The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of Aspect Ratio

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 FilmmakerIQ.com

Only registered users can comment.

  1. This was deeply fascinating. I love old films, particularly the epics from the 1950s and 60s. I never realized aspect ratio played such a large role in these classic films. Excellent presentation.

  2. Il film "The Robe" (La Tunica) non è mai stato in 2.35:1, le versioni sono in anamorfico 2.66:1 e in 2.20:1 (Re-released 70mm Blowup) e in una bruttissima versione in 1.37:1 (Spherical version).

  3. Very good video, although it's mostly information I already knew. What I'm still trying to find out is: Why did so many studios basically abolish the Scope format around the late 70s, only to make it appear again around the late 90s? I never found out the reason for the absence of the Scope format (using a general term for all the slightly different formats)? Most 1980s films I know from all around the world – Hollywood, Europe, Japan – are filmed in a Vistavision-style widescreen format, and films in Scope-format are relatively rare. Can you/someone tell me the reason?

  4. Thanks for this!
    Now I don't have to explain it to anyone anymore (just share this instead).
    Being older, I'm usually the one explaining, although I DID learn one tidbit here I didn't know before.

    The one thing that still bothers me to no end is that even paid/premium channels still don't always letterbox wider movies and cut them down to fit our new 16:9 TVs.
    Lots of people think they are getting the whole movie, but they're not.
    I prefer having them in letterbox than cut, or pan&scan which is even worse.

  5. Great video. My personal opinion is that the academy ratio is perfect and widescreen is a total gimmick. Most movies that were shot on Super 35 look MUCH better in 4:3, and way too tight in widescreen. Directors spent 50 years having to compromise the composition of their shots because they know movie theatres only show things in widescreen. Theatres only introduced widescreen in the 1950s when they got scared of home televisions sets competing with them, and they wanted something that you couldn't get at home. Then came the ridiculous experiments, some of which turned out pretty good, but others, like the three-camera super widescreen shots are absolutely ridiculous. Directors like Kubrick, Cameron, and Coppola all had a preference for the academy ratio, but still framed their shots for widescreen because they knew movie theatres are stubborn and they could never get any movie theatre to show something in its full 4:3 glory. My favorite movie, The Big Lebowski, looks much better in full frame than it does in widescreen. Sure, you get pedantic nerds who bully everyone and insist that the director never "intended" for you to see all the extra information, but if you read the various internet forums, you quickly realize that the camp who is obsessed with the "intended" aspect ratio almost always bully those who prefer the 4:3 version (call them stupid, visually illiterate, accuse them of not knowing what they're talking about, and just generally act smug and superior. They never explain how they know what the director intended, and they are just guessing. And in those cases where it's known for a fact that the director prefers the full frame version (like Cameron and Kubrick), they still argue and deny deny deny. They also never explain why the shot composition almost always looks much better in 4:3. In the widescreen version you get cut off heads, bodies, etc. The full frame shows you what the director intended, not the compromised "theatre" aspect ratio.

  6. I was watching and thinking "please don't end now, please don't end now, please…". Awesome video, thank you!

  7. I used to work at IKAN.
    Kan is the best boss anyone could ask to work for. The IKAN products are awesome. GREAT QUALITY and very innovative. Ahead of their time.

  8. The original Sony HDVS system had 1,125 lines and a 5×3 aspect ratio, until the 1990 SMPTE decision and then it became 1,125 lines 16×9.

  9. I read that a frame of 35mm film has an aspect ratio of 3:2. I’ve also read that it’s 4:3. Which one is true? Does each of these ratios describe something different about a film frame?

  10. The "fullscreen" treatment seen in many "Premium TV" channels, doing the "pan & scan shuffle" with 2.35:1 movies is an outrage! This why I stay with Turner Classic Movies to see 2.35:1 movies in "theatrical splendor." I can see the enlarged film grain+"talking/looking into the air" effect on HBO, Cinemax, and Showtime movie broadcasts. This "lazy fullscreen projection" garbage is NOT worth "Premium TV" prices. I find it necessary to check what the aspect ratio was for the original movie and have come away disappointed for even 1.85:1 movies, at times.:(

  11. What about the Lumiere films? This was before Edison got into the picture. And what about other aspect ratios that were tried during the silent days and into the early days of sound? Yes, wide screen was tried back then. Edison may have set a standard but that doesn't mean that other ratios weren't tried. Not to pitch a book but "Behind the Screen: The History and Techniques of the Motion Picture" by Kenneth MacGowen shows a lot of this hidden history and definitely shows that all things motion picture did not originate with Edison.

