Friday, December 21, 2012

The Twelve Days of “White Christmas”... Number 4. Do You Have a “White Christmas” TV Under Your Tree?



For as long as I can remember, movies have been projected on screens nearly twice as wide as they are deep, unlike television shows, which were traditionally produced in a width only one-third greater than their depth (thus, the dimensions of the standard 4:3 TV screen). But for the first 50 years of commercial movie-making, films were also produced at this aspect ratio.

When TV came along, the public realized it could gain an experience comparable to that watching a movie, but for free and in the comfort of their own homes. So, in the early 1950s, movie studios became desperate to lure people back into theaters by presenting “incomparable” experiences—using stereophonic sound, 3-D, and widescreen. The most highly touted among the widescreen processes was CinemaScope, which presented a width more than two-and-a-half times its depth. The effect was powerful, but often difficult to film, project and enjoy. Audiencces who looked at the left side of the screen might miss what was going on on the right side. Film directors complained that CinemaScope forced them to stretch their action too broadly. And most theater owners, who didn’t have obnoxiously wide screens, were forced to drastically cut down on their projection’s height, so the entire image would fit on their screens.

Paramount, alone among the big studios, decided to pass on CinemaScope. Instead, it would create its own, more practical widescreen format. At a width-to-height ratio of 1.85 to 1 (vs. CinemaScope’s 2.55 to 1), VistaVision would offer an easier-to-view image that could be shown on standard movie screens. And, the image was considerably sharper, because the movie contained twice as many frames; it was filmed at half-speed and then projected at double speed.

To introduce the new process, Paramount tapped White Christmas. The excitement about VistaVision—and the film’s near-$1 million ad budget—helped make the holiday picture the top-grossing movie of 1954, collecting $12 million. Paramount would employ VistaVision on about 30 productions through the 1950s, including The Court Jester (1956) and The Five Pennies (1959). Yet the process proved unduly expensive for the studio, which went through twice as much film stock, as well as theater owners, who were handling more reels of film rattling twice as quickly through their projectors.

According to White Christmas editor Frank Bracht: “The VistaVision system, although beautiful to see, proved impractical due to difficulty in handling and added cost to the exhibitors, as extra men were required in the projection room.”

But by this time, VistaVision’s 1.85 to 1 aspect ratio was on its way to becoming the industry standard in filmmaking. Studios moved to more affordable “anamorphic” processes for reaching the wider dimensions using standard 35mm film, such as Paramount employing Panavision for On the Double (1961). Today, widescreen HDTVs mimic film’s 1.85:1 aspect ratio with their slightly downsized 16:9 viewing areas. So, in a way, you can thank White Christmas for the shape of your new TV!

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