In the film Diner, writer-director Barry Levinson’s 1982 comedy about a group of friends in late-50s Baltimore, the character Edward “Eddie” Simmons (Steve Guttenberg) proves to be such a rabid Colts fan that, before he commits to walking down the aisle with his fiancé, he insists she pass a comprehensive examination on the history of Baltimore’s professional football team. Alas, despite spending weeks studying, the fiancé fails by two points. Rather than cut her some slack, Simmons announces to his friends, “The marriage is off.”
A man’s gotta have principles, right?
While not quite the hard-liner as “Eddie” Simmons, I have to confess that, in the days before our ability to see movies in the theater was severely curtailed by the birth of our children, I’d often quiz my wife as to the aspect ratio of the film we were about to take in on the big screen. “Academy or ‘scope?” I’d say, using a bit of movie-snob terminology I’d introduced her to when the subject of film came up early in our courtship, a time in which my holding forth on various cinematic minutia resulted in her
admiring me even more, if that were possible falling fast asleep. Faced with the question, nine times out of 10 she’d roll her eyes and, without a word, return to her bag of Twizzlers. That one time she humored me, though? Usually she got the answer right. Which is why, unlike Steve Guttenberg’s character, I allowed the marriage to proceed.
Right now chances are that, not unlike my wife, you’re rolling your eyes, thinking, Who the heck gives two shits about aspect ratios?
Well, lots of people, actually. Problem is, they’re never around when you want them to read something. They’re off scrolling through someone else’s blog. And so it’s down to you, dear reader, to endure my ramblings on this particular subject. The good news is, if you dig movies, it’s an interesting one.
The choice of an aspect ratio isn’t arbitrary; it’s an aesthetic decision by the movie’s director and his (or her) cinematographer. How they decide to frame their stories can provide visual cues to the audience, which can make the story-telling more effective. More on this later. In the meantime, let’s define an aspect ratio as it relates to cinema.
In simple terms, an aspect ratio is the proportional relationship between a picture’s width and height. Modern-day movie theaters generally project two aspect ratios: the 1.85:1 “Academy,” which delivers an image 1.85 times wider than it is high; and the 2.39:1 “‘scope,” which provides an even more horizontal image, one 2.39 times wider than it is tall. Here’s a graphical representation (ignore the green box for now):
To better understand how these two aspect ratios came to be the movie industry standards (at least in the U.S.), you must look back at cinema’s early years, specifically the silent era, one in which, despite quite a bit of experimentation with various other aspect ratios, the majority of films were shot at 1.33:1. Know what that looks like?
Yep. That piece-of-crap, 200-lb. monstrosity that caused you a herniated disk when you lugged it outside to the garbage after buying your first flat-panel TV had an aspect ratio of 1.33:1.
With the introduction of “talkies” in the 1920s, however, a need arose for a space on each frame on which to add the soundtrack. Unfortunately, the place allocated encroached a bit on the image, thus futzing with the ratio that people had grown accustomed to (apparently it made the image a little more vertical). It also caused problems for theaters with fixed-size screens and certain projection equipment. Therefore, in 1932 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) created an industry standard to avoid future confusion and grief, one with a final ratio of 1.37:1, which became known as the “Academy” ratio. (Now you can see the green box above.) Finally, theater owners could rest easy they weren’t going to have to keep upgrading equipment. And moviegoers could enjoy a projected image damn near to the 1.33:1 ratio they’d grown familiar with, but with the addition of sound. Certainly a fair tradeoff. Here’s an example, from 1941, of how it looked (and sounded):
Not too shabby. Especially in the hands of the precocious Orson Welles and his indispensable cinematographer Gregg Toland.
In the early 1950s, however, television’s ascendancy began to affect the movie business. People were beginning to stay home to watch the boob tube instead of going out to the movies. Some of this was due to programming–from what I hear Kukla, Fran and Ollie was as addictive as crack. And cost, of course–you weren’t forced to pay out the nose for channel bundles back then. But it also had something to do with the two mediums having much in common, maybe too much. As with AMPAS, the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) had adopted an aspect-ratio standard back in the early days of TV to ensure consistency. Their choice? 1.33:1, just a smidgen boxier than cinema’s 1.37:1 standard. Which made all the sense in the world. With so many movies available for broadcast, it would’ve been crazy to do otherwise. Square peg in square hole. Instant content. Done.
Financially threatened, the movie studios began looking for ways to get butts back in seats, the key being to offer an experience unique to the theater setting, something far and away more impactful than a 9″ B/W television. And so, in addition to the 3D-movie craze (1952-54), audiences were introduced to a variety of technologies that significantly widened the projected image, thus providing a more immersive experience.
The first to make a splash was…
…a complicated process involving three interlocked/criss-crossing 35mm cameras with a single rotating shutter, each filming 1/3 of the action…
…which was then projected (with three projectors) onto a huge, curved screen with an aspect ratio of approximately 2.59:1.
