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A view from the Blu (-ray) on DVDBeaver by Leonard Norwitz

How the West Was Won (2-disc) [Blu-ray]

 

(John Ford, Henry Hathaway, George Marshall and Richard Thorpe, 1962)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reissued January 4th, 2011:

 

Review by Leonard Norwitz

Captures by Gary Tooze

 

Studio:

Theatrical: Warner Brothers

Blu-ray: Warner Home Video

 

Disc:

Region: Free

Runtime: 2:44:40

Chapters: 41

Disc 1 - Feature Size: 37.3 GB

Disc 2 (SmileBoxed) - Feature Size: 36.4 GB

Case: Custom book-style Blu-ray case

Release date: September 9th, 2008

 

Video:

Aspect ratio: 2.90:1 / 1.78

Resolution: 1080p

Video codec: VC-1

 

Audio:

English TrueHD 5.1, English Dolby Digital 5.1, DUBs: French, Spanish, German and Italian (5.1)

 

Subtitles: English, French, Spanish, Chinese (Simplified and traditional), Danish, Dutch, Finnish, German Italian, Japanese, Norwegian, Portuguese and Swedish,

 

Extras:

• Audio Commentary by filmmaker David Strohmaier, Cinerama, Inc. Director John Sittig, Film Historian Rudy Behlmer, Music Historian Jon Burlingame, and Stuntman Loren James

• 44-page full color book

• David Strohmaier's 2002 Documentary: Cinerama Adventure (93.00)

Disc 2: 1080p Smilebox Curved Screen Simulation

 

 

 

The Film:

The history of the extraordinary and short-lived (10 years) innovation known as Cinerama is a fascinating chapter in motion pictures. It is laid out lovingly and critically in David Strohmaier's 2002 Documentary: Cinerama Adventure, included as a bonus feature on disc one of this equally extraordinary 2-disc set from Warner. In my opinion, the set in worth the price for the documentary alone, but Warner is offering both this and the feature film in two complete visual presentations for less than many other current Blu-ray titles. For all its flaws – narrative and technical – this new set is highly recommended.

 


For those unfamiliar with Cinerama, you should know that it was the brainchild of Fred Waller, known for his innovations since the silent film days, and commercially developed by producer Merian C. Cooper (yes, that Merian C. Cooper of King Kong) and explorer and journalist, Lowell Thomas. The idea was to offer the audience an immersive visual and aural experience, emotionally and neurologically involving such as they had never had before – or, as many still assert, since, including IMAX.

The technology involved the use of three cameras mounted on a single chassis, each with a fixed focal length lens of 28 mm on a horizontal axis with the outer cameras shooting across each other's field of view. The resulting angle of view was enormous, about 147 degrees. In turn, the three reels of film would be shown in specially constructed theatres by three projectors spread across the rear wall, again with the outer projectors crossing their images onto a radically curved screen. – From the point of view of most people in the audience the resulting image would completely account for one's peripheral vision. The aspect ratio was over 2.5:1. though the curved screen made the outer panels appear to be less wide than the center.

The audio track was run on a separate tape altogether, and adjusted on the spot by a technician for the effects of that day's audience, humidity, and theatre acoustics. It was fed into seven discrete channels: 5 behind the louvered and perforated screen, and 2 rears. The dynamic range and fidelity of this system would dwarf anything we hear in theatres today - DTS notwithstanding.

At first, there was only one theatre – the Broadway Theatre in New York City (where I saw This is Cinerama in 1954) – but that year, 1952, the year that brought us Singin' in the Rain, this lone movie house was responsible for the highest grossing film of the year! We're talking going to the movies like going to an opera matinee, only with several shows a day. Big ticket, reserved seats, no popcorn - the whole shebang. The first features were travelogues, but after a few years, the powers that were thought the time had come to try their hand at a real feature with real actors. This was a risky proposition because there still remained serious technical problems with the process - and, perhaps, more important, Cinerama presented logistic and dramatic challenges for the actors not seen before, nor since – even with blue screen.

