By William Kallay
David Strohmaier doesn’t seem like a
raider of lost movie history. He’s a friendly sort who
invites you into his home where you’re greeted by his cat.
Strohmaier even offers you something to drink and fresh-baked
chocolate chip cookies. But some things strike you about
his house. His office is filled with the latest video
editing computers available. There are posters from
classic films on the wall. Yet off to the side are two
film projectors whose lenses peek through projection booth
portals. Walking into his living room, you’d think you
were in a classic movie theatre. Curtains cover up a movie
screen and surround sound speakers, well, surround you as you
sink into a comfortable sofa. The lights of his converted
family room dim, the curtains part and on the screen shines
Strohmaier’s documentary, “Cinerama Adventure.” Not only
has Strohmaier raided his memory to create the ultimate home
theatre environment, but he’s brought back a nostalgic look at
the 1950s wonder, Cinerama.
Had it not been for a few die hard fans, Cinerama would be a footnote in film history. Within the confines of old movie palaces during the 1950s, Cinerama immersed audiences into the middle of a three-paneled screen and seven-channel stereophonic sound virtual reality ride. The film, “This Is Cinerama,” begins with a rather monotonous explanation by journalist/world adventurer Lowell Thomas about the origins of film. This takes place in the middle of the movie theatre screen in the old Academy Format, an aspect ratio more akin to old-fashioned TV screens. Then, the screen widens from one panel to three and the audience now realizes they’re on a roller coaster ride, all from the comfort of their theatre chairs.
Cinerama was such a hit, it spurred 20th Century Fox to introduce CinemaScope, producer Mike Todd to unveil Todd-AO and exhibition companies to either upgrade their theatres to widescreen cinema for Cinemascope, or build cinemas specifically for Cinerama and other film projection processes. The impact of Cinerama is still with us today. Widescreen movies, multichannel surround sound and even the term “rama,” all stemmed from Cinerama.
But Cinerama had run its course by the early 1960s, as more practical and less expensive widescreen processes were developed. To many fans of the format, it was still superior to almost any film presentation ever conceived.
By the 1990s, a few people revived Cinerama for modern audiences. Projectionist John Harvey built a Cinerama installation in his house, eventually moving the equipment to the New Neon Movies [theatre] in Dayton, Ohio. Websites popped up on the Internet with pictures, theatre programs and reams of information about a bygone era. Billionaire Paul Allen of Microsoft fame restored one of the last movie theatres in the world built for Cinerama in Seattle, Washington.
Here’s where David Strohmaier enters the picture. Sensing that Cinerama’s legacy was in danger of being lost, he began to interview a number of people involved with making Cinerama films and re-constructed history in “Cinerama Adventure.” He’s included a number of clips from the era and clips from actual Cinerama films. These are presented in the “Smilebox” process, which is a curved version of letterboxing common on DVDs. This is the only way in which to see all three panels that Cinerama is famous for in a fashion that is reminiscent of the original curved screen experience. The end result is an exciting and poignant film. It shows audiences not just a film format and its impact on the world, but of the people who sometimes risked their lives to bring these films to the masses.
Strohmaier’s 2003 film has been shown around the country to audience and critical acclaim. The only downside to the film’s popularity at festivals and screenings is that it hasn’t been picked up by a distributor, yet. Why hasn’t it been picked up? The story has adventure and intriguing stories about the folks who put Cinerama on Broadway and beyond. It’s a documentary which keeps your eyes glued to the screen for 93 minutes. It’s a celebration of the passion for movies. If Strohmaier has raided Hollywood history, he has certainly delivered audiences a wealth of jewels.
Strohmaier and I sat down in December of 2003 and discussed “Cinerama Adventure.”
Beginning With A Passion For Cinerama
William Kallay, From Script To DVD: What was the goal of making this documentary?
David Strohmaier: I suppose if there was a cause, it would be the fact that motion picture history has forgotten about Cinerama. How important was this stuff when it first hit? It was a matter of luck and timing. It happened at the right time. A bunch of entrepreneurs got together and forced it to happen with their own money, their own spit and bailing wire and created the widescreen revolution. How about stereophonic sound and surround sound that we still use today? It hasn’t changed yet. Even if it’s digital, it still hasn’t changed. It started with Cinerama. CinemaScope was wonderful and powerful. As commercial as it was, that wasn’t it. It was Cinerama, folks. You have the guys who split hairs, “Yes, but ‘Napoleon’...” That was one movie and they dumped it. Fox Granduer was a bunch of newsreels. And the other one; the big John Wayne movie.
