Over 1000 kilometres west of Sydney, the township of Menindee garners scant attention. The population of around 1000 claim some fame - explorers Burke and Wills camped there during their fateful 1860 expedition; it holds the record for the hottest day in the state’s history, the mercury topping 49.7 °C on January 10, 1939; and, postmaster John Cleary introduced the state’s first motorised mail service there in 1910. But how did this dusty township on the Darling River become home to the Kinopanorama Widescreen Preservation Association (K.W.P.A.), a crucial film preservation initiative overseen by a Texan-born former record industry executive committed to restoring the long dormant Russian format to its past glory…?
Honouring cinematic history has driven John Steven Lasher for most of his professional life. In 1974, his music label Entr’acte produced the legendary composer Bernard Hermann’s soundtrack for Brian De Palma’s Sisters; he has overseen newly recorded re-issues of such classic scores as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons and King Kong. But in 1992, Lasher refocussed his love affair with film and took on the daunting task of resurrecting Kinopanorama, a three-lens, three-film widescreen format that emerged from the U.S.S.R. Cinema and Photo Research Institute (N.I.K.F.I.) in the mid 1950s in answer to Hollywood’s own ultra-wide projection brand, Cinerama.
“Kinopanorama's legacy is unique because it was the only three-film system developed by a country other than the United States, which could compete with Cinerama on the world market,” says Lasher. The first Kinopanorama film, Roman Karmen’s rural vista Vast is My Native Land (US title - Great is My Country; pictured, right), premiered in Moscow in February 1958; over the next decade, eight travelogue epics were produced in the format. As Cinerama boomed with the release of Hollywood films such as How The West Was Won (and single-camera conversions such as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), the Soviet industry remained committed to its own technology; an advanced camera design called the PSO-1960 (pictured, top) allowed for the use of interchangeable lens kits with different focal lengths. Often viewed as cultural by-products of Cold War one-upmanship, both formats proved expensive and fell out of favour by the mid 1960s.
It would not be until 1992 that Lasher, now head of Fifth Continent Movie Classics, would begin the long process of resurrecting Kinopanorama. His first point-of-contact was the Russian Consulate in Sydney, who steered him to veteran cinematographer Yuri Sokol A.C.S., a Russian émigré who had forged a revered Australian resume in collaboration with director Paul Cox (Lonely Hearts, 1982; Man of Flowers, 1983; My First Wife, 1984; Cactus, 1986). “Yuri Sokol was instrumental in negotiating with N.I.K.F.I. for the purchase of the PSO-1960 camera and ancillary equipment,” recalls Lasher, who would subsidise the restoration and transportation of the camera to Australia, accompanied by respected scientific technician, Sergei Rozhkov. “It was possible over time to form a bond with the Russian organisations thanks to Yuri, (who) had retained contacts with other Russian filmmakers and organisations. In this respect, Sergei Rozhkov was most helpful in liaising with the various Russian organisations and colleagues.” (Pictured, below: The Kinopanorama team, 1993)
With further guidance offered by local D.O.P. John R McLean A.C.S. (The Cars That Ate Paris, 1974; Turkey Shoot, 1982), who had crewed on the 1956 Cinerama travelogue South Seas Adventure, Lasher and Rozhkov guided the first Kinopanorama productions in nearly three decades - Chastity Truth and Kinopanorama (1993), a compile of test footage captured on the restored PSO-1960, shot in Moscow by Soviet director Igor Shetsov; and, Bounty (1993), a picturesque examination of Sydney Harbour from the deck of the famous tall-ship. Over this period, Lasher, Rozhkov and Sokol also undertook location shoots in some of regional New South Wales most photogenic locations, including The Blue Mountains and the central western plains surrounding Dubbo, as well as the hallowed sporting venue, The Sydney Cricket Ground (pictured, below).
It was Lasher’s affinity for the landscape of rural Australia that drew him to Broken Hill, the most remote township in New South Wales, where he lived until 2009. “It was not possible to operate a heritage cinema in Broken Hill, where I lived at the time,” recalls Lasher. “The political landscape, particularly after the proposed film studio complex failed to materialise, was not favourable to launch such a venue.” Determined to further his preservation efforts, he shifted base to Menindee and established the K.W.P.A., which secured all rights to the Kinopanorama brand in 2012. “Menindee offered alternate facilities, including an abandoned building next door to the tourist information centre. We have approached the local council about acquiring it. Until this is sorted out we have no set facilities at present.”
Of course, setbacks have never deterred John Steven Lasher from pushing forward with his passion project. In 1999, Lasher helped fund a partial restoration of the first Kinopanorama feature film, Kaljo Kiisk’s Estonian-shot 1962 drama, Opasniye Povoroty (pictured, right: original lobby-card). Despite the project being abandoned due to spiralling costs, the two complete reels have been screened at widescreen celebrations in the U.S. and U.K. “We are negotiating with Gosfilmofond of Russia for the purchase of a 4K digital master of the restored Opasniye Povoroty for exhibition at film festivals in Australia and New Zealand. From that point onward, I will contact the various festival organisers as to the possibilities of scheduling the film,” says Lasher, who believes the screening of a Kinopanorama feature in all its majesty would be a unique cinematic experience for local audiences. “After all,” he says, “it would be the first time that a three-film panoramic film format had been exhibited in Australia and New Zealand.”
The KINOPANORAMA ™ name and logos are the exclusive ™ and © of K.W.P.A.; all images are © of K.W.P.A.