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9 Breakthroughs in Cinematic Technology That Came and Went

By  · Published on April 14th, 2011

James Cameron is always on the brink of revolution. Really, the dude needs to take a breather.

At this year’s CinemaCon, the tech-centric director couldn’t shut up about 3D, faster frame rates and improved camera systems while everyone around him was salivating for a detail or two on his plans for the Avatar sequels. Forget that – there are shutter speeds to be discussed! We’re all about Peter Jackson hyping The Hobbit shooting 48 fps on RED digital 3D and legendary effects guru Douglas Trumbull heading back to directing with a tech-first approach, but at some point, isn’t the equipment standing in the way of great storytelling?

We’ll give the benefit of the doubt to these three men, but whether any of their advancements are really “the future of movies,” won’t be known for a few years. Unfortunately, just because you’re brilliant and you say something is awesome…doesn’t mean it’s awesome. Here’s a look back at some of the other “game-changing” inventions that were supposed to change the way we watch movies, but never really picked up steam.

The Kinora (1908)

Those are a few of the exciting films that were released for the Kinora back in the early part of the 20th century (obvious influences on Michael Bay).

Even in 1908, innovators were pushing for the home entertainment market to conquer the theatrical experience – and they didn’t even have a theatrical experience yet. The Kinora was essentially a 25-second flip book that one, two, maybe three (if you don’t mind getting cozy) could enjoy through a single lens. Like a pimped out Viewmaster! The machine even had its own accessory camera to take personal movies (although Funniest Home Kinora Moving Pictures never took off). The machine saw its unfortunate demise after the Lumiere Bros. introduced the Cinematograph, the world’s first projector.

Yes, there was a time when people preferred watching movies with the masses over staying at home. 100 years ago.

Teleview 3D (1922)

Funny, you’d think complaining about wearing big, clunky glasses to watch crappy 3D would be a new concept, but the gripe has been around since the ’20s. In December of 1922, the sci-fi film The Man From M.A.R.S. played at the Selwyn Theatre in New York, the only movie theater equipped with Teleview, a stereoscopic 3D process used in the movie. Teleview worked similarly to the 3D we know today (a.k.a. no red/blue). Using goggles built into the seats, audiences peered into their headsets to experience an alternate-frame 3D, a process involving back-to-back frames from two cameras on one film strip, zipped through a projector at double-speed. Phew. Science. Exhausting.

The technology and upkeep was too much of a burden on the theater – The Man From M.A.R.S. was the only film to ever utilize Teleview before the fad wore thin. Will history repeat itself?

The Vitaphone (1926)

That’s a clip from The Jazz Singer, which appears slightly more in-sync then if you saw it live.

The Jazz Singer is famous for being one of the world’s first feature-length talkies, but in fact, its sound wasn’t even completely synchronized. The Jazz Singer used a technology called Vitaphone, a sound-to-disc process that played some dialogue taken from set, as well as music and other effect cues, all using a gramophone (record player). The invention was the talk of the town…until only a few years later, Edison underling Eugene Lauste invented sound-on-film, a way of converting sound waves to light and attaching it to the film strip. From then on, it was the new standard and flimsy film track records were only for those artsy kids who still bought vinyl.

We get it, it’s “cool.”

Pixilation (1952)

What you’ve just witnessed is Norman McLaren’s short Neighbors.

Animation has been around just as long as live-action filmmaking, but not all formats took off and stayed put like traditional hand-drawn techniques or CG animation. Pixilation is a form of stop-motion animation using live actors in place of puppets or clay, capturing their performances one frame at a time. The technique was used sparingly in works dating back to the early 1900s, but it was animator Norman McLaren who made a push for its potential with his Academy Award winning short Neighbors.

Pixilation never took to mainstream (perhaps people weren’t ready for intentionally stiff performances), but is often seen in visually unique works, like music videos and commercials. Or the works of Zack Snyder, whose movies feel animated enough to throw in with this category.

Cinemiracle (1958)

That’s a taste of what Windjammer may have been like on the big screen (imagination required).

The ’50s paved the way for the 70mm format, a high resolution film stock that brought visual feasts like Lawrence of Arabia, Cleopatra and 2001: A Space Odyssey to life. Bigger really was better, but by 1958, 70mm wasn’t big enough.

