In this article we will deal with aspect ratio. More precisely we will see the evolution of aspect ratio over time. But, first things first.
What is aspect ratio?
Aspect ratio is a fundamental concept with long history behind. Simply put, the aspect ratio is the ratio of the width of the image to the height. This can be expressed as 2 numbers like 4:3 or 16:9 or as a decimal like 1.85 or 2.35, which sometimes can be written as 2.35:1. But how did all begin? Well, for that we need to look back in history at the very first aspect ratio of the motion pictures.
William Kennedy Dickson is the man to who defined the very first aspect ratio. Dickson worked at Thomas Edison’s Lab as staff photographer. After Eastman Kodak began mass producing flexible film in the early 1890’s, Thomas Edison wanted to put this new film into a device called a KINETOSCOPE. This was the precursor of the projected film. After long experiments they finally built a working prototype. Using a 35 mm film, Dickson settled on an image that was 4 perforations high, resulting in an image that was 0.95 inches wide by 0.735 inces. This is a 4:3 ratio or 1.33. Nobody knows why William Dickson settled on the 4:3 ratio, but it stuck.
The history of aspect ratio throughout time
This settled it – making film and projections ubiquitous across the United States. And for a whole generation, everything stayed pretty much the same until synchronized sound came into the scene. In 1929 this was optically printed on the film strip itself than ran along side the image. Therefore this caused a slight shift in the aspect ratio. But in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science voted and declared that the image should be masked off on the top and bottom to make room for the sound track. This way they reduced the image back to a 1.37 aspect ratio, which was not close to 1.33. The new image size was called in 1937 the Academy Ratio and remained the standard in Hollywood for yet another generation of movie goers.
The widescreen wars
The 1950s was a tumultuous time for film. The industry was forced to restructure and in a decade it saw the rise of Film’s little brother – Television. Since at that time everybody had been going to theaters and watching films in 4:3 aspect ratio, it was only natural that television would carry over that same screen shape. Like a new sibling, TV was getting all the attention and that reflected in smaller theater audiences.
How could film get butt back into seats?
The answer came quickly. By offering something they couldn’t get home. On September 30, 1952 a film premiered that sparked off a decade long war for widescreen film formats. The result would be a new cinema aesthetic. This is Cinerama.
Cinerama used three 35 mm cameras all shooting 27 mm lenses and and exposing 6 perforations high. The result was capturing a 147 degree view for an aspect ratio of 2.59.
Projected on a deeply curved screen using 3 projectors and boasting a 7 track surround sound system – the Cinerama was a huge hit. Running for two years at the Warner Theater in New York City, there were a lot of problems with shooting and projecting three cameras at the same time. The other problem was related to focal length.
This was so wide that you needed to position the actors differently in order to key their eye lines correct. Though hugely popular as an event film format, they made tons of money holding road shows city to city featuring travelogue films. It would take 10 years until 1962 when Cinerama would be used for only two films: The Wonderful Word of The Brothers Grimm and How the West was Won.
Problems of Cinerama
The problem with Cinerama was the it was expensive to shoot and expensive for theaters to project. But the widescreen experience was to popular to ignore. 8 months after Cinerama hit the screen, in 1952 Paramount released the first “flat” widescreen studio film. The film was “Shane” which originally was shot in Academy ratio. But Paramount cut the top and bottom of the image. The created image had a 1.66 wide screen aspect ratio. The result wasn’t really that much different. Perhaps more groundbreaking was being projected on a much bigger screen with a three track stereophonic sound. Masking off portions of the frame to create wider images wasn’t an ideal process. With larger screen, this technique enlarged the grain making the image not so clean. So new processes had to come along.
