When the first of three films based on The Hobbit opens in about two months, a certain number of theaters will show the movie at a speed of 48 frames per second — double the current standard of 24 frames per second. A preview of the 48-frame print drew a mixed response, though the problem could simply have been that the preview was too short to give eyes and minds the time to adjust to the higher resolution of the image. At any rate, I’ll be curious to see the new technique in action — though only after I’ve seen the film in the standard format.
Some of you may be old enough to remember Cinerama, a film technology introduced in the late 1950s that provided an overwhelming, immersive viewing experience. I’ve never seen a Cinerama film. I have vivid memories of seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey during its initial late 1960s run in a cavernous New York theater. Though billed as a Cinerama show, the screening was actually in single-screen 70 mm instead of the three-screen process used for true Cinerama shows. I couldn’t have cared less at the time: 2001 in 70 mm blew my mind in every conceivable way. Seeing it in true Cinerama style probably would have altered the cellular structure of my brain.
Film historian and blogger David Bordwell talks about Cinerama in connection with the new Flicker Alley DVD release of This Is Cinerama, the demo film used to tout the wonders of the new technology. Film aficionado David Frohmaier has apparently come up with a display technique called Smilevision that puts across the three-screen effect while cleaning up some of the bugs that led to its abandonment.
Funny thing — one of the early shots in This Is Cinerama is a trip on a rollercoaster filmed from the front car. That reminded me of Brainstorm, a largely forgotten 1983 science fiction film directed by Douglas Trumbull, the magician behind the startling visuals in 2001. (It’s mostly remembered as Natalie Wood’s last film — she drowned during the production, and Trumbull had to fight to get the redone film released at all.) Trumbull had conceived the film, which is about the invention of a device that records thoughts and memories so others can experience them, as a showcase for his own Showscan technology, which would have projected the image at 60 frames per second. When the inventors prepare a mental “demo reel” of their own, it starts with a rollercoaster and other images that may have been Trumbull’s inside reference to This Is Cinerama. Talk about an in-joke!