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How "White Christmas" and "The Ten Commandments" begat "Star Wars"

Published Tuesday, December 04, 2012 @ 12:46 PM EST
Dec 04 2012

Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" was the first film shot in Paramount Pictures' proprietary VistaVision widescreen process. Twentieth Century Fox's previously introduced Cinemascope used anamorphic lenses to squeeze a wider image onto the film; the process was reversed during projection. When you see a film clip where everyone looks extremely tall and skinny, you're seeing a widescreen anamorphic print being projected in error by a normal lens.

The problem with all this image squeezing and unsqueezing was the effect on image quality. Distortion was introduced which couldn't be completely eliminated during projection. Color motion picture film in the 1950s was also rather grainy, and the fuzziness could be detected when the image was projected on the larger, wider screens.

Instead of using lenses to squeeze a wider image on the negative, VistaVision cameras moved the film horizontally past the lens, exposing the equivalent of two standard 35mm frames. This doubled the width of image without the introduction of anamorphic distortion and graininess. Think landscape vs portrait photo printing on your computer, and you'll get the idea.

Very few VistaVistion projectors were built, and they were used only at special previews and premieres. Since twice as much film was used to record the image, it had to move through the projector twice as fast, at a somewhat terrifying three feet per second. For regular exhibition at the local neighborhood movie house, the VistaVision negatives were printed down to standard vertical 35mm reels, while keeping the widescreen aspect ratio. A VistaVision print could be projected with a regular lens, which meant theater owners didn't have to buy special equipment or deal with switching lenses when the second movie on a double feature was shot in non-widescreen format.

Technology marched on; higher quality film stocks were created as well as better anamorphic lenses. VistaVistion's bulky cameras and high film costs doomed the format. After being used on about three dozen or so films, VistaVision disappeared for the most part in the early 1960s.

Jump cut to the mid-1970s. John Dykstra was looking for cheap motion picture cameras suitable for shooting special effects. Effects shots require multiple exposures and multiple printing steps, each resulting in increased film grain and loss of detail. The old VistaVision cameras, with double the negative size of a standard 35mm frame, were ideal-- and were dirt cheap, since no one had used them for 15 years. Even better, the lens mounts on the old cameras and printers could be modified to use readily available, high-quality Nikkor lenses from 35mm Nikon still cameras. (I vaguely recall an ad by Nikkor on the back cover of Popular Photography magazine boasting how their lenses made Star Wars possible, but the issue's long gone and I can't find the ad online anywhere.)

Dykstra bought the old equipment, added motion control hardware and software, and the VistaVision cameras that shot Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye in White Christmas and Charleton Heston in The Ten Commandments (a 1956 Paramount release) became the Dykstraflex system that made Star Wars' groundbreaking effects possible. The old VistaVision equipment carried Industrial Light and Magic's multiple award-winning efforts until the replacement of optical-based special effects with computer generated imagery.

Categories: Movies, Star Wars, Video, YouTube

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