| Cinerama was an expensive and complicated process, which used three separate projectors to cast three images upon a huge, wide screen, in sync. The result was not only a super-wide movie but also one of incredible depth. The idea was to play on the audience's peripheral vision, giving an entirely new experience in an age when the novelty of television threatened the movie business.
Unfortunately, the Cinerama process also created many problems. Images often fell out of sync, and few theaters could afford to install the whole system. Filming was a problem, too, as filmmakers could not rely on the usual camera movements or cuts. Only a handful of movies (a few dozen) were actually produced in Cinerama, and they were mostly documentaries, relying on long, stable shots.
The very first of these was This Is Cinerama, a two-hour demonstration of the process. It has long been unavailable on video, because, frankly, who wants to watch this on a small TV screen? But Flicker Alley has developed a process called "Smileboxing," which somehow manages to capture a semblance of the original effect.
The movie begins with a small, black-and-white, single center screen, with curtains on either side. Newscaster Lowell Thomas gives us a brief history of the cinema thus far, and after about 15 minutes, the curtains part, and the full, color, Cinerama picture appears; it's literally a roller coaster about to start its ascent. And darned if it isn't kind of thrilling.
The movie is pretty slow by any standards, concentrating on single, wide shots of choruses singing, or overhead shots of canyons from a plane. We're meant to be swept up in the experience, but two hours is an awfully long time to expect an audience to sit still on pure sensation. But many images are startling, impressive, an awe-inspiring.
The filmmaker in charge was Merian C. Cooper, who began making documentary-like thrillers (Grass and Chang), and then graduated to the groundbreaking King Kong before going on to produce many of John Ford's films. Overall, This Is Cinerama is one of those movies that's more historically important than it is entertaining, but it's very much worth checking out.
Flicker Alley has released another of their spectacular packages, a DVD/Blu-ray combo with a detailed booklet and lots of extras providing background information. They have also released a second Cinerama feature, Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), which follows the crew of a training ship as it sails from Oslo to the Caribbean; this likewise contains some breathtaking stuff, but is also too long.