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Motion Picture High Fidelity
Viewed today on a normal video monitor, this properly famous
verbiage placed beneath Paramount's VistaVision logo makes little
For, like other large format photographic processes, VistaVision
(VVLA) needs to be seen on a large screen to be appreciated.
This process came into being experimentally in the late 1920s, and
then was forgotten.
In the early 1950s Paramount was seeking an alternative to
CinemaScope with its highly distorted anamorphic images, and looking
at past experiments, decided to move in the direction of large
format. In the late 1920s Paramount had backed a process called
Magnafilm, which used a 1.85:1 aspect ratio shooting on 56mm film.
Paramount, while not wishing to use the Magnafilm process because of
its non-standard stock, processing and laboratory work, like the
idea of a larger negative format and put Loren Ryder, John Bishop
and others to work on a project using Fox's old Natural Color
cameras, which photographed two frames at a time. It was via a
conversion of these cameras that a new system was created.
Originally termed Paramount's "Chinese" camera, the Lazy 8
device became known as the Butterfly camera because the two film
magazines were side mounted, making the unit take on the form of a
butterfly. VistaVision was born.
The original concept behind VVLA was one of a system which could be
used to create high quality images in virtually any format or aspect
The initial concept was to release films in one of three formats: 8
perforation horizontal 35mm VistaVision, a 4 perforation version
derived from the large negative which could be projected by normal
means and lastly, the ability to create anamorphic prints, which
could be cropped as needed and with varying compressions.
Anamorphic VistaVision prints would be projected via SuperScope
adapter lenses, mounted on a theatre's pre-existing primes.
Although the first feature shot and released in the new VistaVision
format was the 1954 production White
Christmas, research carried out during the restoration of
Hitchcock's Rear Window*
showed that Paramount's experimental "Chinese" camera was
put to use photographing background plates of the action seen from
the room in which the film takes place. After some initial
experiments, this concept was discarded and all production
photography as it is now seen was shot in standard 35mm 4 perf on
the specially constructed stage.
There is some question as to whether White
Christmas was actually presented in 8 perf VVLA, but it
appears to have been screened in that format at least in Los
The first VistaVision show to be released in multiple prints in 8
perf was the second film shot in the system, Strategic
Air Command (1955), with some prints run scope in a 2:1
With one unique exception, soundtracks for the 8 perf prints were
optical, with a standard 35mm sized track appearing at the top of
the frame. The cropping of a like sized area at the bottom of the
frame brought the projected aspect ratio down from 1.5:1 to 1.85:1.
Many of the VistaVision productions had tracks which were Perspecta
encoded, giving the impression of stereo as audio would be moved
from speaker to speaker via control tones.
The projected image size of VistaVision was in many cases kept the
same width as for 4 perf 2.55:1 CinemaScope productions with its
notorious optical anomalies, with additional screen height added.
The 8 perf image could easily handle a fifty to sixty foot wide
screen, while the 4 perf reduced dye transfer prints gave an
incredible image in slightly smaller venues. However it was
presented, VistaVision was literally "Motion Picture High
Fidelity" in both picture and sound, as the audio would move
past the heads at twice the normal 90 feet per minute speed of 180
feet per minute.
For production, VistaVision was a simple and elegant process as it
allowed a large format image to be captured on internationally
standard 35mm stock, which could be processed anywhere in the world.
65mm, on the other hand, could only be processed in a very finite
number of laboratories.
During the short period (eight or nine years) in which VistaVision
was used for production photography, it was used for approximately
80 films, with Paramount having the highest representation of
productions (about 65). Warner Brothers used the process for a
single film, the beautifully produced and incredibly gorgeous The
Searchers*. Universal-International used the process
three times, and MGM three, most notably for Hitchcock's North
by Northwest* and for High
Society. The only other production entity to use the
process for multiple productions was Britain's Rank, the most
notable being Powell-Pressburger's Battle
of the River Plate, aka Pursuit
of the Graff Spee (1957).
The VistaVision process dovetails technically with that of
Technirama, which was developed by Technicolor, using converted
three-strip Technicolor cameras rather than the extant Paramount
owned VistaVision gear.
Using the same basic 8 perf format, Technirama films were
photographed with a 1.5 squeeze anamorphic lens (provided by
Panavision), which yielded an uncompressed image (using the entire
area of the negative frame of 1.5:1 aspect ratio) of 2.25:1.
