Film historians have long shown an interest in the economic, technical, and aesthetic aspects of widescreen film formats. When widescreen became popular in the 1950s, André Bazin and other critics at Cahiers du cinèma immediately recognised that formats like Cinerama and CinemaScope would have implications for the ways filmmakers could manipulate mise en scène. The Cahiers approach, which often focused on reconciling widescreen style and auteur theory, influenced British criticism, most notably Charles Barr’s seminal 1963 essay “CinemaScope: Before and After” (1). The 1980s saw renewed interest in widescreen filmmaking in academic circles, perhaps as more films became available in letterboxed LaserDisc editions. The Summer, 1985 issue of The Velvet Light Trap featured essays on technical, economic, aesthetic, and ideological aspects of Hollywood widescreen filmmaking, and included English translations of some of Bazin’s articles, where he integrated widescreen with his theories of filmic ontology.
In 1992, John Belton published Widescreen Cinema, which remains an essential reference for understanding Hollywood’s rapid transition to widescreen in the mid-1950s (2). While the book only briefly considers the aesthetics of widescreen filmmaking, it provides a detailed examination of the economic, technical, and ideological factors behind the development of Cinerama, CinemaScope, and Todd-AO 70mm. Over the last decade, the internet has enabled widescreen aficionados to share their nostalgia for the showmanship of the 1950s and 1960s widescreen Roadshow era, with sites like Martin Hart’s American WideScreen Museum (established in 1996) and in70mm.com becoming archives for upcoming widescreen film events and technical esoterica.
The new anthology Widescreen Worldwide seeks to broaden widescreen history beyond the focus of previous research. It does this by presenting histories of less popular widescreen formats, such as Tom Vincent on VistaVision, Paul MacDonald on IMAX, and John Belton’s examination of 20th Century-Fox’s experiments with 50mm film. This anthology also presents widescreen history outside of the U.S. with chapters by Steve Chibnall, Federica Vitella, Eric Crosby and David Bordwell that focus on, respectively, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, and Hong Kong, while Lisa Dombrowski contributes to a finer-grained history of CinemaScope style by examining three lower-budget films shot in black and white. Taking cues from V.F. Perkins’ 1972 book Film as Film (3), John Gibbs and Douglas Pye examine the contrasting widescreen styles of Otto Preminger and Sam Peckinpah, while Steve Neale conducts a similar analysis of widescreen films directed by Anthony Mann. Sheldon Hall’s chapter presents fascinating comparisons of early CinemaScope films that were simultaneously shot in non-anamorphic processes such as “matted widescreen” or Todd-AO 70mm, while Kathrina Glitre’s chapter examines a selection of 1950s romantic comedies that she suggests form a “Populuxe” style concerned with consumerism and women as visual attractions.
Many of the chapters demonstrate an underlying theme that the rapid adoption of widescreen as a set of technical and industrial standards and practices is an example of the transnational nature of filmmaking. This is most notable as Fox promoted CinemaScope to other Hollywood and international studios and exhibitors as an ideal production and exhibition standard, but some of the best chapters of this anthology demonstrate that France and Japan were also important sources of widescreen technologies and techniques that were used in the U.K., Italy, and Hong Kong.
This theme of transnational influence is most explicit in Eric Crosby’s chapter on elements of Japanese widescreen style. Crosby notes that Japanese exhibitors embraced CinemaScope well before the production of the first Japanese anamorphic widescreen film, but the influence was more than just technological, as the style of Hollywood widescreen films influenced Japanese widescreen aesthetics. Crosby argues that “scholars of Japanese cinema tend to ignore various aesthetic and cultural influences from other national contexts and instead settle for a potentially misleading form of cultural exceptionalism” (p. 176). Instead, Crosby proposes that: “Film historians must be careful to tease out the various causal inputs in any given historical context, and avoid explanations that would preclude the possibility of transnational influence at the level of film style.” (p. 182) This sensible proposition should come as great relief to film students lectured about the hegemonic ideological implications of the continuity editing system without ever receiving a detailed explanation of the proximate causes that helped make it a transnational style.
Crosby points out that during the transition to widescreen, Japanese filmmakers had access to Hollywood widescreen films, they faced similar practical problems as their Hollywood counterparts, and were using similar widescreen technologies. Given the convergence of these factors, on some occasions Japanese filmmakers, intentionally or coincidently, arrived at similar stylistic solutions as their Hollywood counterparts. The sophistication of Crosby’s account is obvious as he also notes deviations from the Hollywood approach, such as Seijun Suzuki’s use of unmotivated camera movements that are uncommon in Hollywood widescreen films made before the mid-1960s.
