowance for an optical track on the print. Thomas Hauerslav’s interview with Walter Siegmann, one of the developers of Todd-AO, confirms that cameras from 1930 were provided to them and were the basis for their design perimeters .
The Wide film version of The Bat Whispers has been dismissed as essentially a photographed play, which could be said of the bulk of the picture, which is set in an old dark house, but West and cinematographer Ray June, ASC carefully use Wide Film composition and lighting to heighten suspense by directing the audience’s attention to various areas of the frame without cutting, really an early textbook example of how to effectively use so much space. The film’s first reel is the real eye opener, an exercise in style clearly influenced by the German films of the Twenties with well done miniatures and swooping camera movements, some of which were taken from the 35mm version. The minimal grain visible in the shots from 35mm suggest they may have been achieved by early rear projection rather than optically; special effects man Harry Zech was apparently a pioneer in the technique.
Reasons for the failure of Wide Film in 1930
|The simplified history of this period that has previously been recounted has lead to some conclusions about the failure of the industry to adopt Wide Film that are questionable in light of more in depth research.|
For example, it’s generally been assumed that all the films were failures commercially. .While boxoffice dollar returns weren’t being reported in 1930 and what information that was released came from the always dubious source of exhibitor publicity offices, supposedly the Grandeur version of Happy Days was successful in both its New York and Los Angeles engagements, as were the Wide Film versions of The Big Trail and Billy The Kid in Los Angeles. Their failure in jazz age New York was not to be unexpected. Though The Covered Wagon and The Iron Horse had been successful there earlier in the decade, they had the then novelty of being roadshown. In 1930, with the Depression deepening, the sophisticates who could afford to pay the higher prices for the special presentations weren’t likely to be interested in horse operas. The 35mm versions were reportedly not successful, neither was the 35mm version of The Lash, nor as previously noted, Danger Lights. The Warner Bros. Story claims Kismet was a success , but doesn’t differentiate between the 65mm and 35mm versions.
More significantly, blame was placed on a lack of enthusiasm on the part of exhibitors for investing in new projectors and screens while still paying off loans for installing sound equipment. In fact, there were no comments on Wide Film from smaller independent exhibitors found in any of the trade papers of 1930! The various studios did not give national demonstrations of their various formats as 20th Century-Fox was to do with CinemaScope in 1953 and Paramount with VistaVision the following year.
What has been overlooked is that Wide Film development was done almost exclusively by the vertically integrated companies for whom installation of the equipment was essentially an in-house expense. And, at that point Wide Film was intended for the premiere presentation of selected titles in a select number of major cities to be followed by the general release of a concurrently shot 35mm version. Fox’s Winfield Sheehan initially announced that The Big Trail would be shown in 100 major cities , at Fox owned theaters, no doubt. It was probably assumed that conversion of other theaters would come slowly, but would ultimately happen.
Yet, the combination of disagreement on a standard format, plus the additional costs of shooting, posting, and showing a version that could only be shown in a limited number of theaters was probably the reason why studio executives lost interest in Wide Film. They were used to certain duplications in all these areas. Since World War I, they had been pairing cameramen to shoot two negatives of each set-up, one for the domestic release, the other for foreign. For sound, especially with the disk systems, up to four cameras were being used to cover each scene as initially, the sound couldn’t be edited. And between 1929 and 1931, because neither subtitling or dubbing had been perfected, many studios were shooting foreign language versions of certain films, either at night or after the American version was finished, using the same sets. (Paramount did many such versions at its studios in Joinville, France.) The studios would get back much of the additional costs on these techniques, but as the studios scaled back their optimism for Wide Film, the initial small number of prints they’d need did not justify the additional production, post-production, distribution, and exhibition costs, estimated at $250,000,000 for a one time conversion, plus annual costs of $10,000,000 just for negative, print, and intermediate costs. This is the probable reason why the studios began backing away from Wide Film early in 1930, and, for all intents and purposes, gave up on it after the apparent “failure” of their few actual releases.
However, interest still existed among the technical personnel, and in fact, would continue through the next two decades. The Big Trail marked the first time many Los Angeles technical people got to see Wide Film, and they had the opportunity to compare it with Billy The Kid, which opened two weeks later. This crystallized one of the arguments about Wide Film/Screen that continues to this day: how wide is too wide?
After seeing the Grandeur version of The Big Trail, J.A. Dubray, acting manager of Bell & Howell reported to the SMPE’s Wide Film committee that he found the 2:1 aspect ratio had a “crushing” or “stunting” effect for him, that the image was too short in height and too wide; his preference was for the so-called Golden Ratio of 1.618. After 50+ years of films shown at ratios of 2:1 or wider, it may be hard to realize the shock of 1930 audiences seeing images that wide, and unfortunately, we really only have the comments of reviewers as a gauge of how non-technical people felt about it. In the technical end of the industry, however, the debate was between artists and technical people. The technical people had chosen 2:1 because it best fit into existing theater prosceniums, but those of a technical bent argued for ratios between 1.618 and 1.8.
