I really don’t know what to do about Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, The Hateful Eight. On one hand, I’m a total geek over historic film formats, so I can’t help but be excited about the first film shot in Ultra Panavision 70 in nearly 50 years.
On the other hand, it’s a film by Quentin Tarantino. I loved Pulp Fiction, but lately he’s disappointed me. Although I moderately enjoyed his last two films, Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, I couldn’t get really excited about them. I found his B picture approach to very real crimes against humanity fundamentally offensive.
So I’ll forget about Tarantino, and tell you about Ultra Panavision 70–also known as MGM Camera 65.
Much of the information here, and most of the images, come from The American Widescreen Museum, a website that’s absolutely invaluable for historical film technology geeks like myself (I’ve altered some of them). In70mm is another excellent reference, with even more information but not as fun to read.
By the mid-1950s, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer–then in the process of losing its status as the world’s greatest movie studio–decided they needed their own, spectacular wide-screen format. They wanted it to be big and wide, and compatible with all the other big and wide formats springing up at that time. So they contracted Panavision, then little more than a promising startup, to come up with something amazing–but not too different from everything else.
And there were a lot of widescreen formats in those days. It all started with Cinerama, which used three strips of standard 35mm film to create the most spectacular and immersive images of them all.
But Cinerama was impractical, and at this point had failed to leap from travelogues to Hollywood features. CinemaScope was far more practical, using an anamorphic lens that squeezed the image horizontally to half its width, and thus fitting a very wide image into a standard 35mm frame. A complimentary lens on the projector spread the image out again.
Todd-AO compromised between Cinerama’s magnificence and CinemaScope’s practicality by using 65mm film in the camera and 70mm film for projection (the additional 5mm were for sound).
These all had different aspect ratios. Cinerama’s was 2.59:1. CinemaScope started at 2.55:1, but had changed by 1957 to 2.35:1. Todd-AO was a relatively narrow 2.20:1. There were other formats, as well, but I need not discuss them here.
Panavision figured that to be compatible will all of these, the new format had to be wider than any of them. So the company cloned Todd-AO, and added a modestly anamorphic lens that widened the image by 25 percent. The new aspect ratio, 2.76:1, was the widest ever used in Hollywood.
The studio, proving how much it had lost its sense of showmanship, called the new process MGM Camera 65.
The first film shot in it was the largely-forgotten Raintree Country (1957). It was released only in CinemaScope-compatible, 2.35:1, 35mm prints.
But the second film was Ben-Hur (1959), one of the biggest spectacles of the era–and one of the best. MGM, knowing it had something special, gave Ben-Hur the big treatment. It first opened in anamorphic 70mm prints. Theaters had to acquire special lenses and figure out how to project that very wide image (or, more likely, crop it). Even when it was released in regular theaters, the CinemaScope-compatible 35mm prints were letterboxed to about 2.50:1.
But before Metro’s third Camera 65 film opened in theaters in 1962, the company sold the process back to Panavision. Thus, Mutiny on the Bounty became not the third film shot in Camera 65, but the first in Ultra Panavision 70. (This should not be confused with plain old Panavision 70–Panavision’s non-anamorphic Todd-AO clone–nor with Super Panavision 70, which is Panavision 70 with the word Super in front of it.)
Like Ben-Hur, Mutiny was originally released in anamorphic 70mm.
Meanwhile, the Cinerama company decided they wanted to drop their cumbersome technology without losing their huge, deeply-curved screens or the power of their brand name. So they turned to Ultra Panavision 70. When you project a single strip of film onto a deeply-curved screen, the edges stretch horizontally. To fix that problem, Cinerama made special 70mm prints from an Ultra Panavision negative, removing the anamorphic squeeze from the middle of the frame, and increasing it slowly towards the sides.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World was the first non-MGM film shot in Ultra Panavision 70, and the first released in this faux Cinerama. As a child, I saw it that way at Hollywood’s Cinerama Dome, and I think that started my fascination with big, immersive cinema. For a few years of pre-adolescence, Mad World was my all-time favorite movie. I don’t care for it much, anymore.
Between Mad World and Hateful Eight, only five films were shot in Ultra Panavision 70. One of them, The Fall of the Roman Empire was projected anamorphically–like Ben-Hur and Bounty. The others–The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, The Battle of the Bulge, and Kartoum, were released in Cinerama.
And now we’ve got The Hateful Eight. Let’s hope it’s one of the better ones.