While Crosby demonstrates ways that Hollywood films influenced Japanese widescreen style, David Bordwell’s chapter (which was previously published in an expanded form on his webpage) (4), argues that Japanese technologies and techniques were an important influence on the style of anamorphic widescreen films made by Hong Kong’s Shaw Brothers Studio. In order to quickly transition to widescreen production, the studio hired Japanese directors and cinematographers, and used Japanese anamorphic lenses to enhance production values by embracing colour and widescreen. Bordwell points out that the Japanese influence is only one factor in the style of the films, so although they were often shot with the same Tohoscope anamorphic lenses that Akira Kurosawa was using in Japan, Shawscope films don’t look exactly the same as their Japanese counterparts. Instead, Bordwell argues that the studio incorporated anamorphic widescreen into its existing strengths of costume and set design, but the style was toned down. Like Crosby, Bordwell proposes that the distinctive style of Shawscope films is a result of the rich interaction of domestic and international technological, industrial, and economic influences, which makes it hard to argue that the style of the films is culturally pure.
Steve Chibnall’s chapter also demonstrates the ways international factors influenced the development of widescreen by documenting the introduction of CinemaScope and other anamorphic widescreen systems to the United Kingdom. Chibnall points out that the U.K. industry generally resisted Fox’s promotion of CinemaScope as a production format, but instead adopted compatible anamorphic lenses such as the Cinépanoramic from France and Scandinavian lenses that were used for, respectively, CameraScope and Hammerscope. Fox tried to encourage the diffusion of CinemaScope by making the use of its Bausch and Lomb lenses free for short films, but its policy of mandating the use of colour was poorly suited to the U.K. industry that mainly made black-and-white films including intimate dramas that were (at least initially) considered poorly suited to widescreen. Fox’s intransigence simply pushed U.K. producers to use various CinemaScope clones that, combined with black-and-white film, achieved a mix of novelty and economy. Chibnall demonstrates that the history of black-and-white anamorphic widescreen should be considered in relation to the diffusion of Fox’s CinemaScope, but it is also somewhat distinct from it.
Similar to Chibnall, Federico Vitella’s chapter notes that French CinemaScope clones such as Cinépanoramic, Dyaliscope and Totalvision were far more popular widescreen production formats in Italy than CinemaScope. While Vitella suggests that this was because by the late 1950s Fox’s patents on CinemaScope had expired, an alternate explanation is that Fox’s license to use Henri Chrétien’s patents excluded France, which enabled French companies to develop anamorphic lenses that they could sell or rent without requiring the producers to pay license fees to Fox.
Hollywood studios have long tried to exploit the benefits of wide and large screen formats to create a premium theatrical experience. Paul McDonald’s chapter argues that over the last decade, Hollywood has managed to incorporate the IMAX system as an alternative exhibition venue, even though it was developed outside of the Hollywood production and exhibition industries. McDonald proposes that IMAX has become more of an exhibition format rather than an integrated production and exhibition system as Hollywood has exploited IMAX venues, while avoiding the exorbitant costs associated with filming in the IMAX system.
Graeme Ferguson and Roman Krocter developed IMAX by building a camera to expose 65mm film horizontally in order to dramatically increase the size of each frame. This configuration, a kind of 65mm version of VistaVision, created an enormous camera aperture with each 15 perforation wide frame recording an image of astonishing clarity. McDonald explains that IMAX was initially only popular in institutional venues such as museums and science centres and tended to feature natural history films. This started to change in the 1980s when many more IMAX theatres were built worldwide as stand-alone commercial cinemas. McDonald argues that the new commercial focus of IMAX venues resulted in changes to the nature of IMAX content. A few narrative features were shot in IMAX, such as Wings of Courage (Jean-Jacques Annaud, 1995), but more important was the development of the IMAX DMR process to convert films shot in various 35mm formats to 15 perforation 70mm IMAX prints (5). In 2002, blow-ups were made for re-releases of Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise, 1991), The Lion King (Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, 1994), and Apollo 13 (Ron Howard, 1995). Soon after, new releases such as Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (George Lucas, 2002), Spider-Man 2 (Sam Raimi, 2004), and the two sequels to The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999) – The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions (both Wachowskis, both 2003) – were released in 35mm and “The IMAX Experience” blow-up versions.
