12 March 2014


Brando's ONE-EYED JACKS showed at the Lensic theater here in Santa Fe this past week. It's something of a curiosity, the only picture Brando ever directed, but more to the purpose, it was last major release shot in VistaVision, a widescreen process that lasted about seven years.

First of all, let's explain "aspect ratio." This refers to the shape of a movie's screened image, and for many years, the standard aspect ratio was 1.33 to 1, horizontal to vertical, so the image is a little wider than it is tall. (More or less the size of a television screen, back in the day.) This was the negative size of a 35MM film frame. Widescreen had been used, for example, THE BIG TRAIL, released in 1930, which was shot in 70MM, with an aspect ratio of 2.10:1, and a projection process called Grandeur, but most theaters didn't have the equipment to show it, and there was an alternative 35MM version.

Widescreen didn't really catch on until CinemaScope, and THE ROBE, which came out in 1953. The aspect ratio was 2.20:1.  Again, not to try your patience, another technical explantion. Scope is an "anamorphic" process, meaning that the lenses do the work. The image is compressed, when the picture is shot, to squeeze it onto a 35MM frame, and then opened up again when it's projected. Scope lasted well into the 1960's, when it was overtaken by Panavision 70. Now, this too has fallen out of favor, with the introduction of digital, which is a story in itself, but technology eats its own young, and that's where I'm headed.

VistaVision was different because it wasn't
anamorphic. Instead of compressing the image, it opened it up, to fill two frames of film. The nuts-and-bolts, oversimplified, are that the film traveled horizontally through the camera, and exposed twice the image area. The result is a print with finer-grained detail. You increase the depth of field and get far more color saturation.

Directors loved it. Ford used it for THE SEARCHERS. John Sturges, in a couple of pictures. Anthony Mann, always contrary, shot with it in black-and-white, the blacks coming out deep and crisp. Hitchcock used it five times, most strikingly in VERTIGO, where the color becomes part of the story.


But the format was doomed. Even as careful and canny a director as Ford or Hitchcock, who shot only and exactly as much as they needed, still had to shoot twice the footage, because of the double-frame. By the time Brando came along, and famously went through a couple of hundred miles of film, it was the kiss of death, and Paramount pulled the plug. The studio never used VistaVision again.

The process had a half-life, though, for another fifty years, primarily for effects work and process shots, and then CGI took over. It's interesting that even on DVD, with a good digital transfer, you can still see why so many directors and cinematographers liked working with it. You got a lot of bang for the buck, particularly when you wanted to make it appear

you were shooting in low light. The seduction scene between Cary Grant and Grace Kelly in
TO CATCH A THIEF is a good example, or the chase across the rooftops at the end of the picture.

The technology is never static, and we keep pushing the envelope. There was a time when VistaVision was state of the art, and this post isn't intended to be elegiac, but you get the sense that something is lost. There's a plasticity, a word I've used before, to film, as opposed to digital. Not to be a Luddite. I don't want to go back to using a manual typewriter. We shed our old skins, we reinvent ourselves. Still, among the discards and the hand-me-downs, there might be a few things you decide not to put out at the next yard sale, some talisman or another, a vintage bottled in the past.


  1. Now I understand why the slogan for VistaVision was something like "motion picture high fidelity." It really was a completely different approach.

    It's interesting and inspiring that John Wayne got two big breaks, 1930's THE BIG TRAIL and 1939's STAGECOACH, the inspiring part being that he hung on through the nine-year gap between them.

  2. David, this was very interesting and written in a way that made me understand it. Great post!

  3. Fascinating, David! Makes me want to re-watch all those you mentioned.

  4. Especially interesting to me since Vertigo is my favorite Hitchcock and one of my all time faves.

  5. The leap to digital has been great in some ways - I love DVDs, so that I don't have to wait forever to see movies I love, like Vertigo - but we've lost some things. The plasticity you're talking about in film is also in music. Digital music is sharp and crisp, but loses nuances of sound that the old LPs and even cassette tapes had. Vista Vision was wonderful - expensive, but wonderful, and made going to the movies a very special experience. Now people are watching movies on smart phones and they have no idea what a surround-screen experience could be like. The one I'll never forget is going to see "2001" with my father in a theater with the huge curved screen and it was the most awesome, overwhelming, dizzying experience of my life - and his. We were both stoned when we walked out of that movie, solely due to Kubrick's genius.

  6. Remember the early Cinerama movies? They used three cameras and three projectors and you had to talk yourself out of seeing those two vertical lines running down the screen between the projected images.

  7. Eve, you're right!--I loved VistaVision. And Dale, I think I saw How the West Was Won in Cinerama. I must say, though, the kinds of things they can do now (as in Gravity) are fantastic too--glad I saw that one in 3D in the theatre.

    And David, I agree with Rob on Vertigo--probably my favorite Hitchcock movie.

  8. Thanks, David. I really enjoyed this. The technical aspects of photography and cinematography fascinate me. One of the mysteries I’m trying to get published now, partially hinges around the difference between Technicolor and actual color films.

    Your explanation of Vista Vision really gives a feel for the flavor of it, and your mention of digital reminds me of a documentary I recently saw, in which an older cinematographer explained how he felt digital robbed him of his ability to be a sort of “magician”—because most directors really didn’t understand the actual filming/lighting process as well as cinematographers, while “everyone seems to believe they can handle shooting in digital format.”

    Additionally, Martin Scorsese said he missed the development time-lag between shooting and viewing what had been shot (usually the next day). I got the idea this gave him time to digest what he’d been aiming for vs. what he suspected had happened during shooting, and the ability to consider how this might be played into the film he was creating. He said he still tries to view each day’s work at a certain later time, for this reason.

    Thanks for a great article!

  9. The DP's (five of them) on HOW THE WEST WAS WON tried to solve the "triptych" problem by having a tree or a post or something else where the lap join showed. I don't think Cinerama lent itself to narrative; the only effective shot is in the Civil War sequence, the cannons going off over the river at night, and you see the muzzle flashes reflected in the water. (Ford HATED the process.)

    I wasn't decrying digital, but it doesn't have the dynamic of LP's, for example, as Eve points out, and with film, it can be visually muddied.

    Dix, there's a terrific documentary called VISIONS OF LIGHT, about cinematography, with a bunch of big-time DP's talking about their pictures, but I don't think it's out on DVD.

  10. I wondered about that! And now I know.


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