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Vistavision

A 35mm film format with a large surface area and low grain.
Vistavision Logo 001

VistaVision is a higher resolution, widescreen variant of the 35 mm motion picture film format which was created by engineers at Paramount Pictures in 1954.

Paramount did not use anamorphic processes such as CinemaScope but refined the quality of their flat widescreen system by orienting the 35 mm negative horizontally in the camera gate and shooting onto a larger area, which yielded a finer-grained projection print.

As finer-grained film stocks appeared on the market, VistaVision became obsolete. Paramount dropped the format after only seven years, although for another forty years the format was used by some European and Japanese producers for feature films, and by American films such as the first three Star Wars movies for high resolution special effects sequences.

In many ways, VistaVision was a testing ground for cinematography ideas that evolved into 70 mm IMAX and OMNIMAX film formats in the 1970s. Both IMAX and OMNIMAX are oriented sideways, like VistaVision.

As a response to an industry recession brought about by the popularity of television, the Hollywood studios turned to large format movies in order to regain audience attendance. The first of these, Cinerama, debuted in September 1952, and consisted of three strips of 35 mm film projected side-by-side onto a giant, curved screen, augmented by seven channels of stereophonic sound.

Five months later, in February of the following year, Twentieth Century-Fox announced that they would soon be introducing a simpler version of Cinerama using anamorphic lenses instead of multiple film strips; a widescreen process that soon became known to the public as CinemaScope.

As a response, Paramount Pictures devised their own system the following month to augment their 3-D process known as Paravision. This process utilized a screen size that yielded an aspect ratio of 5 units wide by 3 units high, or 1.66:1. By using a different sized aperture plate and wider lens, a normal Academy ratio film could be soft matted to this or any other aspect ratio. Shortly thereafter, it was announced that all of their productions would be shot in this ratio.

The VistaVision fanfare, used on most of the films produced in this ratio, was written by film, television, and radio composer and orchestrator Nathan Van Cleave.

This "flat" widescreen process was adopted by other studios and by the end of 1953, more than half of the theatres in America had installed wide screens. However, there were drawbacks: because a smaller portion of the image was being used and magnification was increased, excessive grain and soft images plagued early widescreen presentations. Some studios sought to compensate for this by shooting their color pictures with a full aperture gate (rather than the Academy aperture), and then reducing the image in Technicolor's optical printer. This process is a predecessor of today's Super 35 format which also uses a 1.85:1 ratio, but uses one-third more frame area than a standard 1.85:1 matted into a 4:3.

Paramount took this concept a step further, using old Stein cameras from the 1930s which used a two-frame color format that was itself adopted from a 1902 three-frame color film process developed by Edward Raymond Turner. For the aborted early 1930s color process, instead of an image four perforations high, the camera exposed eight perforations (essentially two frames) consisting of one 4-perf image through a red filter and one 4-perf image through a green filter.

In shooting VistaVision, the film was run horizontally rather than vertically, and instead of exposing two simultaneous 4-perf frames, the entire eight perforations were used for one image. This format is identical to the 135 Film Format used by 35 mm still cameras.

Because of its peculiar horizontal orientation on the negative, VistaVision was sometimes called Lazy 8 by film professionals. This gave a wider aspect ratio of 1.5:1 versus the conventional 1.37:1 Academy ratio, and a much larger image area. In order to satisfy all theaters with all screen sizes, VistaVision films were shot in such a way that they could be shown in one of three recommended aspect ratios: 1.66:1, 1.85:1 and 2.00:1.

The negative was "scribed" with a new form of cue mark, made at the start of each 2000-foot (610 m) reel. Similar in shape to an F, the cue mark contained staffs that directed the projectionist to the top of the frame for the three recommended aspect ratios. The projectionist racked his framing so that the staff touched the top of his screen (at the appropriate ratio) and the framing was set for the rest of the reel. On many home video releases these cue marks have been digitally erased.

While most competing widescreen film systems used magnetic audio and true stereophonic sound, early VistaVision carried only Perspecta Stereo, encoded in the optical track.

Loren L. Ryder, chief engineer at Paramount, expressed four general reasons he thought Paramount's VistaVision would be the forerunner of widescreen projection in most theaters:

  • VistaVision could be shown at widescreen aspect ratios between 1.66 and 2.00:1.
  • VistaVision could be (and most often was) further printed down to standard vertical 35 mm reels keeping its 1.66:1 widescreen aspect ratio, which meant exhibitors did not need to purchase additional projection equipment, unlike CinemaScope.
  • VistaVision did not cut down the number of seats in any theater (as did Cinerama, and CinemaScope at first).
  • VistaVision allowed patrons to see more and therefore gain more enjoyment out of a feature.
  • After months of trade screenings, Paramount introduced VistaVision to the public at Radio City Music Hall on October 14, 1954, with their first film shot in the process, White Christmas.

White Christmas, Strategic Air Command, To Catch a Thief, Richard III, and The Battle of the River Plate had very limited (two or three) prints struck in the 8-perf VistaVision format in which they were shot. Although the clarity of these 8-perf prints was striking, they were used only for premiere or preview engagements between 1954 and 1956 and required special projection equipment. This exhibition process was impractical because for the footage to travel through a projector at the normal 24 frames per second, the film had to roll at 3 feet per second, double the speed of 35 mm film and causing many technical and mechanical problems. Aside from these prints all other VistaVision films were shown in the conventional 4-perf (vertical) format, as planned.

Alfred Hitchcock used VistaVision for many of his films in the 1950s. However, by the late 1950s with the introduction of finer-grained color stocks and the disadvantage of shooting twice as much negative stock, VistaVision became obsolete. Less expensive anamorphic systems such as CinemaScope and the more expensive 70 mm format became standard during the later 1950s and 1960s.

Since the last American VistaVision picture, One-Eyed Jacks in 1961, the format has not been used as a primary imaging system for American feature films. However, VistaVision's high resolution made it attractive for some special effects work within some later feature films. Many VistaVision cameras were sold off internationally beginning in the early 1960s, which led to a significant number of VistaVision-format productions (which did not use the trade name) in countries such as Italy and Japan from the 1960s to 1980s. The format was used infrequently for lesser-known Japanese films until at least 2000.

Key Terms

cinemascope
film
format
image
paramount
perforations
prints
process
ratio
vistavision

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Vistavision
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Last modified on November 25 2019
Content adapted from Wikipedia
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