 


The Movie : 6
It would be nice if we could say that the movie lives up to the technology. And, I do so say. The screenplay is decent – it even won an Oscar for Best Writing. But to be honest, I thought the 1978 TV miniseries Centennial to be more satisfying. It was certainly more faithful to the adventure that is America. On the other hand, How The West Was Won is great family entertainment. It is a musical, an adventure, a love story – several in fact. It's got a non-stop cast and visuals that can't be beat with a stick.

The difficulty really lies elsewhere: within the limits of the medium. The director and photographer must take great pains to place their actors so that they cross from one panel to another, or look across to another actor in a different panel, in ways that don't bring attention to the technical limitations. You will see actors in the foreground who ought to be looking here, but are looking there. Another huge problem is its fixed focal length. It wouldn't be so bad if it were say about 50 mm. But wide angle lenses do real perspective damage in close up (just look at what Kubrick does with them intentionally). We can't help notice that the movement of just a few inches closer from ideal makes a person, or some part of a person, seem momentarily gargantuan.

 

 

Image: NOTE: The below Blu-ray captures were ripped directly from the Blu-ray disc.
Cinerama's various technical and dramatic difficulties are addressed by the commentators in the full length commentary and in the documentary. But suffice to say that the audience by and large was aware of only one of them – and it was a doozy: The vertical moment where the left and right panels met the center panel never quite lined up. The audience was always aware of a visual disconnect – a distressing violation of picture integrity. Adding insult to injury, the three panels would wiggle, slightly but noticeably, in relation to each other.

In previous video presentations, the image was displayed - warts and all - making the picture less than satisfying. For this new
Blu-ray, Warners developed software to align and blend the moment of congruence – or lack thereof - to eliminate the alignment problems that have nagged Cinerama from the outset. The image is now stabilized and continuity across the horizontal is superb – not perfect, but far better than anyone ever saw it fifty years ago. Flaws remain, and we see them plainly in the screen captures, especially in scenes with large patches of sky or other light areas: There is an occasional rippling of color – a kind of vertical banding that belies an otherwise awesome and invisible fix. Much of this could have been addressed with more money, time and care – but make no mistake, what we do see on this Blu-ray, for over 95% of the movie, is stunning: clear, with excellent color, contrast, sharpness and dimensionality - and – in respect to the vertical banding – not a real issue.

 

 

The alignment problem, however, was not the only challenge facing Warner engineers. The other difficulty was what to do about the absence of a curved screen. Most importantly, what do we do about the effect a curved screen has on objects moving toward and past the camera. On a curved screen, they appear to be moving in a straight line, as they should. On a flat screen, they appear to turn away from the camera as they get closer to it.

Note the first scene in town where the wagons and horses that pass to the camera's left and right appear to turn sharply away from the camera at the last moment. We see this problem on the video over and over, but most of the time, it is too subtle to notice if you're not looking for it. The worst case example is during the Indian/wagon train chase. There's one brief shot (which repeats itself after about a half minute) where the horses should be traveling from right to left across the screen, but instead appear to be going in circles. It's quite amusing, actually. Warner's Smilebox curved screen processing does not really cure the problem, though it appears to be less pronounced simply because the extreme left and right is cropped enough to notice. I found Smilebox neurologically distressing to watch because of motion problems in the outer panels – so much so I couldn't endure it long enough to know what was causing them.

In any case, if you want a clue of what Cinerama is supposed to look like, given your flat screen display, simply turn to the final couple of minutes in the documentary. While we can see the disastrous effects of the vignetting, directionality is correct. Resolution sucks, but the results are plain enough.

Otherwise, and better still, check the newspapers for Hollywood's Cinerama Dome, the New Neon Cinema in Dayton, Ohio, the Seattle Cinerama, or the Pictureville Cinema at the National Media Museum in Bradford, England. They play the occasional reprise of one or another of surviving and new Cinerama prints from time to time.

