All about VistaVision

All about VistaVision

Image by Doug Kline

With Charlie on the mend we’ve had a lot of time for movie watching. We’ve been spending our weekends with the likes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, Lloyd Nolan, Errol Flynn, and Olivia de Havilland. Pretty good company I’d say! The temperatures have been so hot as of late staying in with a great flick has been just what the doctor ordered. In honor of Christmas in July we watched White Christmas with the amazing Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney. I’ve always enjoyed the splashy intro for VistaVision but never thought to learn more about it. Consider this my research program all about VistaVision!

VistaVision was created in 1954 by some visionary engineers at Paramount Studios. Its life span was short lived – about seven years – but it made a triumphant mark on the industry (more on the legacy later). Many credit it with paving the way for the IMAX technology we enjoy today. So what just started engineers on this quest in the first place? The time period gives us our answer – by the 1950s television was streaming into more and more American homes. The cinematic industry was facing its first, real threat. Studio execs were eager to find the next best thing. It had to be flashy and big. Something that lured in the audiences from their cozy couches at home.

What exactly makes VistaVision special? By using a new type of wide-angle lens camera, which photographs the original negative on a double frame, engineers were able to produce more vibrant, crisper scenes on a scale never achieved before! The final trick is that the film passes through the camera horizontally instead of vertically. Talk about taking an industry standard and flipping it on its head!

Cinerama was the first on the scene in 1952, using a curved screen. (Sound familiar to anyone?) Hot on its feet came CinemaScope, the brainchild of Twentieth Century Fox. So in this competitive marketplace how did VistaVision stand out? It came down to a matter of economics. Some of the new technology, while innovative, had a limited viewing range and required investment in additional equipment. The result: theater owners couldn’t sell as many seats. Less money coming in through the lobby was a real bummer. But with VistaVision every seat was the best seat in the house and you didn’t even have to invest in anything extra!

All about VistaVision

More VistaVision magic

The debut of White Christmas at Radio City Music Hall in October of 1954 marked the debut of VistaVision as well. Exceptional colors and high definition wowed the audiences. VistaVision became the preferred medium for big-time directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. By the early 1960s the sparkle had fizzled out on VistaVision. But savvy directors never quite forgot the majesty of this once-revolutionary technique. It found new life in the special effects industry. A lot of those scenes you enjoyed in Star Wars? Created with VistaVision. The 2008 reboot of Indiana Jones? Yep, VistaVision was used here in certain scenes.

Pretty cool to think that a technology that is over five decades old remains relevant! It’s also an interesting commentary on modern times. While I don’t get the sense that the studios are battling big over technology anymore, I do get the sense that the proving grounds is in the packaging. Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime Video – convenience is where the action is now. Again, we find people battling for the couch – the phenomenon known as binge-watching has taught us that. What developments from this time do you think will survive for the next fifty years? Let me know in the comments…


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