INFO: Walt Disney’s Circarama by Bill Iadonisi

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Walt Disney’s Circarama by Bill Iadonisi
Walt Disney throughout his amazing career gave the world some of the most innovative animation and filming techniques. Although not to first to utilize sound in cartoons, he elevated the process and perfected it. The multi-plane camera, the first full-color three-strip Technicolor process after several years of two-color Technicolor films for the Silly Symphony short, “Flowers and Trees and storyboarding are just a few of the advances he and his talented workers gave the industry. But perhaps one of the best processes he presented, and somewhat forgotten today, was something we take for granted in our modern world…Circarama! This ground-breaking technique of showing a film in 360 degrees is seen today in the China Pavilion, The Reflections of China and in the Canadian Pavilion, O Canada. The name has changed over the years, but the effect on the audiences is still one of amazement. We see movies today in Digital and High Definition, even our flat screen TV’s are in 3D and coming out in 4K resolution. Disney’s extremely popular attraction Soarin’ utilizes the Imax HD filming processes.

But, this technique was not invented by Walt, in fact it had its beginnings back at the 1900 Paris Exposition fair. The technique was called Cinéorama and was invented by Raoul Grimoin-Sanson. In this crude first attempt are Circle-Vision as we know it today, it simulated a ride in a hot air balloon over Paris. Raoul began experimenting with movie cameras and projectors in 1895, and was in contact with other early researchers such as Étienne-Jules Marey. He patented the Cinéorama on 27 November 1897. But Cinéorama only lasted 3 days at the fair. Because of the high heat from the projector’s arc lights, the police shut down the exhibition because of fear of fire. It was never shown again until later in the century when it was perfected.

But before Walt and Ub Iwerks came to patent the unique 360 degree Circarama, the first multi-screen process successfully developed was invented by one Fred Waller (1886–1954). It was the first of a number of innovative processes pioneered during the 1950s, when the movie industry was countering competition from television. The process flagged in the laboratory for several years until Waller joined forces with early sound technician Hazard “Buzz” Reeves who with narrator Lowell Thomas, film producer Mike Todd and later movie producer Merian C. Cooper, created a commercially feasible system. This process used projected images simultaneously from three synchronized 35 mm projectors onto a, deeply curved screen. He had earlier created an 11-projector system called "Vitarama" for the 1939 New York World's Fair. During the Second World War, he also fabricated a 5-camera system called the Waller Gunnery Trainer. This process they called Cinerama was demonstrated at the Broadway Theatre on September 30th, 1952 was entitled “This is Cinerama”; and was met with much enthusiasm. The New York Times gave it front-page news. Notables attending included… New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey; violinist Fritz Kreisler; James A. Farley; Metropolitan Opera manager Rudolf Bing; NBC chairman David Sarnoff; CBS chairman William S. Paley; Broadway composer Richard Rodgers; and Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer.

So how did Walt decide on his new “Circarama”? One of Disney’s first Imagineers and mechanical engineer Roger Broggie recalled in an interview… “Walt, after seeing the new theater process of Cinerama at the Hollywood Pantages theater, where three large screens were in synchronization to present a motion picture like How the West Was Won or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, called special effects expert Eustace Lycett to his office and wondered… Since three screens could be put together, would it be possible to extend it so that there would be screens surrounding the entire audience?”

Ub Iwerks recalls that…” One afternoon, while working on the Disney live-action film Westward Ho, the Wagons, he paused in a hallway of the Disney Studios in Burbank to talk a little with Walt Disney about some of the challenges adapting some of the films to the Cinemascope process” Allegedly, Walt asked Iwerks to explore the idea of developing a new format for the presentation of movies that would involve a series of screens that completely surrounded the audience a full 360 degrees.

Ub Iwerks, who was the man behind Mickey Mouse’ physical appearance, also later on became a major player in technology used in color motion pictures. (In 1960 he gleaned the prestigious Herbert T. Kalmus Gold Medal, awarded by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers for his outstanding accomplishments i.e. the xerographic process for animation, the color correction masking process, the double headed optical printer and of course the 360 degree Circarama system). It differed from the Cinerama process by utilizing nine cameras for nine huge screens arranged in a circle. The cameras were usually mounted on top of an automobile for scenes through cities and highways. The process was so unique that Walt and Iwerks shared a patent on Circarama; they filed for it on the one-year anniversary of Disneyland and was granted four years later on June 28, 1960. It was first named Circarama, and then re-named “Circle-Vision, in 1967 because of the similarity of both previous names.

