Intermittent Issues - This OAR That

Part 2: Theatrical Projection

By David Meek

May 12, 2004

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Hello again. Well, we're on to Part 2 of our Aspect Ratio column, this time focusing on aspect ratios in the commercial movie theater. I think we can have some fun in exploring how the various formats and ratios play out. So -- let's get started!

Screen Issues

As we covered in Part 1, there are numerous aspect ratios that have to be addressed in projecting movies. While the ideal solution would be to have different rooms with a different size and dimension screen in each, no theater actually does this – the screens in all of the individual theaters have to adapt. And, as is usually the case, there's no free lunch – a trade-off is required.

Here are the two main ways that screens are designed for commercial movie theaters.

Fixed Height

This is the most common screen layout in use. As the name implies, the height of the screen is fixed, while the width of the screen left exposed varies. Here are some mockups of a fixed height screen and its various settings.

This is the anamorphic (2.35:1 AR, a.k.a. CinemaScope) screen setting. Since this is the widest setting used in modern commercial theaters, this represents the largest screen space that can be used. All subsequent settings reduce the width to accommodate the narrower images.

Dark City

This is the 35mm 'Flat' (1.85:1 AR) screen setting. Note that the curtains have been pulled in to mask off the unused screen space – since 1.85:1 is narrower than 2.35:1, less of the screen is useable.

High Fidelity

This would be the setting for an 'Academy Standard' (1.33:1 AR) print on a fixed height screen. However, as we'll cover later in this article, most commercial theaters are not configured for this format.

Singin' In The Rain

Fixed Width

This is a more recent development in configuring screens. In this approach, the width of the screen stays constant, and the height is adjusted with motorized 'masking' that is raised and lowered from above and below. Here are some examples of this approach.

This is the 35mm Flat screen setting. This is the largest possible screen size in this model.


This is the 35mm anamorphic screen setting. Note that the masking has been lowered from the top and raised from the bottom. This is due to the fact that Flat images are taller than anamorphic images, so the wider format has to be masked off at the top and bottom.

The Royal Tenenbaums

The fixed width screen layout provides the opposite result of the fixed height layout: there is more useable screen for Flat 1.85:1 AR prints in fixed width, while anamorphic 2.35:1 AR prints do better with fixed height.

Since the majority of films are still shot in the Flat format, the fixed width would seem to be preferable. However, given that most theater companies are loathe to spend money replacing something that isn't broken, you shouldn't expect to see theaters retrofitting their screening rooms with fixed width screens anytime soon. Instead, look for this in more recently constructed theaters.

Projection Issues

Now that we've covered screen settings, let's move on to the projectors. I should mention that I intend to do a much more detailed column on projector technology in the near future, so I will only touch on the key items that impact the aspect ratio discussion. We'll begin with the simplest format.

35mm Anamorphic (a.k.a. Cinemascope) – 2.35:1 AR

As we discussed in Part 1, films shot in the anamorphic process have the original image 'squeezed' into the 1.33:1 AR space on a standard 35mm film print. To project the image in the theater, an anamorphic lens is placed on the projector, and the entire frame is projected. The result is shown below.

Amelie - Print

Amelie - Screen

I call this the 'simplest' format since there isn't any decision-making involved – just align the image correctly, and the system produces consistent results. Unlike…

35mm (a.k.a. 'Flat') – 1.85:1 AR

This is where things get complicated. As I briefly mentioned in Part 1, the Flat format involves taking a full frame of 35mm film and 'blowing up' the image. Now we'll cover this in greater detail.

If you were to take a full frame of 35mm film and set the projector lens to show the entire image on the screen, you'd be projecting the film like an Academy Standard (1.33:1 AR) print.

The Hudsucker Proxy - Frame

The Hudsucker Proxy - 1.33 Screen

However, if you expanded this image by 'blowing it up' (enlarging it) on the screen, you could produce a wider image. The problem with doing this is that the top and the bottom of the image would now overlap the screen, causing the image to 'bleed over' the screen matting. Obviously, this wouldn't look very good at all.

The Hudsucker Proxy - Screen Overlap

So: how do you get this wider image on the screen, but not show the excess image at the top and bottom? You block that portion of the image, so light doesn't pass through the print – only the 1.85:1 AR area gets illuminated. This is accomplished by inserting an 'aperture plate' into the projector.

The 'aperture plate' is a thick piece of metal that has material cut out of it in the middle. Wherever material is cut out, light will make it through the print to the projector's lens. Where the metal is left intact, the light will be blocked. As a result, the aperture plate serves to control how much of the image on the print actually appears on the screen. In this example, the aperture plate has blocked off the light that would normally pass through the print and spill off above and below the screen.

The Hudsucker Proxy - 1.85 Screen

By setting the lens correctly, it is possible to 'zoom' in and out to a near-infinite number of aspect ratios – provided that you make a matching aperture plate for each one (since the dimensions would change). However, in modern commercial theaters, only one Flat lens and aperture plate are used – both set for 1.85:1.

I should briefly mention 'matting', as it will come up in Part 3 (home video). Virtually all of the 35mm prints that are produced in Hollywood are 'soft matte' prints. This means that the full frame was exposed in the camera when the film was shot, and that the projectionist has full responsibility for blocking out the excess image on the screen (with the aperture plate). This leads to an important item – the framing adjustment control.

