The 1950s was a tumultuous time for film: the industry was forced to restructure and decade saw the rise of Film’s little brother - Television.
Since everybody alive at that time had been going to theaters and watching films in 4x3 aspect ratio- it was only natural that television would carry over that same screen shape. Like a new sibling in the Entertainment family, TV was getting all the attention and that reflected in smaller movie going audiences.
How could film get butts back into sets? By offering something they couldn’t get at home. On September 30, 1952, a film premiered that sparked off a decade long war for widescreen film formats and the result would be a new cinema aesthetic.
Brain child of Fred Waller, who pioneered a multicamera / multiprojector system for a combat training simulator for World War 2 Bomber Gunners - Cinerama used three 35mm cameras shooting 27mm lenses and exposing 35mm film at 6 perforations high. This process captured a 147 degree field of view for an aspect ratio of 2.59:1
Projected on a deeply curved screen using three projectors and boasting a 7 track surround sound system - This is Cinerama, was a huge hit - running for two years at the Warner Theater in New York City.
As you might be able to imagine - there were a lot of problems with shooting and projecting three cameras at the same time for the Cinerama process. One of them being - you had one and only one focal length - and it was wide. So wide that you had to position people differently to keep their eye lines correct.
Though hugely popular as an event film format, they made tons of money holding road shows from city to city featuring travelogue films, it would take 10 years, until 1962 when Cinerama would be used in a dramatic film - only two to be precise. The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm and the epic film How the West was Won
The problem with Cinerama was it was expensive to shoot and expensive for theaters to project. But the widescreen experience was too popular to ignore. Eight months after Cinerama hit the screen in April of 1953, Paramount released the first “flat” widescreen studio film. The film was Shane - originally shot in Academy ratio - but Paramount lopped off the top and bottom of the image to create a 1.66 aspect ratio.
The result wasn’t really that much different - perhaps more groundbreaking was the fact that it was projected on a much bigger screen, a newly installed 50 footer at Radio City Music hall replacing the old 30 foot screen. The film also featured a three channel stereophonic sound track.
Masking off portion of the frame to create wider images wasn’t an ideal process and Paramount knew that. With larger screens, this technique enlarged the film grain - reducing the quality of the image. New processes would have to come along.
After seeing the impact of Cinerama, executives at 20th Century Fox rushed over to France to meet with Professor Henri Chrétien, the inventor of a technique called “Anamorphoscope” which he had invented in the 1920s. Anamorphoscope used a specialized lens that would distort an image in only one direction - in other words squished it.
CinemaScope was a winner. The anamorphic lens, which had some technical issues, was much easier to shoot with than Cinerama and it didn't require nearly the capital investment on the theater's part to project. All the major studios switched over to CinemaScope, all but one, the studio started the race to widescreen - Paramount.
Although better than masking, CinemaScope didn't solve the grain problem - at least not to Paramount's satisfaction. So Paramount developed their own system - “VistaVision”.
VistaVision took traditional 35mm film and turned it on its side - literally - recording images that were 8 perforations wide for an aspect ratio of 1.85. The release prints would be then print back in the regular orientation - with much smaller visible grain.
VisaVision’s first film was “White Chrismas” in 1954 and it would go on to be used on many films including the epic “The Ten Commandments”.