Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Movie Aspect Ratios, Audience Immersion, and Eggs

 

I have the Blu-ray of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and had been watching the film on Turner Classic Movies as I puttered around on the computer this morning. My brothers and I originally saw the film when it was first released on a curved Cinerama screen at one of the Century domed theaters in San Jose, CA (adjacent to the Winchester Mystery House). It’s the same Cinerama theater that my brothers and I watched John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix when it was first released.

The wonderful thing about the curved Cinerama screen was that if you sat toward the middle of the theater a few rows closer to the screen than the exact middle, each edge of the curved screen could be seen with your peripheral vision, which gave you the effect of more complete immersion into the film. For films like Grand Prix, this had a powerful effect, especially in the opening sequence shot on the Monaco Grand Prix course with cameras mounted on the cars.

As I glanced up at my TV playing 2001, I noticed that the TCM version (probably the same as the Blu-ray) is still not in the aspect ratio of the film that was run through the camera and the aspect ratio shown in the original theatrical release — which is even narrower.

From Forbes magazine last year:

“No previous release of 2001: A Space Odyssey achieved the accurate aspect ratio that this 4K UHD release achieves. The new version was created by directly scanning a perfectly preserved spherical (i.e. flat) original 65mm negative of the film at 8K resolution, instead of the previously used 35 mm anamorphic version scanned for prior DVD/Blu-ray releases.

The use of modern color correction techniques and color grading combined with the vastly improved 8K resolution scan has created a spectacular visual result. Everything appears more real — many of 2001’s outer space sequences look more convincing than the most expensive sci-fi VFX from recent movies — and thus generates greater sense of awe, suspense, and reflection for the viewer.”

There has been a lot of criticism of the film over the years, especially from audiences raised on more fast-paced action films like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and other more intense action movies. By today’s standards, 2001 is ponderously slow. Of course, the pace was also deliberate and meant to be a more realistic depiction of what space travel would be like.

Watching 2001 on a small screen – even a 60- or 70-inch HDTV will still never replicate the experience of more total immersion in a theater with a curved Cinerama screen – the wide vistas of the African plain in the opening scenes, the interior of the Jupiter spacecraft as Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) jogs sideways around its interior. Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were at least sticklers for accuracy when it came to how to deal with weightlessness in space and astronauts Poole and Bowman are “grounded” because of the spacecraft’s centrifugal force. This gave Kubrick the idea of turning the camera sideways which communicates to the audience that they are looking at something otherworldly and impossible to do on Earth. Weightlessness is something that more current filmmakers simply chuck out the window rather than having to deal with the logic or reality of it.

If you watch Truffaut’s version of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the TV screen shown in Montag’s (Oscar Werner) home, in front of which, his wife Linda (Julie Christie) is constantly fixated, is comparable or even smaller than many flat-panel TVs sold today. At some point in the future, my guess is that new homes will be built with entire walls that are television screens and perhaps several walls throughout the home. And yet, even if that were to come to pass, those larger screens – perhaps 20 to 30 feet wide and 14 feet or so high — will still not be able to replicate what the Cinerama screen was able to do … even if they are curved wall screens.

When I was 14- or 15-years-old, while visiting our cousins in the Seattle/Tacoma area, I showed my uncle, who was an engineer for Lockheed, a rough sketch I had made of a theater design. The theater was shaped like an enormous egg laying on its side. The audience seating would be reclined and at the base of the egg across a convex-curved floor, so that no matter where one sat, other audience members would (for the most part) fall away from one’s peripheral vision and not be a distraction. Meanwhile, the interior surface of the shell would be an enormous curved movie screen (or a multitude of screens) that would envelop the audience almost no matter where they happened to glance or follow something moving across engulfing their entire field of vision. My uncle was somewhat impressed with the concept and said that NASA might be interested in such a theater for astronaut training. Of course, a completely spherical theater filled with water that astronauts would float in while images of the Earth, Mars, the Moon, or some other planet from space are projected might be even more realistic.

