Anamorphic Lenses and the Birth of Widescreen Cinema

A promotional picture advertising The Robe and CinemaScope

On September 16, 1953, American Biblical epic film The Robe premiered, the very first film released in the widescreen process CinemaScope. Like other early CinemaScope films, The Robe was shot with Henri Chrétien’s original Hypergonar anamorphic lenses. The film marked the beginning of the modern anamorphic format in both principal photography and movie projection.

The basis for CinemaScope was probably formed by the French inventor Henri Chrétien who developed and patented a film process that he called Anamorphoscope in 1926. Back then, Chrétien employed an optical trick which produced an image twice as wide as those that were being produced with conventional lenses. The optical system called Hypergonar, which compressed and dilated the image laterally.

In the 1950s, cinema got a new competitor: television. However, Spyros Skouras, the head of Twentieth Century-Fox, that technical innovation could help to meet the challenge. Fox’s research department was adviced to find a new projection system at modest cost. Herbert Brag then remembered the work by Henri Chrétien. The optical company Bausch & Lomb was asked to produce a prototype anamorophic lens. Fox further purchased the existing Hypergonars from Chrétien and after some test screenings, Fox gave their go for further widescreen developments, which later became known as CinemaScope.

Twentieth Century-Fox’s pre-production of The Robe, originally committed to Technicolor Three-Strip origination, was halted so that the film could be changed to a CinemaScope production. Chrétien’s Hypergonars proved to have significant optical and operational defects, but Bausch & Lomb, Fox’s prime contractor for the production of these lenses, initially produced an improved “Chrétien-formula” adapter lens design, and subsequently produced a dramatically improved and patented “Bausch & Lomb formula” adapter lens design.

Ultimately “Bausch & Lomb formula” “combined” lens designs incorporated both the “prime” lens and the anamorphic lens in one unit. These lenses continue to be used to this day, particularly in special effects units. Other manufacturers’ lenses are often preferred for so-called “production” applications that benefit from significantly lighter weight or lower distortion, or a combination of both characteristics.

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