 

NOTE - additional: A second try on another day and no dizzyness with Smilbox. As I said, it may have been something I ate. Taking the advice of David Strohmaeir, I moved my sitting position closer to the screen so that the image covered all of my vision. This was a serious improvement in respect to involvement, and at no apparent concern about pixels. On the other hand, I found the disproportionate size of people at the outer panels to exacerbate the perspective problems inherent in the medium. These result largely from reliance solely on a wide angle lenses creating a unnatural sense of movement by actors coming toward and walking away from the camera. It's as if they are walking on one of those airport pedestrian movers. Very disconcerting.

 

 CLICK EACH BLU-RAY CAPTURE TO SEE ALL IMAGES IN FULL 1920X1080 RESOLUTION

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vertical Disconnect visible

 

 

 

Audio & Music: 7/7
While nothing compares to the original theatrical soundtrack, the new uncompressed Dolby True HD 5.1 is a knockout. The choruses – and there are many – have a breadth that feels as palpable as anything on video. Dialog is crisp and never buried so deep we need subtitles to clarify. Powerful surrounds come in just when we need them. Check the rapids scene, or the Indian attack on the wagon train or the disastrous logjam on the train. Hold on to those seats.

 

While the big choral and orchestral passages are executed in the Dolby True mix with a grandeur appropriate to the material, dialog is disproportionally subdued. To hear the latter clear enough would result in being blasted out of one's seat by the big moments. Spencer Tracy's voiceover narration is oddly much too loud in comparison to the dialog, but not to the music.

 

 

 

Operations: 7
Nothing complicated or remarkable here. The Smilebox (this is a logo, I ask you!) disc is minus the commentary.

 

Extras: 8
As noted earlier, the documentary, Cinerama Adventure, is a must see. It is a personal journey for so many involved – and their drama will become your drama. The footage is from mixed sources, but given that, the video quality, even in 480i is very good. As for the commentary, I wish it could have addressed the technical issues more precisely instead of merely referring to them. It was not clear to me that anyone not already familiar with the limitations of Cinerama would be able to extrapolate from their description. That said, except for Rudy Behlmer's tendency to add the phrase, and so on and so forth, about every other sentence, the commentary is worthwhile. Mr. Behlmer is a man whom I am sure has forgotten more than I know about cinema, and I would have liked to have heard about some of it instead of his well-meaning, but rather sweeping generalizations.

 

Sent to us in email from Dave Strohmaier, who made the Cinerama Adventure documentary, and was the Cinerama consultant for WBHV on "West" and on the Smilebox process, that was developed for that documentary (Thanks Dave!):
HOW SMILEBOX CURVED SCREEN CAME ABOUT
By Dave Strohmaier, director of Cinerama Adventure

"Cinerama was not the gimmick many people think it was, gimmick or fads don't last 20 years and also have several titles in the number on box office category. The whole town of Hollywood helped me to make this historic documentary from major studios to the smallest of film libraries as well as several high end LA post production and effects houses. They all did this for free, imagine in Hollywood, free!

One of the results of doing this project was that the original Cinerama 3 panel process was installed in two American cities, Seattle and in Hollywood. Oh and yes when it is shown on occasion at either of these two cities. I and 3 other historian projection volunteers are in the booth running it. People often have tears in their eyes afterwards when they come to the projection booth to visit us after the show to shake our hands. I guess you could say that I and my projectionist pals have seen 3 panel and 70mm Cinerama more often and anyone other than perhaps the few remaining retired Cinerama projectionist who ran it everyday in the old days.

