The cinema — small to big to small once again

Randall Stross / New York Times News Service /

Go back far enough in the history of the Big Screen, back to the 1890s, and you’ll find no screen at all.

The earliest motion-picture viewing was a solitary experience. One looked through a peephole at the top of a Kinetoscope, a waist-high cabinet in which a light illuminated the frames of a continuous film loop. A magnifying lens was attached to the peephole, but the images remained tiny. That means the first cinematographers didn’t have much to work with.

When projection arrived, movie images could be made life-size in a theater, then larger than life, on a big screen accompanied by big sound. Taking in a movie became not just an immersive experience but also a social one, with members of the audience sitting in the dark together, laughing, crying and shrieking.

Put it on my lap

Today, we’ve reached the acme of technical sophistication — and have come nearly full circle. Movie watching is, again, a solitary experience, involving small images on a laptop, a tablet and, tinier still, a cellphone. The convenience is wonderful, of course, but it comes at a price: the loss of the immersive cinematic experience.

Americans will pay to watch 3.4 billion movies online this year, IHS Screen Digest estimates. That’s much more than double the number for 2010.

It’s impossible to say exactly how many of those movies will be viewed on which portable devices. A spokesman for Netflix, the leader in streaming older movie titles, declined to share details about streaming device destinations.

We do know that the newest movie titles, including the most visually spectacular, are available through Apple or Google for inexpensive rental on the small screen. (Apple made movie rentals available for phones starting in 2008, and Netflix introduced a smartphone app in 2010). Cellphone owners can rent “Hugo,” the 2012 Academy Award winner for cinematography, for $3.99 and watch it on a screen whose size is not much larger than the image seen through the Kinetoscope’s peephole.

When an online movie is viewed at home on a giant flat screen and heard through an expensive sound system, the sensory experience surely exceeds what might be had at a rundown multiplex on a bad day. But movies viewed on mobile devices aren’t going to give the brain’s sensorium much stimulation.

“It’s a sensual experience when you go to a theater, if there’s sharp projection and six-track sound,” said John Belton, a professor of English and film at Rutgers University. “That is a very different experience than watching on an iPad” or on other portable devices.

Belton points out that the first projected images in theaters were not all that large. In a movie palace that might hold 5,000 people, an early screen might have been only 15 feet wide. But the images became larger around the time that sound arrived in the 1930s.

Then, in the 1950s, as Hollywood found itself competing against television, it used special lenses to create movies for screens of expanded width. Marilyn Monroe’s body, in languorous repose, would stretch across screens as wide as 64 feet.

This was an intentional shift, Belton says, to “an image that overwhelms the spectator,” part of Hollywood’s campaign “to show the limitations of television.”

Later, Hollywood reversed course and began selling to television, although that meant cropping its wide-screen pictures so they would fit on a small screen.

The most glorious attempt to fully engage the theater spectator’s senses was Cinerama, introduced in 1952. Filmed with three cameras outfitted with wide-angle lenses, it used three wide screens, put together in a sumptuous near-semicircle of 146 degrees.

“This gives you a ‘first-person’ experience,” said Thomas Hauerslev, editor of the website In70mm. “You see what you’d see if you were sitting where the camera is.”

He says IMAX “is not a first-person experience — it’s just big.”

Each frame in Cinerama is 50 percent taller than a regular frame, providing more detail. This makes the cinematic illusion “extremely realistic,” Hauerslev says.

Cinerama was costly both to film and to exhibit, and its commercial life was short. It was used only for travelogues, except in 1962, when the only two story-centered features were released: “How the West Was Won” and “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm.” The Cinerama name was transferred to a smaller format, and then that format, too, was abandoned.

Cinerama was the high-water mark in sensory immersion. Yesterday’s Kinetoscopes and today’s smartphone screens, the low-water marks.

“If you look at the great Hollywood classics in the 1930s and 1940s, you’ll see many wide master shots and sparing use of close-ups,” said John Bailey, a cinematographer with more than 60 feature credits who serves on the executive board of the American Society of Cinematographers. “But with the advent of TV and now also with smaller screens, we’re seeing more close-ups.”

The problem, he says, is that “if you use close-ups immoderately, then when you need to make a more dramatic point, you have no other option but to use extreme close-ups.”

“The best camera,” the old saying goes, “is the one you have with you,” and a similar thought is apparently held by increasing numbers of movie viewers, happy with the screen they always have with them. And movie producers, just as they have in the past, will probably keep adapting, changing movies themselves so that they look better on a tiny screen.

“You can say it’s ‘watching a movie,’” says Belton of viewing on mobile devices. “But it’s not cinema.”