  12. Jon are we still able to use 2:35 aspect ratio in modern films or is it shifting towards yet another aspect ratio?

  13. I like using 2.50:1 for my stuff (obviously only when I feel the need for widescreen). I just go for 1920×768 in Premiere Pro. Its almost the same as 2.55:1, but why use these weird numbers when you can use really clean ones. OCD confirmed

  14. Nicely done. A few tidbits about 1950's widescreen:

    Fox's 35mm CinemaScope process included turning the sprocket holes vertically to widen the usable area of the film stock – returning the aspect ratio almost back to the silent era's aspect ratio. Some films used the extra space for an additional on-film audio track (either stereo sound or monaural front with an ambient rear channel, i forget which films did which). Some early anamorphic projection lenses used adjustable prisms to accommodate different aspect ratios. Look at the Panavision logo – it's the three most common aspect ratios 😉

    70mm films were shot on 65mm negatives and transferred to 70mm to make room for the audio tracks (though some road show venues used synchronous audio played back on another strip of film in the projection booth). 70mm prints had 4 magnetic audio stripes – 1 on each side of the film frame, and 1 very thin one on each edge of the film outside of the sprocket holes. The outside magnetic stripes were used by bigger theatres for ambient (surround) sound tracks while the two inner stripes carried distinct Left, Center, Right, and a backup Monaural track. Those magnetic stripes made the film thicker, by the way, and the edge stripes were needed to the keep the film from buckling on the reel. The extra audio tracks became a bonus whenthe Tod-A-O system was developed. More modern 70mm releases (mid 80's and up) included an optical track as a backup and added Left Extra and Right Extra audio in place of the Monaural backup track. By the 90's 70mm magnetic audio tracks were replaced with early digital audio systems and that optical backup track became the primary analog audio track for many theatres, increasing the usable area for the image again, great for re-releases of films like Laurence of Arabia.

    Now for 35mm prints. With wide screens for Scope movies having been installed in exhibition houses all over the world, a dilemma for threatre owners arose when showing non-Scope movies: the standard 1.35 aspect ratio looked like tiny home movies against that giant screen (curtains and masking started disappearing by the mid 1970's). Theatres began adding magnifying lenses to enlarge the non-Scope films to fill more of the screen, cropping off the top and bottom of the non-anamorphic image. By the 1980's the new, wider aspect 1.85 (or "Flat" aspect ratio) had been adopted by most studios who kept this cropped image in mind when shooting for the screen – I say this because, as a Projectionist, I could always tell a film was shot for television/home video by looking at the frame on the film: if it had wide frame lines, it could be assumed it was designed for cinema.

    Anamorphic (Scope) films used the full 1.35 ratio on the print and when Films like The Wizard Of Oz or Gone With The Wind were re-released in the late 80's and early 90's, I was a bit pissed that the took the original 1.35 aspect ratio and squeezed that through the anamorphic process in order to maintain the original height of the projected image- meaning that the image on the film was only a tiny vertical sliver with black pillars on either side. This was probably done so the booming multiplex movie theatres didn't have to remove their magnifying Flat lenses from the automatic lens turrets most projectors had for switching between Flat and Scope. The result looked like 16mm film.

    Oh… and one last thing… the curved screen was a must for the 3 projector Cinerama system in order to keep the azimuth of each projector correct which kept the the image from distorting. So why were they used for CinemaScope and Panavision? Focus. Simply focus. the sides of the screen needed to be the same distance from the lens as the center – or you would need to use a very expensive custom-ground-for-that-auditorium anamorphic projection lens.

  15. So basically one asshole decided to ruin everyone's experience by his "compromise". I'm disgusted 21:9 isn't in standard in computer monitors and televisions of today.

  16. A very instructive video with just a few mistaken and glossings over. The first aspect ratio of CinemaScope was not 2.35:1 (that came later) and shooting of 70mm films was (in America) done on 65mm negative film. They were then projected (in suitably equipped cinemas) from 70mm film prints. (The extra 5mm carried the surround sound multi-channels.) But it gets across the important points very well. I like this series.

  17. Correction: In 1953, CinemaScope started with a 2.66:1 aspect ratio, utilizing the full silent 35mm frame with a 2:1 anamorphic squeeze (the first few Scope films, including "The Robe" were shot in this ratio). However, very soon, they decided to add magnetic sound strips on the frame, which reduced the ratio to 2.55:1. In 1957, they further reduced it to 2.35:1. So, CinemaScope films between 1954 and 1956 (and some in 1957, like "The Bridge of the River Kwai") are actually in the 2.55:1 ratio. The 2.35:1 only came from 1957 onwards.

  18. Correction #2: VistaVision was NOT solely 1.85:1. In fact, the aspect ratio could vary between 1.50:1 and 1.96:1, depending on how much of the film frame was used. Some VistaVision films were shot in 1.66:1, others in 1.75:1, others in 1.85:1.

  19. Also, the video should've included SuperScope (other than a simple mention), Techniscope and Super 35, which are different widescreen processes, but all sprung from the same basic idea.

