How is White Christmas responsible for Star Wars, IMAX and Inception?
I’m dreaming of a white Christmas… Just about everyone knows the song, right? But did you know that the movie is partially responsible for Star Wars and IMAX, not to mention key sequences in moves such as Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World?
Pretend it’s 1954. Alaska and Hawaii aren’t yet states (they will be in five years, though!). A new car cost around $2000. The Red Wings (of course) won the Stanley Cup! Doris Day was all over the radio, as was George Clooney’s aunt Rosemary… speaking of Rosemary Clooney, in 1954, a little movie was released that she starred in. It was called White Christmas and it was shot with the VistaVision process. Wait, the who what huh now? And what does that have to do with Han Solo?
According to Paramount’s description from 1954: VistaVision includes wider angle lenses to give greater scope on the big screen; new cameras through which the 35mm negatives travel horizontally eight sprocket holes per frame instead of the standard four per frame, giving a negative image with an area of nearly three times the area of the standard negative image.
So what’s it mean? Well, in short, it’s a widescreen variant of 35mm film. The process yielded a finer-grained projection print, which meant a larger, clearer picture. It might not seem like much now, but at the time it was revolutionary. In fact, it ended up being a sort of testing ground for ideas in cinematography that evolved into the IMAX and OMNIMAX formats in the 1970s. Did you know that IMAX is oriented sideways just like VistaVision? Think about it. Most movie projectors are vertically fed (up and down). This went side to side. Mind. Blown. Well, it would have been at the time.
At the time, television was becoming popular. Going to see motion pictures at the theater was seen as more of a luxury and event instead of a commonplace thing it had been before. Being able to out-do everything that someone can experience at home was just as key then as it is even today. VistaVision films meant an experience you could never duplicate on your dinky television at home! Plus from a technical standpoint certain features, such as being able to choose a widescreen aspect ratio, not cutting down on the number of seats (as CinemaScope and Cinerama did at first), etc. made it a very appealing option.
It didn’t last long, though. Soon finer-grained color stocks became available and using up twice as much film as the new stocks needed meant VistaVision fell by the wayside and was collecting dust for years.
Until 1975 when a group of special effects artists got their heads together on how to film faster, high quality, large-area footage to be used in a little film called Star Wars. Someone had the bright idea to pull out some old VistaVision equipment and it worked perfectly. So perfectly that it became a standard for shooting practical effects and is still in use with movies such as The Dark Knight, Inception and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World all using VistaVision in certain key sequences. This resulted in the Dykstraflex motion-controlled camera (as created by John Dykstra, father of Chloe Dykstra from Heroes of Cosplay and shown on an episode helping her with a competition), though also many others had a hand in creating it, with Alvah J. Miller and Jerry Jeffress creating the critical electronics – and all three would collectively win an Academy Award for special achievement in 1978 for it. Of course, George Lucas and John Dykstra ended up butting heads over things like how much time and money was being spent on the camera system and how the effects team basically sucked because they were behind schedule despite creating, ya know, MAGIC OUT OF NOTHING. Lucas had created Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and had appointed Dykstra to supervise the operation, only to pretty much fire him the second principal photography over in London was all finished up. Dykstra got the last laugh though, by going on to win an Oscar for special effects and technical achievement.
So there you have it. The slightly tangled, twisted story of how White Christmas is responsible for Star Wars. Sorta.