The first commercial subject matter for the new process was a film called “Tour of the West”. It included eleven 16mm projectors, and it ran for 12 minutes, and opened on July 17th, 1955. Of course, the cost of the equipment and technology was great and Walt obtained a sponsor… American Motors Corporation (AMC). This now defunct American automobile company was created on January 14, 1954 by the merger of the Nash-Kelvinator Corporation and the Hudson Motor Car Company. Although it was Disney’s movie and attraction, the press, maps and even company publications showed the attraction monikers as… “American Motors presents Circarama,” “American Motors Exhibit,” or “American Motors Circarama Exhibit,” George Romney the president of the company, stated in an official June 27, 1955 press release… “This combination of photographic skills and entertainment talents promises an unusual spectacle for visitors to Disneyland. We’re happy to have a part to play in making Circarama possible. As it represents added pleasure and value for the public, sponsorship of the Circarama is another forward step in our program to make American Motors mean more for Americans,”

The original show building was located in the left section of the North Tomorrowland building. In 1967, New Tomorrowland opened and the left section then became the pre-show area. Guests stood on an asphalt circular area 40’ in diameter. Around the perimeter there were AMC’s Kelvinator appliances and cars. The movie screens were eight feet off the floor, each screen eight feet in height. And unlike today, there were no rails to lean on. A center gondola with a camera for each screen (11) was suspended above. The cameras were kept in synchronization with slotted-rotor synchronous drive motors, and a special Selsyn motor control unit was overlaid on the projector installation. In addition, if a bulb burned out, an automatic bulb-changing mechanism on the projector swung the burnt out bulb out of position and replaced it with a new one; the picture would continue on again in less than two seconds.

The screens were separated by a 6” wide black strip to prevent the “blind spots” inherent in the system, and they eliminated the jiggle between adjacent screen sections, making it seem you were in a car and looking out through the windows. At the start of the show a narrator would explain the projection method and would introduce the line of Kelvinator appliances for the sponsor… “In a few moments, you will see the most unique motion picture presentation ever developed. You will be completely surrounded by the picture that you see. We hope that you will enjoy… Circarama.”

Even the way Disney filmed the movie was innovative. A special camera platform was mounted atop an AMC Rambler. There were 11 16mm Kodak cameras each with 200 feet in film magazines, arranged on the platform in 360 degrees’ view. To keep the cameras in synch, the cameras were driven by a chain on a single drive sprocket. A tachometer was utilized for complete control of shooting speed from 8 to 24 frames per second. The film was a travelogue from southern California and parts of the Western United States, including Las Vegas.

The art director for the project was Peter Ellenshaw, English matte designer and special effects creator (And a Disney Legend). In a 1997 interview with Disney Historian Jim Korkis, Peter gave this account concerning the problems with the shoot… “It was a travelogue in the round of Southern California and the West,” Ellenshaw remembered. “They mounted 11cameras on a circular platform atop a station wagon. I was the art director. My greatest problem is I would find this lovely composition, just beautiful, but the cameras behind this vista would show all this trash and junk. It was horrible. I had nothing to do with the mechanical side of the process. That was all Iwerks. On Wilshire Boulevard, we ran the cameras at half speed so when it was run at normal speed it seemed like we were demons going at tremendous speeds and somehow amazingly stopping just in the nick of time. That’s the scene that most people remember. That film lasted until around 1959 and then they replaced it.” During the “race” down Wilshire, a police siren was added in post-production to give the impression of danger. In this “condensed” film of 12 minutes, guests relished a “Circarama” view commencing on Sunset Boulevard, Wilshire Boulevard, the LA Freeways, Monument Valley Arizona, then on to Newport Harbor, and finishing at Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. The film and process received mostly favorable reviews by press and peers, but there were still doubts about its future as a storytelling medium.

For the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, Walt filmed a new Circarama masterpiece, “America the Beautiful”; showcasing our entire country to the world. Walt Disney’s America the Beautiful was a highlight of the American pavilion. The film replaced Tour of the West in June of 1960, this time sponsored by Bell Telephone. Bell Telephone’s advertisement in the Los Angeles Times of June 14, 1960 read… New! The Bell System Presents “America the Beautiful” in CIRCARAMA. Circarama puts you in the middle of the action, completely surrounded by magnificent motion pictures in color. Among the many fascinating places Circarama takes you in “America the Beautiful” are New York Harbor; Times Square; a Vermont country church set against the splendor of the autumn foliage; Williamsburg, Virginia—cradle of American culture; Pittsburgh steel mills; Detroit automobile factories; Midwestern railroad freight yards; Oklahoma cowboys rounding up cattle; wheat-harvesting combines in Montana; copper mines in Utah; Monument Valley; Hoover Dam; The Grand Canyon; San Francisco; The Golden Gate Bridge; and campus life at America’s great University of California at Los Angeles. Presented free of charge.

The eleven-screen America the Beautiful attraction at Disneyland closed permanently in September 1966. It was replaced by the third film, “America the Beautiful!” In 1967 a new 35mm film print expanded the film, now using nine cameras, and the process was renamed “Circle-Vision 360” The film ran until January of 1984. Other films were shown in the theater until 1996. America the Beautiful!” made its final bow July 1996 to September, 1997; when the theater was closed for good.

These films and the processes used are mostly forgotten today with all the new CG and digital methods employed now, but again Walt Disney showed why he was a giant in the industry…He would invent what he needed to give guests the best, or prefect inferior processes to his high standards, but the result is the same.

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