Once upon a time in 2-Perforation

Sergio Leone was in many ways a child of the cinema. His mother had been an actress in silent films and his father was the cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone, who directed under the name Roberto Roberti. He was an only child and spent a great deal of time on his father's film sets at Cinecittà in Rome, or on location in Naples. As a young man he was an assistant on Vittorio De Sica's seminal neo-realist film Bicycle Thieves and thereafter served in a variety of roles on as many Italian productions as he could. Throughout the 1950s he built his reputation as an assistant on many of the so-called 'sword and sandal' or 'peplum' films, as well as on the action sequences of several Hollywood epics that shot in Italy, including Quo Vadis and Ben-Hur. When director Mario Bonnard fell ill during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii in 1959, Leone stepped into the role, his apprenticeship complete.  

A life-long fan of Westerns, Leone finally saw an opportunity to make one himself when he went to a screening of Kurosawa's Yojimbo in 1963 and decided that the story would perfectly suit an old west setting. Fistful of Dollars was released in 1964, a low-budget Italian-German co-production shot in Spain and starring a virtually unknown American TV actor, Clint Eastwood. It was an extraordinary success. For a Few Dollars More followed in 1965 and broke the box office records Fistful had set, firmly establishing Spaghetti Westerns as the new craze genre of Italian cinema and inspiring a stampede of copycat productions. The final film of what came to be known as Leone's Dollars Trilogy was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, again starring Eastwood as the fast-drawing loner. By this time Hollywood had come calling and the film, generously financed by United Artists, was set against an epic backdrop of the American Civil War. Released in 1966, it sold to dozens of countries and was another box office hit.

Leone, exhausted after making three Westerns in as many years, declared himself finished with the genre and flew to America in an attempt to raise money for a gangster film he had been developing. United Artists had other ideas. They were pushing for another Western and Leone feared they might force him to cast unsuitable studio actors such as Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston. In the end he made a deal with Paramount; he would still have to make another Western before the gangster film, but he could make it absolutely on his own terms.

Once Upon a Time in the West began life as a series of story meetings between Leone and two young friends, Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, both of whom would go on to become successful directors in their own right. The three men met regularly at Leone's home in late 1967 and screened countless American Westerns, discussing and noting what they liked about each one. Their story aimed to be an amalgam of all such stories, a distillation of frontier characters and conflicts so skillfully interwoven with references that audiences would feel a sub-conscious connection with the film.  

Ennio Morricone, whose music was already an indelible element of Leone's style, wrote the entire score for the film before photography began. The director had long desired to not only edit but also shoot a whole film to music, but it was not until Once Upon a Time in the West that he got his chance. Filming began in April 1968 and Leone was playing recordings of Morricone's music while shooting scenes right from the beginning. As with the Dollars Trilogy, the film was shot mute and all dialogue post-dubbed, so playing music on set was less of an issue. Each major protagonist had their own musical signature: leitmotifs that helped the actors in their performance and also expressed the fluctuating dynamics of their characters' relationships in the masterfully orchestrated final score.

DoP Tonino Delli Colli joined Leone for a second time, having shot The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He was a well established cinematographer, whose lighting and photography of Carlo Simi's remarkable production design resulted in genre-defining images. Despite the lauded achievements of a career that spanned six decades, Delli Colli remained resolutely humble about the cameraman's craft until his death in 2005: "Look, we are not making poetry," he once commented. "We turn the lights on, and we switch them off. That's what we do."

Leone was a perfectionist, continually obsessed with tiny details of set decoration, costume or framing. This could make him infuriating to work with, though Delli Colli admired the sheer vision behind such attention to detail: "Technically, he was a great director. Sometimes he would ask for a dolly of twenty centimeters and I would say, "Why a dolly?" But when it was edited, you could notice those twenty centimeters. The public didn't realize about things like this on a technical level, but felt them psychologically." The DoP accompanied Leone on a recce to Monument Valley in Arizona, where some sequences were to be shot, and described "Sergio excitedly telling me almost all the shots in John Ford's films: 'He shot from this angle. He placed the camera here.' And it was all in his head."

Like all three Dollars films, this one was shot using Techniscope, a 2-Perforation widescreen process that had been developed by Technicolor Italia in Rome, primarily in order to avoid the considerable cost of anamorphic production. The system utilized conventional 35 mm film, but in cameras that had been modified to pull the stock down by two perforations at a time, as opposed to the normal four. In combination with a 2.35:1 ratio gate, the modification resulted in two images being exposed on top of each other within the 4-Perforation Academy area, effectively doubling the running time of each can of film. This meant significant savings in stock and developing costs, while also circumventing the need to rent expensive anamorphic lenses. The laboratory would vertically stretch the images on the developed negative with an optical printer and position each one in the 4-Perforation area to create the equivalent of an anamorphic release print.

The fact that Techniscope used spherical camera lenses eliminated many of the difficulties associated with anamorphic filming. The sphericals were faster, so Delli Colli needed less of a lighting kit for the lengthy location shoot in Almeria, Spain. They did not distort close-ups, were sharper and had greater depth of field, which suited Leone's penchant for images containing faces in the extreme foreground and panoramic landscapes in the background. Indeed it is difficult to imagine how the anamorphics of the day would have allowed him to develop a style in which the landscape is a character and the character's faces are landscapes.

Various companies started providing Techniscope camera conversions from the early 1960s as the format gained in popularity. Mitchell Camera Corporation were among the first; an advertisement in the January 1964 issue of American Cinematographer offered conversion of Mitchell BNC and NC cameras for $1,400 and the ARRIFLEX 35 mm reflex cameras for $1,300. Not long after this, ARRIFLEX brought out the 35 II CT/B, a factory-built 2-Perforation camera for use with the Techniscope process. It was priced at $2,100 and featured a film aperture of 9.5 mm x 22 mm behind a 200° shutter.

Delli Colli shot with a converted Mitchell BNC on Once Upon a Time in the West, but also made extensive use of Techniscope ARRI cameras. "Working in Almeria was hard because of the heat and the dust," he commented, and being able to use such a lightweight camera made shooting under the desert sun considerably less physically punishing. Camera noise was of no concern due to the absence of sync-sound, so the ARRI cameras could even be used for dialogue scenes. Their extreme portability compared to the Mitchell allowed Delli Colli to change setups with speed and ease, while the stock savings gave Leone greater freedom to shoot as many takes as he wanted: "He would shoot a scene up to thirty times," recalled Delli Colli. "Sergio would perfect a take as he went along and used a lot of film."

Techniscope was used on many celebrated films, including The Ipcress File and American Graffiti, but eventually died out in the late 1970s. By this time anamorphic lenses had improved substantially in quality and optical printing had become prohibitively expensive. However, with the emergence of the digital intermediate postproduction process, the format has again become an interesting option. The ARRISCAN is able to scan a 2-Perforation negative just as easily as any other, obviating the necessity of optical printing. The tremendous savings offered by the system are therefore no longer offset by other concerns, and newly designed 2-Perforation movements for the ARRICAM and ARRIFLEX 235 cameras are now available, making 35 mm widescreen production more affordable for a new generation of filmmakers.