This transition means that IMAX is increasingly an exhibition format, rather than an integrated production and exhibition format. A similar change occurred in the 1960s when Cinerama was adapted from the complex three-camera and projector system to the “Super Cinerama” exhibition format based around a single 70mm projector. Battle of the Bulge (Ken Annakin, 1965, filmed in Ultra Panavision 70) and Grand Prix (John Frankenheimer, 1966, filmed in Super Panavision 70) were both marketed as Cinerama films, even though they were shot on single 65mm negatives. The three-camera Cinerama system was rarely used for narrative films, with the most notable exception being How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, 1962), but the quality of the screens made Cinerama an ideal big format precursor to IMAX. In some ways, McDonald’s examination of IMAX is an example of technological history being repeated as the economics of exhibition require a greater supply of films than can be produced in large format systems.
Other chapters of Widescreen Worldwide return to areas of previous research to provide more details of the histories of different formats. John Belton reconsiders the period before the development of CinemaScope by examining Fox’s experiments with 50mm film. Belton argues that the success of CinemaScope can be better understood by considering why alternate widescreen formats developed around the same time were less successful, or complete failures. Belton proposes that “[e]very official history has behind it a shadow history: a series of events that existed alongside the dominant chain of events that resulted in the creation of a new technology.” (p. 10). Belton references Kira Kitsopandou’s research that found Fox bought the patents to Henri Chrétien’s Hypergonar (anamorphic) lens designs to use in its Eidiphor theatre television system to produce a widescreen image. This was considered important because the introduction of Cinerama had made the Academy ratio seem obsolete. When Fox technicians, including Earl Sponable, started development of a widescreen film format, they reverted to earlier research Fox had done using 50mm film. This research was started in the late 1920s when many studios proposed different wide gauge standards such as 65mm and 70mm. At that time, Fox developed a 70mm system called Grandeur, but proposed 50mm as a compromise to encourage all Hollywood studios to agree on one wider than 35mm gauge. Belton explains that a downside of 50mm was that it resulted in a relative narrowing of the aspect ratio from Grandeur’s 2.1:1 to 1.8:1. Belton proposes that Fox ultimately innovated CinemaScope because the 1.8:1 aspect ratio seemed to lack novelty compared to the 2.59:1 aspect ratio and deep curvature of the three-strip Cinerama. Belton’s claim has merit as Fox executives encouraged their technicians to design CinemaScope to produce the widest aspect ratio that would work with 35mm film and include four magnetic stereo sound tracks. According to Earl Sponable: “We made experiments going from 2.66 on down through 2.0 and 1.8 and 1.5. The people at our studio decided they liked…the widest picture we could make.” (6)
Belton also considers Fox’s CinemaScope 55 format that was used for a short and the features The King and I (Walter Lang, 1956) and Carousel (Henry King, 1956). By using 55.6mm film and new “Super CinemaScope” anamorphic lenses, Fox could produce higher quality 35mm and 70mm reduction prints. Since it was only used for two films, Belton considers CinemaScope 55 a relative failure, but more successful than the 50mm system that Fox only used for camera tests. Belton doesn’t consider that CinemaScope 55 demonstrates that Fox’s technicians were influenced by VistaVision, as both formats were based on the idea of shooting on a format with a large camera aperture that is reduction printed to a regular four perforation 35mm print. CinemaScope 55 is also a hybrid widescreen format because it combined two existing widescreen technologies, anamorphic lenses and wider film, to produce a new format. In this regard, it is a precursor to Technirama, which combined VistaVision with 1.5 x anamorphic lenses, and MGM Camera 65 / Ultra Panavision 70, which was essentially 24 frames per second Todd-AO 70mm combined with 1.25 X Panavision anamorphic lenses. CinemaScope 55 can also be considered another attempt by Fox to improve the quality of its anamorphic lenses, as the large lenses would have been easier to design and build using 1950s technologies. Faced with competition from Panavision, Fox was unable to improve the quality of its lenses fast enough, which resulted in the format becoming obsolete in the early 1960s. Belton argues that analysing Fox’s other technical research and developments around the same time as CinemaScope enriches the understanding of why CinemaScope was so successful.