Since the future seems to be moving away from traditional theaters in favor of home viewing and VR goggles, more elaborate fanciful immersive theater designs — even ones shaped like eggs — are really no longer necessary. Though, home viewing and VR goggles, in my humble opinion, make the movie experience more, well, selfish and less about a communally-shared experience where you can see, hear, and experience the emotions of hundreds of people all at the same time as they react to an actor’s face that takes up the entire screen or some subtle or more outrageous effect shown some 30 feet high by 90 feet wide. Ah, well.

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There are 35 comments.

  1. CB Toder aka Mama Toad Member
    CB Toder aka Mama Toad Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I love the name, Cinerama. So mid-century American. Cinerama. Awesome.

    • #1
    • December 7, 2019, at 12:19 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  2. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    A really excellent post, Brian. Even on a fine modern big screen, it’s not possible to fully “get” the experience of even one screen Cinerama, let alone three screen Cinerama. To really see something like How the West Was Won at home, you’d need to temporarily install extra screens to the left and right of the main one, and somehow blur the lines that separate them. This was a chronic minor issue with three screen, mitigated if not completely solved, with vibrating wires at the edge of the projection beam nicknamed “gigolos”. (They jiggled the lines.) The whole point was, “you can’t see this anywhere else, it’s unique”. Like a theme park attraction. 

    How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were the final three screen pictures. One thing that made them unique: they were filmed at a normal 24 frames a second, to allow easier conversion to one screen anamorphic that could be shown in any theater. Earlier Cinerama releases were filmed at a non-standard 30 frames a second to minimize flicker. 

     

    • #2
    • December 7, 2019, at 12:47 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  3. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I also saw Grand Prix in (one screen) Cinerama. It preceded 2001. At the time, Frankenheimer was just about as prestigious a name as Kubrick’s, and The Manchurian Candidate was considered roughly the equal of Dr. Strangelove. Grand Prix was probably the best reviewed racing film before today’s Ford v Ferrari, and despite some schmaltzy dialog it is still modern looking. Most movies of the pre-Spielberg/Lucas era weren’t as visceral as what we’ve all become used to today, so mounting cameras low to the ground, in the middle of the action was not routinely done. The one mounted on the front fender had a button-actuated “pan head” that rotated the camera from looking forward to looking at the driver. This was “blind”–there was obviously no camera operator, not even a video feed, so you got what you got, and if you didn’t like it you did it again. 

    • #3
    • December 7, 2019, at 12:56 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  4. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    A really excellent post, Brian. Even on a fine modern big screen, it’s not possible to fully “get” the experience of even one screen Cinerama, let alone three screen Cinerama. To really see something like How the West Was Won at home, you’d need to temporarily install extra screens to the left and right of the main one, and somehow blur the lines that separate them. This was a chronic minor issue with three screen, mitigated if not completely solved, with vibrating wires at the edge of the projection beam nicknamed “gigolos”. (They jiggled the lines.) The whole point was, “you can’t see this anywhere else, it’s unique”. Like a theme park attraction.

    How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm were the final three screen pictures. One thing that made them unique: they were filmed at a normal 24 frames a second, to allow easier conversion to one screen anamorphic that could be shown in any theater. Earlier Cinerama releases were filmed at a non-standard 30 frames a second to minimize flicker.

     

    Thanks. I have How the West Was Won of Blu-ray which has both a Letterbox and what they’ve dubbed a “Smilebox” version which simulates the curve of a Cinerama screen. What’s interesting is that on certain scenes you do get a slight dimensional effect, like when Jimmy Stewart (as fur trapper Linus Rawlings) is rowing his canoe and the prow of the canoe seems to jut outward toward the viewer from the screen. My guess is the effect would be more pronounced on a much larger home theater screen but as you say, still won’t replicate what could have been seen on a Cinerama screen. The digital transfer and the color on both are quite good.

    Of course, the obvious deficiency of both versions is that characters to one side or other of the frame who are meant to be looking at a figure at the center of the frame always look as though they’re looking past the character by a few feet as though they are cross-eyed or slightly vision-impaired.

    From a directorial or storytelling aspect, the format tended to force characters to always be placed at the center of the frame (which is very obvious in How the West Was Won) which dramatically has its limitations even as it emphasizes more visual impact in certain scenes – like the action in train scene in the final sequence of the film. 

