A Brief History of CINEMASCOPE

by George A. Flaxman


This article was written in 1993 and originally published in Movie Collector to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Cinemascope.

Cinemascope was born on 16th September 1953 at New York's Roxy theater, and within 4 years almost 90% of american screens, and over 50% of world-wide screens had installed it. Scope had become a new "standard", replacing the old academy ratio of 1.33:1 with a new one of 2.35;1. This was accomplished by sheer force of will by Twentieth-Century Fox, coupled with some pretty nifty business methods. With hindsight it was a miracle that they managed it, and you can't help but admire them for it.

That Cinemascope came about at all, was as a direct result of the arrival of "Cinerama". Premiered at the Broadway theater in new York on 30th September 1952, it was met with overwhelming public enthusiasm and advance bookings piled-up for it. The audiences loved the wide-screen that seemed to pull them into the action, and the Stereophonic Sound that completed the illusion of near reality. Cinerama came from outside the studio system, but the major studios quickly realised that elements of it could be used as a counter-offensive in it's losing battle with television. The technical boys were asked to investigate.

Fox's Research & Development department was different to those of the other studios in that they took a long-term view of technical matters, and were constantly trying to come up with new concepts, and assessing other people's developments. They had for instance, spent a lot of their time improving on their late 1920's 70mm "Grandeur" process.

This didn't mean that the studio implemented their ideas, but at least they thought through technical problems that would give Fox an edge in the widescreen revolution. What Fox, and indeed all the studios were looking for was a way of giving the public the essence of "Cinerama", but without prohibitive cost to the studio in feature production, or to the exhibitors.

Fox's boffins remembered the work of a frenchman, Professor Henri Chretien. He had been impressed by Abel Gance's "Napoleon" in 1926, which had used 3xPanel sequences, as did "Cinerama", and set about creating a wide image using a lens rather than multiple cameras. The lens he created he called "Hypergonar" and he did the rounds in america trying to get a studio to use it. No dice... Paramount took a 5 year option on it but didn't follow through. A couple of shorts were subsequently filmed by Chretien and exhibited in France, the most recent in 1937. Fox went looking for the Professor, and unknown to them, Warner Brothers had the same idea.

Locating him Fox found that Rank had an existing option due to expire on 16th December. It duly expired and Fox took an option on the lens on 18th December. The very next day the men from Warner's came knocking on Henri's door, and one can only imagine a range of expletives from which the actual ones used were drawn.

Fox had found that they could not own "anamorphics", as a number of people had been dabbling with it for decades, but rights to the lens design could be bought, and what's more our trusty frenchman still had some of the lenses he'd made in 1937. Fox chief Spyros Skouras flew to paris and viewed some test footage, partly Henri's and partly "newsreel" style footage taken in Paris by Fox technicians. Spyros liked what he saw. Back in Hollywood, he introduced "Anamorphoscope" to his executives, who wisely talked him round to "Cinemascope" as a more audience friendly name.

Meanwhile, on 30th November commercial 3-D had arrived with the release of "Bwana Devil". This too had caused quite a stir, and muddied the waters. Warners announced it's intention to make 3-D features, with added Stereophonic Sound. Yaboo to Fox... Additionally, one by one, the other studios began to encourage exhibitors to mask the top and bottom of the frame area in the projector, and using a wide-angle lens thereby creating a widescreen image. Many completed features had stereo sound added on, including "War of the Worlds", "Julius Caesar" (Brando) and "Shane".

Each studio recommended a different amount of cropping, but the results were not entirely successful, because as yet no feature had been made which avoided shooting scenes with activity in the part of the frame area later to be masked. Tops of heads and feet were frequently cut-off on the projected image, and it wasn't until mid-1953 that product became available intended to be cropped, starting with Universal's "Thunder Bay".

Fox meanwhile had found that only 3 of Chretien's lenses were suitable for use, and these were used to start production of "The Robe", "How to Marry a Millionaire" and "Beneath the 12-Mile Reef". They had already got their boys working on improvements to the lens specifications and Bausch & Lomb would manufacture them. Fox spent upwards of $10 million on the initial development of the system, this added to $4.7 million that "The Robe" would eventually cost was a massive risk if the public rejected "Cinemascope". To protect their investment, standard ratio versions were also shot as were 3-D versions, in case this format prevailed.

