Cinerama was devised by Fred Waller, special effects engineer and inventor. Waller was also responsible for, among other things, water skis, a 360-degree panoramic camera, a remote sensing maritime anemometer and the Waller Gunnery Trainer, which could be considered the first arcade games and modern flight simulator.
The film industry generally tried to suppress such innovation as wide-screen formats for two reasons. First, exhibitors were reluctant to invest in the necessary new equipment required to present these non-standard formats. Second, studios and distributors were afraid that the success of any new process might seriously diminish the value of millions of dollars' worth of existing films held in vaults, in circulation or, as yet unreleased.
The idea for Cinerama originated with Waller's work on depth perception. He believed that stereoscopic vision was only effective for close-up sight. At greater distances, he felt the human brain relied more on other visual clues such as perspective and parallax effects. He built a home-made contraption which limited his field of view to straight ahead. This is when he realized that it was peripheral vision - what was visible out of the corner of the eye - which was the key to the perception of reality. He decided that in order to duplicate reality on the movie screen, he would have to reproduce the entire field of human vision. However, to do this on a conventional cinema screen would require one way too wide to make it practical.
While doing some work at the 1939 World Fair in New York, which was to be housed in a spherical building, it dawned on Waller that normal vision is arc-shaped and therefore the solution to the problem was to use a curved screen. He then helped patent a multi-camera and projector system using eleven interlocked 16mm cameras, which they called Vitarama. They formed a company, The Vitarama Corporation, to exploit the concept. But, even though they had backing from Lawrence Rockefeller and Time magazine, they were unable to convince their original sponsors to install the system at the fair and the film industry itself ignored them.
The concept died out again until the introduction of Cinerama in 1952. With the onset of the WWII, Waller turned his attention to gunnery training, modifying Vitarama to project film of attacking aircraft from five cameras onto a hemispherical screen and devising a system to simulate the firing of machine guns and providing positive feedback to gunners and trainers in real time as to which bursts had hit the target.
After the war, Waller tried to make the system, now called Cinerama, more commercially viable, reducing the number of 35mm projectors to three.
The film industry remained unconvinced, and in 1950, both Rockefeller and Time pulled out of the venture. Unable to attract a major studio, Cinerama Inc. set out to demonstrate the potential of the process by producing and exhibiting their own, independently financed film, forming Cinerama Productions to do so.
"This Is Cinerama" opened on 30 September, 1952, at the Broadway Theatre, New York, with massive public interest and media coverage, and ran for 122 weeks. The process caught the attention and imagination of the nation. Pretty soon, everything became a rama - launderettes were renamed launderamas, car dealerships autoramas. A stripper even dubbed herself the "Sinerama Girl". Sort of like now, when every scandal becomes a “gate.”
But the three projector system was very costly to install and required a large staff to operate. Additionally, Cinerama required level projection to prevent distortion, resulting in the loss of seating capacity to accommodate three additional projection boxes in the stalls. The operational expenses typically consumed half of the gross box-office turnover, which didn’t help.
In 1961 Cinerama eliminated some of its competition by acquiring CineMiracle, another three-strip process with which Cinerama was nearly compatible. Only one title had been completed in CineMiracle, and through a previous agreement, had been exhibited in Cinerama theatres since 1958. Purchase of the rival system enabled Cinerama to project all three prints from a common projection room.
At the same time, Cinerama concluded a deal with MGM to shoot two narrative features in the process, although, for "How The West Was Won", Ultra Panavision was used for a number of sequences for which it was felt the three-strip camera was unsuitable. For the travelogues, Waller had introduced a raised running speed of 26 frames per second, in order to reduce the flicker on such a large screen. In negotiating with MGM, Cinerama had to agree to use 24 f.p.s. to allow the films to be printed in conventional 35mm anamorphic form after the initial exhibition in Cinerama.
Persistent problems with the three-strip technology and its inherent expense, combined with the belief that the audience would not notice the difference anyway, Cinerama switched to 65mm Ultra Panavision photography from 1963. This became known as single-strip or (unofficially) "Super" Cinerama, but lacked the impact of the original process. Existing theatres had their multiple projector system stripped out and 70mm equipment installed in its place. The final demise of the Cinerama process proper came in 1972, following a lengthy retrospective run of all the three-strip films in Paris.
Cinerama Incorporated was liquidated in 1978 after mounting debt forced it to call a halt to its activities.