by David W. Samuelson
Photos courtesy of the ASC Archives, David Samuelson, Panavision
and Kevin Brownlow.
The Panavision company was formed in 1954 to
manufacture, supply and distribute anamorphic attachment lenses
to the movie theaters across America that did not wish to purchase
such lenses from 20th Century Fox. This came about because, with
the introduction of CinemaScope earlier that year, there was
an enormous need for projection lenses that Fox could not immediately
satisfy. Initially, the studio only made the lenses available
to theaters that would also agree to install four-track stereo
sound systems at the same time.
The principle of "anamorphic" imagery
- a distorted image that looks normal when restored - goes back
to the 16th century. Originally, this process was accomplished
by means of drawings or paintings to be viewed (usually) with
the aid of a cylinder-shaped mirror. The first patents for anamorphic
lenses were granted in the late 19th century.
CinemaScope was derived from an anamorphic-lens
system created in 1927 by French optical designer Dr. Henri Chretian.
It is said that having seen Abel Gance's great picture Napoleon,
which was filmed with a combination of three cameras and projected
by three projectors onto three side-by-side screens, Chretian
remarked that he could achieve the same result with a single
camera and projector, using the optical principle he had developed
for tank periscopes during World War I, then only a few years
previous. He called his system "Hypergonar" and manufactured
a small number of attachment lenses that could be used either
in front of a camera lens or for projection. Many of these lenses
were destroyed during World War II when Chretian's laboratory
During the late 1940s, when all of the major
Hollywood studios realized that television would make deep inroads
into their market, they scrambled for a means to make the cinema
experience more spectacular than the format that could be achieved
by a television set. The answer was "the big screen."
Cinerama (1952), which utilized three
projectors, a deeply curved screen and four-track stereo sound,
was the first to come and go. Todd-AO used obsolescent Mitchell
BFC 65mm film cameras, to which an additional 5mm was added at
the print stage to accommodate stereo sound tracks. If nothing
else, the format, which was moderately successful for a time,
showed that a widescreen aspect ratio with high-quality images
- which television could not emulate - was the way to go.
Paramount took an option on the French Hypergonar
anamorphic system but allowed it to lapse after deciding to proceed
with VistaVision, a widescreen system that used an 8-perf-wide
35mm picture, with the film traveling horizonally.
Warner Bros. had anamorphic lenses manufactured
by Zeiss (one of the original patentees in the 1890s) and called
the system Warner SuperScope.
At the same time, 20th Century Fox took a serious
look at reviving the widescreen Grandeur system it had developed
and promoted in 1929-30, but concluded it would not be economically
viable. The studio then began examining alternative widescreen
When Fox heard that Paramount had dropped its
option on Chretian's Hypergonar anamorphic system, a group of
senior Fox executives, including Spyros Skouras and Earl Sponable,
the studio's technical director, flew to Paris to take a closer
look at it. What they saw impressed them, and at the end of 1952
they decided to go with the French system. They called it CinemaScope
and decided the format would make its debut with the epic The
Robe, which was already six weeks into production. (See Wrap
Shot, page 112.) Subsequently, the show's sets had to be torn
down and rebuilt at twice their original width.
Fox used the best of the three anamorphic attachment
lenses they received from Chretian on The Robe. (The other
two were used on How to Marry a Millionaire and Beneath
the 12 Mile Reef.) Each film was shot with a single anamorphic
attachment and a single 50mm backing lens. This meant that no
wide-angle or longer focal-length lenses were available.
The lenses were considered so valuable that
each had its own bodyguard.