A Few Words About Aspect Ratios

Moviegoers — even some cinephiles — probably don’t know as much as they should about aspect ratios. It took the dominance of DVD to educate mainstream consumers about the difference between “widescreen” and “pan-and-scan” formats, and many viewers don’t even care about the distinction as long as their TV’s screen is fully filled. (Making matters worse, new HDTVs have a different aspect ratio from conventional sets, meaning that movies that appear full-screen on one will likely be letterboxed on the other.) Here’s a crash course.


Prior to 1953, almost every silent movie was released at an aspect

ratio of 1.33:1, and almost every sound movie at a ratio of 1.37:1 (the

difference is related to the sudden need to start including an optical

soundtrack on the film strip). The figure denotes the ratio between

width and height of the image: the picture is about one and one-third

times as wide as it is high. 1.37:1 is commonly known as the “Academy

ratio” or the “Academy aperture,” and if you still have a

standard-definition television it very closely matches the shape of

your TV screen. Here’s a frame from a movie released at 1.37:1.

271x204_AR_third-man.jpg

Academy-ratio image [1.37:1]

There are a few widescreen experiments in the Academy-ratio era. The most famous is Abel Gance’s Napoleon,

in which certain scenes expand to a triptych format, with three images

projected side by side to create a picture that’s much wider than it is

high.

In 1953, Twentieth Century Fox released The Robe, the first film to be shot in Cinemascope, an anamorphic widescreen

process. It’s called “widescreen” because the picture is much wider

than it is high — 2.35 times as wide, in fact. That’s an aspect ratio

of 2.35:1. And it’s called “anamorphic” because the picture is

optically squeezed in the camera’s anamorphic lens to cram the wide

image onto a standard frame of 35mm film. Here’s what a frame of a

movie shot at 2.35:1 would look like in the camera or on a theatrical

release print.

271x204_AR_2-or-3.jpgAnamorphically “squeezed” image [1.33:1]

And

here’s what that same frame would look like after it was projected

through a special anamorphic projection lens and onto a wide screen.

480_AR_2-or-3.jpg

“unsqueezed” widescreen image [2.35:1]

Obviously,

there’s a problem when it comes time to put a film that was made at an

aspect ratio of 2.35:1 onto television screens. You can have this

271x204_AR_2-or-3_crop1.jpg

a cropped, TV-ready “pan-and-scan” version of the image [1.37:1]

or this.

271x204_AR_2-or-3_crop2.jpg

Another possible pan-and-scan option [1.37:1]

But not both, unless you resort to this.

271x204_AR_2-or-3_letterboxed.jpg

Correct-ASPECTRATIO image “letterboxed” inside an Academy-ratio frame [2.35:1 image/1.37:1 frame]

And thus letterboxing was born.

I love the look

of anamorphic widescreen films, whether they’re shot using the original

Cinemascope process or one of its many knock-offs (they include

Panavision, Techniscope, and many others, which are often referred to

generically as “spherical” or “scope” processes). But while the 2.35:1

ratio is great for a certain kind of moody storytelling, it’s too

extreme for some films. Scope lenses, for instance, demand a lot of

light. And they also introduce certain kinds of distortion in the

picture, including elaborate lens flares and the elongation of

out-of-focus objects, usually lights, seen beyond the plane of focus in

an image.

480_AR_alien-lens-flare.jpg

Horizontal lens flare introduced by anamorphic camera lens [2.35:1]

That

means anamorphic formats translate into a look that’s well suited to a

certain kind of storytelling, but one that not all filmmakers are fond

of. Director George Stevens famously declared that the somewhat

coffin-shaped scope image was suitable only for shooting snakes and

funerals. That’s part of the reason why a compromise format that split

the difference between Cinemascope and the old Academy aperture, with a

1.85:1 aspect ratio, came into being.

204_AR_exotica.jpg

“American widescreen” image [1.85:1]

The

1.85:1 format is sometimes referred to as “American widescreen” in part

to differentiate it from the slightly narrower 1.66:1 image generally

preferred by European filmmakers.

339_AR_double-life.jpg

“European widescreen” image [1.66:1]

What’s

attractive about these two formats is that they preserve a somewhat

wide aspect — back in the 1950s, remember, the idea was that the movies

had to do whatever they could to differentiate themselves from

television — while using “flat” lenses and Academy-ratio film stock

rather than the newer “spherical” lenses and an anamorphic squeeze. A

(roughly) 1.37:1 image is captured on film, but the director and

cinematographer compose for a 1.85:1 image area. This means that strips

of image at the top and bottom of the frame are masked during

projection — they won’t be seen on a 1.85:1 screen, and they’re not

meant to be seen by an audience.