Tom Vincent’s chapter on the technical properties and marketing of VistaVision fills in a neglected area of Hollywood’s widescreen history by separating out the technical features of VistaVision from Paramount’s marketing hype. Vincent explains that VistaVision improved the sharpness of regular four perforation 35mm prints by (like IMAX) running the negative through the camera horizontally in order to dramatically increase the size of each frame. Technicolor used its premium dye-transfer printing process to reduction print the horizontal negative to standard 35mm prints. The format had a range of advantages over CinemaScope, because it didn’t require anamorphic lenses and, unlike Todd-AO, it retained the use of 35mm film so exhibitors didn’t require 70mm projectors. The improved clarity created by the large aperture and reduction printing meant the image could be much taller than matted widescreen films, but a disadvantage was the image was not as wide as CinemaScope. Paramount let exhibitors determine the optimal height and width based on the architecture of their theatres; most European theatres used 1.66:1 while American cinemas tended to use Paramount’s recommended maximum of 1.85:1.
Vincent’s explanation of VistaVision’s decline in the early 1960s notes that film stocks had improved, thus reducing the need for the enlarged negative area created by horizontal exposure. He could have also considered that VistaVision was closely linked to Technicolor’s expensive lab processes that, along with the doubling of negative costs, added to the overall cost of a VistaVision production. The Widescreen Museum website features a Paramount memo that shows how the production cost of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958) could have been reduced by about 3% if the film was shot in matted widescreen and “standard color” instead of “Technicolor VistaVision”; which suggests that reducing production costs was a strong factor in the format’s demise (7).
While Vincent provides a valuable technical and industrial history of VistaVision, film studies still lacks an aesthetic history of the format that examines how filmmakers exploited the sharpness of the image and its “big screen” rather than widescreen attributes. There is no detailed explanation of how VistaVision’s properties were exploited by filmmakers, when compared with pre-widescreen films and other widescreen formats. Frank Tashlin and Alfred Hitchcock were two of the most prolific VistaVision filmmakers, so a careful analysis of their 1950s films could reveal distinctive stylistic features facilitated by the VistaVision format.
Other chapters in the anthology make important contributions to the history of widescreen style. Lisa Dombrowski’s chapter examines low-budget “CinemaScope” films photographed in black and white. As Dombrowski explains, until September 1956, Fox refused to allow the production of CinemaScope films in black and white, as they felt the format needed to be combined with colour to ensure its prestige. To encourage exhibitors to become CinemaScope compatible, however, Fox needed a strong supply of CinemaScope films, so they licensed Bausch and Lomb CinemaScope lenses to other studios such as Regal Films which made black-and-white ’Scope films using the moniker “RegalScope”.
Dombrowski’s analysis of three black-and-white ’Scope films, all from 1957 – Forty Guns (Samuel Fuller), Young and Dangerous (William F. Claxton), and Kronos (Kurt Neumann) – proposes that different directors exploited the format’s distinctive capabilities in a variety of ways. When tracking stylistic change, it can be tempting to simply consider the capabilities of a technology before finding examples in films where those capabilities are exploited. It makes sense, for example, to hypothesise that black-and-white ’Scope films may more frequently utilise depth staging as black-and-white stocks were much “faster” than colour stocks, so the lens could be stopped down to increase the depth of field. However, some CinemaScope films made around the same time as the three Dombrowski analyses exploit depth more frequently than films released in earlier years. Historians of film style must be careful to avoid a type of confirmation bias caused by only finding the stylistic change that one goes looking for.
A strength of Dombrowski’s research is that she draws attention to very low-budget films that are as important a part of the history of widescreen style as lavish roadshow productions and films made by notable auteurs. Claxton’s widescreen films need as much attention as Fuller’s in order to develop a thorough understanding of how widescreen style developed and changed over time.
John Gibbs and Douglas Pye’s chapter is also interested in widescreen stylistics as they examine the contrasting styles of Otto Preminger’s CinemaScope film River of No Return (1954) and Sam Peckinpah’s Junior Bonner (1972), shot in Todd-AO 35 (a Panavision-like format based on Japanese anamorphic lenses). The authors accept that their comparison involves filmmakers working in “very different Hollywood contexts” (p. 89), but their analysis risks being ahistorical as Preminger’s style was at least partly influenced by the technologies available to CinemaScope filmmakers working in early 1954. During this period, there were only moderate focal length CinemaScope lenses, no anamorphic zooms, and the Eastmancolor stock available was so “slow” that it restricted the use of the longest lenses. A filmmaker’s style is the result of many influences including technologies, so it is important to carefully consider the full context in which they were working.
