Film Formats - Page 4

Todd-AO  |  VistaVision  |  Widescreen

Page 1: 35mm | 2-perf | 3-perf | 4-perf
Page 2: 8mm | 16mm | CinemaScope | Cinerama
IMAX | MGM Camera 65 | Panavision
Page 3: Scope | Showscan | Super 8 | Super 16
Super 35 | Superscope | Technirama
Techniscope | Technovision
Page 4: Todd-AO | VistaVision | Widescreen




Todd-AO is a widescreen process developed for producer Michael Todd by Dr. Brian O'Brien, Jr. of the American Optical Company.

Films were shot on a 65mm negative [30 fps for the first 2 features] using 4 new lenses, among them a 12.7mm 'bug-eye' lens, that photographed an image 128° wide. The picture was printed on 70mm film [2.20:1] to allow for 6 stereophonic soundtracks or was squeezed onto 35mm [2.35:1].


Producer Michael Todd had a dream... a motion picture system with one camera that could photograph action in a very wide angle... a camera that was flexible, capable of telling a story... on one strip of film... from a single projector... on a large screen that was wide and deeply curved... with a quality so perfect that the audience would be part of the action!

Shortly after the premiere of 'This is Cinerama', Mike Todd sold his shares in Cinerama because the board of directors did not listen to him when he was complaining about the shortcomings of the system. At the moment that the decision was made by Cinerama to build theatres all over the US and Europe, Todd left the company because he was aware of the many problems of Cinerama, in particular the join lines between the three projected images. He wanted the same effect as Cinerama but with just one camera and one projector. His dream began to come true.

He was very lucky to find O'Brien, Jr. who had just joined the American Optical Company, the largest optical company in the country, as head of research. It took O'Brien and a team of the University of Rochester nearly three years of research and experiments to develop the new lenses. Although American Optical had to design the complete new system, they subcontracted the camera work to the Mitchell Camera Company. And the N.V. Philips Gloeilampenfabrieken of Eindhoven, Netherlands, entered into an agreement with American Optical in October 1953 to design the projector for the Todd-AO process. Philips had a lot of experience since they were engaged in the design and production of 35mm projectors since 1934. They were instructed to design a compatible 35/70mm projector that could handle 70mm film as well as 35mm. They succeeded in developing the DP70 projector in only 6 months and by the spring of 1954 three finished projectors were delivered at American Optical in Massachusetts. Philips [North American Philips Co., Inc.] received a Class II Technical 'Oscar' [1962] for their revolutionary design of this 'all-purpose' projector, which was only slightly larger than a 35mm machine. Yet, it could project film from any of the eight motion picture systems in use at the time.

O'Brien found out that for the projection of a movie on a large curved screen a 35mm film would not be sufficient and so he decided they would need a new larger camera negative. So he was provided with cameras from the earlier industry's attempt to introduce wide film in 1930. His 65mm format is exactly the one used to photograph the 65/70mm version of 'The Bat Whispers' [dir: Roland West; ph: Robert H. Planck (Magnifilm 65/70mm version) & Ray June (35mm version)]. This 65mm picture frame is three and a half times the area of the standard 35mm film frame. A six channel soundtrack was developed and the release prints were 70mm: 5mm extra to create space for the 6 magnetic sound tracks along the edge of the film.

O'Brien and his assistants at the American Optical Company developed four new Todd-AO lenses that cover everything from a close up to wide distance shots. They range from the huge 128° [angle of coverage] wide-angle lens - called 'bug-eye' because of its enormous front element - down through the 64, 48 and 36 degree lenses. And so the Todd-AO 65/70mm format was the guarantee for a sharp image when blown up onto a large wide screen and without the technical problems of the 3-strip Cinerama system where Mike Todd's dream for Todd-AO was born.


Michael Todd and Dr. Brian O'Brien, Jr.


The first Todd-AO film, 'Oklahoma!' [1954 (filmed 14 July - 7 September 1954 on location & 8 September - 6 December 1954 in the studio); ph: Robert Surtees & Floyd Crosby (2uc)], was shot simultaneously in Todd-AO [2.20:1] & CinemaScope [2.55:1; 24 fps], a version that was significantly different [also in length] from the Todd-AO version.


"Oklahoma!" - Todd-AO version


"Oklahoma!" - CinemaScope version


'Oklahoma!' was originally slated to be financed and distributed by Twentieth Century-Fox, using their lot for shooting as well. However, the production company, Magna Theatre Corp., which was formed to be the sole producer of films featuring Todd-AO, disagreed with some of Fox's stipulations. Joseph M. Schenck then took over the financing, and Magna chose to produce the film independently. The use of the Todd-AO process may have constituted a conflict of interest for Fox, which was affiliated with CinemaScope. A few months later, Schenck resigned from Twentieth Century-Fox and became chairman of Magna.

