From Oklahoma! to Dunkirk: A Brief History of 70mm (in posters)
Charting the ups and downs of widescreen moviemaking over six decades
This Is Cinerama (1952)
The TIFF Cinematheque series Magnificent 70mm begins Saturday, December 23.
Some of the most enduring images in film history never ran through a projector, but began life as elements of promotional campaigns, and — thanks to nostalgia, notoriety, or sometimes just pure ubiquity — became iconic in their own right. Our ongoing series FilmArt looks at the advertising, posters, lobby cards and other ephemera that complement and enrich the filmgoing experience.
The widescreen age officially began on September 30, 1952 at New York’s Broadway Theatre, as a sold-out house settled down for the premiere of a motion picture unlike any that had come before: This Is Cinerama.
After a deliberately dull 12-minute black-and-white prologue, the theatre’s curtains slowly parted, revealing a 78-foot wide, 32-foot high curved screen. Images from three projectors operated by five projectionists soon filled the screen, plunging viewers through a rollercoaster ride, and then on to a 110-minute travelogue of waterskiing in Florida, a concert by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, and an aerial tour of America’s national parks, among other attractions.
The arrival of Cinerama heralded a change as significant as the arrival of sound. With rare exceptions, for over 50 years movies had been shot and projected in a generally square format. Pace Norma Desmond, in 1952 the pictures got big.
Despite appearing on fewer than 30 screens, This Is Cinerama was the highest-grossing film of 1952, and had an indelible impact on cinema. The scope and splendour of Cinerama presented a solution to what the studios at the time perceived as the “threat” of television.
However, Cinerama wasn’t a viable option for commercial Hollywood films, as it simply had too many limitations. The technology’s immersive effect was achieved by having three cameras shooting simultaneously side by side to create a 146° panorama, but these cameras could not be moved during a shot for fear of creating a discontinuity between the linked images. (Even so, the seams between the three separate images were often visible when they were projected.) On the financial side, meanwhile, despite the fact that Cinerama represented a potential cash cow for exhibitors, it required an enormous financial and technical investment to equip theatres to project it. Audacious as it was, at the end of the day it was simply untenable to roll Cinerama out on a national scale. And nobody was more conscious of this — and better equipped to find a workaround — than one of Cinerama’s founders, independent producer Mike Todd.
You’re in the Show with Todd-AO
Though he is best remembered today as Elizabeth Taylor’s husband # 3, Todd was an integral figure in (literally) expanding the frame of cinema. The sort of oversized character that seemed to be in much supply in the postwar years, Todd had won and lost a fortune before age 21, had conquered Broadway during the Great Depression, and, at the century’s halfway point, was intent on doing the same in Hollywood.
Todd had been one of the founders of Cinerama along with Lowell Thomas and the technology’s inventor Fred Waller, but, depending on the source, he had either quit or been bounced from the company before the premiere of This Is Cinerama. Todd was well aware of the limitations of the technology, and was vocal about overcoming them. He knew that Cinerama’s travelogues and concerts might earn some pro tem wonderment, but would never sate the world’s hunger for narrative entertainment.
Todd’s vision was to produce one widescreen film per year which would travel the major cities of the US as a “roadshow,” with tickets selling at a premium price. After his split from Cinerama, he recruited a leading optics expert, Dr. Brian O’Brien of the American Optical Company, to help him develop a technology that could approximate the scope of Cinerama (if not its immersive qualities) on a single piece of film within a single camera. O’Brien devised a solution which would utilize a 70mm-wide film stock, with 65mm used for the image and the remaining 5mm housing the soundtrack. Combining his name with that of American Optical, Todd dubbed the new process Todd-AO.
Needing a guaranteed hit for the unveiling of his new technology, Todd decided that the best bet was to go with a known quantity. Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! had been a Broadway hit for over a decade, but its creators had thus far resolutely refused to license it to Hollywood — but that changed when they viewed early Todd-AO test footage shot by Oscar-winning director Fred Zinnemann, and recognized how the new “wide screen” would allow for stunning vistas only hinted at on the stage. Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed to sell Todd the film rights to the show for $1 million, with the caveat that Zinnemann shoot the picture as a straightforward stage adaptation, forgoing any of the sort of This Is Cinerama-style gimmicks that might showcase the technology at the expense of the show’s integrity.
