The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio

Welcome to Filmmaker IQ – I’m John Hess
and today we’re going to break down the history of Aspect Ratio. Aspect Ratio is a fundamentally simple concept
with a huge deep history. Simply put, the aspect ratio is the ratio of the width of
the image to the height. This can be expressed as two numbers like 4×3 or 16×9 or as a decimal
such as 1.85 and 2.39 – which is sometimes written as 2.39:1 But how did it all begin? Let’s turn the
dial of history and look back at the very first aspect ratio of the very first motion
pictures. We owe the first aspect ratio to one man:
William Kennedy Dickson. Dickson worked at Thomas Edison’s Lab as a staff photographer.
After Eastman Kodak began mass producing flexible film in the early 1890s, Thomas Edison wanted
to put this new film to use in a device called a Kinetescope – the precursor to the projected
film. After a few years of start and stop experimentation, they finally arrived at a
working prototype. Using 35mm film Dickson settled on an image that was 4 perforations
high – resulting in an image that was .95” by .735” – a 4 to 3 aspect ratio – or 1.33 We really don’t know why William Dickson
settled on 4 by 3 but it stuck. In 1909 the Motion Picture Patent Company (a trust of
major American film companies who were all practically under the thumb of Edison himself)
declared that 35mm film with Edison perforations, and 4×3 aspect ratio as the standard for all
films that were to made and shown in the US. This settled it – making film and projection
ubiquitous across the United States. And for a whole generation, everything stayed
pretty much the same. When synchronized sound came in the scene in 1929 and optically printed
on the film itself as a strip that ran along side of the image, there was a slight shift
in the aspect ratio. In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science voted on
and declared that the image should be masked off on the top and bottom to reduce the image
back to a 1.37 aspect ratio (so close to 1.33 that it’s sometimes used interchangeably).
This image size would be called the Academy Ratio and it remained the standard in Hollywood
for yet another generation of movie goers. The 1950s saw the rise of Film’s little
brother – Television. Since everybody alive at that time 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. But Hollywood didn’t like this new addition to the entertainment
family. Like a new sibling, TV was getting all the attention and that reflected in smaller
theater audiences. How could film get butts back into seats? By
offering something they couldn’t get at home. On September 30, 1952, a film premiered that
sparked off a decade long war for widescreen film formats. Ladies and Gentlemen:This is Cinerama. Brain child of Fred Waller, who pioneered
a multicamera/multiprojector system for training World War 2 Bomber Gunners – Cinerama used
three 35mm cameras shooting 27mm lenses and exposing 6 perforations – capturing a 147
degree view for an aspect ratio of 2.59. Projected on a deeply curved screen using
three projectors and boasting a 7 track surround sound system – This is Cinerama, almost a
precursor to the camera tests that flood the internet, was a huge hit – running for two
years at the Warner Theater in New York City. As you might be able to imagine – there were
a lot of problems with shooting and projecting three cameras at the same time for the Cinerama
process. One of them being – you had one and only one focal length – and it was wide. Though hugely popular as an event film format,
they made tons of money road shows featuring travelogue films, it would take 10 years,
until 1962 when Cinerama would be used in a dramatic film – only two to be precise.
The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm and the epic film “How the West was Won” But Hollywood didn’t wait a decade to latch
on to the widescreen craze that Cinerama started. In 1953, Paramount released the first “flat”
widescreen studio film. The film was “Shane” – originally shot in Academy ratio – but Paramount
lopped off the top and bottom of the image to create 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. You better run back. Can’t I ride home behind you? ‘Fraid not junior. Please, why not? I got to be goin’ on. Why Shane? Man has to be what he is Jimmy. Can’t break
the mold. Masking off portion of the frame to create
wider images wasn’t an ideal process. With larger screens, this technique enlarged the
film grain making the image not so clean. After seeing Cinerama, executives at 20th
Century Fox rushed over to France to meet with Professor Henri Chrétien, the inventor
of a technique called “Anamorphoscope” which 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, Cinemascope,
which was what Fox called the process after they purchased it, delivered a 2.35 aspect
ratio using traditional 4 perf 35mm film. This process was first put to
use in the 1953 film: “The Robe” 20th Century Fox owned Cinemascope and it
set off on a PR campaign to get theatres to equip their projectors and to get other studios
to start licensing their process. Many studios joined but there was one holdout – Paramount. Having started down the widescreen path with
“Shane”, Paramount developed their own system – “VistaVision”. Vistavision took
traditional 35mm film and turned it on its side – literally – recording images that were
8 perforations wide for an aspect ratio of 1.85. VisaVision’s first film was “White Chrismas”
in 1954 and it would go on to be used on many films including the epic “The Ten Commandments”.
But perhaps most notable is it’s association with Alfred Hitchcock – who shot many of his
films in VistaVision including “To Catch a Theif” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest” Other widescreen formats popped in the 50s:
Superscope, Technirama, Cinemiracle, Vistarama just to name a few… The Widescreens wars
didn’t end with 35mm 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 70mm 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 was first used on the film version of Roger and Hammerstein’s
Oklahoma in 1955 followed up by Around the World in 80 days. Todd AO would dip back into
the Roger and Hammerstein repertoire with South Pacific and Sound of Music. And with
the addition of D-150 lenses, shaped the look of Patton 1970. In 1954, in the midst of this rush to widescreen,
a small company named Panavision started up to build anamorphic lenses for cameras and
for projectionists. Originally only working with Cinemascope, They soon became industry
leaders and
started developing and acquiring camera systems. This including the MGM 65 which used 70mm
film to capture Ben Hur chariot race scene in an aspect ratio of 2.76. Moving 60s, as studios started finding it
cheaper to rent cameras rather than maintaining their own camera departments, Panavision became
the go to camera supplier for Hollywood. Panavision’s entry into the Big Film Format
was the Super Panavision 70, similar to the MGM 65 except it used regular spherical lenses
(not anamorphic) to create an image with an aspect ratio of 2.20. This system would be
used for Lawerence of Arabia which would win the Oscar for Frederick Young for Best Cinematography in 1963. So we’ve seen the original silent 35mm ratio
of 1.33 or 4×3, Academy ratio of 1.37, Cinerama with 2.59, Cinescope with 2.39, VistaVision
with 1.85, and even Ben Hur and MGM 65 with 2.76. Where did 16×9 or 1.77 come in? We turn back to Film’s little brother Televsion.
In the late 1980s, when the plans where being drawn up for the HDTV standard, Kerns H. Powers,
a SMPTE engineer suggested this new aspect ratio as a compromise. 16×9 was the geometic
mean between 4×3 and the 2.39 the two most common extremes in terms of aspect ratio.
This means that a images of either aspect ratio would have relatively the same screen
area when properly formatted in 16×9 with letter boxes. And so, out of a compromise, the 16×9 aspect
ratio was born – the default widescreen aspect ratio for all video products from DVDs to
UltraHD “4K” formats was born. From William Dickerson’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. How you draw it, makes all the difference so use it
to make something great. I’m John Hess, I’ll see you at

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