All commercial film projectors have a knob or lever that allows the projectionist to move the entire image up or down between the light source and the lens. This control allows the projectionist to fine-tune the image placement (framing) on screen. This is critical on anamorphic (2.35:1 AR) prints, as the entire film frame is in use, and a badly-adjusted image will cause the frame 'break' to appear on screen.

Moulin Rouge!

However, this control is of even greater importance on 'flat' format prints. This is due to the fact that the projectionist is in complete control over which part of the full frame image makes it through the aperture plate and onto the screen. Adjust it too far up, and actors appear to be walking in mid-air. Adjust it too far down, and the actors get their heads chopped off.

The Big Lebowski

Some directors are very concerned about this possibility and wish to control exactly what makes it onto the theater screen. So, when they shoot a film, the camera contains an aperture plate of its own. This plate prevents the image that will be cropped out in the theater from ever being exposed on the film in the first place. Prints of their films are released with the unexposed areas blacked-out. This is referred to as 'hard matting'. A print produced in this manner can't be adjusted to show extra material at the top or bottom – if not set properly, all you get is a solid black area on screen. Here is a mockup of a hard matted film print.

The Hudsucker Proxy

35mm – 1.66:1 (European format), 1.78:1 (16x9 format), and others

All of these formats work in the same way as Flat prints – the lens blows up the image, and the aperture plate cuts out the excess material at the top and bottom. However, because the dimensions are different for each, both the lenses and aperture plates have to be set specifically for each type.

This is important to understand, as it brings up an important item for moviegoers: if you are going to a traditional multiplex theater, you cannot expect them to have these alternate lenses and plates. They will almost always only have equipment set up for Flat and anamorphic 35mm prints. Why does this matter? Let me tell you a story.

Back in my undergrad days, I went with some friends to a multiplex theater that was showing Il Postino (a 1994 Italian film). At that time, I wasn't aware of the limitations of most commercial theaters. The print, like a fair number of other European films, was in a 1.66:1 AR format. The key issue is that 1.66:1 is 'taller' than 1.85:1 – this means that a standard 1.85:1 Flat setup will cut off parts of the image at the top and bottom that the director intended to show.

The reason this was such a problem is that the movie was subtitled, and the subtitles occupy the very lowest part of the 1.66:1 AR space. The projectionist, using their standard setup, had used the framing knob to move the image up – cutting off the subtitles. As I'm not fluent in Italian, this made the film rather difficult to understand. (Here's a mockup of what this would look like.)

The Hudsucker Proxy

After a few minutes, I realized that they were not using the 1.66:1 AR setup needed, and went to find a manager. After informing him that the subtitles were being cut off, he responded that yes, they were aware of it. He went on to explain that when the framing knob was turned down to show the subtitles, the tops of the actors' heads were cut off. So they reasoned we'd rather see all of the actors' heads than see any of the subtitles.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor, I convinced them to adjust the image down and we watched the rest of the film, finally understanding what was happening. But it taught me an important lesson – while it may be more convenient to go to the closest multiplex which might have picked up a print of a foreign film, I now try to find out the aspect ratio of the film. And if it isn't 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, I drive the extra distance to the specialty art house theater, which is usually equipped to show these prints as intended. (And, if I'm too lazy to do even that much research, I just go to the art house theater anyway.)

35mm Academy Standard – 1.33:1 AR

As the above story indicates, going to commercial theaters to see any film not in one of the current standard formats is a bad idea. I found this out in a different way when, one summer, I saw an ad in the paper. A theater about two hours away was advertising Citizen Kane (1941), "On the big screen -- as intended!" I hopped in the car and drove all the way there (I had never seen Kane in a theater before). So, naturally, I expected to see this:

Citizen Kane - 1.33 Screen

But, as you've probably guessed by now, they too were not equipped with the special lens setup needed to show a 1.33:1 AR print. So they just used their standard Flat setup instead. This is what greeted me when I sat down to watch this masterpiece of direction and cinematography:

Citizen Kane - 1.85 Screen

Needless to say, the drive back was accompanied by a large volume of curses directed at the theater chain. However, it didn't have to be that way – some clever folks have come up with a method of showing Academy Standard films in modern theaters. Here's how it works (I witnessed this first hand when Gone With The Wind was re-released a few years back).

You start with the original 1.33:1 AR image.

Singin' In The Rain - Orig. Frame

You then take the image and apply an anamorphic squeeze, and add black bars to the sides to fill out the frame width.

Singin' In The Rain - Anamorphic Frame

Play this modified print using standard anamorphic lenses, and you get…

Singin' In The Rain - 2.35 Screen

It's a shame that older films are now pretty much only re-released to promote a new or restored home video version. But at least it's now possible to make these films widely available in commercial theaters.

Well, that's it for Part 2. I do hope you'll come back for the finale, where we dive into the wild and occasionally wacky world of home video. See you soon.

Image Credits:
Dark City (1998): © New Line Productions
High Fidelity (2000): © Touchstone Pictures
Singin' In The Rain (1951): © MGM
Swingers (1996): © Independent Pictures
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001): © Touchstone Pctures
Amelie (2001): © Miramax
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994): © Warner Bros.
Moulin Rouge! (2001): © Bazmark Films
The Big Lebowski (1998): © Polygram
Citizen Kane (1941): © RKO Pictures



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