The exception to the general

rule about that “extra material” not being seen by an audience is

television. Rather than cropping both sides of the 1.85:1 image to fit

it on your screen, it can be more attractive to pull back from the

image a little bit during the telecine — the process of transferring a

film print to video tape — and reveal a little bit of the extra image

on the top and bottom. This works best, of course, if the director and

cinematographer have managed to keep that “unseen” part of the frame

free of boom mics that can dip into the top of the picture, or of

camera tracks, cables, and the like that can stretch across the bottom.

One of the more famous examples of a “full-screen” transfer that

reveals more than it should is the original video release of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.

Per IMDb’s “goofs” section, “When Pee Wee removes his bike chain from

its container, the chain is clearly seen begin fed through a hole in

the bottom,” and “When Pee Wee is driving Mickey’s car past the road

warning signs, the

signs are clearly seen attached to carts on rollers coming towards the

camera.” My favorite example is the 16mm print of Body Heat

I saw in film school, which was transferred in a straight “full-screen”

version that revealed the entire image exposed on the camera negative,

including substantial portions of William Hurt’s and Kathleen Turner’s

anatomies that were not meant to be in frame. Of course, these are not

“goofs” made by the filmmakers, but by projectionists and other

technicians who don’t respect aspect ratio. Some 16mm prints are matted

across the top and bottom to preserve the proper widescreen aspect

ratio, and 2.35:1 movies can be squeezed anamorphically for 16mm just

the same as for 35mm.

There are a few more varieties of aspect

ratio, if you can believe it. Since the late 1980s, the “Super 35”

format has come into favor, which exposes the entire area of the camera

negative (plus a little bit of extra width that’s gained by ditching

the optical soundtrack that normally runs down one side of the image)

with the intention of cropping the image to a 2.35:1 frame for

theatrical exhibition, and to a 1.33:1 frame — which can actually look

dramatically different since there is so much extra exposed film — for

television. To save money on film stock, some filmmakers these days are

shooting “3-perf,” which more closely approximates the aspect ratio of

theatrical exhibition by exposing the image in between just three

perforations of the celluloid stock, rather than four, but somewhat

reduces the options for reformatting the image in telecine (less

important in these days of widescreen DVDs). There’s an image

illustrating what all of these different image areas look like at the Super 35 entry on Wikipedia. If you’re still having trouble envisioning what it looks like in practice, check out the image close to the bottom of this page for an example taken from Terminator 2.

But

wait — there are a few more oddball formats. Super Panavision 70 is the

basic flat/spherical format for 65mm film acquisition and 70mm

projection, and it has an aspect ratio of 2.2:1. Ultra Panavision 70

was the anamorphic version, and it yielded an especially snake- and

funeral-ready 2.76:1 aspect ratio! Cinerama, which relied on three

separate projectors to create one super-wide image, ran at about 2.6:1,

depending on the theater where you saw it. (Sadly, 65mm/70mm is dead as

both an acquisition and exhibition format, though IMAX — essentially

65mm/70mm film running sideways, yielding a huge frame with an aspect

ratio of 1.43:1 — is picking up some of that slack.) There are even

more widescreen aspect ratios, but you get the idea.

Of course,

when the high-definition television standard was adopted, the

widescreen aspect ratio chosen was 16×9, or 1.76:1 — which corresponded

to no commonly used motion-picture aspect ratio at all! Go figure.

Here’s what your Academy-ratio movie looks like “pillarboxed” on a 16×9

HDTV.

271x204_AR_third-man-pillarboxed.jpg

Academy aperture “pillarboxed” for HDTV [1.37:1 image/1.76:1 frame]

And here’s what a Super 35 movies, letterboxed to 2.35:1, looks like.

204_AR_heavenly-creatures-boxed.jpg

Widescreen image letterboxed for HDTV [2.35:1 image/1.76:1 frame]

Both

1.85:1 and 1.66:1 look OK on widescreen TVs — the black letterbox

mattes amount to little more than a sliver on the edges of the frame.

Once

you understand the concept behind differing aspect ratios, and get used

to identifying them when you go to the movies or sit down with a new

DVD, it becomes easier and easier to tell the difference between movies

shot flat and anamorphic, and also to suss out when the aspect ratio of

something you might be thinking about watching on TV is incorrect. It’s

one thing to watch a TV version of old Woody Allen movies that were

generally transferred to video in their “full-frame” versions, meaning

you actually see a little more at the top and bottom of the frame than

you would in a theater, while losing relatively little off the sides.