FSTD: “The Big Trail”?
Strohmaier: “The Big Trail.” Cinerama created all this other stuff. The timing was right. So it’s about
time that it’s given its due. I think the thing that really pushed it over the edge for me was I was watching a LaserDisc of one of Martin Scorsese’s favorite movies. I forgot the name of the LaserDisc. He’s going through the whole history of widescreen. And I was watching it and I could tell he was getting ready to go into the widescreen thing. Okay, good. We’ll see a clip from “This Is Cinerama,” “The Robe.” No Cinerama whatsoever. It was all CinemaScope! And that pissed me off, because here’s a historian, a very valid, well-respected historian, who perhaps maybe never saw Cinerama. I got to give him the fact that could’ve been a possibility. But here he lived in New York and was a movie nut. He’s a little older than me. That made realize that this is going to be forgotten, other than what John Harvey was able to pull off in Ohio. But then you’ve always got the historians who say, “But that was a fad. I think it lasted twenty minutes and they abandoned it.” You get those guys. You know, fourteen years ain’t no fad! I mean, bell bottoms, how long did they last? Five, six years maybe? Give it some respect.
FSTD: If you look in some of the history books on cinema, a lot of times widescreen and Cinerama are written as footnotes. And a lot of times when they talk about the history and facts, the facts are wrong.
Strohmaier: Quite often.
FSTD: So it’s only been in recent years that I think that people like yourself have actually gone into the history and really tracked it down. I was really surprised at how popular Cinerama was.
Strohmaier: You could barely get tickets. You know, in ’64, when I saw ‘How The West Was Won’ in Denver, Colorado on a family vacation, we had driven by the theatre. I had seen Cinerama earlier as a kid in the ’50s. I said, “Dad! That’s ‘How The West Was Won.’ They’re playing it at that theatre!” And I’m figuring is it going to end tomorrow night? We called the theatre and they said, “No, it’s going to be playing here about another 10 months.” “Can we get tickets?” And they were able to get us in. I’m thinking back as a fourteen year-old kid, but there were probably ten empty seats in the building. And it had already been playing there for over six or seven months. They played these things for two and three years.
FSTD: That’s why it’s kind of funny with people nowadays just going crazy over the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy. They wait in line and see it four and five times. But people have been crazy about certain films for years.
Strohmaier: Yes, and that’s the way movies used to be distributed. “It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World” played for twelve months or something like that.
FSTD: A very long time.
Strohmaier: Long time. “This Is Cinerama,” in its New York run, played for over three-and-half years.
FSTD: That is amazing.
Strohmaier: People watching the opera scene for over three-and-a-half years.
FSTD: That is amazing. And in ’73, they had the 70mm version.
Strohmaier: And that was hugely successful. I remember the billboard. I moved into town [Los Angeles] right about then, so I remember all these billboards around town with the roller coaster on it. I was driving somewhere the other day and I saw a Launderama.
Strohmaier: There’s a Bowlarama in Glendale. I think it’s something that happens once a month. I don’t think it’s a place called Bowlarama. But I think they put up a sign, Bowlarama, and once a month on a Saturday, they have a special tournament or something. I remember reading about it in L.A. Magazine. These are vestiges of what once was.
How Cinerama Adventure Was Made
FSTD: Tell us how you got “Cinerama Adventure” made?
Strohmaier: The interesting thing about this documentary is that the creative thing was all done here
on this computer [pointing to a high-end Apple Computer]. Once you've done that how do you get it onto a 35mm print? How do you keep a certain amount quality without things falling apart? That's where Eastman Kodak came in. That's where Accent Media came in. That’s where Technicolor Labs came in. Crest National. Riot. There’s a whole laundry list of these [companies]. Laser Pacific, in particular. They all came forward. And I stayed out of work for the last two years to facilitate this.
FSTD: What made you go with the HD version of “Cinerama Adventure?”