There were also debates about the proper film width, the debate between 70mm and 65mm at one point getting to Earl Sponable proposing 67.5mm as a compromise. . Finally, 50mm with a 1.8 frame was settled upon, but by then it was too late for 1930-31. The studios had given up on wide film, the last gasp being a presentation of the Spoor-Berggren process in a special theater built for the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair; this theater also used a curved, slatted screen, not unlike later Cinerama. No one seems to know what happened to the Spoor-Berg-gren cameras or projectors, but the 65mm and 70mm cameras and projectors went into storage, to occasionally be brought out for some experimental uses, until they were really needed again 22 years later.
A number of other things happened in those intervening 22 years that helped prepare the industry and audiences for acceptance of a wider screen image.
|The improvements included using a 63.5 mm negative with a frame six perfs high and a camera aperture of approximately 2.06” x 1.12” to get an approximation of the desired effect, yielding an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 |
Because they kept the now official sound speed of 90 ft. per minute, the format’s six perforation high frame resulted in a photographic and projection frame rate of 20 fps. The Spoor-Berggren camera utilized a special shutter with a large opening that created the main exposure, and some additional openings yielding underexposed additional images on the same frame, creating an effect similar to “motion blur” in computer graphics. This reduced the strobing of objects as they moved across the large screen (which would have been particularly evident with the lower frame rate.) The projector also utilized a special shutter design that helped fade each frame on and off the screen to help reduce flicker. And it incorporated forced air jets that blew the film into a slight curve to improve focus stability and helped to cool the film.
|The 56mm film followed the 35mm standard of four perforations per frame with a 0.187” pitch between them. The frame was four perforations high with a thin frameline, and with the 100 mil. variable density optical track on the print, the frame dimensions were 1.62” x 0.74”. This yields an aspect ratio of 2.18:1 , though the Rivoli presentation used a 2:1 aspect ratio screen. Its filming and projection speed was probably 24 fps.|
|In keeping with Fox’s goals of establishing Grandeur as the Wide Film standard, it was the most extensively documented of the formats experimented with at this time. Its definitive specifications, as determined by Daniel J. Sherlock after sifting through much conflicting figures and again measuring surviving published frames, were:|
Negative dimensions (70mm unshrunk film):
Camera Aperture: 1.890” x .9125”
Camera aspect ratio: 2.07:1
Perforation pitch: .234” (vs. .87” for 35mm)
Perforation hole dimensions: .130” x .080”
Perforation hole corner radius: .016”
Positive dimensions (70mm print):
Projector aperture: 1.768” x .885”
Projector aspect ratio: 2.00:1
Sound track width: .240”
Sound track reader slit width: .220”
The Grandeur projector used at the Gaiety screening was made for Fox by The International Projector Corp., manufacturers of Simplex projectors . The picture and sound head were one casting, although provision was made for detaching them, if desired. All of the projector gears were twice the ordinary size with larger and stronger teeth. At that point only two had been turned out. It was also possible to fit the regular Simplex projector for Grandeur projection, though not as satisfactorily, as was evidenced at the New York showing, where a comparison between the quality of picture delivered by the Grandeur projector and that of the refitted standard projector showed the former to be far superior . Jermain mentions some technical problems with the lamphouses on the International projector; his only other negative comment: “The modified Simplex machine had a tendency to scratch every print that was run on it but in spite of this only three prints were used for the duration of the whole run and print number two was run very little at that.”
The changes for Grandeur were confined to the enlargement of all working parts of the mechanism and a larger film gate. It did not use compressed air to hold the wide film in a perfectly flat focal plane at the aperture as the Spoor-Berggren projector did, but instead a film gate which curved outward toward the screen . The curve maintained the film in a perfectly flat plane as it passed the light, insuring buckle-free film. The sound sprocket was regulated to run at 36O r.p.m. A special 12-volt exciter lamp with a wider, huskier filament was used and the slit was twice the ordinary size. The speaker horns were placed at each end of the screen, instead of at the center as was the custom at the time. The lamphouse required from 130 to 160 amperes, depending upon the size of the theatre. At the Gaiety, on a 60-foot throw, the amperage was about 130 and a special quartz condenser was used to withstand the terrific heat.
|Once again, Daniel J. Sherlock has shifted through the various conflicting reports to get the definite specifications for Realife, thanks to some frames that were published in the August 1930 issue of Motion Picture Projectionist. While the negative image dimensions were apparently the same as those for Grandeur, the approximate print dimensions were:|
Image on 35mm film after reduction: .969” x .555”
Aspect ratio of film image: 1.75:1
Typical projector aperture: .904” x .517”
Typical projected aspect ratio: 1.75:1
Whether the negative image was composed to protect the cutoff at the sides in the reduction print is not known since none of the negatives or reduction prints of MGM’s two Realife films, Billy The Kid and The Great Meadow survive, though their concurrently shot 35mm versions have.
