Since its opening early in 1957, over 2 million persons have attended Colonial Williamsburg's unique motion-picture theater. They have seen a film in VistaVision and Todd-AO sound. They have seen a dramatic historical film produced by the finest talent of Paramount Pictures Corporation and skillfully directed by George Seaton.
These visitors have had the choice of two showtimes provided by identical theaters showing the film on staggered schedules from a single projection booth. This modern projection booth has been visited by many SMPTE members.
Many are familiar with Colonial Williamsburg and know it as the restored eighteenth-century capital of the Virginia colony. An important, though never very large city, Williamsburg at its peak of historical significance contained about two hundred buildings. In 1780, near the end of the Revolutionary War, the capital of the new Commonwealth of Virginia was moved to Richmond and, thereafter, for about 150 years, Williamsburg virtually stood still. In 1926 nearly 70 of the original buildings remained. The Reverend W. A. R. Goodwin, Rector of Williamsburg's Bruton Parish Church, was well aware of the historical significance of Williamsburg and he succeeded in interesting John D. Rockefeller, Jr., in what was to result in almost a complete restoration of the city. With great accuracy a center of American history has been re-created and year by year it assumes an increasing importance as a place where visitors can have a visual and spiritual glimpse of the roots of our democracy.
Along with the physical restoration of Williamsburg came the problem of its educational interpretation. A nonprofit controlling organization called Colonial Williamsburg commenced the serious task of exhibiting key buildings and shops. Costumed guides, carefully trained, provided an oral explanation. In 1948 a temporary information center was constructed. A constantly repeating program of slides and films was used to orient visitors and augment the guide service. After several years of operation, the great value of this type of orientation was clearly demonstrated and plans were sought for a permanent information center, and an improved program.
The committee, faced with the challenging task of improving the interpretive program, was charged with the responsibility of determining the most imaginative method which would be practical to operate. Almost every conceivable possibility was explored. Wide consultation provided a fund of ideas to be investigated.
In the course of events, a definition of the problem was agreed upon. The purpose of the new program was "to orient the visitor in terms of historical background and mood." The word "mood" is responsible more than anything else for the final plans. At an early stage of the project a suggestion had been made to utilize a series of connecting rooms, with varying audio-visual shows, as a kind of historical decompression chamber. For various reasons this procedure was not practical. But it did serve to emphasize the need to take the audience back in time. How could an audience be given such an illusion? It seemed evident that some sort of motion-picture experience might be the answer.
At this point, Max Abramovitz, architectural consultant for the project, recommended that Ben Schlanger, well-known theater architect, be consulted. This began a very happy relationship. For many years, Mr. Schlanger had been advocating an improved screen ratio, increased resolution by greater film area, brighter pictures on unmasked screens, and theater designs which were devoid of architectural decoration. This type of thinking was ideally suited to the Williamsburg project.
It was agreed that a wide-screen participation type of show was the best solution.
After considerable search for a suitable large-film process, the final decision was made easier by an offer on the part of Paramount Pictures Corp. to collaborate on a production using their VistaVision process. Todd-AO agreed to supply six-track stereophonic sound.
With the film medium determined, architect Ben Schlanger continued his research and soon he boldly suggested that Colonial Williamsburg construct two theaters. This proposal was made on two bases: (1) since the length of t he film was to be 40 minutes, two theaters operated on a staggered schedule would reduce the maximum waiting time to 20 minutes; and (2) only the "cream" of the participation area in front of the large screen would need to be used for viewing.
Using a picture width of 52 ft (by 26 ft high) the seating was limited to 8 rows of 30 seats each.
Architectural details of the Williamsburg theaters arc given by Mr. Schlanger in the following paper. Nevertheless, it would be impossible to continue the architectural description of the Williamsburg project without reference to Mr. Schlanger's contributions in so many areas. It was Mr. Schlanger who from the outset insisted that, properly, the conception of a film, its production and its exhibition are all one continuously related process. (A list of some Journal contributions by Mr. Schlanger appears at the end of this part of the paper.)
Investigations in the area of wide-screen participatory viewing and listening were extremely thorough and detailed. They ranged from the psychological implications at audience involvement through optics and acoustics to the finer points of stereophony. The acknowledgments at the end of this paper give only the general idea of the wealth of important contributions to the technical thinking of the Williamsburg project.
With the general concept of twin theaters accepted the next step was to determine the technical and artistic nature of the production to be exhibited. In consideration of the wide-screen image, all of the pros and cons of peripheral impressions were examined with care. One of the conclusions was a recommendation that a single lens and no close-ups be employed in the photography. (As a matter of record, the majority of scenes in the final film were taken with a very short range of lenses and there were no real close-ups.) The changing nature of perspective where the focal length of taking lenses vary widely was felt to be undesirable and unnatural. Duplication of natural vision was to be desired.
Some of the most fascinating planning sessions took place when stereophonic sound was discussed. For instance. a serious attempt was made to find a workable means of recording location sound stereophonically; it was finally decided that with normal screen action and editing it was impractical to record multiple-channel location sound. A technique of "swinging" sound from voice and effects tracks was later employed in mixing sound. Music, of course, was truly stereophonic.
A proposal was seriously considered whereby a "presence track" would activate the entire seating area of a floating auditorium by means of converting audio energy to mechanical energy, feeding hydraulic springs. The idea was abandoned, not for lack of courage but because it was felt that the effect would be distracting in terms audience awareness.