Todd’s production of Oklahoma! premiered at New York’s Rivoli in October 1955 before embarking on a 50-city, two-screenings-a-day roadshow. In 1955, admission for most first-run theatres was usually 75 cents, but Oklahoma!’s ticket price was $3.50 for the best ticket (about $30 USD today).
“The film was a hit, but it wasn’t a hit for Mike,” recalled Todd’s best friend Eddie Fisher (husband #4 on the Liz Taylor hubby tally) in 2016. “He wanted to show off his process, and [Rodgers and Hammerstein] wouldn’t let him.” Todd set out to rectify that with his next project: a megabudget, epically-scaled adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, the perfect vehicle for demonstrating the possibilities of Todd-AO.
Turner Classic Movies credits Around the World in 80 Days with a laundry list of world records for the time: the most people ever filmed (68, 894), the most costumes ever used (74, 685), the greatest distanced ever travelled to make a film (four million air miles), the most camera set-ups, the most sets used, and the most assistant directors (33). Looking to ensure his massive investment, Todd rounded up over 40 stars — everyone from Frank Sinatra to Marlene Dietrich to Noël Coward — to appear in the film in small roles; this inadvertently resulted in the popularization of the old theatre term “cameo” (which appeared on posters for and in the film’s programme).
Todd insisted on treating each premiere of the film as an event, offering chiding advice to exhibitors that this was no ordinary cinematic experience: “Do not refer to Around the World in 80 Days as a movie. It’s not a movie. Movies are something you can see in your neighbourhood theatre and eat popcorn while you’re watching them. [...] Show Around the World in 80 Days almost exactly as you would present a Broadway show in your theatre.” It was promoted as the first hard-ticketed movie, and each new city’s premiere featured a gas balloon arranged by the Balloon Club of America. At each screening a hardbound Around the World in 80 Days Alamanac was sold, detailing the film’s intensive production process, drawing attention to the cameos, and highlighting many of the film’s most extravagant flourishes.
Around the World in 80 Days was a massive international hit, and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Sadly, less than one year collecting the Oscar, Todd would die in a plane crash, but his grand-scale conception of the movie-as-event would be realized over and over again as the new widescreen technologies entered their second decade.
The Miracle of CinemaScope
While Todd-AO was still in its infancy, 20th Century Fox was also working to apply the lessons of Cinerama on a wider scale. While all the studios were scrambling to find an “answer” to the TV problem, Fox was the only studio with a continuously operated R&D department, and thus it turned around a “widescreen solution” in little time, licensing an anamorphic lens technology developed by French inventor Henri Chrétien and branding it CinemaScope.
CinemaScope was an inexpensive adaptation of Cinerama that used Chrétien’s lens to capture a very wide image on regular 35mm film stock, with the trade-off for the low cost being a loss of sharpness in the image. (Scope also had a tendency to make actors appear leaner toward the frame’s edges and heftier when front and centre.)
The first slate of CinemaScope films included the Biblical epic The Robe (which slyly billed the technology as a “miracle”), the Marilyn Monroe comedy How to Marry a Millionaire, and the undersea adventure Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, the latter two of which advertised Scope as “the modern miracle you see without glasses” — a not-so-subtle dig at that unwieldy accessory associated with that previous cinematic “miracle,” 3D.
Despite such bravado, there was evidently some anxiety of influence at work in Fox’s promotion of their new technology: though it could be argued that the distinctive curve of the CinemaScope logo was intended to suggest the curve of the anamorphic lens, it’s likely that the studio’s marketers were trying to evoke the curve of the Cinerama screens (Scope offered no such experience).
Fox licensed CinemaScope technology to other studios, but it’s no surprise that many were unhappy licensing a product from their competitor. In the wake of Todd-AO’s success, Fox’s rivals all openly embraced 70mm technology in favour of CinemaScope, with many developing 70mm processes of their own. Though Fox regularly used CinemaScope until 1967, they too eventually took the leap into the world of 70mm — but not before one final, stubborn attempt at a proprietary product.
