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Intermittent Issues - This OAR That

Part 1: Overview

By David Meek

May 10, 2004

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Hello again. Given that it's been months since my 'initial' offering, hopefully the column name's (Intermittent Issues) inherent pun will start to make sense. I'll spare you the long version of the story on my absence – I should now be able to devote some more regular time to writing again.

Rather than get into that ridiculously huge history lesson I originally outlined, I thought I'd write a ridiculously long column on aspect ratios instead. (The bad pun in this column's title refers to the Original Aspect Ratio – or OAR – arguments that have been raging for years.) Hopefully you'll find this to be a worthwhile investment of your time.

I should mention at the outset that this is not a truly comprehensive coverage of this subject. I'm trying to aim this between the true novice and those with some experience with the topic up to this point. There are several really good, highly technical pages on this subject -- if that's what you'd prefer, do a Google search on 'aspect ratio' to get started.

Aspect Ratio...?

To begin with, we need to explain what an 'aspect ratio' is, and why it matters. An aspect ratio is, like the name implies, a way of describing the relative shape of something. In cinema, all current film formats are wider than they are taller (at least by a little bit). So the aspect ratio of a given format is a way of describing how rectangular the image appears – the higher the first number in an aspect ratio, the wider the image will be.

Historic aspect ratios (abbreviated as 'AR') range from 1.33:1 up to nearly 3.00:1 - although only a few of them are still in regular use today. Let's examine the most common ones.

1.33:1 – 'Academy Standard' (a.k.a. '4x3')

Singin' In The Rain

Going back to Edison and the Lumiere brothers, 35mm film stock and the 1.33:1 AR were a de facto standard long before the motion picture industry formally adopted the pair. By 1909, both 35mm and the 1.33:1 AR were standardized around the world.

With the advent of sound-on-film, studios chose not to invest in an additional costly retooling, and simply modified the 1.33:1 AR 35mm format, squeezing in room for the soundtrack by reducing the image 'window' slightly. To be precise, the 'Academy Standard' sound format is actually 1.37:1; however, 1.33:1 is how most folks end up referring to these films. All major studio films were released in this format through the early 1950s (when widescreen format experiments began). Even as the widescreen wars raged, 1.33:1 AR films continued to be made into the late 1950s.

If the Academy Standard shape looks familiar, it should – when the folks in the 1940s working on the television system got together, they realized that if they copied the Academy Standard ratio they could broadcast movies without any complicated resizing. So the new television standard was ultimately based on the long established motion picture format. This was the first shot fired in a battle that ultimately produced the format confusion we're trying to clear up here.

The irony of all of the developments described below is that the studios, who tried so desperately to make movies 'different' than television, are now so dependent on television and home video that they're now trying to make movies more like TV.

2.35:1 – Anamorphic (a.k.a. CinemaScope, Panavision)


For several years, studios wrung their hands over the explosive growth of television, especially in large urban areas. However, it took an outsider to force studios into action – in this case, the explosive 1952 premiere of Fred Waller's Cinerama in New York. This ultra-wide, three projector system (with multichannel sound) stunned audiences.

Spurred into action by the overwhelming press sensation brought about by Cinerama, movie studios decided to figure out ways to widen the projected images, and in a hurry. Twentieth Century Fox gave its technical department a once-in-a-career challenge: develop a workable widescreen process and bring it to market – in less than a year. Studio engineers had recently seen a demonstration of a prototype lens based on the 'anamorphic' process. This lens, due to a built-in optical distortion, 'squeezes' the image in front of the lens into a narrower space. If you then take that squeezed image and project it back through a similar lens, the image is 'unsqueezed', returning to its original width. (The height remains the same, before and after squeezing.)

The Mask of Zorro - Original The Mask of Zorro - Compressed

What this allowed cameramen to do was record a much wider image onto the same size 35mm film frame already in use. Fox engineers worked out the technical issues with the lenses, pushing as hard as possible. In the end, they had a system ready for The Robe, which premiered in late 1953 featuring the Fox trademark of 'CinemaScope'. The earliest CinemaScope films had an even wider aspect ratio – 2.66:1, which changed as the format evolved, finally settling on 2.35:1.

Once they had their widescreen format in place, Fox executives pressured their directors to make as much use of the extra-wide screen real estate as possible. Early CinemaScope films feature extensive horizontal compositions, such as wide horizon shots, characters lying on their sides (on a couch or bed), and dialogue scenes involving characters at the extreme edges of the frame. (This mimicked the visual compositions already used by Cinerama directors to emphasize their super-wide image.)