Strohmaier: It was Laser Pacific’s idea. And the reason they wanted to do it, besides just being good people, is that the American Society of Cinematographers [ASC] got behind the project and started twisting people’s arms around, saying, “We want this project done. It’s about movies. It should be on film. So what can you do to help?” Due to their clout, all these things started happening, including everything you can imagine, like getting composers and sound design. Richard Anderson, who does all the big features in town at Weddington Productions, was in charge of the whole dub; getting the seven channels lined up on film. That went on for six or eight months, because they had to do it in between other jobs. Because they volunteered to do this for free, and because no way is there any way I could ever pay to have this stuff done, I had to sit there and go into another crisis and wait for their schedules to loosen up. But they’re giving you hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stuff. You can’t say no.
FSTD: On what format was the film originally intended?
Strohmaier: It started off to be an NTSC documentary. The frustrating part is you never knew if something was going to fall through. For example, one of the companies promised a film-out from the HD to film. That fell through three weeks before we had to have the film-out. And that was the company that if they could have done it, it was going to be dangerous anyway because they could only do so many frames-per-second. And then you’re tying up that machine for three weeks at Cinesite. If some big guy needs a commercial done right away, you’re bounced.
FSTD: Was your video footage converted to 24p?
Strohmaier: Everything was converted to 24p.
Getting It Right
FSTD: There are a lot of clips and photographs in your film. Did you run into any problems with rights?
Strohmaier: There were so many horror stories I could tell you. We ran this [film] in St. Louis, and one guy said, “You’re going to be really in trouble for using that shot from ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Indiana Jones,’ because they’re going to come down on you so hard.” I said, “I’ve already got a contract that says thank you.” “You do? How did you get that?” A good friend of George Lucas saw the documentary. I asked a couple people, “Does anybody know who I should talk to at Lucasfilm?” Someone gave me the name of George Lucas’ secretary. Then this other guy came up to me and said, “Oh no, let me make a phone call.” It was George Lucas’ roommate at college.
FSTD: Is that right?
Strohmaier: And instantly the lawyers called me, “So you want to use the shot from ‘Star Wars?’” I said, “Yes. It’s only about five seconds and it ties into widescreen.” “Okay, that shouldn’t be a problem.” And I hadn’t even talked to Paramount yet. Then I got a call from Paramount. The guy from Lucas called the guy at Paramount about “Indiana Jones.” So all these guys were just super about the whole thing. And the 20th Century Fox Legal Department sent me a little note or card saying good luck on your project. And I didn’t have to pay a dime. I’ve tried to tell several people I think the real story behind this documentary, besides that “idiot” doing this with his own money to keep things rolling, was all these people around town who saw it and said, “Yeah, that’s a valid piece of motion picture history that’s never been told before. And no one else is going to be stupid enough to do it, so let him have it.”
Finding A Distributor
FSTD: Do you think one of the reasons some distributors don’t get “Cinerama Adventure” is because they think it’s too technical?
Strohmaier: I don’t think we get too technical. We could’ve gotten a lot more technical, but we didn’t want to be too technical. I was talking to a guy who liked the documentary. I was trying to get it into a distributor. They did look at it and they did think about it, but they didn’t get it. But they’d come and go to these corporate meetings and they’d say, “What do we do with this thing called ‘Cinerama Adventure?’” I’m inventing some scenarios. The answer came back to me. First of all, I said, “Why don’t you guys have me in for a meeting? Because I can probably within five minutes give you an idea that’s going to either make it easier for you to say no, or it’s going to make you think about what all the possibilities are. Either way you’re going to gain something.” Nobody would let me come to this meeting. Their recommendation was, when they said no, “You know, this should be running down in Florida at Disney.” They got it mixed up with Circle-Vision! If a distributor gets involved with me, he hasn’t got a lot of expenses because there’s a 35mm negative and a Dolby soundtrack already. You’re not going to have to pay for that. That’s free. Dolby came in on a weekend to do it.
The Interviews, Lucky Findings and Money
FSTD: In how many states and countries were your interviews conducted?
Strohmaier: Anchorage, Alaska, Arkansas; Chicago; Colorado Springs; Ohio; Hanover, New Hampshire; Hilton Head, South Carolina; Las Vegas, Nevada; Portal, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; Santa Monica, California; Bradford, England; Cheshire, England; County Kiltdare, Ireland; Oslo, Norway. There were fifteen different cameramen; sixteen, including the guy who I used in New York and L.A. who I took with me. That would be seventeen cameramen.
FSTD: On what format did you shoot the interviews?
