Add a Comment to this Note (list members only)
Dead medium: Wide-Screen Movies: Gance's Polyvision, Waller's Cinerama
From: (Ian Campbell)

*A Short History of the Movies,* Gerald Mast, Macmillan, New York, 1992. ISBN 0-02-377070-8


Page 204 Picture of Gance's Camera

"Among the many breakthroughs of *Napoleon* (((film 1927, dir. Abel Gance, France))) was its use of multiple imagery, for which Gance's general term was polyvision. Polyvision referred to superimposition (as many as sixteen images laid on top of one another), the split screen (as many as nine distinct images in a frame), and the multiple screen (the triptych == used three times in *Napoleon,* although two have been lost == whereby three (((unsynchronized))) cameras and projectors and screens could create a single wide-screen image with an aspect ratio of 4:1, or three separate, side-by-side images that reinforced, reverse or played against each other in counterpoint).

" With polyvision and rapid cutting, Gance became the unchallenged master of montage in France. The triptych, which was later reinvented as Cinerama, was an invention whose inventor was conveniently forgotten. The final reel of *Napoleon* was also shot in 3-D and again in colour, though Gance disliked the results and declined to release those experimental reels, deciding at last on the triptych."

Picture of Napolean Triptych

Page 279

"Cinerama, unlike 3-D, dazzled its patrons by bringing the audience into the picture rather than the picture into the audience. Cinerama originally used three interlocked cameras and four interlocked projectors (one for stereophonic sound). The final prints were not projected on top of one another (superimposed, as in 3-D), but side by side. The result was an immense wrap-around screen that was really three screens.

"The wide, deeply curved screen and the relative positions of the three cameras worked on the eye's peripheral vision to make the mind believe that the body was actually in motion. The difference between a ride in an automobile and a conventionally filmed ride is that in an automobile the world also moves past on the sides, not just straight ahead.


"As early as the Paris exposition of 1900, the energetic inventor-cinematographers had begun displaying wraparound and multi-screen film processes. (Multi-screen experiments have long been popular at world fairs, for example, the New York fair of 1963-64 and Expo '67 in Montreal.) As early as 1927, Abel Gance had incorporated triple-effects, both panoramic and triptych, into his *Napoleon.*

"In 1938, Fred Waller, Cinerama's inventor, began research on the process. But when *This is Cinerama* opened in 1952, audiences choked == quite literally == with a film novelty that sent them racing down a roller coaster track and soaring over the Rocky Mountains. A magnificent six-track (in later Cinerama films, seven track) stereophonic sound system accompanied the galloping pictures; sounds could travel from left to right across the screen or jump from behind the screen to behind the audience's heads."

Pg. 281

"Cinerama remained commercially viable longer than 3-D because it was more carefully marketed. Because of the complex projection machinery, only a few theatres in major cities were equipped for the process. Seeing Cinerama became a special event; the film was sold as a "road-show" attraction, with reserved seats, noncontinuous performances, and high prices. Customers returned to Cinerama because they could see a Cinerama film so infrequently. (The second, *Cinerama Holiday,* came out three years after *This is Cinerama.*) And although Cinerama repeatedly offered its predictable postcard scenery and its obligatory rides and chases, the films were stunning travelogues.

"Cinerama faced new troubles when it too tried to combine its gimmick with narrative: *The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm* (1962), *It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World* (1963), *How the West Was Won* (1963). As with 3-D, what Aristotle called the "Spectacle" (he found it the least important dramatic element) overwhelmed the more essential dramatic ingredients of plot, character, and ideas.

"In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's *2001, A Space Odyssey* subordinated a modified Cinerama (shot with a single camera but projected on a Cinerama screen) to the film's sociological and metaphysical journey, letting the big screen and racing camera work for the story rather than letting the story work for the effects. Despite the artistic and commercial success of *2001,* Cinerama is even deader than 3-D, partially because the mid-1970's combination of 70mm and Panavision lenses (which Kubrick also used), enhanced by Dolby Stereo soundtracks, comes close to reproducing the immense sights and sounds of Cinerama without clumsy multimachine methods of the earlier process.

"In 1952 the gimmick successfully pulled Americans away from the small screen at home, but not enough of them at once to offer the film industry any real commercial salvation."

Ian Campbell (