Thus, Cinemiracle (and it’s equally trivial competitor Cinerama) were born. Cinemiracle was the IMAX of its time, employing three cameras to shoot its wide, wide, wide frame, then projecting it back on a 120-degree curved screen meant to feed visual information as far as the eye peripheral could see. Only one film was ever produced in the format, Windjammer, a documentary film chronicling the journey of a sailboat. The result may have been too big for its own good – studios reverted back to variants of the 70mm format and Cinemiracle folded.

Percepto (1959)

Oh, The Tingler.

B-movie director William Castle had a mission in life: to turn the movie-going experience into a theatrical one. He was the king of gimmicks and his most notable came in the form of “Percepto.” For his horror movie The Tingler, Castle spent additional money equipping bigger theaters with a few added tricks intended to scare audiences. Towards the conclusion of film, the Tingler, a monster manifested of pure fear, escapes from Vincent Price’s laboratory and into a movie theater. At that point, the film would intentionally rip, feature a shadowy Tingler crossing the screen, then buzz various audience members whose seats were rigged with electric vibrators , indicating that the Tingler was scurrying under them. They were warned: scaredy cat screaming only makes the Tingler more powerful.

Castle’s other films included stunts like skeletons flying across the ceiling and on-screen ghosts that would only appear when viewed through a cellophane strip – but they were all financially unsound endeavors and few have replicated any of his gimmicks since. Oh well, fun while it lasted!

Smell-O-Vision (1960)

That’s a quick sequence from Scent of a Mystery, but you’ll have to provide your own smells.

Movies cater to our seeing and hearing, but in 1960, scientist Hans Laube and film producer Mike Todd Jr. decided it was finally time for the moving pictures to take on a new sense: smell. They released a picture called Scent of a Mystery starring Denholm Elliot, Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Lorre, which featured accompanying aromas to many of the visuals on screen. Dubbed Smell-O-Vision, Laube’s system involved tubes of potent liquids timed to be punctured in sync with the visuals on the screen. A man lights a pipe, the audience smells tobacco – simple.

Reception for the technique was conclusive: it stunk. Many audiences across the country complained that they spent too much time sniffing for scents and not enough time watching the actual film. With high costs and poor reviews, Smell-O-Vision quickly faded away.

Sensurround (1974)

Often the new “it” technology ends up as a stepping stone for even better innovation, fixing the problems and never looking back. That’s what happened to Sensurround, which was first introduced with the disaster film Earthquake.

The idea of Sensurroud was to physically unnerve the audience using a movie’s soundtrack. Earthquake was the perfect demonstration – with all its shaking, rumbling and crashing, the studio could amp up and extend the bass noises being produced on screen so the people watching the film would feel it in their seats.

A fun concept that’s now being replicated with ideas like D-Box, or even THX mixes, but at the time, Sensurround was doing more damage then good. The audio system lasted three more pictures: Midway (1976), Rollercoaster (1977) and the theatrical pilot for Battlestar Galactica, Saga of a Star World (1978), but ended up being refined and replaced due to the bass tones causing actual damage to movie theaters. Apparently a safety net was installed at Mann’s Chinese Theatre to keep pieces of plaster from falling on people. Engaging filmmaking, for sure.

Motion Capture (2000)

That’s the trailer for Sinbad, which will have you wondering how they ever got money to finance this thing in the first place.

Sorry Robert Zemeckis diehards – mocapping as a solitary filmmaking form is on the outs. While motion capture will forever be utilized to bring CG characters to life (from Gollum to the Na’vi to that creepy ape guy), Zemeckis’ go-to animation format for the past seven years finally saw its last hurrah when Mars Needs Mom pulled in $20 million with a $150 million price tag. The only real hope is Spielberg’s Tintin, but unless you have one of the greatest living director’s names slapped across the poster, good luck getting a motion capture film made.

Mocap animation was doomed from the start. When a technology’s first foray into theaters is an action/adventure movie starring Brenden Fraser, its popularity can only go downhill. 2000’s Sinbad: Beyond the Veil of Mists was a clunky motion capture flick that has completely faded from public consciousness – much like the tech that brought it to life is doing now.

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