Strohmaier: Beta SP. Again, that’s before we knew we were going to go Hi-Def. Beta SP looks pretty good on 35mm film.
FSTD: Actually, it does.
Strohmaier: It’s amazing what they did to it! They waved some magic wand over it got rid of the video
look. Research wise, things came from all over the world. I was cutting that scene about the tents arriving in trucks. All I had was a couple stills that I was going to have to milk and do motion control on it, intercut it with these interviews. I got an email from a guy that said, “I hear you’re doing a documentary on Cinerama. I’ve got a whole bunch of footage of these trucks arriving that I found at a swap meet in Paris. It’s got a French soundtrack.” He sent that to me and said, “If you can use this, by all means.” It made that whole sequence come together beautifully, because everything this guy was saying was there on the screen. My wife would complain, “Why is it taking so long to do this documentary?” In the second year, in between other jobs, I’d go on hiatus. I’d start working on it again. “Aren’t you done with that yet?” I said, “These things have to gestate, because things start coming out of the woodwork towards the end, filling in all the gaps.”
FSTD: How much did the documentary cost?
Strohmaier: Personally, about $140,000. That didn’t include the Final Cut Pro [editing program], because I’ve used that for other things, so I never put that in the budget. The office supplies, believe it or not, that’s one of the big items. Office supplies also included publicity materials for film festivals, like posters. Most of those cameramen around the world would shoot it at half-rate. Or Gerald, my cameraman, would give me a half-day rate for a full day. Or he’d throw in a free day. He thinks this is some of his best work that he’s done. He’s worked on a couple of Kevin Brownlow documentaries.
FSTD: What type of industry help did you get?
Strohmaier: It was just unprecedented, almost flabbergasting. They saw that I was persistent. The miracle of this movie is that I didn’t have to adapt to anything. I got to do everything I wanted to do. I could see a certain amount of impatience from people as we were going into another session. “We’re going to curve more shots? I thought we curved all the shots.” But no one ever said no, which is a balancing act to a certain extent. I’d send out emails to all of those people, including Roger Mayer [President, Turner Entertainment], “Here’s where we are now.” It makes them feel like they’re still part of the project.
FSTD: Was it easy for you to get cooperation on interviews?
Strohmaier: I think there was only one or two that were a little bit [difficult], because they were in the
movie business at the time. One of them we interviewed, which we never used in the documentary, was the son of Spyros Skouras, who’s really responsible for CinemaScope, as opposed to Darryl [Zanuck]. I mean it was this other guy. He’s the one who got the contracts. He’s the one who traced Henri [Chrétien] down. I’ve got a whole sequence that goes into that. Warner Bros. was there a day late and a dollar short. I had a shot of Jack Warner. All this was in the long version of the documentary. Plato Skouras told me in his interview about a lot of the stuff that was going on behind-the-scenes; his dad never got credit for CinemaScope. He was like Roy Disney versus Walt Disney. Walt was the guy who would get the credit, even though Roy was the businessman. He said, “I will do an interview with you, but you need to straighten that out. You need to give my dad credit as opposed to Darryl.” We go into Spyros more than we do Darryl. Darryl’s just there making a comment or two about every production “we do now is going to be in CinemaScope.” So the newsreel footage has Spryos Skouras in it and Henri Chrétien. Most everyone cooperated.
Doing The Festival Circuit
FSTD: Can you name off some of the film festivals in which you’ve shown “Cinerama Adventure?”
Strohmaier: We ran our work-in-progress, the NTSC version, at the Telluride Film Festival, where we actually entered the documentary in with Cinerama itself. We projected Cinerama as the documentary ended. We started right off on the roller coaster in real Cinerama with all the seven channels of sound. So that was the real premiere of the documentary. Out of that, we got a big full page review by Todd McCarthy of Variety. And we didn’t expect that, because we said it wasn’t finished yet. Usually you don’t get a review unless it’s done and it’s got a distributor lined up. We thought that was good because Todd McCarthy mentioned in his review that this could have a theatrical life. This could go to every major city that had a Cinerama theatre and people would come. Then there would be a long ancillary life to follow with DVDs. You would think a distributor would be calling me up saying, “Hey, I want to see your film!” Nobody. After Telluride, it went to the Bradford Film Festival in England because they have a Cinerama theatre there. There was Seattle in June 2003. Then it went to ArcLight and then it went to Chicago, Denver, Reno, and St. Louis. And now in January we’ll be in Palm Springs. And then after Palm Springs, possibly Newport Beach, California and Palm Beach, Florida.
