IMAX remains one of the coolest ways to see movies these days – the resolution and image quality are simply stunning when compared to a traditional presentation. However, long before there was IMAX as we know it, a man named Fred Waller created a precursor to the format – a system known as Cinerama. David Bordwell has recently written a fantastic article on Cinerama and how it worked. It’s interesting stuff if you’re curious about the history of film presentation.
I’ll leave the finer details to Bordwell’s piece (which I highly recommend reading) because he explains it all far better than I ever could. However, the gist of the Cinerama system was that it used three projectors to show an image on a deeply curved screen in a way that attempted to replicate not only how we see things directly in front of us, but from our peripheral vision as well. On top of that, it also featured an early take on modern-day surround sound – with everything working together to create the most lifelike moviegoing experience of the era.
Unfortunately, Cinerama never really caught on. The system debuted in 1952, but didn’t last long. The problem was that it was too complicated (check out the schematic below for an idea of just how complicated) and required expensive upgrades to existing theaters. Adding the huge screens (some 100 feet wide and 30 feet high, with a 146 degree curve in them) and multiple projectors just wasn’t cost effective back in those days. This says nothing of the challenges for filmmakers when it came to shooting in the format.
Yet, while the format didn’t exactly set the box office on fire, Mr. Waller’s work did at least help pave the way for IMAX and the modern movie-viewing experience. He (and Cinerama) certainly deserve a tip of the hat for that.