Although Hollywood embraced the notion of wider images and bigger screens once they saw the financial potential of Cinerama, they weren’t interested in paying royalties to Cinerama for the use of its technologies. So they began developing their own widescreen processes, many involving a much larger and wider film stock (65mm v. the traditional 35mm) because more area on the negative meant increased resolution, which translated into a brighter, sharper and more colorful image than ever before seen. And while the most popular of these formats–Todd-AO (aspect ratio: 2.35:1), SuperPanavision 70 (aspect ratio: 2.20:1) and VistaVision (aspect ratio: 1.66:1, 1.85:1 or 2.00:1)–delivered a terrific widescreen image, they had drawbacks, namely in expense. Studios would have to foot the bill for specialized equipment to film, edit and distribute movies using a large-format negative (or, in the case of VistaVision, a negative that ran horizontally through the camera). And then, on the exhibitor end, theater owners would need to install special 70mm projectors to show the films, not to mention erect larger screens.
The key, then, was to develop a more practical widescreen process, one that used as much existing equipment as possible. The solution? Matting the image. By cropping the top and bottom of a piece of film shot in the ubiquitous 1.37:1 “Academy” ratio, the studios realized they could give the illusion of widescreen (especially when projected on the much bigger screens starting to pop up in cinemas) without the film having been shot in an expensive large format like VistaVision or Todd-AO. The only drawback? A slight increase in film grain from magnifying the image to fit the screen.
Matting is accomplished via a “hard matte,” in which the image is matted inside the camera, thus only exposing a portion of the negative, or a “soft matte,” in which the entire 1.37:1 negative is exposed during filming and the matting doesn’t occur until the projectionist runs the movie through the projector with a masking plate to crop the top and bottom of the image.
Not surprisingly, each studio went their own way in terms of deciding the best aspect ratio for their movies. Paramount, the first to release a matted widescreen film (George Steven’s Shane in 1953), chose to frame the picture at 1.66:1. M-G-M and Disney, on the other hand, decided to go with 1.75:1. And Universal and Columbia went with 1.85:1, the eventual industry standard.
So, enough about 1.85:1. Now how about the other standard, 2.39:1?
Well, as other studios were experimenting with matting, 20th Century Fox created…
…a process capable of capturing widescreen images more horizontally similar (2.39:1) to the popular large-format processes than could be achieved with matting. Even better? The process didn’t cause image degradation. Because, as opposed to the hard/soft matting of a 1.37:1 image, which required a slight blow-up to fit movie screens, CinemaScope used the maximum image area on the film. While at the same time capturing a severely horizontal image. Now, how the heck could that be? The geometry’s all wrong. Wouldn’t a 2.39:1 image captured on a 1.37:1 piece of film look like this:
It would if you weren’t using an anamorphic lens during filming. Which is the genius behind CinemaScope. They used a special lens attachment on the camera to “squeeze” the 2.39:1 image being framed by the cinematographer to fit exactly within the confines of the 1.37:1 negative. And using the entire available image area translated into a picture that’s brighter, sharper, steadier and less grainy than matted widescreen. Take a look at the image below; it’s the exact same as above, only anamorphically squeezed, a distortion that would then be reversed or “stretched” to 2.39:1 via an anamorphic lens on the theater’s projector.
There’s another way to achieve the ‘scope aspect ratio although, like calling something shot full-frame (1.37:1 Academy ratio) and then matted to 1.85:1 truly widescreen, it’s a bit of a fudge. That said, it’s hugely popular because it uses the traditional Academy ratio to create the widescreen image but without the special anamorphic lens of true ‘scope photography. It’s called Super 35 and it’s way too complicated to discuss in this post, but it’s there via the link for those nerdy enough to investigate.
So now that you know something about aspect ratios, how do directors and cinematographers use them to effect?
One could make a sweeping generalization that action movies tend to be shot in the ‘scope and smaller films–dramas, comedies, etc.–in the more vertically framed 1.85:1. And while this is somewhat true, there are many times it wouldn’t hold water. Because for every Die Hard shot in ‘scope, there’s a Glengarry Glen Ross and Kingpin filmed in the same ratio, the former an intimate drama, the latter a gross-out comedy. Same goes for 1.85:1. For every Sense and Sensibility filmed in the “Academy” ratio, there’s a Jurassic Park using it, too.
Why? Well, as touched upon earlier, how wide the widescreen’s going to be is an aesthetic choice made by creative people who know exactly what they want the imagery to convey. In the case of Glengarry, maybe director James Foley wanted to fit more of his superb cast into each frame to increase the tension.
And for Jurassic Park, maybe Steven Spielberg wanted to convey height for his dinosaurs.
Then there’s Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which he and his cinematographer Robert Yeoman use all three aspect ratios, each representing a period within the film to a) help the viewer identify where he or she is within the story as it bounces from timeframe to timeframe and b) as a homage to the ratios that were prevalent within those periods. So for the stuff taking place in the 1980s they use matted 1.85:1, for the stuff taking place in 1968 they use ‘scope framing and, finally, for the bulk of the movie, taking place in the 1930s, they use 1.37:1 Academy. Watching the movie is like a little aspect ratio tutorial:
Anyway, whatever the reasons the aspect ratio, rest assured that the audience, more subliminally than anything else, is being manipulated in some way by the shape of the screen.
So…did this clear things up at all?