In 1956, Fox announced the invention of CinemaScope 55, which would utilize a 55mm film strip. Despite comically large above-the-title fanfare for CinemaScope 55 on the posters for the studio’s Broadway adaptations Carousel and The King and I, this technology was abandoned almost as quickly as it was introduced (neither film was even released on a 55mm print), and in 1958 Fox began using the Todd-AO process, rolling it out on films like South Pacific, Cleopatra, and The Sound of Music.
The opening credits of David Lean's *Lawrence of Arabia*
“A Window of the World”: Enter Panavision
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer were eager to get into the 70mm business (and out of the CinemaScope one), and in 1957 they became the first major studio to debut a 70mm process with their new tech Camera 65, which utilized 70mm film as well as anamorphic lenses. The technology was introduced with the Elizabeth Taylor-Montgomery Clift Civil War romance Raintree County, but it was really given a platform with William Wyler’s epic Ben-Hur.
Other than a brief “Window of the World” mention on some of the Raintree County materials, the posters for these films highlight the epic scale of the productions rather than overtly promoting the technology, as was done by other studios. After these first, highly successful releases, Camera 65 was renamed Ultra Panavision (and later, Ultra Panavision 70), and was used on films of every genre, from nautical epics (Mutiny on the Bounty) to Biblical epics (The Greatest Story Ever Told) to sword-and-sandal epics (The Fall of the Roman Empire) to comedic epics (It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World).
Super Panavision 70, a later version of the technology employing 70mm film stock, was used on some of the films we most associate with 70mm today, including Exodus, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Super Panavision also gave us the greatest of all 70mm films, 2001: A Space Odyssey. To anyone unfamiliar with 70mm, there’s no better starting point than Stanley Kubrick’s visionary 1968 space opera.
Before production began, one of the film’s trio of cinematographers, Bob Gaffney, told Kubrick “You’ve got to make it visceral. If you are going to put people in space there’s nothing bigger than 70mm wide screen [sic] to do that, and Cinerama is even better because it would be curved.”
Though 2001 was widely promoted as being designed for Cinerama, special effects supervisor Douglas Trumbull has stated that Cinerama’s curved screen was little more than an afterthought for the film. “The film was shot in Super Panavision for projection on the curved Cinerama screen, but the unique format wasn’t accounted for during the years of production. During the entire production, we never once viewed footage on a curved screen or in the format. [...] We never saw it in a Cinerama theatre. It wasn’t until the very, very end of photography, or maybe once during production, that I think Kubrick took a couple of 70mm prints and went down to a 70mm theatre to see how it looked.” Nevertheless, 2001 would become virtually synonymous with 70mm in the decades to come, its epic scale, symphonic score, towering ambition and mindbending visuals embodying Mike Todd’s admonition that “It’s not [just] a movie.”
The Curtain Rises on Technirama
In 1956, Technicolor launched its own large-format technology Technirama, which ran 35mm film horizontally through a camera instead of vertically, creating a larger (and higher-resolution) frame. Technirama was closer in concept to CinemaScope than Todd-AO, but companies like United Artists, Universal and Disney embraced this new third-party technology that would allow them to get in the widescreen game — whether they needed to be in it or not.
A 70mm version of Technirama (Super Technirama) was later developed and debuted with Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, the first animated film released on 70mm.
Super Technirama was mostly utilized on a succession of somehow both bloated and threadbare Samuel Bronston-produced epics like El Cid and 55 Days at Peking, which, if nothing else, must at least have funded a new armoury in Charlton Heston’s mansion.
On the more respected end of Super Technirama 70’s roster of historical epics is Spartacus, Stanley Kubrick’s first crack at 70mm and at the time second only to Ben-Hur as the most expensive movie ever made, employing over 10,000 people and making use of the services of “every one of Hollywood’s 187 stunt men,” according to Universal’s press kits. (Epic indeed!) Though Spartacus is now looked upon as an essential 70mm experience alongside 2001 or West Side Story, for almost 30 years after its initial release most viewers encountered the film only in a shortened version on badly damaged 35mm prints, until a nine-month, $1 million restoration in 1991 which reinstated 37 minutes of previous cut footage.