Fear 65mm camera specifications
|From the cameraman’s point of view, the most interesting feature of this new camera is the fact that it may be used for either 35 mm. standard or for the 65 mm. film. It is normally built for use with 65 mm. But a special movement has been constructed for 35 mm. use, and is interchangeable with the 65 millimeter movement requiring only a few minutes’ times for the change. Two interchangeable sprocket and roller assemblies have been developed. So, by merely removing one movement and substituting the other the camera is interchangeable.|
When the Fearless camera is purchased for 65 mm superfilm or for special size wide film, the accompanying magazines are designed so that 35 mm. film can also be used in them. This is accomplished by providing the film rollers with a relief so that the 35 mm. film is properly guided into the magazine and by furnishing special take up spools for the narrow film. These spools hold the film central in the magazine and prevent it from creeping to one side or the other. In fact they practically act as a film reel.
Standard 35 mm. magazines can also be used on the camera when using 35 mm film; thus making it possible to use some of the equipment that the producer now has. This is accomplished by making a special adapter which fastens on top of the camera. This adapter partially covers the hole for the large size film and excludes all light from the inside of the camera when using the 35 mm magazines. With the adapter in place, standard 35 mm. magazines can be used.
Other features furnished as standard equipment in the new Fearless camera include a quick focusing device; full force feed lubrication to all major driven parts, all driving parts being inclosed [sic], and running in an oil bath; and two built in footage counters. As special equipment the camera can be furnished with a built in speedometer, a built in three speed high speed gear box and a built in sound recording mechanism.
To elaborate on the method of focusing the photographic lens
The camera is built with a sliding turret and lens carrier on the front of the camera box. This lens carrier is mounted in dove tails and constructed so that it may be shifted across the front of the camera box to a point where the photographic lens is in front of the ground glass of the focusing tube. The lens carrier is made so that the light shade is mounted to it and instead of having to shift the camera, magazine, motors, cables, etc. , only the light weight lens system and light box is shifted.
The actual shifting is accompanied by merely pressing down a knob and moving a lever from one side of the camera to the other. This focusing operation is performed so quickly that it has been a revelation to all who have seen it. Suitable stops prevent overtravel and suitable locks are provided to hold the lens carrier either in the focusing position or in the photographic position. The image is viewed with a conventional finder or focusing magnifier which is supplied for either five or ten power. The focusing telescope is of the simple astronomical type, and reinverts the inverted image formed by the lens on the ground glass, thus bringing the viewed image right side up and right side to.
The Fearless camera can be furnished with built in auxiliary recording aperture at the proper distance from the photographic aperture and sprocket for recording sound directly in the camera . The auxiliary sprocket for pulling the film past the sound recording aperture is driven by a mechanism designed to absorb vibration so that the sound recorded is free from the so called wow wows caused by irregularity of film speed by the sound aperture. This feature of built in sound recording makes it possible for the producer to make sound pictures at once without having, to wait for new recording apparatus for the new size film . The design is adaptable to almost any type of light valve or glow lamp type of recording.
A standard Fearless Silent movement of enlarged size is used to feed the film intermittently past the aperture. Two claw pins are used on each side of the film to pull the film down and pilot pins are used to lock the film during the exposure. This movement is extremely easy to thread and due to simplicity of design and accuracy of workmanship is so silent that only by placing the ear against the frame of the movement can any sound be heard while in operation.
The camera has been designed for silence and extreme pains have been taken in the design and construction to eliminate noise wherever possible. The camera can be used in the open for all ordinary shots without any sound proof coverings, according to the claims of Mr. Fear. This has been accomplished by using fibre gears to transmit the power, precision bearing for the driving shafts, and by inclosing all moving mechanism outside of the movement and sprocket assembly in an oil tight and sound proof compartment which serves as an oil reservoir. An oil pump within this compartment pumps oil to all bearings and moving parts therein. This circulating oil deadens any noise developed by the mechanism. The oil level may be viewed through a window built into a plate that covers the mechanism compartment. Sufficient oil is placed into the compartment to last for several months. All high grade automobiles use pressure feed lubrication, but this is the first time it has been applied to a motion picture camera.
The motor drives directly into an extension of the movement cam shaft, and thus transmits the motor power directly to the most highly stressed part of the camera and eliminates a great deal of noise caused from gears. The motor itself absorbs any vibration caused by the intermittent movement.