An important note is that CinemaScope was originally a complete theater package: anamorphic lenses, multichannel sound, and a special curved screen. Eventually, under pressure from theater owners, Fox 'unbundled' the lens, allowing theaters to keep their existing sound systems and screens. A number of years later, Panavision came along and fixed the remaining optical issues with the CinemaScope lenses, eliminating the dreaded 'CinemaScope mumps' (where faces became distorted in tight close-ups). It should also be noted that people have come to associate the anamorphic process so completely with CinemaScope (and to a lesser extent, Panavision) that it's just about the same as Kleenex and Xerox – people freely use the trademark to describe any anamorphic process.

One outcome of this format was forcing TV stations to deal with this unplayable image – the full-frame print was basically unwatchable, since everything was 'squeezed' in the image. Of course, that didn't stop some stations from just playing the unexpanded print: people of a certain age can still recall laughing at the grotesque images aired when a cheap or ill-informed station ran some CinemaScope western or costume drama as-is. Even if they did 'pan and scan' the image (which we'll discuss in Part 3), they hadn't settled on 'letterboxing' for the opening and closing titles. So they just put the original compressed image on screen. As a child, I can vividly recall asking my parents why everyone at the start and end of films suddenly got so tall and skinny.

2.20:1* – 70mm

Lawrence of Arabia

While Fox was establishing a new industry standard in 35mm film, other innovators tried their hands in widescreen formats. Many chose to attempt to resolve the perceived issues with 35mm – primarily, image quality when blown up to increasingly large sizes. Michael Todd introduced Todd-AO, a 70mm format, in 1955 with the exclusive 'roadshow' release of Oklahoma!

'70mm' became the gold standard for movie lovers. And, as the backers of Cinerama worked to resolve problems with their three-camera technique ('blend lines' between the images, color shifts between projectors, etc.), they ended up moving to a single-camera 70mm format with a mild anamorphic 'squeeze' to further widen the image. A prime example of this format: It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

* -- An important note: while the 2.20:1 AR noted above is the norm, there were numerous variations, under various names, with ratios going all the way out to an amazing 2.80:1.

As belt-tightening at the studios increased in the '60s, and as the 'epic' style of cinema gave way to more intimate visions, fewer and fewer films were shot in 70mm. By the 1970s, 70mm equipment was mostly used by special effects houses (who found that the larger frame size made certain effects easier to carry off). There have been a few 70mm films made in the last few decades (Ron Howard's Far and Away in 1992 and Kenneth Branagh's 1996 version of Hamlet being two of the best-known examples), but large-format moviemaking has almost entirely been handed over to the IMAX directors. (Which is a future column, by the way.)

1.85:1 – 35mm (a.k.a. 'Flat')

Grosse Pointe Blank

While Fox was spreading the CinemaScope gospel, studios found themselves in a familiar predicament: a huge backlog of product in an 'old' format (about 25 years earlier, it was silent films; in this case, Academy Standard films). What came of this is the format that is in use on the overwhelming majority of the Hollywood studio films made today – 1.85:1, or 'Flat'.

The idea of the 'Flat' process is that you can make an image wider on the screen by 'zooming in' on the print and blowing it up on the movie screen. We're going to cover this in greater detail in Parts 2 and 3, but for now please note the image below – when a camera operator looks through the viewfinder, there are various 'lines' that appear in the eyepiece (and on the video monitors currently in use). These lines guide the camera operator regarding the portion of the image that will appear on screen in the theater, and the area that will not appear (most of the time – again, see Parts 2 and 3).

The Big Lebowski

Fun fact: the term 'flat' was first applied to 1.33:1 Academy Standard films after the arrival of Cinerama and CinemaScope. Because of the huge, immersive image and curved screens, true widescreen formats started being referred to as '3D' (with 'true' 3D having just hit the market, but lasting for less than a year before fizzling out). As the current 1.85:1 AR format was not much more than a modified version of Academy Standard, 1.85:1 films inherited the Flat designation.

1.66:1 (European format), 1.78:1 ('16x9' format), etc.

All of these formats work on a similar principle as 1.85:1 Flat – the operator uses lines in the eyepiece to track various parts of the image. These will also come up in Part 2.

Well, I hope this has been fun so far – only 66% more to go! I hope you come back for the remaining sections, as we will eventually reach the ultimate question: is there only one 'right' way to watch a movie? The answer may well shock and horrify you, and your very life could depend on the answer. Or not. See you again soon.

Image credits:
Singin' In The Rain (1952): © MGM
Amelie (2001): © Miramax
The Mask of Zorro (1998): © Tristar Pictures
Lawrence of Arabia (1962): © Columbia Pictures
Grosse Pointe Blank (1997): © Hollywood Pictures
The Big Lebowski (1998): © Polygram



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