'Oklahoma!' features the first use of the Todd-AO widescreen process. Although Todd was not directly affiliated with the production, his influence was instrumental in bringing the film version to fruition, as well as the Todd-AO process. Todd-AO represents a combination of Todd's surname and the American Optical Company, which developed the panoramic 'bug-eye' lens under O'Brien's leadership, with Dr. Hopkins of the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester. In addition, Westrex and Ampex created a six-channel sound system to complement Todd-AO.

In late March 1953, the film 'Far West', then to be produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr., vice-president in charge of production of Magna, and directed by Edward Small, was reported to be the first production to use Todd-AO. However, Magna never released a film under that title, and it has not been determined if the property was ever produced under another title or by another entity.

Michael Todd and cinematographer Schuyler A. Sanford shot the first test footage of the process, and screened it in June 1953 in Buffalo, New York. Director Fred Zinnemann and cinematographer Harry Stradling then created more test footage, which was screened on August 14, 1953. The early test footage was screened for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II in New York, and they then agreed to sell the film rights to 'Oklahoma!' and use the Todd-AO process for the picture. "When we first saw a demonstration of the Todd-AO process we realized what we had been waiting for. Unconsciously we had been groping for some way to give our story the visual scope, the big outdoor feeling it needed."

Although an April 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item noted that 'Oklahoma!' might be shot simultaneously in VistaVision, CinemaScope was used instead. In his autobiography, director Fred Zinnemann noted that using both Todd-AO and CinemaScope was a precautionary measure, as Todd-AO was still in the testing stages and only one 'bug-eye' lens existed at the time. American Cinematographer magazine noted in its April 1955 issue that simultaneous shooting with both cameras was used for only about ten scenes, because the width of the Todd-AO camera was prohibitive. Modern sources add that the 'bug-eye' lens was used for just four scenes of the final film.


'Oklahoma!' was ultimately released in Todd-AO, CinemaScope and standard 35mm prints because few theaters could afford to retrofit for the Todd-AO projectors and extended, curved screens. Approximately forty American theatres were renovated to accommodate the larger curved screen necessary for Todd-AO. New York City's Rivoli Theatre, for example, was renovated to introduce the new screen which measured 66 feet long along the arc, but only 50 feet wide along the chord, indicating the extent of the curvature. With the screen and special equipment, the overall seating capacity was reduced by over 300 seats. The Rivoli served as New York's flagship theater for Todd-AO films for many years. [From the TCM website.]

The next film, 'Around the World in 80 Days' [1955; ph: Lionel Lindon] was shot simultaneously in 2 Todd-AO versions with one camera running 30 fps and the other 24 fps. One of the last Todd-AO films was 'Airport' [1969; ph: Ernest Laszlo].


In the 1960's, Todd-AO needed a new life, and that was done in the form of Dimension 150 [D-150], a photographic and projection system developed by Richard Vetter and Carl W. Williams. The optical system included a 150° photographic lens, which gave the system its name, special projection optics and a patented deeply-curved screen. The photographic lenses were adaptable to Todd-AO/Mitchell 65mm cameras. The first film was 'The Bible... In the Beginning' [1963; ph: Giuseppe Rotunno]. The last was 'Patton' [see clip below].


"Patton" [1969] - ph: Fred Koenekamp


In 1971, Todd-AO licensed a line of Japanese designed anamorphic lenses, primarily for use with Arriflex cameras, which it marketed under the name Todd-AO 35.




"The Trouble with Harry" [1954] - ph: Robert Burks


A widescreen film process developed by Paramount Pictures, Loren L. Ryder and John R. Bishop, head of Paramount's camera and film processing departments, in response to 20th Century-Fox's CinemaScope, but without anamorphic lenses for camera and projector.

Paramount technicians determined that a larger negative printed down to standard 35mm could provide a vastly improved image on screens up to 50 feet wide. The Paramount camera department had in its inventory a William Fox 'Natural Color' camera built in the late 1920's. This camera exposed two frames at a time through color filters. John Bishop cut out the separation between the two vertical frames, rolled the camera over on its side and fitted it with Leica still camera lenses. The 'Lazy-8' camera, so called because of its horizontal 8-perf pulldown [or pull across], provided a useable negative area 2.66 times greater than a standard 35mm film, but its 1.96:1 aspect ratio was hardly 'wide' - and only possible when footage was properly screened with a special VistaVision projector. The general practice was to reduce and print the images on normal 35mm film [in 1.66:1, 1.75:1 or 1.85:1], a practice that still resulted in a much sharper picture because of the size of the frame on the original negative.