The telecine operator may have to zoom in a bit on certain shots to

keep boom mics out of the frame. (The big exception to that is Manhattan,

which was shot in 2.35:1 Panavision, and which Allen only allowed to be

transferred to video in the letterboxed format.) But it’s quite another

to watch a Sergio Leone movie on TV, since Leone was one of the most

aggressive of widescreen filmmakers — the three-way showdown at the end

of The Good, the Bad & the Ugly is completely ruined in any

pan-and-scan version. (And with an anamorphic title, there is no wiggle

room to “zoom out” and get a little more width in the image — you have

to letterbox it.) John Sayles once cracked that, “When you pan and scan

a film like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, it becomes The Good, the Bad and the Ugly Guy’s Nose.”

480_AR_good-bad-ugly.jpg

extreme widescreen framing [2.35:1]

It’s

a complicated subject, but I hope this explanation, and the links I

provided to further discussion, make some sense. One thing’s for sure —

there are exceptions to every rule, and the ASPECTRATIO rules have

plenty. The great cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, for instance,

resisted dramatic letterboxing, insisting that Apocalypse Now be transferred to DVD at 2:1,

rather than the correct 2.35:1. (The movie doesn’t look quite right at

that ratio, but what can you do? Arguing with Storaro in a telecine bay

seems like a really good way to ensure that you won’t work in a given

town again.) In fact, Storaro was for a time arguing to standardize film aspect ratios at 2:1 — a quixotic notion, to be sure, but not one without clear appeal. And some movies have multiple aspect ratios — Brainstorm and Galaxy Quest come immediately to mind, and it looks like Disney’s upcoming animation hybrid Enchanted may

also switch from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1 for the live-action sequences that

seem to dominate the film. (Also, strictly speaking, 2.35:1 is no

longer a correct aspect ratio for exhibition. In order to make sure

that frame splices are hidden from view, the specification for

projection is now 2.39:1. For more details on such minutiae, including

the difference between 1.19:1, 1.33:1, and 1.37:1, check out the Wikipedia entry on aspect ratios. Consider all of my numbers approximate!)

204_AR_apocalypse.jpg

Vittorio Storaro’s preferred framing on video [2.0:1]

Anyway, if you have questions, please leave them in the comments. I’ll try to answer them, admit I can’t answer

them, or incorporate them into future revisions of this posting. And if

I got something wrong, please leave a comment, or send me an email and

let me know if you want credit for correcting my error.

In a Similar Vein (related by tags)

  • Johnathan Rodriguez

    I have a 16:9 widescreen tv and was wondering what the best aspect ratio would be to replicate the “movie theater look”?

  • Bryant Frazer

    As far as what the setting is called on your TV (or your remote control), that varies by manufacturer. If you’re watching DVDs, go into your DVD player’s settings and make sure it knows that you have a 16×9 TV. It should format your titles correctly for viewing.

    Some older DVDs are not correctly formatted for 16×9 viewing, and will appear with black bars on all sides, instead of just on the top and bottom. Using your TV’s “zoom” function, if it has one, may make those discs easier to watch by enlarging them to fill more of the screen. Unfortunately, the enlargement will also accentuate flaws in the picture.

    For movies, you want to avoid anything that stretches or crops the picture. Some modes are actually called “stretch,” which accurately describes what will seem to happen to the people in the film. Pre-1953 movies are 1.33:1 as a rule, and will display on your screen with black bars on the sides of the picture. This is normal. Some people like to zoom in on the picture, or stretch it horizontally to fill the screen, but this is definitely not the “movie theater look.” Non-HD television shows will also display in 1.33:1, with bars on both sides.

    Post-1953 movies are generally either 1.85:1, and will have very small bars at the top and bottom of your screen, or 2.40:1, and will have sizable bars at the top and bottom of the screen. Again, this is normal — in fact, it’s required to preserve the correct formatting of the image.

    Let me know if you have specific questions about your TV’s settings — again, most manufacturers have different names for features that crop or distort the image.

  • santosh

    I hate the HBO and star movies show the wide screen movie on 4:3 ratio. The quality of picture drastically falls in 4:3 or tv format. Its like watching normal television series despite being cinemascope movie. In 4:3 ratio or tv format more than 25% of image is croped or destroyed. Then what is the difference between cinemascope movie and normal tv series. I really hate the HBO and Star movies for not showing the exact picture format.