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Cinerama for the Academic Auteur

There are times when you really want to make an impression... during a presentation to your colleagues, or perhaps in the unveiling of a proposal. We've had a few folks do presentations here in the Peter Wallenberg Learning Theater that were calculated to make just such a powerful impression, and the method used has been a latter-day, low-budget version of a cinematic event from the fifties: Cinerama.

In its original form, Cinerama movies (such blockbuster titles as How The West Was Won, and Windjammer) were projected by three projectors on a very wide screen. The format wasn't perfect: one could often see the “seams” where the images overlapped slightly, but the impact of the deeply curved screen was powerful, and audiences were amazed.

A few years ago on a visit to Wallenberg Hall, Todd Taylor from UNC Chapel Hill asked if it would be possible to project three different DVDs onto those screen simultaneously. We told him it was possible, though there had never been a reason to do so. He smiled.

Several months later, Todd returned as a keynote speaker for an educators' conference being held in at Stanford. His address turned out to be a 40 minute long, three-screen-wide movie presentation, with a carefully crafted slot of silence towards the end where he could speak to the crowd before the big cinematic ending. Low-budget Cinerama had come to Wallenberg Hall!

A year later, a group of students delivered a proposal to an interested audience in the form of a three-screen presentation, leveraging the learning experience of the first auteur for quite a different purpose. The attendees were all impressed and excited by the concept being offered, and the event was clearly a great success.

It's not hard to make a presentation of this kind: Final Cut Studio and most other video editing packages will allow you to create video projects that support many parallel video tracks. The trick is to edit all three tracks in synchrony, so the resulting tracks will properly interact on the screens. Once the entire project is complete, each of the multiple video tracks can be burned to its own DVD. We have a set of three Sony DVD players (all the same model, less than $100 each from the local electronics retailer). Playing the three tracks in pretty good synchronization is achieved by cuing up all three disks on pause/still at their starting or synchronizing frame. Then, stand back about five feet with the remote control and hit play: the spread of the beam will insure that all three units will start together as closely as possible.

This doesn't yield frame-accurate sync, and it doesn't guarantee that the screens will stay synced over the duration of the presentation, but it's always been good enough (within 5-10 frames in the worst case), and it's a technique available to anyone with a reasonably current laptop... a far cry from what it took to make How The West Was Won.

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