FSTD: And you’re showing the 35mm version?
Strohmaier: We can show 35mm now. And Dolby Surround SR-D [Dolby Digital]. The whole bit. 1.85:1 [aspect ratio]. In fact there’s an extra print out in the garage. Technicolor made two prints of it. The misery was spread around town.
The Smilebox Process
FSTD: You have almost as many effects shots as a small independent feature.
Strohmaier: It’s got to be a record for a documentary. The physical shots that ended up in the film were about 124 CGI shots [done on the Flame]. But behind some of those CGI shots were other layers that had to be done at separate facilities in order for that to happen.
FSTD: Is this where the “Smilebox” process comes in?
Strohmaier: It’s a 3-D Flame that they created at Laser Pacific. They take the image and they bend the edges.
FSTD: Why did you decide to use the Smilebox process rather than just a flat letterbox?
Strohmaier: It’s mainly because with letterbox the first thing that comes out of people’s mouths is, “What’s so special about that?” Everybody has seen letterbox. In fact, they’ll think there are two scratches in it because of the panels. So we knew we had to do something with it. I originally thought we were going to be burning it onto a curved screen and having little “audiences” below it so everybody would get the idea that there isn’t something wrong with their TV. set when they watch the documentary. That’s the first thing an executive is going to say. If you put this documentary on PBS, for example, they’re going to bounce the Smilebox, because they’re not going to understand it and they’re not willing to take time to listen to anybody. And I think we set it up pretty well, because we do show an audience on a couple of shots so you know what’s going on. If you come in the middle of the movie, you might wonder. But we go back to the thing several times. If you miss part of the documentary, you won’t think there’s something wrong with your TV set and, yet, it still gives you a little bit of the Cinerama feel.
Cinerama’s Impact On Strohmaier
FSTD: On a personal level, why was Cinerama so special to you?
Strohmaier: I was probably six years-old when I saw Cinerama. That was such a memorable
experience that it kind of stuck with me all these years. I think a lot people have that [with other films]. Some people have that with “Lawrence Of Arabia.” You name the title. Everybody has something. That’s why I opened the documentary with something kind of corny about me going to a movie and my parents taking me. There are a couple of critics who criticized that, but that’s every man’s story. It’s an every man story to suck you into the documentary to make it more personal for you.
Strohmaier: In Chicago, the critics didn’t like that. They commented, “Hokey opening, but great movie!”
FSTD: I think it gets you right into the film. You emphasized that with Cinerama, you’re going to see a special event. You’re seeing a special movie. You’re not going to get that almost anywhere else. But do you feel that Cinerama was the best process that the industry ever used?
Strohmaier: No. Personally, I would have to say VistaVision. It was so adaptable to other things. And I do like 70mm. 70mm or VistaVision. Cinerama was meant for special venues like IMAX. The closest thing they were trying to do with the dramatic Cinerama films [“The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm” (1962) and “How The West Was Won” (1962)] was just to get more theatres built. Lowell Thomas was still trying to get Cinerama going on volcanoes, because everybody loved that flying into the volcano sequence in “Seven Wonders Of The World” . They were going to do one on nuclear power. They actually started shooting that. So they had a bunch of ideas that they were going to do. I suppose if Cinerama had kept going, they would’ve improved it more. The join lines would’ve been almost totally gone. They did find a way to totally blend them perfectly. Shooting it on one piece of negative and splitting it three ways so you didn’t have to change all the theatres. 16-perf 35mm. They had this giant lens, which was like a Todd-AO lens, but bigger. It was filled with some kind of clear oil. They did some tests with it and it worked. That was about the same time they were going broke. Cinerama was also diversifying at the same time in the ’60s. They were the first to develop the home video camera. It was a black-and-white video camera called Tel-Cam. And also they provided a lot of high speed cameras for NASA. They also developed a panorama camera based on Fred Waller’s original patents. And so they were diversifying into these other areas and normally for a corporation, that’s good to do. In this case, it wasn’t. And so they were starting to lose money and that’s how it all started coming to an end.
Special thanks to David Strohmaier
Photos provided by David Strohmaier
Originally posted here on June 30, 2004