Todd-AO  -  VistaVision  -  Widescreen




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A widescreen process developed for producer Michael Todd by Dr. Brian O'Brien of the American Optical Company. Films were shot on a 65mm negative [30fps for the first 2 features] using 4 new lenses, among them a 12.7mm 'bugeye 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].

Michael Todd

From the documentary "The March of Todd-AO" [1958]

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

"Oklahoma!" - Todd-AO version - scene [intro]: long shot

"Oklahoma!" - CinemaScope version - scene [intro]: pan [r>l]

- start -

- finish -

'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. Magna's board of directors included George P. Skouras, Arthur Hornblow Jr., as vice-president in charge of production, as well as Michael Todd, Lee Shubert, Edward Small, Rodgers and Hammerstein, among others. The Todd-AO Corp. was also created at the same time to distribute and lease the equipment manufactured by American Optical.

'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 Hornblow 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 Rodgers and Hammerstein in New York, and the producers 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 featured several technical articles about the new Todd-AO process, and 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.

Consolidated Film Laboratories made 35mm reductions of the 65mm film for the standard prints. '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 by Lionel Lindon] was shot simultaneously in 2 Todd-AO versions with one camera running 30fps and the other 24fps.

"Around the World in 80 Days"

One of the last Todd-AO films was 'Airport' [1969; ph by 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 by Giuseppe Rotunno]. The last was 'Patton' [1969; ph by 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.

A widescreen film process developed by Paramount Pictures, Loren L. Ryder and John R. Bishop 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 1920s. This camera exposed two frames at a time through color filters. John Bishop, head of Paramount's camera and film processing departments, 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, 1.75 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 by 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 by 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 by Robert Burks] and 'Strategic Air Command' [1955, Anthony Mann; ph by 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 1950s 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 by Gower Champion & ph by 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.]

Actors James Mason and Eva Marie Saint with VistaVision camera "North by Northwest" [1958]

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. Paramount 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 by Loyal Griggs in 1951] in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio on a huge, slightly curved screen specially set up on stage 15. Loyal Griggs in 1951] 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.

Drawings by Max Smith

On the Film Formats pages quotes are used from articles written by Rick Mitchell for the Operating Cameraman magazine and from Wikipedia. For more detailed technical and historical information on widescreen processes visit The American WideScreen Museum or The 70mm Newsletter.