Mr Cinerama

Cinerama vanished from the Australian exhibition landscape more than forty years ago. But was it completely gone? I remember when I first heard the legend (back to the nineties) of how a passionate projectionist had saved enough of the original Sydney Plaza plant and then ingeniously cobbled together everything else needed to run three-strip Cinerama in his backyard. It was a tantalising story and one that had stuck with me. So when I became a projectionist myself and eventually began making this documentary, it was time to find out if this story was true or just the stuff of bio-box legend.

I didn't have to search far; in fact, I was a little disappointed how easy it was to track down John Mitchell. After all, its always about moving in the right circles and my friends at CATHS (Cinema & Theatre Historical Society) knew instantly the man and where to find him.

So off I went to Sydney's North Shore for one of John's special screenings. My partner in crime, cinematographer Joanne Donahoe-Beckwith, was busy on a paid job (damn rude, I say) so this would be one of a few shoots where I would have to do the works, including a piece to camera presenting. Not my preferred way of working. 

I'd heard of and seen a few private experiments inspired by the mammoth three projector Cinerama process so I really didn't know what to expect. 

I wasn't disappointed. John's installation was epic in its accomplishment as well as its eccentricity. 

A three strip Shangra-la in a suburban garage.

A three strip Shangra-la in a suburban garage.

One thing I've learnt during filming is that film tech enthusiasts are a very particular breed. First, a religious love of the movies, usually with a favourite genre; next a fascination in the detail of how things work; and finally a respect and awe for the devilish complexity of projection kit. Also, an odd need to decorate their homes with said equipment (myself included) and a unrelated fascination in steam trains... but that's a rabbit hole best avoided.

'You don't need that cap, do you John?'

'You don't need that cap, do you John?'

Another facet to the backyard enthusiast is a driven need to save, collect and preserve the treasures of yesteryear for the future and John was no exception. In fact, it wasn't until we spoke at length that I discovered the extent to which John's collection had been crucial in the preservation of the three strip era. John was the custodian of the only remaining three strip print of The wonderful world of the brothers Grimm (since donated to the National Science & Media Museum in Bradford, England). John had also saved (through duplication) the only known, 7 track magnetic soundtracks for Windjammer and The best of Cinerama. All of which had been used by Dave Strohmaier on his digital restorations of the Cinerama catalog.

The night I filmed we watched In the Picture. This was the work print donated by Dave Strohmaier to John for his contribution in the restorations. In the Picture is the first three-strip film shot (by Dave Strohmaier and team) since the end of the era nearly fifty years ago. It was such a fun night.

A scene from  In the Picture.

A scene from In the Picture.

John's ingenuity and commitment to keeping the Cinerama process alive was inspiring. We had a great chat on camera too, much of which will be included in Splice here


Bert Murphy