When Edison and Eastman came up with 35mm film – the design of the perforations and the frame — they didn’t make any provision for soundtrack. It’s obvious why –movies were silent in 1895. They came up with a frame aspect ratio whose shape was pretty close to a square – between 1.3:1 and 1.40:1. If I had to guess I’d say they did it because they knew that of any rectangular shape that would fit into the round image created by a lens, a square would make the most effective utilization of the lens’s coverage and 1.3.7 (or whatever it was) was pretty close to square. But 1.37 is, after all, close to a square but a little bit horizontally extended, and people are used to looking at most pictures in what today we call the “landscape mode.” I think most paintings and most photographs are painted or taken in the landscape mode – probably because our eyes are side by side and their field of view favors horizontality.
It isn’t a bad pick for an aspect ratio, when all is said and done, and 35mm film has endured for more than a century. Think about that when you buy your next cell phone or laptop. What’s the half-life of consumer electronics? In the late 1920s sound on film emerged, and that required cutting into the picture area. The 35mm frame is four perforations high, and originally it spread horizontally from perforation to perforation, and was bilaterally symmetrical about a vertical center line. 35mm film has perforations on either edge, so one way to add a track might have been to remove the perfs on one side, but that might not have been a good idea for transport and registration purposes. That meant that the soundtrack had to intrude into the picture area. To preserve the Edison aspect ratio the picture’s height was shrunk, so we had a reduction in the size of the image to maintain the aspect ratio.
Something odd happened here that’s a footnote to all of this. The optical center of the lens ought to pass through the geometric center of the format – and it did for cameras and projectors when there was no soundtrack. But at least for projectors, when the soundtrack was added there was no change made to the optical center. It now passes through what had heretofore been the optical center of the frame sans a soundtrack. It’s curious that no change has been made in over 80 years, but there it is. If you know a little about the way lenses work, their coverage is symmetrical about their optical center. That means projection of planar movies will have an image that is brighter on one side of the screen than the other, because of this peculiar engineering decision. Maybe in the 1920s and early 1930s the powers that be thought that sound was a passing fad the way some people think 3-D is a passing fad today, and they didn’t want to change the standard.
Understand that over the years people have experimented with many different film formats: different gauges, different widths, and sometimes – for example, in the case of what Abel Gance did with Napoleon, triptychs where used. (Napoleon was a precursor of the triptych Cinerama, which had a wide aspect ratio for projecting onto what in the 1950s was a giant screen.)
In terms of mainstream filmmaking, a 1.3:1 aspect ratio was maintained; and it was maintained for television too, so that the first CRT televisions (and for the next 50 years or so) had a 1.3:1 aspect ratio – the good old Edison aspect ratio. In the early 1950s Twentieth Century Fox licensed a technology from a French inventor Henri Chrétien, which they called CinemaScope. It used anamorphic lens attachments that squeezed the image in the horizontal by a factor of two, and unsqueezed it on projection. Fox went back to a frame area that was the full height of the available 35mm format. They no longer needed to be concerned with preserving the aspect ratio as defined by the ratio of the actual frame dimensions because they were changing it optically. There are all kinds of complications here that are too tedious to go into but, because of the various changes that were made along the way, today we have wound up with projected Scope images that are 2.4:1, almost invariably using anamorphosis for projection (but not necessarily for taking, because there are ways to extract what will eventually be an anamorphic image from photography that doesn’t necessarily use an anamorphic squeezing lens).
Today we commonly have three aspect ratios to deal with: There is 2.4:1, which is the aspect ratio for projecting Scope movies (think James Bond, Star Wars); and we have 1.85:1, which is an aspect ratio that is sometimes called “widescreen.” After Fox introduced Scope, which they licensed to other studios, Universal decided that the way to get a wide-aspect-ratio format was to crop even more off the top and bottom of the sound format area. This meant that they now had an image that was about three perforations high, but with a 1.85:1 aspect ratio instead of a 1.3:1 aspect ratio. It was a way to compete with the 2.4:1 aspect ratio and could have been thought of an interim approach to releasing product into a market in which 1.3:1 photography might have looked stale. (Something like converting 2D releases in to 3d?) Of course cropping movies meant for 1.3 projection in the 1.85 aspect ratio might have mutilated the compositions, but that’s show business. In some parts of Europe people projected movies in 1.66:1, but in the States the 1.85:1 aspect ratio was pretty much adhered to. You might think of it as a kind of poor man’s CinemaScope. Curiously, CinemaScope was called the poor man’s Cinerama. (Cinerama was a complicated system, and CinemaScope was obviously much less complicated, using a single piece of 35mm film instead of three of them.)
We have yet another aspect ratio to deal with, because of a mistake. This is the second mystifying engineering decision I have to tell you about (The first was the lens axes being offset from the center of the picture frame). When electronics engineers lacking movie business savvy were deciding what aspect ratio would be used for the new flat panel or high-definition digital televisions, they looked around at what was being used – so they thought. If you take a look at 2.4:1 and 1.85:1 you might say, “Let’s use 2:1 for TV set screens.” But no – the fools decided to use the 1.66:1 aspect ratio in the average. This is the abandoned European version of cropping to get wide screen. Thus the decision to create the digital TV set aspect ratio was skewed in the wrong direction and incredibly they came up with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 for television. Today high-definition or digital flat panel televisions have an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 because of plain and simple ignorance. Who needs to deal with three different aspect ratios? 1.85:1 is pretty damn close to 1.78:1, but it you wanted to come up with a television set aspect ratio that made sense, you would pick something like 2:1 for a compromise between 1.85 and 2.4.
As a matter of fact, there are many theaters that project everything in about 2:1. There are some cinematographers who consider this to be a detestable practice. In the work I’ve been doing with Oculus3D Corporation in the last year or so I have learned a lot about practices in theaters, and I know there is top-cropping, side-cropping, bottom-cropping, and exhibitors who project Scope and 1.8 movies in whatever is convenient. I have come to the conclusion that all this is nonsense, and the industry should just decide on projecting everything in a single aspect ratio and give the cinematographers and audience break. That’s a pipedream I’ll admit. It’s like asking the USA to go metric. All we are left with are litre bottles.
There was a fine essay written by Eisenstein about the dynamic square. If you start off with a square format, you can then crop it any way you want depending upon the needs of the film or even from shot to shot, which is what some of still photographers do. So some shots could be landscape or so-called letter box, and some shots could have a vertical or portrait aspect ratio if you wanted it.
It’s quite unlikely that this idea going to be adopted. In point of fact IMAX comes close to this approach because they do play around with aspect ratios, for example in the Dark Night. When I saw the film I hardly noticed the changes in aspect ratio. Trailers before the feature do this too. If the feature is going to be projected in 1.85, for example, trailers for Scope movies are projected in 2.4:1. And if the feature is in Scope the trailers can be in 1.85.
What about the future? Will there be some way to rationalize these formats? Or am I just barking up the wrong tree? Maybe the best approach is to make a creative decision based on how the film will be first released. If you’ve ever looked through a movie camera finder you may well wonder how a cinematographer decides how to compose becuase of the multiplicity of reticules.
Whatever the original intention of Scope was, it is now often projected on a screen that is smaller than the 1.85 image because many a theater, especially newer ones, top mask the 1.85 screen to get to Scope. And we have all seen that legend that appears on the screen warning us that the film we are about to watch has been modified. That usually means we are going to see half of the film or some such because much of the composition is being trimmed, crop, or thrown away to fit the screen aspect ratio we are watching.
Do I have an answer? I do not.