THE TELEVISION AGE
In the Cold War era of communist witch hunts and blacklisting, Hollywood executives had even more pressing worries: the imminent death of the studio system and the meteoric rise of television, which subsequently led to a drastic decline in ticket sales. To combat the drop in profits, the studios quickly sought to attract moviegoers—particularly families—from the living room by enhancing and exploiting their medium's technological advantages, namely its relatively large image size and its color format. Not coincidentally, the 1950s were the first decade of drive-in movie theaters, stereo sound, wide-screen formats, epics shot in glossy color, and a full gamut of movie ballyhoo such as 3-D film technology.
Beginning in 1952, Hollywood began to make the conversion to color production. As with other sectors of the movie industry, the government deemed Technicolor (and particularly its three-strip technology) a monopoly in 1950. That same year Eastmancolor, a single-strip format based on Germany's Agfacolor, emerged as a legitimate and cheaper means of shooting in color. Unlike the earlier three-strip processes, Eastmancolor (and other processes similar to it) fused the three emulsion strips into a single roll, soon eclipsing the competition and replacing Technicolor as the most widely used color process in the industry. Whereas in the 1940s less than a quarter of Hollywood features were shot in color, by the 1950s more than half were; by the 1970s, the conversion was nearly complete. Barring student
To complement the great rise in color production, and to increase its drawing power as spectacle entertainment on a grander scale than television, Hollywood sought to widen the aspect ratio of the motion picture image. Up until the early 1950s, the standard (or Academy) aspect ratio of motion pictures was nearly square, 1.33:1. Since the television screen adopted this same format, Hollywood had even more incentive to increase its screen image. The first such widescreen optical process, Cinerama, appeared in 1952. It was a multiple-camera and multiple-projector system that showed films on a curved screen, adding depth and spectacle to the experience of movie spectatorship. (The equivalent format for today's spectators is IMAX, a two-projector system that shows movies—many shot in 3-D—on a giant screen not only wider but also taller than typical widescreen formats.) The projected image was as much as three times the standard aspect ratio of a 35mm movie image. As with most early processes, however, this one proved too expensive and burdensome both for those shooting and projecting the picture. A small number of motion pictures were shot in this format, among them How the West Was Won (1962).
In 1954 CinemaScope emerged as the most popular widescreen format in Hollywood and other parts of the world. It was one of several optical formats that used anamorphic lenses, which allowed for a 2:1 image to be compressed onto a 35mm lens and then converted to its natural dimensions in projection. In time, CinemaScope offered movies in a 2.35:1 format, which greatly widened the image seen by viewers. Not surprisingly, CinemaScope was used for epics, westerns, and other genres that were best suited for landscape shots, action scenes, and general spectacle. CinemaScope became extremely popular with audiences, who were drawn to the heightened experience of movie watching, and with the studios, which liked its cheap price tag and ease of use.
A number of widescreen variations became available during the 1950s and 1960s. Directors such as John Ford ( The Searchers , 1956) and Alfred Hitchcock ( Vertigo , 1958; and North by Northwest , 1959), for instance, famously used Paramount's Vista Vision. Some filmmakers preferred Vista Vision because it produced an unusually sharp image for widescreen formats, but it also used twice as much negative film stock as conventional shooting. By the 1960s Panavision gradually replaced CinemaScope as the standard format for widescreen cinematography. Non-anamorphic widescreen processes as well, such as 70mm, were used for popular films such as Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Cleopatra (1963), and The Sound of Music (1965).
In addition to changing the way moviegoers watched movies, widescreen cinema altered the way cinematographers approached shooting them as well. For many directors, there was more incentive to shoot long takes and to reduce the number of cuts. Yet the average length of shots in widescreen productions was only minimally longer than those in films shot in Academy ratio. The majority of filmmakers and cinematographers shooting in widescreen sought to take advantage of the extra width by lining up all the characters that could possibly fit in the frame and by adding more material to the mise-en-scène . Others, such as Jean-Luc Godard and Hitchcock, employed their own distinctive cinematic styles when using the new format. In Le mépris ( Contempt , 1963), for instance, Godard seems to defy the film's width, establishing off-screen space while using only a fraction of the frame, and panning, rather than merely fixing upon, landscapes. For Godard the widescreen provided a means for compositional counterpoint. Hitchcock, in a different vein, remained true to his commitment to the principles of montage and thus cut even his widescreen films in ways that were not typical for this period. His great attention to composition, color, setting, and blocking are also on display in his later films, many of them shot using the VistaVision format.
Emulating a pattern in movie technology, stereoscopic (popularly known as "3-D") formats were introduced at an early stage in the history of motion pictures. In 1903 the Lumière brothers were the first to publicly screen a stereoscopic picture, L'arrivee du train ( The Train's Arrival ). The process was labor-intensive and highly expensive, however, making it largely unpopular. The increase in move lengths, due in large part to the rise of narrative and the star system beginning in the early teens, only exacerbated its high cost and unpopularity. Applying the anaglyphic system, stereoscopic productions required twice as much film stock, as shooting in 3-D necessitated using a twin-camera method that shot the same footage on two different reels, one tinted in red and the other in blue. Once processed, the film strips would be projected together for an audience wearing special glasses that had one red-filtered lens and one blue-filtered lens. Anaglyphic 3-D did not disappear, though, appearing in several European and US productions throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
By the early 1950s, Hollywood was desperate enough to overlook the format's imperfections in favor of its shock value. Several innovations ameliorated the process, as well, further explaining its enormous popularity during this period. A polarized version of the 3-D process increased precision, while simultaneously enhancing the viewing experience. Natural Vision, for instance, first introduced in 1952, fixed the dual cameras in a way that approximated the distance between the human eyes. This made for a more realistic sense of depth than earlier, less precise 3-D formats. Stereoscopic production and exhibition boomed for two years (1953 through 1954), appearing most often in adventure, science fiction, and horror movies, helping to give 3-D an aura of kitsch. Among over fifty titles shot in 3-D, its most famous include Universal's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) and House of Wax (1953). Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder (1954) and the only musical using the format, Kiss Me Kate (1953), were both shot in 3-D but were screened "flat" due to the sudden decline of the stereoscopic fad at the time.
Although the 3-D craze faded less than two years after its boom in the 1950s, stereoscopic filmmaking practices have reemerged time and again, suggesting their allure across generations. They returned in the 1960s, for instance, when a string of pornographic and X-rated 3-D films enjoyed great box office success. More recently, 3-D has made a comeback in the digital age of filmmaking.