Silent bakelite gears are used to drive the sprockets and shutter shaft. A large heavy shutter of the two opening type running at a speed one half of the intermittant mechanism is used for a fly wheel. This heavy revolving shutter also absorbs any noise that might be transmitted to the front of the camera. Wherever possible instrument type precision anular ball bearings have been used to reduce friction and to insure long life to the camera. Two footage counters of the Veeder type are built into the camera, one being used for total footage shot and the other being used for individual takes.
Ralph Fear’s comments
|“One of the worst objections to the present size picture is the fact that it has lost, in a large measure, the quality of naturalness. Normal vision subtends an angle that is approximately twice as wide as it is long. This horizontal angle is somewhere in the vicinity of 100 degrees with a vertical angle of about 5.0 degrees. The standard motion picture, as projected today, appears almost square and this is one of the reasons why present pictures do not appear natural on the screen. The horizontal dimension is not correctly proportioned to the vertical height of the picture.|
In double-width film, with which some firms are experimenting, there are many disadvantages. With film of that width special equipment is needed from the start of manufacture of the film until it is shown on the screen. If this double width film comes into general use it will require the scrapping of all the motion picture equipment now in use, with a cost of millions of dollars. It seems to me, after many years of experience in the film industry, that the scrapping of so much equipment is impractical.
I get my wide image on standard size film simply by using an optical system in the camera which places the image lengthwise on the film instead of across as is the present system. In this way I can get the desired width without using a wider film as the optical system is arranged so that the picture is thrown on the film to the desired width. Another optical system on the projector projects the image on the screen normally and there is the wide image from the standard size film with no added expense of new equipment.
The pictures are taken upon a standard motion picture film and are approximately .800 of an inch high and 1.813 inches long. [Approximate aspect ratio 2.27:1] The film track is approximately .200 of an inch wide and is on the edge of the film. The picture is photographed, either in a vertical plane by use of an optical system that turns the image through an arc of 90 degrees and places it parallel to the edge of the film, or it may be photographed directly upon the film without the use of the optical system. In the latter case, the film runs horizontally past the aperture.”
The chief points of my new method are as follows:
|1. It gives larger picture on standard film.|
2. Gives a more natural picture on the screen because it more nearly approaches the normal angles seen by the human eye.
3. Gives a wider sound track for recording sound photographically on film, which improves sound record.
4. Gives a sound track approximately twice as long as the present sound track, therefore giving greater sensitivity in recording, because with present light valves the sound record for each vibration is twice as long.
5. Broadens the sound recording scope by giving increased length for recording, thus allowing recording of twice the present frequencies now recorded.
6. Can be projected through standard projectors now in use.
7. Can be printed on standard printers.
8. Standard reels used, also standard developing machines, waxing machines, polishing machines, speed and footage indicators and standard camera magazines.
9. Can be projected in any theatre having present equipment when only a slight alteration is made to projector, and standard cameras can be used with slight alteration.
10. Does not require alteration of present sound equipment.
11. Eliminates so-called “grain” in film, and no trouble with curling, together with comparative freedom from scratches.
12. All of the equipment now in use in studios, laboratories and theatres can be used with only slight alterations to cameras and projectors.”
His elaboration on his comment about sound had resonances to the other wide film formats:
“The present size of the picture is not wide enough to give absolute fidelity of reproduction. Due to its narrow width any weaving of the film while passing the aperture which permits light to pass through the film to the photoelectric cell will cause a change of tone in the reproduced sound. This is often objectionable. The recording of the higher frequencies of sound presents another problem. This has only been partly solved. Sound engineers have increased the speed of photography from 18 to 24 pictures per second. This was done to give a long sound track. At 24 pictures per second the film travels at the rate of 90 feet per minute, or 18 inches per second.
When a ribbon light-valve is used with aperture of .004 of an inch the highest frequency that can be recorded is 4/18.000 or 45.00. This is about the highest frequency successfully recorded by the variable density method. This comparatively low frequency cuts off many of the harmonics of speech and sounds. This gives rise to the complaints "tinny or canned" music.
The use of double width film only partly overcomes this difficulty, for although a wider sound track is used the film does not move at a much greater speed than the present film. To be exact, the increase in speed of the wide film is represented by the fraction .936/.750 which is not great enough to eliminate the present recording difficulty.
With my method this difficulty is overcome for my method provides a sound track twice as long as at present, and at the same time gives an image twice as wide as the standard-and remember it is on standard size film with standard machinery. For this reason I feel justified in believing that my method will be a boon to the industry, something that will advance the art of the motion picture.”
• Go to W.K.L. Dickson and the Establishment of the 1.33:1 Frame
• Go to Introduction to Projection and Wide Film (1895-1930)
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