    Cinerama was an interesting if flawed experiment that easily could be refined and overcome with today’s technology and faster frame rates like what Douglas Trumbull was working on to come closer to a 3D experience without having to wear 3D glasses.

    • #4
    • December 7, 2019, at 1:13 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  5. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    I also saw Grand Prix in (one screen) Cinerama. It preceded 2001. At the time, Frankenheimer was just about as prestigious a name as Kubrick’s, and The Manchurian Candidate was considered roughly the equal of Dr. Strangelove. Grand Prix was probably the best reviewed racing film before today’s Ford v Ferrari, and despite some schmaltzy dialog it is still modern looking. Most movies of the pre-Spielberg/Lucas era weren’t as visceral as what we’ve all become used to today, so mounting cameras low to the ground, in the middle of the action was not routinely done. The one mounted on the front fender had a button-actuated “pan head” that rotated the camera from looking forward to looking at the driver. This was “blind”–there was obviously no camera operator, not even a video feed, so you got what you got, and if you didn’t like it you did it again.

    The soap opera storyline of Grand Prix unfortunately diminishes from the amazing cinematography and even the Maurice Jarre score of the film. There is a montage sequence in the middle of the film (or 2/3) of overlapping images of cars that sadly is hurt by repeated images of Eva Marie Saint overacting to the camera as she follows the French driver (Yves Montand), her lover, around the circuit. But the opening Monaco sequence and the Saul Bass-assisted split screens in the title sequence help to make up for a lot of the schmaltz.

    • #5
    • December 7, 2019, at 1:20 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  6. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Curved gaming monitors have been popular for years. The difference is that such screens are designed for just one viewer and a viewer who sits close. But some of them are very wide indeed.

    One of the many tech projects Microsoft demoed before scrapping is the IllumiRoom TV peripheral. It was designed for fully 3D environments (games), rather than films for which nothing exists beyond the camera view. So it could project the scene’s periphery onto the TV viewer’s room. The audience focused on the TV but the projector enveloped them in the scene. At its most basic, the IllumiRoom would just project colors matching those around the edges of the TV.

    Brian Watt: Since the future seems to be moving away from traditional theaters in favor of home viewing and VR goggles, more elaborate fanciful immersive theater designs — even ones shaped like eggs — are really no longer necessary. Though, home viewing and VR goggles, in my humble opinion, make the movie experience more, well, selfish and less about a communally-shared experience

    First, theater simulation is common in VR. Every VR platform includes a variety of theater viewing experiences, like Big Screen. Such software lets you adjust the virtual TV aspect ratio to whatever fits the particular video, pick whatever screen size you prefer, adjust the theater setting (in an opera house or on a loghouse balcony overlooking mountains, for example), and share the experience with distant associates via synched viewing and avatars (which will eventually be photorealistic 3D models).

    Second, whether or not film viewing is social varies by viewer and circumstances. If I’m watching a comedy, I enjoy sharing the laughter with friends and family. But if I’m watching a thriller, I am never going to look at my companions and don’t desire any breaks from the suspense. And most people watch TV or films alone at least occasionally.

    Certainly, VR viewing isn’t the same. But it’s not objectively inferior in every way.

    I say that as someone who has yet to buy a mid- or high-range VR setup. It interests me, but the costs versus value haven’t convinced me to buy yet.

    • #6
    • December 7, 2019, at 1:52 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  7. Hoyacon Member

    Thanks for this!

    Was Sound of Music originally released in Cinerama?

     

    • #7
    • December 7, 2019, at 1:56 PM PST
    • 1 like
  8. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Thanks for this!

    Was Sound of Music originally released in Cinerama?

    No but it was shot with Todd-AO cameras which I believe were 70mm as well as a 70mm camera for the aerial shots above Austria. Todd-AO was producer Mike Todd’s answer to Cinerama, Cinemascope, and Paramount’s VistaVision. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! was shot in both Todd-AO and Cinemascope. The Todd-AO version tends to be regarded as the superior version for image quality.

    • #8
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:11 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Thanks for this!

    Was Sound of Music originally released in Cinerama?

     

    It came out in 1965, the apex of Cinerama productions, but unlike The Greatest Story Ever Told and Battle of the Bulge, it wasn’t Cinerama.