Drawing by Max Smith


Paramount liked the results and set about to obtain a second 'Natural Color' camera. With two cameras available, Paramount began filming 'White Christmas' [1953; ph: Loyal Griggs] in 8-perf and placed orders with the Mitchell Camera Company to develop a new silent studio camera for the process that had been christened VistaVision. When the first of the new cameras arrived they were immediately put into use in the production of 'The Ten Commandments' [1956, Cecil B. DeMille; ph: Loyal Griggs; the re-release in 1989 was on 70mm (2.20:1 - Super VistaVision)], which would not reach the screen for two more years.


While the first conception of VistaVision called for standard 35mm prints, Paramount felt that the negative quality allowed for a variety of prints to be made. Several features were shown in 8-perf horizontal contact prints in limited runs, e.g. 'White Christmas', 'To Catch A Thief' [1954, Alfred Hitchcock; ph: Robert Burks] and 'Strategic Air Command' [1955, Anthony Mann; ph: William H. Daniels; aspect ratio 1.96:1 (VistaVision) and 2.00:1 (anamorphic prints)].

While Paramount tried to keep with their preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1, they also made provisions for 35mm 4-perf anamorphic prints with an aspect ratio of approximately 2.00:1. The special 8-perf horizontal prints and the anamorphic prints did not see much use and the vast majority of VistaVision films were released on standard 35mm flat prints.

With Technicolor's dye transfer printing and the large format Eastman Color negative, VistaVision films, regardless of print type, provided an extremely sharp image with beautifully saturated colors. Throughout the 1950's vast improvements in Eastman Color began to reduce the initial benefits of VistaVision's large format negative as a production medium. VistaVision was no longer used for feature production after 1962 ['My Six Loves'; dir: Gower Champion; ph: Arthur Arling].

Paramount switched to Technicolor's Technirama based in part on VistaVision's horizontal film transport and double-frame picture area.


After its adoption by special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra for special effects work on 'Star Wars' [1976; ph by Gilbert Taylor in Panavision], VistaVision became standard in rear projection work and is still used for plate photography on elements to be composited digitally. [Using quotes from an article by Martin Hart, The American WideScreen Museum, 2004.]


Actress Grace Kelly [right] - VistaVision [1.85:1] camera

"To Catch a Thief" [1954]




Widescreen: Any spherical film presentation employing an image on the screen with an aspect ratio wider than 1.37:1, which was the standard ratio until the early 1950's.


As early as the 1930's, studios began experimenting with widening the image, e.g. Paramount [Magnascope], Fox [Fox Grandeur - 70mm], MGM [Realife - 70mm (2.13:1)] and Warner Bros. [Vitascope - 65mm (2:1)]. After the introduction of CinemaScope by 20th Century-Fox, other studios, especially those with a large backlog of unreleased spherical films, panicked and began to look for other ways to jump on the widescreen bandwagon. Paramount Pictures was particularly disturbed. The studio had over a year's worth of unreleased features in its vaults and began to investigate the feasibility of obtaining a 'widescreen effect' by masking off the top and bottom of the projected image and using a shorter focal length spherical lens to throw the image onto a wider than normal screen. Warner Bros. had already rejected this technique because it compromised the visual integrity of the film. But Paramount felt that by using an aspect ratio of 1.66:1 and favoring the upper two-thirds of the image - in the 1950's, important information was rarely placed at the extreme top or bottom of the frame - most films could be shown without disturbing the composition too much.


The day after Fox presented its first public demonstration of CinemaScope, Paramount screened 'Shane' [ph: Loyal Griggs] in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on a huge, slightly curved screen specially set up on stage 15.

Other studios also chose to mask off the top and bottom of the 1.37:1 photographed image during projection, creating the illusion of a wider image. The resulting, and competing, aspect ratios used by the various studios were 1.66:1 [Paramount, 20th Century-Fox's Panoramic Pictures, RKO & Republic], 1.75:1 [MGM, Disney & Warner Bros.] and 1.85:1 [Universal, Columbia & Allied Artists].

Once they had released their inventory backlog, these studios began to establish this type of widescreen process as a standard by instructing their cinematographers to compose images so that no important action would be lost during projection. By 1956, the studios had decided unofficially upon 1.85:1 as the standard [in the USA] for this masked widescreen method.


Drawing by Max Smith