Fox's research people had already done a lot of work on "Stereo Sound" for it's 70mm Grandeur improvements, and this was quickly adapted for "Cinemascope". Everyone else was using stereo sound from a separate 35mm magnetically coated film run simultaneously with the picture, but Fox decided to put it's stereo on the same film, thereby avoiding synchronisation problems.

As you would imagine, there was no love lost between the big studios (Fox, MGM, Paramount and Warners) and the thought of using a system owned by Fox gave the execs of the other three sensations usually only encountered after a hot curry. Paramount refused to consider using "Cinemascope", and set about developing it's own system, which would become "VistaVision". Surprisingly they still had a pair of Chretiens's lenses which they'd got for evaluation in 1928, and not returned after their option had lapsed!.

Fox now set about selling "Cinemascope" to the industry. The first step was to exude confidence, whatever private doubts they might have had, so on 2nd february 1953 they announced that all future production would be in "Cinemascope". How could they expect exhibitors to invest in the theater alterations, without a guarantee of ongoing product?. Thirteen further titles were announced, with budgets totaling $30 million, and to further emphasise their commitment their back catalogue of standard ratio features were sold off to television. What use would they be now anyway?.

Then they began assembling test footage for demonstration purposes, which included "Cinerama" style sequences such as a rollercoaster ride and footage of "Queen Elizabeth's Coronation". Also the "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" routine from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes" was refilmed by the director after the actual film had been finished and he was surprised to find that "Cinemascope" required far fewer setups than the flat version. In other words a "Scope" picture could be shot far quicker.

Fox began showing it's test footage to execs of the other studios. The Deal was that Fox would license anyone to produce a "Scope" film, for a flat fee of $25,000, provided it was shot in color and with a script approved by Fox. In return Fox would provide a pair of lenses and allow the use of the "Cinemascope" name. Oh yes, and no-one could show their film before "The Robe" had been premiered.

MGM swallowed their pride and signed on the dotted, for a reduced rate annual fee. It was in Fox's interests too. Now they had leverage. Warners wasn't about to sit up and beg without a fight. Fox had Chretien's lenses, but Warners could design their own!. It would take time, but better that than surrended. This they did, but when they tried to get them manufactured, they found that Fox had signed up all the major optical companies to exclusive manufacturing deals. Nice one !!...

On the exhibitor front Fox was selling a package of lenses, stereophonic sound, plus the wide screen and orders poured in for installations. Costs, depending on the size of the individual theater, ranged from $10,000 to $25,000, as opposed to approximately $75,000 for the first Cinerama installation.

MGM announced "Kiss Me Kate" for "Cinemascope", but filmed it in 3-D instead because camera lenses wouldn't be available until May. In the end "Knights of the Round Table" was their first Scope film, and like Fox as a precaution they filmed it flat too. Errol Flynn's "Story of William Tell" project was the first independent title to be licensed, but sadly though started, it was never completed.

Warners eventually got their lenses made, but when they shot test footage the results were unacceptable, due to distortion. Incidentally Fox also encountered distortion problems with Chretien's original lenses, but the new ones from Bausch & Lomb were better, so some scenes were re-shot using these were necessary. The trouble with Chretien's original lenses was that his test sequences were fairly static panoramic long shots, and the distortion was worst with people at the extremities and in close-up.

By mid-summer 1953, enthusiasm for 3-D was begining to subside, and it was becoming clear to everyone that "Cinemascope" was the only game in town. Warners had previously committed itself to an all 3-D position, but it still wanted to produce a "Scope" feature, so it contracted to use "Vistarama" lenses for it's first "The Command". Vistarama lenses were compatible with "Cinemascope" but were produced by a small optical company in Chicago.

"The Robe" was an instant smash hit, as was "How to Marry a Millionaire", which had actually been completed first but released after "The Robe" because Fox felt that it was a more suitable introduction to a new era in film making. Warners could hold out no more, they signed up and got Fox's agreement to release "The Command" as a "Cinemascope" picture. Disney, Universal, United Artists and Columbia followed suit.