One of the things we wanted to do in the documentary was to show people how different/special the Cinerama experience was, as one would have to be about 50+ years old to have seen it. Many young people would simply laugh at a letterboxed image of the three panels on the screen saying "what's so special about this, where is this curve you keep talking about" and I would not blame them. So we had award winning 3D graphics experts, digital engineers, Oscar winning cinematographers, film historians you name it get involve with creating a "look" that we could use for the Cinerama shots in our 16 x 9 HD documentary. We wanted this effect/treatment to be what people saw back then, although admittedly not from the first 10 rows, as most people didn't see it from those rows anyway, those were the 3.00+ seats. After about two months of testing, and trying several things, including projecting the original 3 panel Cinerama focus charts on the Seattle Cinerama 146 degree screen checking for horizontal and vertical distortions, we came up with the SmileBox process for the documentary. We needed to take full advantage of the standard HD 16 x 9 frame and fill it edge to edge and yet have a 146 degree effect that would approximate what people saw in Cinerama theaters. Yes it has its limitations to be sure, but within these limitations we do feel we have succeeded. Next we showed it to several film historians and to the Cinerama Corporation itself. Cinerama still exists as a relatively inactive division of Pacific Theaters here in California. When we showed the first test on the "flat" screen at Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood everyone was amazed at how effective the SmileBox process was in recreating a Cinerama like effect on a flat screen. Most of our documentary is archival footage, old newsreels, interviews etc and they are all in 4x3 inside of 16X9 so when Cinerama shots appear they are both wide and curved. One funny incident happened at the Palm Springs film festival screening where a few women had to cover their eyes when the roller coaster scene appeared in Smilebox, they told me after the screening they were
getting very dizzy. Funny, this often happens at the actual 3 panel Cinerama screenings at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.

This brings me to How The West Was Won and the use of Smilebox in the September Blue Ray release that will include Cinerama Adventure. The Blue Ray package will include the letterboxed version and the Smilebox version of HTWWW and both will be fully restored and will look fantastic. Warner's thought it would be a good idea to have HTWWW in Smilebox as an extra version for those who want to recreate the Cinerama look on their flat screens, I feel the bigger screen the better it works. They are going the extra mile in an effort to please the film lover and hope it will.

Sure Smilebox may not be for everyone but due to the response we have gotten for Cinerama Adventure many people will enjoy it. Due to the fact that Smilebox was developed for free at a major effects house in Hollywood we are likewise making it available to Warner's release for free. I hope this gives you a little background on how Smilebox came about and that it was painstakingly developed with lots of expert imput. I consider myself a bit of a perfectionist and believe me I have seen Cinerama from every seat in the house (front, side and back row) at all 3 existing Cinerama theaters, Seattle, Bradford Media Museum,UK, and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and Smilebox will approximate a Cinerama effect on flat 16 x 9 screens.


Dave Strohmaier
Producer, Director, Editor, Cinerama Adventure www.cineramaadventure.com
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Another note about Smilebox/Letterbox on blu-ray:

You will notice that the Smilebox version appears to have a very slight cropping on the Lt and Rt edges. This was done by design on the Smilebox version, as in Cinerama Theaters this slight edge was cropped.

Able projector, on the left side and Charlie Projector on the Rt side had edge "fuzzers" or what is called giggalos to help blend the edges to Baker (Center projector). In other words each projector has this device on the left and right side of each of the gates, Able, Baker, Charlie. Even thought it was not needed on both the edges of Able & Charlie as they only had to match Baker.

Cinerama aperture plates were only used to crop the bottom/top to hide the frame line but on Able and Charlie there was also sometimes an aperture that was to crop or hide the giggalos soft edge on the extreme Rt and Left of the screen, and in the rare cases that the projector had a single sided giggalo, or no side aperture plate edge installed, the screen masking would furnish the sharp edge by cropping in a hair.

 


The Smilebox transfer was matched to what was in the ground glass of the camera (yes we still have the Cinerama cameras) thus reflecting a slight cropping reflecting what the director intended. Warner Brothers Tech Ops scanned the original negs for this restoration from perf to perf on all three panels and thus the letterbox version actually gives you slightly more picture information Lt and Rt screen than was shown in Cinerama theaters. So think of this as bonus material! You will get an extra tree or bird that was never seen before. Kinda Cool!
"    - Dave

 

 

Bottom line: 9
How The West Was Won was the highest grossing film of 1962. It was nominated for 8 Academy Awards and won 3. The documentary is excellent and the
Blu-ray image and sound has never been better. For all its faults - past and still remaining, this Blu-ray exceeds the comparison to a previous video edition by a wider margin than anything I have yet seen. Highly and warmly recommended.

Leonard Norwitz
September 12th, 2008

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reissued January 4th, 2011:

 





 

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