Via this methodology, a Technirama film could be release printed
and projected in either a standard 35mm 4 perf
CinemaScope/Panavision anamorphic or could be optically unsqueezed
and printed from the original negative elements to create Super
Technirama 70 productions, such as Universal-International's Stanley
Kubrick directed Spartacus*.
Although there were several VistaVision productions shot in black
and white which also showed off the advantages of the system and its
positive attributes, there had to be something that historically
would be the downside. And that element was the photographic stock
on which the color productions were shot - Eastman Color 5248.
It is this stock which is the bane of the archival arm of the
motion picture industry today. Kodak released their original color
negative stock 5247 in 1950. Two years later, in 1952 it was
replaced by 5248, increasing emulsion speed and bettering grain
structure. It is 5248, which was in production from 1952 until
sometime late in 1959, on which virtually every American and British
film were shot and every one of those films has, to some extent,
faded, most noticeably in the yellow layer.
This is where is gets interesting. For some reason, be it
differences in processing or incremental changes in what was
basically the same emulsion, the fading which we now see in these
films can go from slight to total.
The films least affected were those produced early on, in the
1952-3 period. And then beginning in 1954 the fading characteristics
get continually worse and worse. As an example, we can look at the
Hitchcock productions during that period. While the 1953-4 Rear
Window* was overprinted and the negative damaged, what
was left of the original elements still had some vibrancy remaining
and could be at least useful for something.
In 1955's The Trouble with Harry,
exterior scenes which were fully exposed are of some use, while
night scenes and interiors (thinner negatives) are virtually gone.
The Man Who Knew Too Much
(1956) is of very little value, the current DVD derived from the
black and white separation masters, while the 1958 Vertigo*
could be maneuvered somewhat in processing for some scenes.
North by Northwest* (1959) is
quite faded and was brought back digitally in low resolution for DVD
release via a newly created interpositive from the faded original,
which then went through a color correction process at LDI. While the
color is not perfect it is close enough to make this release a very
positive viewing experience.
What all of this means is that the core of color VistaVision
productions have few viable original negatives which are printable.
Because of this, very few, if any color VistaVision films being
transferred to DVD can be viewed via original negatives or new
interpositives derived from an unfaded original.
VistaVision productions making their way to DVD have been few and
far between, but when these productions are properly handled, the
difference between them and their 4 perf brethren can be both
unmistakable and visually breathtaking on a high end home video
I have been able to identify less than 20 films so far released and
some have been quite problematic and unrepresentative of what
VistaVision can offer. The look of these films on DVD also ties in
with Paramount's newly formed asset protection program. It is via
this program that pre-print elements are created for transfers, and
there seems to be a dividing line of 1999 in which the way that
these films were handled changed drastically for the better.
The problems with the early Paramount releases inclusive of White
Christmas, To Catch a Thief,
The Court Jester and Funny
Face come from the separation masters being optically
printed to create a 4 perf dupe, with all of the requisite increase
in grain and contrast. These have not been pretty pictures, nor have
they in any way been representative of the quality that VistaVision
could offer. War and Peace, a
more recent release has faired a bit better, but still does not
possess that VistaVision look.
Things have recently improved, however, with the release of the
black and white Fear Strikes Out
(1957) and the upcoming Gunfight at the
OK Corral* (also 1957). The Gunfight*
transfer is derived from a number of different elements which were
mixed and matched under the watchful eye of Paramount's Head
Librarian, Steve Elkin. While it sounds as if Steve might be
standing behind a desk reminding borrowers that film elements must
be returned on time, his job is a great deal more intricate than
that, as he is positioned dead center in Paramount's film
preservation and restoration area.
Faced with a faded original negative, there were a number of
different avenues which might have been taken. Mr. Elkin determined
that the best route was to create different elements to bypass
different problems. Portions of the film were transferred from a new
8 perf dupe negative derived from the separation masters, while
other portions came from a new element created using a recently
developed process from Cinetech, in which black and white masks are
created and multiple exposures made in an effort to bring back a
portion of a faded yellow layer. The transfer was made in 8 perf.
I have mentioned in the past that separation masters from these
early periods were not always produced, and when produced were
seldom examined for quality. What the new release of Gunfight
at the OK Corral* also points out are obvious problems
with the old separations in which an optical flaw has created what
appear on the film to be white dots in bright areas, most noticeable
in the bright blue skies. Except for very expensive digital work,
there is very little that Paramount could have done to alleviate
this problem, and thus it becomes a wonderful lesson in the travails
of film preservation.