Everything Blows Up
In 1963 a handful of films were given 70mm releases that hadn’t been filmed for the process, including Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and the Spartacus-evoking Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis adventure The Vikings. These films heralded the arrival of what would be known as the 70mm “blow-up.”
But the “blow-up” truly arrived with David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago in 1965. Though Lean had filmed Lawrence of Arabia in Super Panavision 70, his follow-up was filmed on 35mm but marketed as a 70mm production.
Zhivago set a template for blockbusters to come, as producers now no longer needed to decide in advance whether to film in 70mm. An April 1964 article in American Cinematographer anticipated what would become a common practice for the next 30 years: “[The producer] simply shoots in Panavision 35, then, after the picture is completed [...] he may find that he has turned out something rather special and that it warrants roadshowing in 70mm — in which case, he calls the laboratory and orders the 70mm prints he needs.” A massively successful 1967 blow-up of Gone With the Wind confirmed that audiences didn’t mind paying a premium price to see a non-native 70mm presentation. Many of the biggest hits of the coming years were duly released in 70mm blow-ups, including The Wild Bunch, Funny Girl and The Dirty Dozen.
Following the release of James Clavell’s shot-on-70mm The Last Valley in 1970, there would be almost no native 70mm Hollywood productions for over 20 years. (Ironically, even as Hollywood was phasing out the practice of shooting on 70mm, many other national film industries seized upon it with gusto — particularly Russia, for such prestigious productions as Sergei Bondarchuk’s massive 1967 adaptation of War and Peace.) The prevalence of blow-ups also led marketers to abandon the various 70mm brand names, instead using a generic “in 70mm” call-out on most advertisements.
Apart from such exceptions as Disney’s Tron or Ron Fricke’s Baraka, both of which were shot on 70mm, in the 1980s 70mm releases were limited to blow-ups of awards contenders (like Philip Kaufman’s space-race epic The Right Stuff) looking to get some added lustre from the format as Oscar season peaked, or blockbusters like E.T. looking for another lease on life in the first-run market.
The 1990s saw two ambitious and splashy attempts to revive the practice of actually shooting in 70mm: Ron Howard’s critically lambasted Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman romantic epic Far and Away in 1992, and Kenneth Branagh’s four-hour, unexpurgated adaptation of Hamlet in 1996. But the most lauded 70mm release of the decade was a lavish restoration of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo that was meticulously blown up to a new widescreen splendour.
The financial failure of the Branagh Hamlet seemed to spell the end of 70mm yet again — but, like the bearded Nazarene who featured in so many of 70mm’s earliest epics, the format didn’t stay dead. In early 2012, rumours began to circulate that Paul Thomas Anderson was shooting at least some of his upcoming film The Master in 70mm.
These rumours were confirmed shortly before the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival. For the first time in a generation, film lovers were asking “What’s 70mm?” (As a sign of just how dead the format was, before The Master, TIFF Bell Lightbox was the only cinema in Canada with an active 70mm projector.)
Since 2012, several major films — including Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — have seen limited 70mm releases, inspiring many cinemas to re-acquire 70mm projectors.
A side benefit of this is that many long-dormant 70mm prints have begun circulating and are being seen by audiences again. But the question remains: in this age of 4K high-definition digital presentations, does 70mm have anything truly special to offer audiences?
Earlier this year, Warner Bros. released Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk in 70mm presentations in 125 locations around the world, making it the widest 70mm release in 25 years. In a conversation with Cameron Bailey at TIFF 2017, where the 70mm Dunkirk was screened as a special presentation, the director extolled the virtues of the format. “It’s about the feeling you get watching it, the immersive quality you get. There’s a depth to film. Photochemical film is the best analogy for the way the eye sees that we’ve ever come up with, and I think it gives you a more involved response, viscerally, emotionally, everything.
“This way of experiencing a story, it’s a very unique combination of an empathetic response from your fellow audience members and an involvement with the characters like that, and a direct visceral experience. Cinema’s the only medium that can do that.”