After seeing the impact of Cinerama, executives at 20th Century Fox rushed over to France. They have met with Professor Henri Chretien. He was the inventor of a technique called “Anamorphoscope”.He had invented in the 1920s. Anamorphoscope used a specialized lens that would distort an image in only one direction – in other words squished. Using a 2 to 1 anamorphic lens, this process which Fox called Cinemascope, delivered a 2.35 aspect ratio using traditional 4 perforations 35mm film. Cinemascope was used first in 1953 for the film: “The Robe”. This became a masive hit. 20th Century Fox owned Cinemascope and it set off on a PR campaign. All the major studios switched to Cinemascope, except Paramount. Unfortunately Cinemascope didn’t solve the grain issue. Therefore Paramount developed their own system – “Vista Vision”. This took the traditional 35 mm film and turned it on its side – literally – recording images that were 8 perforations wide for an aspect ratio of 1.85.
VistaVision’s first film was “White Christmas” in 1954. This would go on to be used in many films including “The Ten Commandments”. But perhaps most notable is it’s association with Alfred Hitchcok. He shot many of his films in VistaVision including “To Catch a Thief”,”Vertigo” and “North by Northwest”
Other widescreen formats popped in the 50s: Superscope, Tehnirama, Cinemiracle, Vistarama, just to name a few. The widescreen wars didn’t end with 35 mm film as inventors continued to experiment with larger formats.
Todd AO – developed by a former Cinerama associate and Broadway Producer Mike Todd along with American Optical company was a 70 mm film format that sought to do what Cinerama did but with only one camera and one projector. Using an aspect ratio of about 2.20, Todd AO used this on the film of Roger and Hammerstein’s “Oklahoma” in 1955 followed up by “Around the World in 80 days”. Both of these films were major hits. Todd AO would dip back into the Roger and Hammersteine repertoire with “South Pacific” and “Sound of Music”. And with the addition of D-150 lenses, shaped the look “Patton” in 1970.
Backing up in 1954, in the midst of this rush to widescreen, a small company named Panavision started up to manufacture anamorphic lenses for cameras and for projectionists in order to fill the shortage of lenses. Originally working with Cinemascope, they soon became industry leaders solving technical problems that plagued early Cinemascope. And by the late 50s Cinemascope started developing and acquiring camera system formats. This included the MGM 65 which used 70 mm film to capture “Ben Hur” chariot race scene in a ridiculous aspect ration of 2.76. The MGM 65 would become Panavision’s Super Panavision 70. This was similar to the MGM 65, except that it used regular spherical lenses, not anamorphic, to create an image with an aspect ratio of 2.20. This system was used for “Lawrence of Arabia”. This would win the Oscare for cinematographer Frederick Young in 1962.
But 70 mm film was expensive. Chemical processes of regular 35 mm film was catching up, reducing the grain issues that it had before. So the 70 mm film and its cousing I-MAX, which came along in the 70s, would be really used for special purposes.
Where is 16:9?
So we’ve seen the original silent 35 mm ratio of 1.33 or 4×3, Academy ratio of 1.37, Cinerama with 2.59, Cinemascope with 2.39, VistaVision with 1.85, Todd AO with 2.20 and even Ben Hur in MGM 65 with 2.76. In all those numbers where is 16:9 or 1.77?
Well, for that answer we need to turn back to Film’s little brother television. In the late 1980s, when the plans for the HDTV standard were born, Kerns H. Powers, a SMPTE engineer suggested this new aspect ratio as a compromise. 16:9 was the geometric mean between 4:3 and the 2.39, the two most common extremes in terms of aspect ratio. This means that an image of either aspect ratio would have relatively the same screen area when properly formatted in 16:9 standard with with letterboxes. And so out of a compromise, the 16:9 aspect ratio was born – the default widescreen aspect ratio for all video products from DVD’s to UltraHD “4K” formats.
From William Dickson’s original 4×3 image conceived in Thomas Edison’s Lab to the widescreen explosion of the 1950s starting with Cinerama to the digital compromise of 16:9, it’s fascinating how aspect ratios have shifted and practically defined our memories of these films. But it’s only a shape – a canvas on which you draw your story. The canvas does matter. How you draw it, makes all the difference so use it to make something great.