In many areas, the separations simply would not register due to
shrinkage, and Cinetech's process was used to create the transfer
element. Parts of Reels 2A, 3B, 5A and 5B came from this alternate
source. You can get further information on the process from
Cinetech web site.
What Paramount offers us in Ron Smith's transfer is a superb
representation of what the original looked like in terms of accuracy
of color, sharpness and grain structure. Most important, it
replicates the VistaVision look and should give those with large
screens a very good concept of what the process could place on the
motion picture screen. One look at the Paramount and VistaVision
logos at the beginning of the film, in their full crystal clarity
and knife-edged sharpness give us a precise idea of what is to
With Paramount's upper management being preservation and
restoration savvy, I'm hopeful that as additional titles are
restored and preserved, that those few Vista titles which pre-date
the current quality trend will be re-visited and re-transferred.
The Paramount VistaVision Films (in order of Variety
Yellow = Available on DVD
Three Ring Circus
Run for Cover
Strategic Air Command
The Far Horizons
The Seven Little Foys
We're No Angels
You're Never Too Young
To Catch a Thief
The Girl Rush
The Desperate Hours - coming
The Trouble with Harry (now
The Rose Tatoo
Artists and Models
The Court Jester
The Birds and the Bees
The Scarlet Hour
The Man Who Knew Too Much (now
The Leather Saint
The Proud and the Profane
That Certain Feeling
Doctor at Sea
War and Peace
The Vagabond King
The Search for Bridey Murphy
The Ten Commandments
Hollywood or Bust
Three Violent People
Fear Strikes Out
The Buster Keaton Story
Gunfight at the OK Corral*
(coming April 22)
The Lonely Man (coming April
The Delicate Delinquent
Loving You (Trimark)
The Joker is Wild
Short Cut to Hell
The Devil's Hairpin
Hear Me Good
The Tin Star
The Sad Sack
Wild is the Wind
Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
(produced for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation)
Desire Under the Elms
Another Time, Another Place
Vertigo* (now with Universal)
The Geisha Boy
Last Train from Gun Hill
The Five Pennies
One unique VistaVision presentation was produced in 1956 for
release by The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation as their visitor
Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot
is a 35 minute film which was projected in Vista at Williamsburg for
years until converted to 70mm. It was a unique production, as it was
the only VistaVision film, as well as the only production based upon
35mm stock to feature a full 6 track magnetic soundtrack.
The Non-Paramount VistaVision Productions (for the record):
Value for Money - Rank
Away All Boats - Universal
The Black Tent - Rank
High Society* - MGM (April)
House of Secrets - Rank
The Iron Petticoat - MGM
Richard III - Lopert (now
The Searchers* - WB
Simon and Laura - Universal
An Alligator Named Daisy -
Battle of the River Plate -
Doctor at Large - Universal
Ill Met by Moonlight - Rank
The Pride and the Passion - UA
The Spanish Gardner - Rank
Triple Deception - Rank
Dangerous Exile - Rank
North by Northwest* - MGM
If you'd like to learn more about Paramount's VistaVision process,
the only place that one need visit on the web is
link at The Widescreen Museum.
While we're still in Paramount territory, I recently received an
e-mail requesting my opinion on a DVD which could be used to show
off someone's new 5.1 system and how it compares to mono. I had to
tell them that the best disk via which one can demo the difference
between a mono and 5.1 system has not yet been released on DVD.
My vote goes to the opening titles sequence in Paramount's Rustler's
Rhapsody, a charming little comedy about the "B"
westerns. While this is nothing that would earn the noble asterisk,
I'd love to see Paramount release it. It would be the best audio
demo that money could buy.
The Cole Porter Collection
Just as I thought that I was safe in wrapping the piece on
VistaVision, I received word that Warner Home Video was about to
release one of the great musical of the 1950s, High
Society* as yet another Vista release. But what I had
thought to be the singular release of the Charles Walters' directed
opus turned out to be an entire collection of Cole Porter musicals
which will be available both as single releases and as a five film
Cole Porter Collection.
This is great news as it begins to fill in a number of gaps in the
musicals list which was offered several months back and which will
now be updated at The Bits.
