Why So Serious? How Cinerama’s Smilebox Came to Be

This Is Cinerama - Blu Ray CoverWith the upcoming release of THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER we’ve been having some interest about the process that mimics Cinerama’s famous curved screen called Smilebox.  Here’s a brief description of the process from Dave Strohmaier, the director of Cinerama Adventure:


By Dave Strohmaier, director of Cinerama Adventure

One of the things we wanted to do in these Cinerama releases was to show people how different/special the Cinerama experience was, as one would have to be about 45+years old to have seen it. Many young people would simply laugh at a letterboxed image of the three panels on the screen saying “what’s so special about this, where is this curve you keep talking about” and I would not blame them.

So we had award winning 3D graphics experts, digital engineers, Oscar winning cinematographers, film historians you name it get involve with creating a “look” that we could use for the Cinerama shots in our Cinerama remasterings. We wanted this effect/treatment to be what people saw back then, although admittedly not from the first 10 rows, as most people didn’t see it from those rows anyway, those were the $3.00+ seats. After about two months of testing, and trying several things, including projecting the original 3 panel Cinerama focus charts on the Seattle Cinerama 146 degree screen checking for horizontal and vertical distortions, we came up with the SmileBox process. We needed to take full advantage of the standard HD 16 x 9 frame and fill it edge to edge and yet have a 146 degree effect that would approximate what people saw in Cinerama theaters. Yes it has its limitations, but within these limitations we do feel we have succeeded. I believe that Smilebox will approximate a Cinerama effect on flat 16 x 9 screens.

Sure Smilebox may not be for everyone but due to the response we have gotten for the Cinerama Adventure documentary most all people will enjoy it.  I consider myself a bit of a perfectionist and believe me I have seen Cinerama from every seat in the house (front, side and back row) at all 3 existing Cinerama  theaters, Seattle, Bradford Media Museum,UK, and the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and Smilebox will approximate a Cinerama effect on flat 16 x 9 screens.

SmileBox LogoDave Strohmaier

Producer, Director, Editor, Cinerama Adventure


In preparing these editions for home video, we here at Flicker Alley worked with the Smilebox footage extensively and can tell you that, without such a process, the experience of watching a Cinerama film at home would be lost.  You can find your copies of THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER at http://flickeralley.com

Cinerama LogoAlso, for those of you near Los Angeles don’t forget to check out Cinerama’s 60th Anniversary celebration where they’ll be screening THIS IS CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER, along with other Cinerama titles at the Arclight Cinerama Dome from Sept 28th through Oct 4th.  More details can be found at http://www.in70mm.com/news/2012/cinerama_dome/index.htm

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3 Responses to Why So Serious? How Cinerama’s Smilebox Came to Be

  1. Pingback: CriterionCast | On The Screen – Episode 8

  2. Peter Riedel says:

    I’m in favor of using the Smilebox format for Cinerama movies because it compensates for the inherent distortion of the extreme wide-angled picture when shown on a flat screen. However, I also like the way it looks when projected onto a curved home-cinema screen. Smilebox should be used for all future releases of remastered Cinerama movies.
    On a related track, I wonder if it has occurred to anybody to assemble a digital camera-array to recreate the effect of Cinerama, but using mirrors as in Cinemiracle to avoid parallax. Two cameras, with a combined coverage like that of Cinerama could be used for shooting and projection. This could even work for 3D, by utilizing pairs of cameras for each panel. Panel-joints would be digitally blended via projector-software. The dual-projector option would work in most modern cinemas, because of their shorter auditoriums. Alternatively, the panels could be blended and horizontally-squeezed for single-projector showings, using special lenses. I think that either way could compete with IMAX and yet be more immersive and realistic-looking.

  3. I would love to see 70mm films restored to a smilebox format as 70mm replaced the three panel process in the early 1960’s. I realize that 70mm does not truly replicate Cinerama but formats such as TODD-AO came close and look good. I would love to see It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, Around The world In Eighty Days, Oklahoma, and many others originally shown in 70mm on a curved screen. Given the technology this would be a great and welcomed addition to home theater viewing choices.

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