In fact "The Robe" wasn't the first anamorphic release, it was "Aloha Nui" a travelogue short in "Vistarama" released in Hollywood at the Paramount theater a couple of days previously. This too was subsequently released in "Cinemascope". Additional releases followed in rapid succession and Fox's profits rocketed. "Robe" alone grossed $30 million in 6 months. A flood of proposed picture titles poured forth from the studios. Some of course were never made, but more titles replaced them.

"Cinemascope" proved a godsend to the prime-site first release houses. They coined-it in. The lesser exhibitors were caught in a vice, losing customers to the first-runs and to television. In Britain, the situation was slightly different because while rank and ABC had the prime sites, Fox had talked hundreds of small independent theatres into converting to Cinemascope with Stereo Sound, because the two big chains had refused to agree to Stereo with every installation. Fox gave these small fry first call on their product for 3 years. Then they switched back to Rank, and left their former allies out in no-man's land with the machine-guns about to start. War is Hell, but Business is Deadly. The industry was fitter, but leaner too!.

Fox had agreed to relinquish it's rights to the "Cinemascope" tradename after 5 years, to sweeten the pill for the other producers, but that didn't stop MGM from helping to develop a more flexible and versatile anamorphic lens system in association with Robert Gottschalk which would eventually become known as "Panavision". MGM began using these lenses but to maintain a united front to the exhibitors, it still used the "Cinemascope" name until the late 1950's. Other anamorphic processes came and went using slightly different lens specifications, but all indistinguishable on the screen; "Superscope", "Naturama" (from Republic studios using french "Cinepanoramic" lenses), and RKO-Scope" were the main early ones but were associated with lesses product from the smaller studios. "Naturama" dissapeared because Republic stopped feature production, similarly RKO's demise helped bury "Superscope" and "RKO-Scope". Overseas dozens of names were used for "Cinemascope" compatible processess, from a dubious sounding "Ifi-scope" (from the initials of a spanish producer) through "Mexiscope" (from the country) to "Sabahscope" (a Malaysian region). Others were "SuperCinescope", "Ultrascope", "Dyaliscope", and "Tohoscope", but the list is almost endless. Some like "Metroscope" and "Gaumontscope" were not even anamorphic but merely cropped widescreen. The old Soviet Union used "Sovscope", but presumably these will now be named "Russcope" or "Ukrscope". Not quite the same ring to it really!.

In 1956 Fox tried to "up the ante" by shooting with 55mm film and then reducing the image to 35mm in order to improve picture quality. It was called "Cinemascope 55" and when projected in the theater it would have 6 track stereo sound played in sync from a separate magnetically coated film. (Running sound in sync wasn't as great a problem as it had been in 1953, but it still wasn't ideal). Fox hoped that this would enable it to counter the emergence of "Todd-AO". Two films were released this way "Carousel" and "The King and I", and Fox had plans to use it for all their features, but the box-office returns were no more than could be expected from normal "Cinemascope". When it came to greatly improved picture quality the audiences preferred "Todd-AO": So Fox scapped "Cinemascope 55" and bought-out "Todd-AO", to be used for their future "roadshow" presentations.

"Technirama" and "Techniscope" were more extensivley different systems at the filming stage, but were the same as "Cinemascope" at the exhibition stage. Theater owners wanted standardisation above all things. Producers could shoot films whatever way they wanted, if it improved clarity (as in "Technirama") or reduced costs (as in "Techniscope"), so long as exhibitors could project it exactly as if it were "Cinemascope".

In the 1960's "Panavision" gradually replaced "Cinemascope", as the preferred shooting lenses, until, in Hollywood, only Fox were left using them. By 1966 though, even they had gone over to "Panavision", leaving a few remaining features in the pipeline. Their last "Cinemascope" release was "In Like Flint" during 1967.

The "Cinemascope" name continues to be used around the world (outside Hollywood) to denote a picture's format, rather than the lenses used. India is particularly noteworthy in this respect, and they even still use 4-track Magnetic Stereo (Their 1st Stereo Optical release was only in 1993). The Roxy theater, by contrast is no more, having been demolished in 1960.

"Cinemascope" lives on as a generic presentation format, a standard that all "Scope" systems adhere to. The only differences today being shooting camera lens specifications. Thousands of Scope films have been produced, and all swear allegience to the "Cinemascope" standard.

2.35:1 Rules, O.K. - Thanks Fox


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