Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A Brief History of Aspect Ratio in Film and Television

This essay will focus on a part of filmmaking you may not have given much thought to, aspect ratio. Aspect ratio is simply the ratio of the width of the image to the height. It is written with the width first, like 4:3 or 16:9.

Sounds simple, right? Well, it has actually been somewhat of a complicated issue over the years.

The aspect ratio most commonly used in the early years of cinema was 1.33:1, which is also written as 4:3. This is a much more square shape than most movies of today.

Thomas Edison was one of the first film pioneers. His company needed to come up with a standard for their 35mm silent films. His assistant and noted filmmaker William K. Dickson decided on an image that was 4 perforations (holes in the filmstrip going up the side, commonly called perfs) high.

This standard became a bit more official in 1909. The Motion Picture Patents Company had just formed the previous December; they were a trust of all the big movie companies, the biggest distributor, and Eastman Kodak, the main supplier of film.

They aimed to standardize all aspects of film production and exhibition. They decided on using 35mm gauges with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and an image that is 4 Edison perfs high.

The Edison standard was solidified in 1917 when the Society of Motion Picture Engineers adopted 1.33:1 as their engineering standard. A similar ratio would be used in most films for the next few decades.

In the 1920s, there was some usage of widescreen in shorts and newsreels but it was still uncommon. In 1927, french director Abel Gance released the classic silent film Napoleon, which had an experimental sequence that used three screens side-by-side. This basically resulted in an extreme widescreen aspect ratio of 4:1.

The first major change in aspect ratio came along when sound was introduced to cinema in the late 1920s. The soundtrack was to be printed optically on the film itself, so this meant the image had to be squeezed over slightly.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences therefore decided on a 1.375:1 ratio in 1932. This is usually referred to as the "Academy Ratio." It would be used for a long time, in fact, all studio films from 1932 to 1952 used that ratio.

However, television adopted that same ratio. When TV gained popularity in the late 1940s and early 1950s, film studios began to worry. After all, if people could get a similar product in their homes for free (besides the initial cost of the television set), then why go to movies? This resulted in the studios experimenting with various gimmicks to set films apart from television.

One of the most famous of these gimmicks was the 3-D fad, but there were also ridiculous ones like Smell-o-Vision.

The one that had a lasting impact was the idea of a widescreen image, which couldn't be replicated on a TV (or at least wouldn't be until the HDTV revolution).

The first of these widescreen formats (and one of the most influential) was Cinerama. The process, created by Fred Waller for Paramount Pictures, utilized 3 35mm cameras and captured a 147-degree field of view. The aspect ratio was 2.59:1, significantly wider than the Academy Ratio. Also, it required a special theater with a curved screen specifically for the format.

The first film shot in the format was This Is Cinerama, released in 1952. Like almost all Cinerama flicks, this was a documentary. It was a travelogue featuring various locales from around the world and a roller coaster ride that was heavily featured in the advertising.

Cinerama ended up not lasting that long. Only two fictional feature films were made in this format. One of them was the last Cinerama film of any kind, How the West Was Won, made in 1962. It didn't last that long, partly because it was expensive to use and was seen as just a novelty by some.

1953 is when the widescreen revolution really took off. Studios starting using a process called matting to convert their films shot in the Academy Ratio to widescreen. This involved cutting off the very top and bottom of the image to give a ratio of 1.66, 1.75. or even 1.85, which became a standard that lasts to this day.

An example that year was the movie, Shane. It was shot in the Academy Ratio but Paramount lopped off the top and bottom to make it 1.66:1

However, this resulted in a lower quality image since the film grain was enlarged. Studios had to come up with widescreen formats.

The first big one was Cinemascope and it came out in 1953. Created by 20th Century Fox, it represents the beginning of the modern era of shooting in an "anamorphic" format. The aspect ratio chosen was 2.35:1, which became a very common ratio. A very similar anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1 is often used today.

The first Cinemascope film was the successful biblical epic The Robe. The format was used by all the major studios besides Paramount, but finally discontinued in 1967.

Another big format came out the next year in 1954. Instead of Cinemascope, Paramount went with VistaVision. Films in this format were shot in 1.5:1, but could be projected in either 1.66, 1.85 or 2.00, with 1.85 being the most common.

VistaVision was a bit of an oddity as the film actually was shot horizontally rather than vertically. This led to eight perfs being used for one image, and therefore, the nickname, "Lazy Eight." This meant that twice as much negative stock had to be used.

The release prints were made on standard 35mm film that ran vertically, but this greatly reduced the film grain.

Alfred Hitchcock used VistaVision for several of his films in the 1950s, including To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, North by Northwest, and The Trouble With Harry. The Ten Commandments was another big film using the format.

However, this format also became obsolete quickly. Cheaper formats and ones with finer grain replaced it, and the last major film shot in it came out in 1961. However, it lived on to be used in special effects work on huge blockbusters like Star Wars, Tron, and Back to the Future. It has even been utilized recently on special effects portions for Watchmen, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar.

The next major widescreen format was Todd-AO, developed by a man named Mike Todd. This process used a 65mm negative with a 70mm positive and actually started out in 30 fps, before changing to the standard 24. The film was shot in 2.2:1 but after printing was closer to 2.35:1. Unlike Cinerama, Todd-AO only needed one camera and one projector.

Some well-known films have used this format such as Cleopatra (1963), Patton (1970), and even the 1992 film Baraka.

Super Panavision 70, that company's version of Todd-AO, was first used in 1959. This format used spherical lenses as opposed to anamorphic ones. Lawrence of Arabia (1962) was filmed Super Panavision 70.

70mm film was prohibitively costly, so it never really became widely used.

Another big process was Technirama. It was made by Technicolor and used a 2.25:1 negative and a 2.35:1 print.

By the end of the 1950s, most studios settled on a 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Meanwhile, television had pretty much stuck with 4:3. That is, until the High Definition revolution began in the late 1980s and 1990s. When designing HDTV, they decided on 1.78:1 (commonly written as 16:9) as a compromise (in fact, the geometric mean) between 1.33 and widescreen ratios like 2.35.

16:9 has been the default aspect ratio for all HD formats, including DVDs, 1080 and 4K.

The most popular aspect ratio for theatrical releases currently is by far 2.35. However, there have still been some significant recent films shot in 1.85, including Gone Baby Gone, Apocalypto, and Birdman.

There are even some recent movies in the 1.375:1 ratio, such as Gus Van Sant's Elephant, Meek's Cutoff, the silent film homage The Artist, and the black and white Polish film Ida.

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