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The Development of VistaVision:
Paramount Marches to a Different Drummer

By Martin Hart
Curator of The American WideScreen Museum

First printing 1996
Revised August and December, 1997, May, 2004 and November, 2006.
©2006 The American WideScreen Museum
All Rights Reserved

In July of 1952 the motion picture industry was beginning to feel real competition from television. The studios had tried to draw back their attendance with eye straining, blatantly exploitive 3-D films.

In some theatres larger screens were installed, and the normal 1.37:1 aspect ratio movie was cropped to fit into widths of anywhere between 1.66:1 and 1.85:1. Starting with George Steven's "Shane", a number of the studios formalized their own individual "widescreen" aspect ratio that would be suitable for their unreleased backlog of films and current productions. While their films were still photographed in the 1.37:1 ratio, directors of photography were presented with guidelines to protect important action in the center of the frame so that the top and bottom of the image could be masked to create the "wide" format established by the studio.

Then, in that month, something happened that shook the industry to the core. Virtually every major Hollywood studio had been approached over the three previous years by Fred Waller and Hazard Reeves to try their new technique.

The studios declined. This Is Cinerama was independently produced and Waller's huge curved wide screen and Reeves' multi channel sound were indeed impressive. Cinerama was more than impressive, it was unforgettable. The studios bolted for the doors in a rush to come up with their own systems.

Representatives from 20th Century-Fox beat out those from Warner Bros., literally by a few hours, in obtaining the rights and equipment to Henri Chrétien's Anamorphoscope lenses that would be the basis for CinemaScope. Fox franchised the process to the other studios with great success. If Cinerama was the star that guided the film industry into wide screens then CinemaScope was the rudder that steered the course. At the same time Mike Todd, originally a partner in Cinerama Productions, left the company to ultimately develop Todd-AO. MGM looked for a new process while at the same time jumping on the CinemaScope bandwagon. Columbia, Universal, and Warner Bros. also embraced CinemaScope for their big productions and all the major studios believed that stereophonic sound would become standard for all productions. Paramount declined the offer to use CinemaScope and opted to look for a totally different approach to widescreen filming.

CinemaScope and cropped spherical 35mm wide screen were felt by Paramount to be taxing the limits of the available 35mm negative, especially in light of the surge to use larger screens. In those days the major studios still had theatres within their corporate structure and the needs of the theatre operators and presentation quality were a consideration in any technical change. Paramount technicians, working with Eastman Kodak, determined that a larger negative printed down to standard 35mm could provide a vastly improved image on screens up to 50 feet wide.

The Paramount camera department had in its inventory a William Fox "Natural Color" camera built in the late 1920s by the William P. Stein Company. This camera exposed two frames at a time through color filters. John R. Bishop, head of Paramount's camera and film processing departments, cut out the separation between the two vertical frames, rolled the camera over on its side and fitted it with Leica still camera lenses. The "Lazy-8" camera, so called because of its horizontal 8 perforation pull down (or pull across), provided a useable negative area 2.66 times greater than a standard 35mm film with a 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Paramount liked the results obtained with the "Lazy-8" and set about to obtain a second "Natural Color" camera. With two cameras available, Paramount began filming White Christmas in 8 perf and placed orders with Mitchell Camera Company to develop a new silent studio camera for the process that had been christened "VistaVision."

White Christmas was a very popular song but it was not a particularly good introduction of VistaVision, though it did pretty good box office. When the first of the new cameras arrived they were immediately put into use in Cecil B. DeMille's production The Ten Commandments, which would not reach the screen for two more years. In the meantime the older conversions and additional new cameras were put to use, initially filming all of Paramount's color productions and ultimately their black and white features, too. Using new Mitchell movements, Technicolor converted six of their old three-strip color cameras for VistaVision. When an adequate supply of Mitchell VistaVision cameras were available, Technicolor's converted cameras would have anamorphic attachments added in 1957 to be used to produce Technirama films.

While the first conception of VistaVision called for standard 35mm prints, Paramount felt that the negative quality allowed for a variety of prints to be made. Several features were shown in 8 perf horizontal contact prints in limited runs. These included White Christmas, Strategic Air Command, To Catch A Thief, and several Rank Studios productions from Britain such as The Battle of the River Plate (a.k.a. Pursuit of the Graf Spee). While Paramount tried to keep with their preferred aspect ratio of 1.66:1, they also made provisions for 35mm four perf anamorphic prints with an aspect ratio of approximately 2:1. The special 8 perf horizontal prints and the anamorphic prints did not see much use and the vast majority of VistaVision films were released on standard 35mm flat prints which the theatres showed in the same aspect ratio as other non-anamorphic films. With Technicolor dye transfer printing and the large format Eastmancolor negative, VistaVision films, regardless of print type, provided an extremely sharp image with beautifully saturated colors.

In addition to thumbing its nose to what they referred to as "ribbon shaped wide screen formats," Paramount also took a different stance regarding sound. While all the other new techniques incorporated multi-channel magnetic stereophonic sound, Paramount stuck with optical. Their concession to stereo was the use of Perspecta Sound. The Perspecta optical track included three subsonic control tones mixed with the audio signal that were interpreted by an "integrator" and could steer the mono soundtrack to any of three speakers located behind the screen.

While this system, which was also used by MGM on its non-stereo anamorphic productions, did allow for directional sound effects, such effects could not be used if music, dialog, or if other effects were present in the audio mix because everything would swing from the center to the screen sides. Perspecta optical sound could be played as standard mono in theatres that were not equipped with the integrator and multiple speaker systems. Paramount may have relented in at least one case and produced a multi-track stereo mix for The Ten Commandments. Even in this case, only the music score is in stereo. All other directional effects are pure Perspecta type with no sense of depth and just the occasional side screen sound. This sound track is what is available on current stereo laser discs and video cassettes of the film.

VistaVision was widely use by Rank in the U.K., and in the U.S., MGM, United Artists, and Universal used it from time to time. Some of Alfred Hitchcock's most memorable productions were produced in VistaVision, from To Catch a Thief (1954) up through North by Northwest (1959).

Throughout the 50s vast improvements in Eastmancolor materials began to reduce the initial benefits of VistaVision's large format negative as a production medium. 1961 saw one of the last films to be made in VistaVision: Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks. The process never looked better. In the early 1960s, Paramount adopted Technirama as its primary wide screen system. This was a logical move since Technirama had VistaVision's crisp large format negative plus its true wide screen aspect ratio. But this decision was momentary and production in Panavision anamorphic became the process of choice for big productions. The 8 perf camera movements gradually found their way into optical houses, where they continue in use today, producing large format special effects sequences to be incorporated into both flat and anamorphic wide screen films. It is interesting to note that development of a system strikingly similar to VistaVision, (see the Ultra Panavision wing) was done at Metro Goldwyn Mayer that actually predated Paramount's work.

The term "Super VistaVision" was coined in 1989 when Paramount had the eight perf negative of The Ten Commandments printed up to a full frame 70mm film. The results were about as disastrous as that horrible 70mm print of Gone With The Wind. With the Robert A. Harris/James C. Katz restoration of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece Vertigo, Super VistaVision is again used, but this time the framing is held at the correct 1.85:1 ratio that Mr. Hitchcock and cinematographer Robert Burks intended. In seeing this restoration, we are reminded what "Motion Picture High Fidelity" really meant. And sonically, we are also reminded how wrong Paramount was about not pushing stereophonic sound.