Other aspects of Gibbs and Pye’s analysis can be construed as rhetorical flourishes; for example, some of the long lens shots in Junior Bonner are described as “surveillance” (p. 85), but it is never explained who is performing this action. They argue that Peckinpah’s style is based around “the accumulation of fragments” (p. 89), yet the two examples presented generally follow principles of continuity editing, which make them more coherent than the staging and editing of similar conversation sequences in contemporary Hollywood films. Consider also that a film edit can be considered a join as well as a break, so describing Peckinpah’s style as “fragmented” (in order to emphasise it is a break) does not adequately describe his style. Gibbs and Pye concede that the conclusions they draw are only tentative and require a more thorough understanding of the relationship between film style and meaning, but unfortunately the interpretations they offer rely too much on assigning specific meanings to elements of style without consideration of the different widescreen stylistic norms that existed when the films were made.
Sheldon Hall’s chapter on alternative versions of early widescreen films is an excellent demonstration of the ways the properties of different widescreen formats enabled filmmakers to make different compositional choices. Hall examines early CinemaScope films that were simultaneously shot in the Academy ratio or “matted widescreen”, and the Todd-AO film Oklahoma! (Fred Zinnemann, 1955) that was simultaneously shot in CinemaScope in order to produce a 24-frame-per-second 35mm version. These films were shot in different systems to ensure they could be played in cinemas that were yet to install CinemaScope lenses or 70mm projectors. Examining Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954), Hall notes that “[s]cenes which are staged horizontally across the screen in the CinemaScope version are rearranged in depth for the flat one” (p. 124). In some other scenes, Hall provides frame enlargements that show how actors were omitted in the flat version because they could not be fitted into the frame. Other examples show how the shot scale is changed to produce a wider framing to fit the same number of actors. This point has been raised previously by David Bordwell who noted that conventional approaches to filming CinemaScope two-shots look a lot like cropped Academy ratio compositions (8). In his memoir, director Vincente Minnelli complained that, due to the way CinemaScope lenses doubled the horizontal viewing angle while leaving the vertical angle unchanged, the format seemed to reduce the height of the frame rather than actually increasing the width (9).
Widescreen Worldwide is an informative anthology that presents some excellent examples of how film history is enriched by seeking answers to particular questions. Many of the authors demonstrate that widescreen remains a fascinating topic because it raises numerous questions that touch on the technical, industrial, economic, aesthetic and ideological aspects of film as a cultural practice. While the book is concerned specifically with widescreen filmmaking, it demonstrates how focussing on even a limited aspect of film history forces historians to consider a range of factors that have shaped film history since the middle of last century. This book is a significant contribution to film history not only because of the information contained in it, but also because the chapters demonstrate different approaches to understanding a period of rapid technological change in the middle of the 20th century that offer ways of understanding changes to screen media that are occurring now.
Widescreen Worldwide, edited by John Belton, Sheldon Hall and Steve Neale, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2010.
- Charles Barr, “CinemaScope: Before and After”, Film Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 4, Summer, 1963, pp. 4-24.
- John Belton, Widescreen Cinema, Harvard Film Studies, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, 1992.
- V.F. Perkins, Film as Film: Understanding and Judging Movies, Penguin Books, New York, 1972.
- David Bordwell, “Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong”, David Bordwell’s website on cinema, October, 2009.
- The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan, 2008) and The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, 2011) feature some shots photographed in IMAX, but the majority of each film was photographed in 35mm.
- Sponable, quoted in James R. Benford, “The CinemaScope Optical System”, Journal of the SMPTE, vol. 62, January – June, 1954, p. 70.
- The Paramount memo is reproduced on “The VistaVision Wing Page 6” of Martin Hart’s Widescreen Museum. My calculation of a 3% saving is based on the film’s budget of $2.479 million presented in Dan Auiler, Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic, Griffin Edition, St Martin’s Press, New York, 2000, p. 174.
- See David Bordwell, Poetics of Cinema, Routledge, New York, 2008, p. 323.
- See Vincente Minnelli, Hector Arce, I Remember it Well, Angus and Robertson, London, 1975, p. 279.