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Widescreen-o-Rama - All About Aspect Ratios (And Why Widescreen Really Is Better)

July 26, 2012 - 1:51 pm   |   By 

I'm sure by now, most of you know that when you go to see a movie in a theater, the screen you watch movies on is shaped differently than your TV screen at home. Properly shown movies appear to be much wider-looking than television programs do. There's a reason for that, and it's all about something called aspect ratios.

So just what exactly are aspect ratios, and how did they come to be? Well sit right back, and I'll tell you the whole story...

The Way Movies Looked Before the 1950s

Academy Standard (1.33:1)Way back at the beginning of motion picture history, movies all looked roughly the same shape when projected in a theater. The relationship between the width of a film image and its height is known as its aspect ratio, and from the early days of film (starting in the late-1890s) until the early-1950s, almost all films had a standard aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (technically, it was actually 1.37:1, but 1.33:1 is the recognized standard). In other words, the film image was 1.33 times as wide as it was tall (another way to denote this is 4x3, meaning 4 units of width for every 3 of height).

This eventually became known as Academy Standard (when it was recognized formally by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the 1930s). Almost every classic film you can think of from this period of time appeared in this ratio. The examples you see below are actual screen shots (taken from DVD) of 4 films in their original Academy Standard aspect ratio.

Universal's Dracula (1931)
Universal's Dracula (1931)
MGM's Gone With the Wind (1939)
MGM's Gone With the Wind (1939)
Warner's The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Warner's The Wizard of Oz (1939)
Republic's It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
Republic's It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

When it comes to transferring to home video films shot in the Academy Standard aspect ratio, there's no problem at all. Why? Well, you may have noticed that Academy Standard is shaped an awful lot like your current TV set. That's because when it came time for the television industry to decide what shape TV would take (in the early 1950s), the National Television Standards Committee (NTSC) selected Academy Standard as the official aspect ratio for TV broadcasting here in the United States (the current TV standard here in the U.S. is also called NTSC, after the organization that set the standard). You'll remember that we mentioned "4x3" a few minutes ago - that's how many people in the industry refer to current TVs.

But once TV began capturing the imagination of American consumers, the Hollywood film industry was faced with a problem: so many people were buying TVs and staying at home to watch them, that theater attendance began to decline dramatically. So the studios began making some changes to the look of their movies.

The Way Movies Looked After the 1950s... and Still Do Today

What Hollywood began to do, was to experiment with making films in three-dimension (3D) and widescreen aspect ratios. Some of you may remember 3D films, which required that you wear a pair of rather silly looking stereoscopic glasses (one of the plastic filters the glasses used for "lenses" was blue and one was red). Experiments with both 3D and widescreen in films had been occurring since the early 1920s, but it was the 50s that they really took off. Sadly (and thankfully!), 3D was nothing more than a passing fad, but widescreen was here to stay. In 1953, 20th Century Fox introduced the world to the CinemaScope, which was used by many studios between 1953 and 1967 (it eventually gave way to Panavision, which is the most used widescreen process today). In 1953, there were some 5 films released in a widescreen aspect ratio. By the following year, there were nearly 40. And by 1955, the number had exploded to more than 100. Today, widescreen dominates American filmmaking in a variety of aspect ratios. But there are two "standardized" ratios that are by far the most common: Academy Flat (1.85:1) and Anamorphic Scope (2.35:1). Other less used ratios include 1.66:1 and 2.20:1 (70mm), but we'll stick to 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 for the purposes of our discussion.

Academy Flat (1.85:1)Anamorphic Scope (2.35:1)

In the case of Academy Flat, the film is 1.85 times as wide as it is tall (it's often referred to today as simply "Flat"). Anamorphic Scope is even wider, 2.35 times as wide as it is tall (it's usually called "Scope"). Some familiar films shot in the Flat aspect ratio include The English Patient, All the President's Men and The Birds. Scope films include Star Wars, Apocalypse Now and Blade Runner. Note the examples below.