As a 1956 production, High Society*
is at the center of the problematic Eastman color period. I'm
pleased to report that Warner's Ned Price has really done his
homework on this project, which has apparently been in the works for
about three years. The elements which he has created and the
transfer and compression which brings it to DVD make the film look
as it has not in years. But the technical wizardry doesn't stop
It has been rumored that because this was Bing Crosby's initial
production (one of the producing entities was Bing Crosby
Productions) for MGM, having recently left Paramount after decades,
that he requested and MGM granted his wish that the film be
photographed in VistaVision. Whether this is accurate or not I don't
know for certain, but this information has been out there for years.
Fact or fiction, it makes sense and the film benefited by it.
High Society* was initially to
be a CinemaScope production and the intended audio design was full
stereo, which would be heard via the print's magnetic tracks. When
the change was made to VistaVision, essentially a monaural process,
MGM's longtime head of audio Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma
Shearer) warned the studio that they would not be able to release in
stereo. Regardless, the audio stems were recorded and prepped for
stereo, and the studio has chosen to finally use these elements for
a full stereo mix, which is cause for celebration.
From the opening logo to the brilliant silver main titles and the
production photography beyond, High
Society* is now a treat for both the eye and ear. My hat
is off to Mr. Price and the work that he has put into bringing High
Society back in perfect form.
Rather than create a long documentary on Porter, information has
been split into five shorter featurettes, each corresponding to a
The Porter Collection* covers
a period of 18 years and is inclusive of several types of film
technology. It begins with a 1.37 black and white 1940 production,
Broadway Melody of 1940* with
Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell. This DVD includes The
Big Premiere, an Our Gang
comedy featuring a young Robert Blake. The 63 year old film looks
terrific on DVD.
The next film was shot on Ansco color, another problem area, and
had a limited release in 3-D. This is another great transfer and
Kiss Me Kate* looks much as it
did half a century ago. Its interesting seeing Bob Fosse in an early
role, inclusive of one dance number in which he was allowed to
choreograph his own dance. Even then it had the Fosse style. As an
added extra Kiss Me Kate* also
features a music only track.
Next comes High Society* in
VistaVision and Eastman color, followed by two CinemaScope Eastman
color films, Rouben Mamoulian's 1957 Silk
Stockings*, based upon Ernst Lubitsch's 1939 Ninotchka
starring Greta Garbo and Melvyn Douglas, and George Cukor's 1957
Apparently Mamoulian, who was one of the great pioneers of audio
and the way that it was used with image in the early days of sound
at Paramount with films like Applause,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and
Love Me Tonight was not a big
fan of wide screen cinema and its necessity to fill a wide
proscenium. Whether or not the song was precipitated by the
director's feelings, the Fred Astaire - Janis Paige number "Stereophonic
Sound" is a treat.
With the exception of Broadway Melody*,
all of these films are in stereo.
The Cole Porter Collection,
which lists at $90 should street at $65 or less. The films
individually will be available on April 22 at a list of $20, and
streeting at $14. While it can only currently be found on Amazon, I
suspect that normal sources be come in closer to $60 or slightly
less, making the films a bargain at under $12 each.
A Few Colors
One of the pleasures of discovering new films and directors is
viewing something for the first time by a director that you've never
heard of that leaves you stunned when the experience is over.
This was precisely how I felt upon my initial viewing of The
Double Life of Veronique, the tale of two women who
I don't want to give a bit of this film away, for that time when it
becomes available on DVD. Suffice to say that it is an extraordinary
achievement from a great mind of the modern cinema, Krzysztof
Kieslowski, who died far too young in 1996 at the age of 55.
My discovery of Mr. Kieslowski's work was a major point in my
appreciation of modern eastern European cinema. Although he had
already been making films for twenty years, I was totally unaware of
his work, although I had heard of, but not seen, The
Soon after Veronique came a
film simply entitled Blue
From my initial viewing I knew that something special was being
offered. Roger Ebert, whose reviews I follow as obligatory reading,
commented: "There is a kind of movie in
which the characters are not thinking about anything. They are
simply the instruments of the plot. And another kind of movie in
which we lean forward in our seats, trying to penetrate the mystery
of characters who are obviously thinking a great deal. "Blue"
is the second kind of film."
And yet, I had no idea what was to come until White
RAH appeared shortly
thereafter, and its sometimes meandering story began to strangely
intermesh with Blue.
And then came the final third of the Three
Colors Trilogy, Red
RAH, and it became very
apparent that Kieslowski was a cinematic genius, and I waited for
his next work, which was never to come.
