What’s the difference between Cinerama, Panavision, Super Panavision, etc.?

Dear Cecil:

Here is a matter that has not been on my mind for quite a while now, that isn't a matter of life or death, and that doesn't have 50 bucks riding on it: tell me, what are the differences between Cinerama, Panavision, and Super Panavision? Are any of these simply trade names for ordinary 70mm film?

Cecil replies:

You might have mentioned CinemaScope, Metroscope, Ultra Panavision, or any of about a dozen other cinematic breakthroughs while you were at it, Bruce; the movie industry has never been at a loss for grandiose titles for its dubious products. All of the above refer to various widescreen techniques intended to help Hollywood meet the TV challenge of the 50s. The earliest, Cinerama (1952), required three projectors flashing onto a huge curved screen to give the illusion of depth. 1953 saw the debut of CinemaScope, which was the first of several processes to use an anamorphic lens. Such lenses squeezed the unusually wide screen image like an accordion so that it would fit onto an ordinary 35mm negative–i.e., everything got skinnier. When projected, a reverse anamorphic lense stretched the compacted image back out to its original width. In some instances, the stretching was done in the lab, meaning you used a 35mm negative to make a 70mm print, which was then projected with an ordinary 70mm lens. Panavision appeared on the scene a year or two after CinemaScope, and eventually offered three techniques: ordinary Panavision, which uses a 2.35:1 anamorphic lens to squeeze a wide image onto a 35mm negative; Ultra Panavision, with 1.25:1 lens and a 65mm negative; and Super Panavision, with an ordinary 1:1 lens and a 65mm negative. 65mm, incidentally, is the size of the film used in the camera. When the film is processed, a 5mm sound stripe is added and what the movie houses get is 70mm wide.

In the early days of wide-screen projection, 70mm prints were often preferred because they produced a screen image with less grain. As film stocks improved over the years, though, this advantage began to disappear, and today most movies, wide screen or otherwise, are both shot and printed on 35mm stock. The wider film is still used on occasion for movies involving a lot of special effects, since the bigger negative is easier to work with in the lab and the image holds up better during the numerous duplications that are generally required.

None of the aforementioned ‘Scopes and ‘Visions is exactly what you would call a trade name for 70mm film. A process called Todd-AO (1:1 lens on 65mm stock, 70mm print) was widely identified in the public mind with 70mm, but the trade name, such as it is, would probably have to be the stock number assigned by Eastman Kodak, which makes the stuff. Mercifully, I forget what it is, and if you know what’s good for you, you will too.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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