Miramax's The English Patient (1996)
Miramax's The English Patient (1996) in Academy Flat (1.85:1)
Fox's The Thin Red Line (1998)
Fox's The Thin Red Line (1998) in Anamorphic Scope (2.35:1)

There can be no doubt that widescreen films convey much more dynamic imagery, with the wider aspect ratio working to enhance the dramatic impact of the film upon the viewer. But when it comes time to transfer such films to home video, there's a problem with those wider aspect ratios - they're too wide to fill the TV screen vertically if you're seeing the whole image horizontally. As you've learned if you've been reading our Ultimate Guide to Anamorphic Widescreen DVD, there have been two primary ways to deal with this problem: pan & scan and letterbox transfers. The pan & scan process has the video camera scanning back and forth during the transfer to keep the most important action centered on your TV screen (on DVD packaging, this is rarely referred to as pan & scan. More often you see the words "full frame", which often - but not always - indicates a pan & scan transfer. Basically, it means that the film has been "modified" in some way to fit you TV screen completely). The problem with this, is that you may lose as much as 50% of the original film image and the widescreen-oriented composition is lost completely. Most serious film enthusiasts prefer the letterbox format, in which the ENTIRE film image is presented, and black bars fill the unused screen area at the top and bottom of the frame (see examples below).

Miramax's Good Will Hunting (1997)Miramax's Rushmore (1998)
Examples of the letterbox presentation of a 1.85:1 film (Good Will Hunting - left) and a
2.35:1 film (Rushmore - right) on a Standard 4x3 TV. Both films are from Miramax.

While some vertical picture resolution is sacrificed, the director's original widescreen composition is preserved - you're seeing the WHOLE film, as you were meant to. Why would you want to see the film in any other way?

But as we all know, there are still some folks who prefer the picture to fill their TV screen completely. You know the ones - the folks who see letterboxed video and say, "Why are those black bars there? Something must be wrong with the TV." Personally, I maintain that if these people really knew what they were missing by watching a "full frame" version of a widescreen film, they would change their minds in a hurry. I've converted lots of people to letterbox, simply by showing them the difference between the full frame and widescreen versions on a DVD that includes both formats.

Let's take a look at some comparisons between full frame and widescreen film presentation. As you'll soon see, being able to see the whole widescreen image makes a HUGE difference. There's just no comparison.

Widescreen vs. Full Frame (2.35:1 Ratio Films)

Let's take a look at some comparisons between widescreen and full frame presentation of Scope films (aspect ratio 2.35:1). Since this ratio is the wider of the two common ratios in use today, it only stands to reason that you'll be missing out on the most picture area when watching a full frame version. All of the examples shown on this page are freeze frames of actual DVD video, taken from discs which include both full frame and widescreen versions. The widescreen version will always be on the left.

Warner's Blade Runner (widescreen)Warner's Blade Runner (full frame)

Above is an example of a shot taken from Warner's Blade Runner. Deckard (played by Harrison Ford - center) is talking with Rachel (Sean Young). Note director Ridley Scott's striking composition and the imagery in the background on the widescreen version. But in the full frame version, we lose much of the visual impact of the background and fully half of the conversation.

Buena Vista's The Black Hole (widescreen)Buena Vista's The Black Hole (full frame)

Here's another example from Buena Vista's The Black Hole . The whole point of this shot is to show off the vast scale of the setting, in this case, the bridge of the spaceship Cygnus. The set is sweeping and alive with color, but look how much of it you miss in the full frame version.

MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (widescreen)MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (full frame)

No one used the widescreen ratio more dynamically than director Sergio Leone, as seen in the widescreen version of MGM's A Fistful of Dollars (above left). Clint Eastwood's legendary "Man with No Name" has just arrived in town, only to be challenged by a group of outlaws. Notice how Leone spreads his action across the entire frame to enhance the tension and the visual impact of the scene. But in the full frame version, we're missing one of the bandits completely and the action is crowded into the frame, resulting in a much less dramatic image.

Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (full frame)

Above is an example of how full frame actually changes the editing in Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men . Kaffee and Weinberg (Tom Cruise and Kevin Pollak - on the left in the widescreen image) are talking with Barnes and Galloway (Noah Wyle and Demi Moore) during a jeep ride in Cuba. They're all there in the widescreen version, but in they don't all fit into the full frame, so the film has actually been re-edited. In the full frame version, the film cuts back and forth from one side of the screen to the other to show the whole conversation.

Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's A Few Good Men (full frame)

Here's another example from A Few Good Men . In this scene, Kaffee (center) is pressing his case against Colonel Jessep (Jack Nicholson - right). The widescreen image provides a fine example of how a film technique called "deep space" has been used to increase the dramatic tension in the scene. Notice that Kaffee (in the midground) is locked in a staring match with Jessep (foreground). Meanwhile, Ross (played by Kevin Bacon - background left) is objecting to Kaffee's argument. But in the full frame version, we lose Jessep completely, along with much of the tension.