Mr. Ebert borrows a comment made by Mr. Kieslowski in regard to a
scene from one of his films, which is the only thing that I'm going
to tell you about this trilogy. I would be doing a disservice to
attempt to categorize, review or really even comment upon this
extraordinary work of cinematic poetry.
I will simply give these three films the new and special
RAH rating, by which I will
suggest their blind purchase. I would also suggest that those of you
who are unfamiliar with these films do no research in advance. Read
no reviews. Just go into them cold.
"At this moment, in this cafe, we're
sitting next to strangers. Everyone will get up, leave, and go their
own way, And then, they'll never meet again. And if they do, they
won't realize that it's not for the first time."
- Krzysztof Kieslowski
A note to Disney - The Three Colors
Trilogy, like all Disney releases avoids any reference to
production or release dates. As I can see no downside to allowing
this information to be shared with the public, I can't understand
why the studio still avoids the use of dates, which can be helpful
in placing titles in historical perspective.
Bits, Pieces and Misc. Rumors...
A look at Columbia's newest offerings in the SuperBit lineup
continue to impress with marginally better image quality. My
preference would be to see all SuperBit titles released as two disc
sets however, so that one does not have to inventory one version for
a better image in addition to the version which it betters, which is
inclusive of extras.
The most recent that I've checked against the original releases
have been From Here to Eternity*,
Seven Years in Tibet, Legends
of the Fall*, which was beautifully photographed by John
Toll, whose work comes across cleaner in the new release and Labryrinth.
Columbia has been releasing a number of their black and white
classics from the 1930s and 40s which I'll get into in detail in a
There is a rumor out there that we may be seeing a double bill
sometime before the end of this year of the 1953 3-D production,
House of Wax along with the
film on which it was based, the two-strip Technicolor 1932 Mystery
of the Wax Museum. If this is true, it's a great idea and
I can't wait to see what they'll look like on DVD.
Catching up with older releases
- A Time Capsule
Ron Epstein, from
Theater Forum, often makes note of the fact that he is
seeing the majority of classics for the first time thanks to DVD.
But you don't have to go back fifty years to find a classic that
Robert Mulligan has given us To Kill a
Mockingbird*, Summer of '42
and Love With the Proper Stranger.
He directed a film in 1991, which never got to see, which has some
of the tones and textures of Mockingbird*.
It is a tale of two sisters growing up in Louisiana in the late
1950s; an incredibly perfect multi-layered film, with wonderful
performances, a terrific score by James Newton Howard and beautiful
cinematography by Freddie Francis.
And there was one performance of a quality which only comes once
every decade or so. That was the portrayal of the younger sister,
Dani, by a 15 year ingénue, in her first film.
Two decades ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to spend some
time with Lillian Gish, and one of our topics of discussion was the
difference in acting with and without the use of words.
One of the things that she explained was the importance of an actor
in the silent cinema to be able to use their face to emote a full
range of expressions. Miss Gish was known for her eyes and the way
that they alone could tell a story and connect with an audience.
The young girl in Mr. Mulligan's film, The
Man in the Moon RAH,
has that ability.
This is something rare in the modern cinema. Many actors tend to
rely on dialogue alone to express themselves or have a limited range
of facial emotion. This young actress was able to use her incredibly
expressive face and add to it a wonderful presence and body
language. She has a naturalness and believability that would cause
any dolt watching this film in 1991 to sit up and take notice.
When I view a film for the first time, I usually attempt to place
myself in the period in which it was released to see it in the
There is a scene not too far into the film, in which the young girl
is following a boy into a store. With a normal actress she would,
well - follow him into the store. Once you get your hands on this
DVD watch the end of this shot as she is about to walk out of frame.
Within about 20 frames - that's less than a second - her face tells
the entire story. Had I been at a screening of The
Man in the Moon RAH
in 1991, I would have left the theatre in amazement at the
performance that I had just witnessed.
I cannot suggest more highly that you get a copy of this DVD and
see for yourself the performance that Mr. Mulligan drew out of this
15 year old first-timer, and what she gave her audience.
For those who are unaware, the young girl that I've been referring
to is still working.
Her name is Reese Witherspoon.
* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD.
RAH Designates a film worth
of "blind" purchase on DVD.
Don't forget - you can
HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home
theater enthusiasts online right now at The
Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the
HTF's Ron Epstein for the
picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.
A. Harris - Main Page