Movies and TV: Murder or Merger?

"What do the three-dimensional movie and the wide screen add to a motion picture? Do they really improve the artistic and aesthetic qualities of the medium to the degree necessary to recapture lost audiences permanently? In what ways are motion pictures inherently superior or inferior to television?"

Complete reality could be achieved only by filling the entire field of vision with the image. Normal eyes see a field of 180 degrees or more. You do not feel enmeshed in the world that you see unless peripheral vision is present as well as central vision. The sense of removal can be eliminated and reality heightened by extending the two dimensions as well as by adding the third. This is the basis of the wide-screen movie. Cinerama and Cinemascope are efforts in this direction. They are not three-dimensional at all, but flat, wide-vision movies which make the window so large that the eyes are considerably less conscious of its existence. Cinerama employs a wide, curved screen piecing together three pictures to fill it. Cinemascope and others condense a wide scene into a narrow one in a single picture and expand it again into a wide one on projection, all by means of special lenses. This process is called anamorphosis, which is simply a mathematical word meaning controlled transformation of shape.

Since consciousness of being in the scene is their dominant element of realism, and a very powerful one, these processes are most effective when the observer seems to be moving through the scene—automobile rides, roller coasters, and the like—or when panorama elements are involved where the action is fast-moving—chases on horseback, battle scenes, and distance shots. In such scenes the observer is engulfed in a dynamic world of vision nearly to the point of accepting it as reality. The wide screen is least effective when the central focus of attention is on a small area of action against a motionless background—scenes in a room, the intimate close-up. Under these conditions any action in the wide surrounding area is a distraction.

Both Cinerama and Cinemascope avoid the technical problems of 3-D. The question of visual discomfort does not arise. The distortions of shape are those of the ordinary movie. But they do create some problems of their own. Cinerama has borderline trouble and differences in color between the pictures, synchronization problems, and, of course, triple expenses and triple breakdown dangers. Furthermore, for the full effect of immersion in the scene the size of the audience is necessarily limited. For observers on the side, distortions in the form of narrow people and scenes can be very great. It would seem that at best Cinerama is a special spectacle for a few theaters in large cities. Its expenses are too great for the small-town circuits. Cinemascope is in a sense a compromise. It sacrifices some screen width over Cinerama and thus lowers the peripheral effect, but in return gains in simplicity and in lower cost by requiring only one camera and projector. Of all these processes its use will cause the least disturbance to the industry.

The end product of these new processes is, of course, a combination of 3-D and the wide screen. 3-D movies are already being shown on larger screens, which greatly enhances effect over the old standard size. Certainly it is difficult to believe that some permanent combination of the two will not be the ultimate result.

The relationship of the movies to television is still in its formative stage. Unquestionably the growth of home entertainment has severely curtailed movie attendance. Theaters have closed everywhere (20,000 were open in 1948, 16,000 in 1952). Attendance has been disastrous, from 90 million per week in 1948 to 45 million in 1952—a 50 percent cut in four years! This has largely been ascribed to television.

There are about 20 million television sets in use in the country now. Furthermore, this figure has been reached while television is still a thoroughly inferior visual medium. Its capacity for clarity of detail is poor, it lacks color and tonal quality, its distortions are great, and it is beset with continuous momentary difficulties such as "ghosts," "halo," and "streaking." All of these can and undoubtedly will be improved.

Furthermore, color can already be televised and the addition of the third dimension is not technically difficult. Screens can be made quite large though it is hardly practical in the home to invade the peripheral vision area. Of course, the definition of the image must remain inferior to that of the movies, and reception disturbances are bound to occur, particularly in cities.

Are the movies then doomed to an inferior, secondary position? Even assuming the permanence of 3-D movies on large screens, their superiority in quality over television must gradually decrease as television itself adds color and 3-D and reduces its technical imperfections. The difference in quality certainly cannot for any period of time be any more in favor of the movies than it has been during the period in which movie attendance has been halved. Thus on a straight competitive basis it is no wonder that a thoughtful segment of the entertainment world is very pessimistic about the future of the motion picture theater.

However, there are factors in favor of the movies. In spite of some of its crudities, its lack of caution in the present 3-D development, and its persistent reproduction of stereotypes, the motion picture industry is still a very vital and imaginative industry. In spite of constant complaint about the general caliber of motion pictures, superior pictures are produced. The industry does not and probably never will lack artistic ability. Quality pictures for the quality audience are increasing in number and having unexpected success. The motion picture theater could undoubtedly continue to exist at the present level. People do like to go out in the evening; young couples in particular find staying at home an unsatisfactory event.

This whole discussion, however, is wide of the mark, for it presupposes only direct competition between movies and TV. The problem is much broader than this.

To understand the relationship fully, we must first distinguish between the motion picture theater and the motion picture producer. The theater is no longer the producer's only important customer. About $20 million a year is currently spent on films made for television. As an example, last year Columbia's subsidiary, Screen Gems made a contract with Ford for thirty-nine half-hour screen dramas, Ford to pay about three fourths of the cost for the right to two television showings.

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