The number and placement of horns to secure the effective distribution of sound was the subject of many planning sessions. The possibilities of left and right off-screen speakers, rear speakers, floor speakers, and ceiling speakers were explored. Full sound awareness via a complete perimeter of electrostatic speakers was reluctantly abandoned when the sound quality of such speakers was studied.
With six tracks available, the final decision sent five of these to behind-the-screen speakers while the sixth fed a nest of six distributed ceiling speakers.
It was felt that the theater should be acoustically dead, making possible good exterior sound scenes. A well-known authority on acoustics, Leo Beranek explains this as follows: "The reason that the theater should be acoustically dead is that the illusion of creating outdoor conditions cannot be achieved where there is any reverberation or echo. When one walks outdoors, sounds that are generated travel directly to the listener unenhanced by room reflections. Thus, man has associated a feeling of openness with lack of reverberation. It is easy, however, to introduce reverberation into the soundtrack for those cases where specific room effects are desired. Another reason for introducing room effects into sound channels is the great variety of room conditions that Colonial Williamsburg might wish to depict in the film. These conditions would range from the reverberant House of Burgesses to the nonreverberant conditions of a small bedchamber.
As constructed, the Williamsburg twin theaters have a reverberation time in the midfrequency range of 0.6 sec while in the high and low ranges this figure is slightly less. All floor areas are heavily carpeted.
Development of a script was first commissioned by Paramount to the late James Agee who completed most of a treatment prior to his death. This last work of Mr. Agee was a document of great value and sensitivity-but because further detailing was needed, this work was postponed for later sympathetic completion.
The story of the film covers the years immediately preceding the American Revolution and in so doing vividly peoples the Williamsburg set in such a manner that visitors, having seen the film, may imagine that they walk the streets of the old city and visit the buildings.
Due to the intimacy of the theater, the amount of camera movement was extremely limited and the screen figures were kept low in the composition wherever possible. A six foot model of the theaters was demonstrated to the production crew before filming commenced so that the later visual effect of the screen would be realized. The large screen so close to the audience is a definite restriction as far as conventional photography is concerned. (The is an increasing problem as screens in theaters grow larger.)
The Paramount crew shot the film entirely on location in Williamsburg and on surrounding plantations. Extremely difficult interiors were actually filmed in the historic rooms, many of them small in size, and all of them small in terms of the usual set. Since the story concerned the years just prior to the American Revolution, the film was a costume piece. Every detail was handled with the greatest possible authenticity. Actors who played Washington, Jefferson, Patrick Henry, George Wythe and other historic characters were carefully selected for physical resemblances and also for voices to the extent we know about them.
The film, shot with Eastman Color Negative on double-frame VistaVision, is projected with the maximum possible lateral aperture. A small amount of top and bottom picture is lost due to sound striping. A diagram of the film dimensions is shown in the succeeding paper.
During production of the film, the construction of the theater was proceeding. Altec Lansing Corp. supplied the principal electronic work; Century Projector Co. manufactured the projectors.
The twin theaters are a part of the Information Center Building. A common projection booth serving both theaters is located over the main information and exhibition lobby. The audience enters the theater on one side and departs on the other. No center aisles are required but comfortable walking room is allowed by spacing rows of seats four feet apart. Persons in one row do not see those in the other rows in front of them.
In order to achieve good visibility, yet prevent excessive keystoning, a stadium type of row elevation has been employed. Projection angle is about 4°.
Mr. Schlanger's theory that a motion-picture theater should be a neutral viewing area has been carried out completely in the new Williamsburg theaters. His desire to use a maskless screen and a blended lateral image required considerable technical investigation. The detailed description of the screen is given in the succeeding paper.
The projection booth has been regarded by projection specialists as an accomplishment of some merit. Although the fundamental layout, as shown in the following paper, was designed by Mr. Schlanger and the author, it represents, as is the case of the other areas, the design talents of many people.
The day-to-day operation of this booth has been extremely satisfactory during the years of its operation. Only normal problems of wear and failure have been encountered though it is true that many of the special innovations required careful adjustment until operational experience was gained. Operators find the area pleasant, roomy and quiet.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance given at all stages of planning and construction. Among those who have made important contributions to the success of the project are the following: Brian O'Brian, American Optical Co.; Douglas Shearer, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; Walter R. Hicks, Reevesound Co.; Loren R. Ryder, Ryder Sound Services, Inc.; Charles R. Daily, then of Paramount Pictures Corp. and now of Hughes Aircraft Co.; Frank LeGrande, Paramount Pictures Corp.; Fred Hynes, Todd-AO; Edward S. Seeley, Altec Lansing Corp.; C. S. Perkins, Altec Lansing Corp.; Dave Demarest, Altec Lansing Corp.; Leo Beranek, Bolt Beranek and Newman, Inc.; Ernest Wolf, Wellesley College; W.J. Crozier, Harvard University; Larry Davies, Century Projector Co.; W. Ferguson, New York University; C. S. Ashcraft, C. S. Ashcraft Mfg. Co., Inc.; Willard Yoder, W. A. Yoder Co.; Daniel J. Bloomberg, Republic Studios; John Selby, Selby Industries, Inc.; Leonard Satz, Technikote Corp.; F. B. Hutchinson, Perkin-Elmer, Corp.