Microsoft co-founder revives 1950s movie technology
By Scott Hillis SEATTLE (Reuters) - Think of it as virtual reality, 1950s-style.
Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, who helped found software giant Microsoft Corp., has put his riches to work reviving a nearly extinct technology -- the Cinerama movie.
Allen, through his Vulcan Northwest holding company, has enlisted a team of Cinerama buffs to help retrofit his Cinerama theater in downtown Seattle to once again accommodate the spectacular ultra-wide format it was originally meant to show.
The hallmark of true Cinerama is a 96-foot-long curved screen that is 50 percent bigger than screens used today. Three giant projectors cast three images side-by-side. When the curtain goes up at the theater Friday, it will be the world's only Cinerama theater capable of actually showing Cinerama movies, which have recently been seen only in a Bradford, England museum.
``People have not seen a Cinerama movie inside a Cinerama theater for some 35 years,'' Jeff Graves, Cinerama project manager, told reporters Thursday. ``It's just a great opportunity to show this fantastic format.''
The Cinerama revival is short-lived, however. Working with the Seattle Film Festival, Allen's theater is showing movies Friday only: ``This is Cinerama'', the format's debut flick, and the frontier epic ``How the West Was Won''.
The Cinerama idea was born in 1939 when inventor Fred Waller wowed the World's Fair in New York with a rig that used 11 different projectors and a giant, domed screen. The U.S. military modified the technology during World War II, using a five-projector system to create combat simulators for aircraft turret gunners.
Waller further streamlined the package to three cameras and added a dazzling seven-channel audio system, premiering the first Cinerama movie in 1952.
The result set the stage for vast 70mm features, surround sound and the big-screen IMAX system, said Larry Smith, president of the Cinerama Preservation Society.
``When you're going down a canal in Venice (in a Cinerama film), you feel like you can reach out and touch the walls. In 'How the West Was Won', with the horses galloping and kicking up dust, you want to cough,'' Smith said. ``It's a virtual reality system.''
Only seven films were ever made because of the difficulty and cost of dealing with the cumbersome and tricky equipment. ``The camera weighed a thousand pounds and was very difficult to move around and get shots,'' Graves said. ``The shots they did get were breathtaking, but it wasn't easy.''
Although the Seattle theater still boasts its original three projector rooms, Allen's team had plenty of work to do to before the movies could be shown.
Workers pieced a giant screen together from nearly 2,000 vertical strips. Laws of geometry and optics mean that a screen made out of a single giant sheet warps the image too much.
The massive projectors with their 34-inch reels were painstakingly restored, with some replacement parts coming from such unlikely places as Lima, Peru.
``We took every screw out, every bolt out, repainted and did a fantastic job. So we basically have brand-new projectors, brand-new from 1952,'' Graves said.
Very few of the films survive, and the Seattle copies were pieced together from scraps by John Harvey, a 63-year-old enthusiast who kept Cinerama alive in the U.S. by screening the movies in his Dayton, Ohio, home for years.
The project has stirred excitement in film circles. Daryl Macdonald, director of the Seattle Film Festival, said fans from as far away as Australia were flying in for Friday's shows.
``This is probably the most exciting thing we've ever been able to be involved in in our 26 years,'' Macdonald said. In the end, the project hope to persuade the powers-that-be in Hollywood to take up the Cinerama cause, Graves said, so latergenerations accustomed to tiny multiplex screens can experience the three-screen wonder of Cinerama. Reuters/Variety