Universal's October Sky (widescreen)Universal's October Sky (full frame)

And here's Universal's October Sky  (above). The "rocket boys" are watching the launch of their latest homemade rocket, but we don't even see them at all in the full frame version.

Widescreen vs. Full Frame (1.85:1 Ratio Films)

Scope (2.35:1) films aren't the only ones to suffer from full frame presentation. Here are some examples of films in Academy Flat (1.85:1) aspect ratio, in both widescreen and full frame versions. While the problem isn't quite as severe here as it can be with wider aspect ratios, the result is just as bad in most cases. Once again, all images are actual DVD snapshots (widescreen is on the left).

Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets (full frame)

Here's Carol (Helen Hunt) and Melvin (Jack Nicholson) in Columbia TriStar's As Good As It Gets. Since Carol's doing the talking in this shot, the camera angle naturally favors her. But at this angle, we almost completely lose Melvin from the shot in the full frame version.

Columbia TriStar's Jason and the Argonauts (widescreen)Columbia TriStar's Jason and the Argonauts (full frame)

And here's another Columbia TriStar title - Jason and the Argonauts. A giant metal statue has come to life to threaten Jason and his crew (cowering on the right), as we can plainly see in the widescreen version. But in the full frame version, we lose the crew completely. Once again, the dramatic tension is completely undermined.

Other Options

These are just a few of the examples we could have shown you - there are literally thousands. Now that you've seen what a difference there is between widescreen and full frame presentation, we should note that there are a couple of techniques that can be used to get around the problem of bringing widescreen films to home video. The first is a film/camera lens format that some directors use (including James Cameron), called Super 35.

Columbia TriStar's Air Force One (widescreen) Columbia TriStar's Air Force One (full frame)

Above are the widescreen and full frame versions of Columbia TriStar's Air Force One, starring Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman. Here, director Wolfgang Peterson has shot the film in Super 35. The film was presented in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in theaters (left), but we WEREN'T seeing the whole filmed image - just a portion of it. When it was time to transfer this film to home video, Peterson simply let us see more of the frame as filmed (on the right). I've added the white box outline on the full frame image to show you exactly what portion of the picture was seen theatrically in widescreen. This can be an effective technique, which has been used on such films as Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Titanic and The Abyss. But it also confuses many, and leads to some controversy. For example, director James Cameron has gone on record as saying that he actually prefers the full frame versions of several of his movies (much to the consternation of widescreen fans).

There is one other very new process that can be used to create more effective full frame presentations for home video, but it only applies to films that are generated entirely by computer (like Disney and Pixar's recent A Bug's Life). But we'll mention it here, because it will probably become more common as more computer animated films are released in the future. The process involves re-composing and re-rendering the image for both widescreen and full frame formats.

Disney and Pixar's A Bug's Life (widescreen) Disney and Pixar's A Bug's Life (full frame)

In this example from A Bug's Life, we can see the differences in the composition of the frame in the original theatrical widescreen presentation (on the left) and the re-composed full frame (on the right). For the full frame version, Pixar's animators have actually re-positioned characters within the frame. I've added arrows to the full frame image, so that you can see how the ant on the right has been moved to the left, and the entire leaf both ants are standing on has been moved slightly to the right. The result is an effective image, regardless of which version you're watching. But once again, this is very rare (this is the only film to have been so modified as of the time of this publication).

So who's job is it to educate the public about the benefits of widescreen presentation on home video? Well, we think the studios should make greater efforts to do so (below is an example of a note that MGM includes in the booklets of many their widescreen DVDs - this one from Stigmata). We also think that major retailers and "rentailers" like Best Buy and Blockbuster should post signs on the subject to help educate their customers.

MGM's widescreen notice, included in DVD their booklets.

In any case, I hope by now you can see the difference between widescreen and full frame... and that widescreen is almost ALWAYS preferable. But once again, widescreen presentation on home video has always meant letterboxing, which some people find objectionable. Thankfully, DVD's anamorphic widescreen feature provides a nifty solution to this problem on new widescreen TVs. So let's jump back to our Anamorphic Guide to find out more about it...

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The Twin Peaks Blu-ray set is one of the most beautifully packaged home video sets I have ever seen.

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