|A Big Adventure|
David Strohmaier, director of the documentary Cinerama Adventure, poses with a Cinerama camera.
Photo by Ray Zone
avid Strohmaier was 6 when his father said, "Come on, we're going to go see Cinerama." The Strohmaier family drove to the Ambassador Theater, located on Cinerama Lane in St. Louis, and saw Seven Wonders of the World. A few years later, the Strohmaiers made another pilgrimage, this time to Denver, to see How the West Was Won. These proved to be seminal experiences for the young film buff.
After graduating from college with a degree in broadcasting and film, Strohmaier moved to California in the early 1970s. He became a film editor, and his first big job was on Circlevision, a nine-projector installation at Disney's Epcot Center in Florida. "Disney hired me because I knew what Cinerama was," says Strohmaier.
When Strohmaier heard rumors of a Cinerama revival in 1997, he thought it would be a great subject for a documentary. His wife encouraged him to take the reins, and that was the beginning of Strohmaier's quest. He spent the next five years hunting down and restoring original Cinerama film elements and locating film prints, cameras and projectors. His documentary, Cinerama Adventure, is now complete.
Cinerama Adventure is not just a film-history documentary. It's also a cultural history of America in the 1950s; the story of Fred Waller, a remarkable inventor; and a series of very colorful anecdotes about the adventurous individuals responsible for creating the unusual format. Strohmaier's interviews with surviving Cinerama crew members, film historians and performers totaled over 63 hours.
Working with the International Documentary Association, Strohmaier formed a non-profit organization and tracked down all the existing Cinerama footage he could find, as well as newsreel footage, historic still photos and publicity materials. Because Cinerama is a three-strip process, locating existing Cinerama footage was an adventure in itself.
When he discovered the negatives for Seven Wonders of the World in a downtown Los Angeles film storage facility, Strohmaier found that the right and left panels of the film were intact, but the middle-panel negative was missing. In its place, in an empty film can, was a note that read "Removed Dec. 16, 1966." Strohmaier knew a 16mm print of the film had been struck that year, and he figured that the middle panel negative had likely been used to make it. He determined that the optical printing of the middle panel had been done by Linwood Dunn, ASC at Film Effects of Hollywood. With the help of Gunther Jung, an archivist at Pacific Theaters, Strohmaier eventually found the middle-panel negative in "the biggest film cans" he had ever seen; Dunn had spliced the negative together to put it on an optical printer for reduction to 16mm.
Pacific Theaters, which owns five Cinerama features, gave Strohmaier permission to use any footage he desired in his documentary. Cinerama Adventure's 96minute running time includes 20 minutes of original Cinerama footage. Pacific Theaters is also planning occasional Cinerama screenings at the restored Cinerama Dome in Hollywood.
Technicians at Crest Laboratories were instrumental in reconstructing and restoring the original, three-panel film elements. Cinerama enthusiast Greg Kimble constructed a three-panel Rank telecine to transfer the 6-perf, 35mm, three-strip original camera negatives to digital video. In Strohmaier's documentary, Cinerama's deeply curved screen is simulated with what he calls the "Smilebox" technique, in which the sides of the image are slightly squeezed and stretched vertically.
Cinerama Adventure includes rare footage of the format's inventor, Fred Waller, who held 2,000 patents. The film details Waller's work at Paramount's studios in New York, and his direction of "soundies" featuring such jazz greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway. Extremely rare footage from two of Cinerama's predecessors - Waller's 1930s Vitarama process and the five-camera Waller Gunnery Trainer used during World War II-is included.
"This project has been totally fascinating," says Strohmaier. "I took a subject, a particular invention, and discovered all the activity that had taken place behind the scenes to get to the point where the invention was realized."