    SuperScope was briefly used by RKO in the 1950s. They shot their films in normal, Academy Ratio 35mm format, then in post-production, they chopped off the top and bottom of the image, and transferred the film to 1.5x anamorphic squeeze 35mm, creating a 2.00:1 ratio. However, it was unpopular at theatre owners, since they already bought the 2x anamorphic lenses for CinemaScope, why invest in something else? However, the same idea resurfaced some 25 years later…

    Techniscope was used mostly by low budget B-movies and European productions in the 1950s and 1960s. They filmed on 35mm with normal spherical lenses, however, instead of 4 perforations, they recorded with 2 perforations per frame, creating an image with a Scope-like ratio. Transferring it to 2x anamorphic 35mm film in post-production, they created a 2.35:1 / 2.39:1 ratio, which could be projected the same way as CinemaScope, but without having to use expensive anamorphic lenses during shooting. Some all time classics, like Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns were filmed in Techniscope. This process also died, but the idea, combined with SuperScope's idea, resurfaced in the 1980s…

    Finally, in the 1980s, combining the two above processes, Super 35 was born. The basic idea of Super 35 is that they shoot films using the full silent 35mm frame, with the 1.33:1 ratio, and then, in post-production, chopping off top and bottom, transfer it to 2x anamorphic 35mm film for projection, creating a 2.39:1 Scope-ratio, which can be projected the same way as CinemaScope / Panavision.

    However, it has the following advantages over anamorphic ("Scope"):
    1. Cinematographers can use spherical lenses instead of anamorphic ones, with a better depth-of-field, better speed, and more focal lenghts to choose from.

    2. By using the full silent frame, e.g. a larger image than normal 35mm and anamorphic, the image is less grainy and more clear, more sharp.

    3. Remember that the 1980s and 1990s were times when movies were transferred to television and home video chopping off sides of the image, so it could fit into the 4:3 TV screen, often cropping 40% of the actual image. In the case of Super 35, they could simply "unmask" the image and return to the original 1.33:1 negative for home video and television screening. Of course, again, it creted a highly different aesthetic than intended for the theatrical presentation, but at least it didn't chop off information from the screen.

    The first major movie using Super 35 was "Top Gun", in which the camera crew found it difficult to film with anamorphic equipment inside the small cockpit of fighter jets, so decided on trying out the new process. Super 35 also became the favorite of director James Cameron, who used it for "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2", and later also for "Titanic". Soon, the format became an industry favorite in Hollywood, and was widely (pun not intended) used in the 1990s and early-2000s, rivalring the popularity of anamorphic. Most of the major blockbusters of the era were filmed in Super 35, including "Gladiator", the "Matrix" trilogy, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the "Harry Potter" films, etc… This popularity ended only when digital filmmaking processes became dominant, making the points favoring Super 35 obsolete.

  20. You need to do one on the history of TV shows made before 2000-2005 – in the square-ish 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the square-ish TV screen – and how their being cropped and stretched and altered for the modern rectangle TV's that have become the norm.

  21. 16:9 is a compromise, but also a mathematical reference, 'cause it's 4:3 squared. The next 'natural' exponential step (the third power of 4:3) is 64:27, equal to 2.37:1 (cinemascope). The format was also approximated and renamed 21:9 by Phillips which makes some 'cinematic' monitors with that aspect ratio.

  22. There were horizontal vista vision projectors produced intended to run the film horizontal with an 8 perf movement

  23. Why is there no mention of the wide process used in the late 20's to around 1930? There were a handful of Hollywood films during that time shot wide, the process was mostly shelved due to the depression. One famous widescreen movie is one of the last of that era, John Wayne's The Big Trail from 1930. Both colour and widescreen were all the talk in the trade journals like Variety and Film Daily in 1930.

  24. Cinerama reborn in digital format with the name "Escape"
    https://www.google.co.in/url?sa=i&source=images&cd=&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=2ahUKEwjJpOij4KjfAhXMq48KHRutAZ8Qjxx6BAgBEAI&url=http%3A%2F%2Fforums.stevehoffman.tv%2Fthreads%2Fmodernized-digital-cinerama-barco-escape.379381%2F&psig=AOvVaw2ciY5miGnAVyZitMc6iMFv&ust=1545200928218315

  25. Bro that was interesting, thank you for that lesson. I took a good deal away from that, I didn’t know the history of the aspect ratios. I liked to crop some of my favorite photos into the 16:9 aspect. Good video/lesson 🤘🏻

  26. Very interesting. I remember my Dad taking me to How The West Was Won. And seeing all fo those terms like "filmed in cinemascope" They were real pioneers!

  27. As a kid living in Chicago in the 60s I watched Around the World in 80 Days and Ben Hur in their native format. It was an awesome experience. An interesting follow-up discussion would be how changes in aspect ratio changed the way scenes were composed and action was blocked as the screen became wider.

  28. I wonder why they seted on 35mm film….as American (still !) being imperial, 1 1/4'' would have made more 'sense' ?!?

  29. Very interesting.
    I just wish you had mentioned that the early CinemaScope movies were 2.55:1 not 2.35:1,
    ALSO
    studios duplicated the vast scope of three strip CINERAMA in the 60s by using just a single 70mm strip coupled with an anamorphic lens. This created movies in the ratio of 2.76:1 and was used on King of Kings, Battle of the Bulge, Khartoum, It's a Mad Mad Mad World, and more!
    KAN 6.19 UK

  30. I would absolutely love to see a whole video (or two!) on the science of anamorphic lenses and the image processing of them!

  31. Great video! Something the average person justs take for granted and yet is so fascinating to learn about, thanks!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *