TODD-AO – FOR THE PERFECT SHOW
Three Todd-AO films are about to be shown at special screenings in Sydney and Melbourne using new High Definition 4K DCP restorations and 5.1 channel surround sound. Our occasional contributor PATRICK CONLAN discovered Todd-AO when he first saw South Pacific as a teenager during its premiere run in Sydney. He developed an interest in widescreen processes and on one visit to Hollywood, talked his way into a demonstration of Todd-AO 3D – but that’s another story! Here he recaps the back story of Todd-AO and its impact on world cinema.
‘The perfect show in Todd-AO’ - that was the buzz-word for SOUTH PACIFIC when it premiered at Sydney’s Mayfair Theatre in 1958 – the first Todd-AO installation in the southern hemisphere.
Mike Todd with the camera
The origins of this widescreen process started in the USA in the late 1940s as the USA settled down after the end of the Second World War and began taking up that new entertainment medium, television. Cinema attendances dropped and Hollywood was facing an upheaval – how to get audiences back?
In 1952, an answer came when THIS IS CINERAMA opened in a specially converted theatre in New York. Cinerama, invented by Fred Waller from his wartime multi-screen film system used as a gunnery trainer, used a 3-in-1 huge camera for photography and for projection, three projectors for the image and a fourth projector for 7-track stereophonic sound. Projected on to a unique deeply curved screen, audiences were enthralled and it became a huge hit. The wide image, that looked to the left and right as well as ahead, played on our peripheral vision to give a real sense of being ‘in the picture’.
Installation in a theatre involved a lot of work – the deeply curved screen, three separate projection rooms that had to be more or less level with the screen, a fourth projection room for the soundtrack, a special console where another operator kept everything in synch.
Meanwhile, impresario Mike Todd, after supervising that first film in the process, wanted to find a new process that could do what Cinerama did but ‘outta one hole’. In 1952, he approached the American Optical Company, gave them US$100,000 for research and Dr Brian O’Brien and his colleague Robert Hopkins came up with a solution. The resulting process became Todd-AO - and you can now see from where that AO came.
In the camera, a wide image is captured on 65mm film, about 250% the size of standard 35mm. The image width has a ratio of 2:1. In projection, prints were 70mm – using the original wide image and the extra 5mm for six stereophonic tracks, two on either edge of the print and another two between the sprocket holes and the image on each side. In photography, there were a range of lenses, including a so-called ‘bug-eye’ lens, 12.7mm, that captured an extremely wide image of 128 degrees (almost that of 3-camera Cinerama’s 142 degrees) that had a certain amount of distortion on the edges. In projection, on to a deeply curved screen, the horizontal distortions were somewhat ‘flattened’ by the angle of the projected image towards the sides of the screen.
With the image coming out of ‘one hole’, you had none of the projection problems of the side images of Cinerama not being absolutely in synch. Nor were additional projection rooms needed. If your theatre had a projection room that was high up at the back of the balcony, Todd-AO could also produce rectified prints that could eliminate the distortion from a high angle. With such a large image on the deeply curved screen, it was thought that audiences would be more aware of flicker so it was decided to film and project at 30 frames per second, instead of the standard 24 frames.
Six track stereophonic sound was used – five channels across the screen with a sixth channel for rear sound - surround-sound as we call it.
Philips developed special projectors that could handle both Todd-AO 70mm magnetic stereo prints at 30fps and regular 35mm prints at 24fps with either 4-track magnetic sound (as with CinemaScope that had been introduced in the meantime) or standard optical soundtracks.
Todd wanted something special to unveil the process and he approached Rodgers & Hammerstein who were planning to film their first stage hit, OKLAHOMA! Apart from the superior visual and sound system of Todd-AO, Todd was planning a ‘roadshow’ engagement – the film would play in one Todd-AO theatre in each city, much like a live show – only one or two sessions per day – reserved seats at premium prices: going to a Todd-AO film was to be a special experience. Rodgers & Hammerstein were impressed with the test footage and OKLAHOMA! went into production in 1954 with a budget estimated at US$5 million under director Fred Zinneman.
As ‘insurance’, OKLAHOMA! was simultaneously filmed in regular 35mm CinemaScope at 24 frames so that eventually, it could be shown in ordinary cinemas. In practice, some scenes were photographed with both Todd-AO and CinemaScope cameras side by side. Some scenes were first filmed in Todd-AO, under the eye of director Fred Zinneman and then perhaps filmed later that day or a following day for the CinemaScope camera, with an assistant director in charge. There are some subtle differences between the Todd-AO and CinemaScope versions of the flim.
OKLAHOMA! opened at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on 13th October, 1955, to acclaim, especially for its sharp involving image and rich stereophonic sound. Soon, there were Todd-AO installations in major cities across the USA. These were reserved seat engagements at more than four times the cost of a regular movie ticket.
Six months after its premiere, a Todd-A0 short, THE MIRACLE OF TODD-AO, was added to the programme to precede the feature and to introduce the process. (This short was added to the release of SOUTH PACIFIC in Australia). Meanwhile, the film’s soundtrack album became a best-seller, much stronger than the original Broadway cast recording.
The CinemaScope version was eventually released to regular US theatres in late 1956, after the film had played in Todd-AO in New York for more than a year. In Australia, we got the CinemaScope version and it was not till much later, in 1961, that we were treated to the Todd-AO version.
OKLAHOMA! was nominated for four Oscars, winning two – Cinematography, Film Editing, Music (Scoring of a Motion Picture) (winner, Robert Russell Bennett, Jay Blackton and Adolph Deutsch) and Sound Recording (winner, Todd-AO Sound Department). Its US domestic box office rentals were US$7.1 million.
The digital restoration being screened has been taken from the CinemaScope version.
AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS
The second film in Todd-AO was AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS – it was shot at both 30fps and 24fps in Todd-AO, sometimes with twin cameras side-by-side or sometimes with scenes being repeated at different speeds, with the 24fps version being used in 35mm reductions with a squeezed image similar to CinemaScope and 4-track stereo – it was that version originally released in Australia for a phenomenally successful ‘roadshow’ release. Originally, it was shown at only one session a day with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays, much like a live show. Later more sessions were screened daily. After this, Todd-AO productions were filmed at 24fps.
The third film to use the process was SOUTH PACIFIC and it was then that Australia saw Todd-AO, first at the Mayfair Theatre in Sydney. Hoyts soon converted other theatres in other capital cities for SOUTH PACIFIC.
SOUTH PACIFIC remains one of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s most successful musicals and arguably their best work. Based on James A. Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” with director Joshua Logan contributing to the script, it was ahead of its time for its frank approach to racism. Logan was on board to direct the film and as with OKLAHOMA!, Rodgers & Hammerstein kept a close eye on the transfer to screen. R&H were not pleased with the film versions of CAROUSEL and THE KING AND I over which they had no control, due to different contractual arrangements.
For SOUTH PACIFIC, Fox had bought the screen rights for US$1.25 million (a massive amount in the 1950s) and R&H formed a private company with Fox, to produce the film in Todd-AO with a budget of US$6.5 million. Filmed on locations in Hawaii (Kauai) and Malaysia (Pulau Tioman), the Todd-AO photography had a visual impact at a time when relatively few people travelled overseas. Most of the songs were already hits and the soundtrack album, at the beginning of stereo sound for home record players, was a top seller. In fact, in the UK, the soundtrack album topped the charts for 185 weeks and stayed on the charts for 313 weeks.
At the Mayfair in Sydney, another reserved seat engagement, it opened on Boxing Day, 1958 and ran three and a half years. In London, it ran five years at the Dominion Theatre, a record that still stands. That single theatre run in London earned enough to cover the film’s budget. After the city runs ended, the film went into regular release into suburban and country theatres in 35mm CinemasScope “at popular prices”!
Its US domestic rentals were US$17.5 million, total box office of US36.8 million, the third top-grossing movie of the 1950s.
SOUTH PACIFIC was nominated for three Oscars, winning one – Cinematography, Music (Scoring of a Motion Picture) and Sound (winner, Todd-AO Sound Department).
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
This was the last of the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, with Hammerstein passing away a few months after its Broadway opening. There’s a fascinating story about the making of the movie, how almost by accident, Robert Wise became the director and how Julie Andrews came to be cast. While 20th Century Fox was in a downturn at the time, Richard Zanuck approved a budget of US$8.2 million that would allow for location filming in Austria and the use of Todd-AO.
The film went into production in 1964. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman (who was instrumental in Wise joining the film) contributed an excellent adaptation that made several changes, giving the script more bite and taking out some of the sugar of the stage show. A couple of songs were dropped and Richard Rodgers, working on his own, added two more songs.
The film opened at the Rivoli in New York on 2nd March, 1965, to enthusiastic reviews and good box office results in its first week. Then, remarkably, the box office continued to grow – usually, a film’s subsequent weeks would diminish – for Fox, THE SOUND OF MUSIC could be said to have saved the studio.
In Australia, the film premiered at the Mayfair in Sydney on the Wednesday before Easter that year, 17th April, and ran for two and a half years. It finished its Sydney run at the Paris Theatre, Sydney’s second Todd-AO theatre, after almost another year.
The film’s success was also helped by its soundtrack album, another R&H best-seller.
Once again, the Todd-AO location filming in Austria gave the film a visual splendour Eventually, the film went into general release in 35mm reductions at regular theatres and “at popular prices”.
THE SOUND OF MUSIC was nominated for ten Oscars, winning five – it won Best Picture, Director (Robert Wise), Film Editing (William Reynolds), Music (Scoring) Irwin Kostal, Sound (20th Century Fox and Todd-AO Departments) with other nominations for Actress (Julie Andrews), Supporting Actress (Peggy Wood), Art Direction, Cinematography and Costume Design.
The film ended up earning almost US$80 million in US rentals, grossing US$163.2 million with an additional US$112.4 million internationally.
The End of Todd-AO
There were several other big budget Todd-AO films and later refinements to Todd-AO when it became Dimension-150 (developed by Dr Richard Vetter) but 70mm roadshow releases were becoming less viable. Hollywood needed a fast return on big-budget films and wide saturation releases were the future. 70mm ‘blow-ups’ from 35mm camera negatives were used from time to time until even they faded away. The individual city theatres with curved screens were superseded by multiplexes.
One notable exception was BARAKA that in 1992 brought back that Todd-AO clarity. But the Todd-AO sound department continues to this day.
Published July 5, 2012
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Oklahoma cinematographer Robert Surtees with both Todd-AO and 'Scope Cameras.
JULY & AUGUST 2012 PROGRAMS
Melbourne – The Astor St Kilda
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
- commencing Sunday 8th July, 2012, 2:30pm & 7pm, and continuing through Monday 9th to Friday 13th at 7:30pm and Saturday 14th July at 2:30pm & 7:30pm
Check the Astor for details.
(OKLAHOMA! and SOUTH PACIFIC have already screened at The Astor)
Sydney, - The Hayden Orpheum Picture Palace, Cremorne
– Sunday 15th July, 1pm – Monday 16th July, 1pm & 7:45pm
THE SOUND OF MUSIC
- Sunday 29th July, 1pm – Monday 30th July, 1pm & 7:45pm
- Sunday 12th August, 1pm – Monday 13th August, 1pm & 7:45pm – the CinemaScope version is the source of this HD transfer
Check the Orpheum orpheum.com.au for details.
Sound of Music