    • #9
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:17 PM PST
    • 1 like
  10. Hoyacon Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Thanks for this!

    Was Sound of Music originally released in Cinerama?

    It came out in 1965, the apex of Cinerama productions, but unlike The Greatest Story Ever Told and Battle of the Bulge, it wasn’t Cinerama.

    Thanks. I remember going on one of my first dates to it (wholesome kid) and had to be driven by a parent to the only theatre–a big one- that was showing it–which is why I asked. Must’ve been some kind of exclusive.

    Maybe the answer above by @brianwattexplains it.

    • #10
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:22 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  11. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Aaron Miller (View Comment):

    Second, whether or not film viewing is social varies by viewer and circumstances. If I’m watching a comedy, I enjoy sharing the laughter with friends and family. But if I’m watching a thriller, I am never going to look at my companions and don’t desire any breaks from the suspense. And most people watch TV or films alone at least occasionally.

    Certainly, VR viewing isn’t the same. But it’s not objectively inferior in every way.

    I say that as someone who has yet to buy a mid- or high-range VR setup. It interests me, but the costs versus value haven’t convinced me to buy yet.

    I think there’s a noticeable difference watching a film like Jaws, Alien, Schindler’s List or Hitchcock’s original Psycho in a theater with an engaged audience rather than at home or with a pair of VR goggles on. I first saw Psycho in its entirety at a small art house theater in Saratoga, California one rainy night. The proprietor of the theater had worked for decades in Hollywood and had a million stories about the industry. Before the curtain opened, he would stand at the front of the theater and introduce each film with one or two anecdotes about the film to be shown or about some aspect of the business. It was like what TCM does now.

    Psycho is a different experience with an audience, especially in the way that Hitch manipulates his audience. When the scene with Martin Balsam, the snooping detective, unfolds as he decides to go into the Bates’ home and climb the stairs, a lot of the folks in the audience actually jumped up out of their seats at the climax of that scene. I don’t think you’re going to experience the same reaction in the comfort of your home – even with friends who have never seen the film. Perhaps there’s a certain vulnerability about being in public, in a space not under your control versus the comfort and relative security of one’s home that results in the different reactions.

    • #11
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:40 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  12. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    • #12
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:48 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  13. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    LOL. What Wonder Woman is saying is simply describing what the visual is. Might have been better if she said something like: “Blast these Hollywood moviemakers! They’ve now gone too far with 3D!”

    • #13
    • December 7, 2019, at 2:54 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  14. WillowSpring Member
    WillowSpring Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    My “pre-wife” and I went to a big theater to see “2001” on a date and the only pair of seats was absolutely front row center! Now, that was an experience.

    • #14
    • December 7, 2019, at 5:07 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  15. Arahant Member

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    I have How the West Was Won of Blu-ray which has both a Letterbox and what they’ve dubbed a “Smilebox” version which simulates the curve of a Cinerama screen. What’s interesting is that on certain scenes you do get a slight dimensional effect, like when Jimmy Stewart (as fur trapper Linus Rawlings) is rowing his canoe and the prow of the canoe seems to jut outward toward the viewer from the screen. My guess is the effect would be more pronounced on a much larger home theater screen but as you say, still won’t replicate what could have been seen on a Cinerama screen.

    They had to redo Jimmy’s costumes for that, since they realized the cameras and system were so good they could see where it was machine sewn. They had to go back and hand-stitch everything.

    • #15
    • December 7, 2019, at 6:08 PM PST
    • 4 likes
  16. OldDanRhody, 7152 Maple Dr. Member

    CB Toder aka Mama Toad (View Comment):

    I love the name, Cinerama. So mid-century American. Cinerama. Awesome.

    If you like Cinerama, you should visit Flambeaurama.

    • #16
    • December 7, 2019, at 7:08 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  17. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    I have How the West Was Won of Blu-ray which has both a Letterbox and what they’ve dubbed a “Smilebox” version which simulates the curve of a Cinerama screen. What’s interesting is that on certain scenes you do get a slight dimensional effect, like when Jimmy Stewart (as fur trapper Linus Rawlings) is rowing his canoe and the prow of the canoe seems to jut outward toward the viewer from the screen. My guess is the effect would be more pronounced on a much larger home theater screen but as you say, still won’t replicate what could have been seen on a Cinerama screen.

    They had to redo Jimmy’s costumes for that, since they realized the cameras and system were so good they could see where it was machine sewn. They had to go back and hand-stitch everything.

    That’s a great anecdote. One thing they couldn’t fix: Stewart is too old for that role, too old for Carroll Baker, the actress he was paired with, and he knew it. He’d already been through that on Vertigo, four years earlier. He was good anyway, as he always was. 

    HTWWW was another of MGM’s attempts to recapture the box office magic of Gone With the Wind with an epic, sweeping story that makes one woman’s story into a history for an entire American region. You can’t call it PC by today’s standards, let alone woke, but it was an earnestly middle of the road liberal take on American Indians and the old west, the kind that conservatives can respect and enjoy. 

    • #17
    • December 7, 2019, at 8:39 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  18. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    BTW, Brian, your egg-shaped viewing surface was (sort of) used by Universal Studios for their Back to the Future ride, in its day a damn good immersive experience. 

    • #18
    • December 7, 2019, at 9:03 PM PST
    • Like
  19. Brian Watt Member
    Brian Watt Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Gary McVey (View Comment):

    BTW, Brian, your egg-shaped viewing surface was (sort of) used by Universal Studios for their Back to the Future ride, in its day a damn good immersive experience.

    I want royalties!

    • #19
    • December 7, 2019, at 9:18 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  20. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    About 40 years ago I passed up the chance to buy a military surplus 70mm movie camera at a second hand shop in Hollywood’s film equipment rental district. Yes, I said 70, not 65mm, which is what you’d use for a studio film with sound. This was used for extremely detailed shots without sync sound, of things like rocket launches or atomic tests. I had no real use for it, and even $300 was a lot of money in 1979 for an impressive looking but impractical camera. The film and processing would have been incredibly expensive on my budget. 

    Still…I could have made some of the most elaborate experimental underground short films ever. Then all I would have needed was the Chinese Theater or the Cinerama Dome to screen them. Piece of cake. 

    • #20
    • December 8, 2019, at 2:30 AM PST
    • 7 likes
  21. Jon1979 Lincoln

    Paramount’s VistaVision (“Motion Picture Hi-Fidelity“, as it said at the start of the films) was their answer to Fox’s CinemaScope and was closer to the aspect ratio of today’s HDTV screens.

    Alfred Hitchcock, working under contract to Paramount in the 1950s, loved it, so much so that when he did “North by Northwest” for MGM, he had them film it in VistaVision, instead of CinemaScope or the MGM Camera 65 processes they were using by the late 1950s. But the problem was VistaVision required a radical reworking of both the filming and projection systems compared with the other widescreen processes other than Cinerama — a true VistaVision print was filmed and runs sideways through a projector — so it never caught on. But if you can get a VistaVision DVD or streaming video in the correct aspect ratio today, it will have less problem with the ‘black bars’ on your TV than other widescreen movies of the 1950s/early 60s.

    • #21
    • December 8, 2019, at 8:27 AM PST
    • 2 likes
  22. James Gawron Thatcher
    James Gawron Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Brian Watt: Though, home viewing and VR goggles, in my humble opinion, make the movie experience more, well, selfish and less about a communally-shared experience where you can see, hear, and experience the emotions of hundreds of people all at the same time as they react to an actor’s face that takes up the entire screen or some subtle or more outrageous effect shown some 30 feet high by 90 feet wide. Ah, well.

    Brian,

    I agree that things like aspect ratio can make a great deal of difference especially on the subjective feeling of the audience. Certainly, your recommendations would be a lot of fun. Being the cheapskate that I am, I’ll probably wait for another generation or two on the VR goggles and just watch at home. As it is I have blue tooth headphones (so comfortable I forget that I have them on) so moving all the way to the VR thing is really the next step.

    Of course, what we really all want is more serious movies with better acting. Movies that are brave enough to tackle subjects that the left-wing narrative won’t approve of. I don’t think the tech will give us that. When people start to refuse to pay for infantile crap maybe we’ll see some cinema again.

    Regards,

    Jim

    • #22
    • December 8, 2019, at 9:28 AM PST
    • 1 like
  23. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member