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Empire Film Studies 101

From 2.39 to Pan and Scan, Empire can explain all

A point of pride for many film buffs is a knowledge and love of aspect ratios. You can often hear their excited gasps of delight in any cinema showing the new, pristinely presented Wes Anderson, or see them stomp off to see the management if the local multiplex isn’t projecting a Coen Brothers film in quite the correct ratio. Yet with all the various incarnations of image sizes over the years, it’s easy to get lost or confused. Never fear – if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between Academy Ratio and CinemaScope, or why the hell your TV is shaped the way it is, Empire can make it all crystal clear…


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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The essential idea behind aspect ratios is pretty simple. You’ll usually see them referred to as two numbers, separated by a colon. For instance, 4:3. Or 1.33:1. In each of these cases, the first number refers to the width of the screen, and the second to the height. So for every 4 inches (or centimeters, if you’re feeling continental) in width, there will be 3 in height.

If your mental arithmetic is particularly quick, you’ll have noticed that 4:3 is the same as 1.33:1. It’s pretty much a stylistic quirk whether you’d rather express the ratio in whole numbers (4:3) or always have the second number as a 1 (1.33:1). The latter is probably more common nowadays, and as such, you’ll often see a number with no colon. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, for instance, has an aspect ratio of 2.35. That just means the writer is lazy, and can’t be arsed to type “:1” afterwards.


Over a century ago, the very first films were projected in the ratio mentioned above: 4:3. On your standard perforated film strip, this meant the image was four perforations high. With the advent of sound (which was soon incorporated on the same film strip, rather than on a separate gramophone record), this shifted slightly to incorporate the audio information. Thus film’s original dimensions (1.33:1) were changed slightly to 1.37:1. This was the ratio officially approved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (i.e. the Oscar people) in 1932, and so became known as the Academy Ratio.

This ratio ruled in Hollywood for the next twenty years. Its most famous incarnation is undoubtedly Citizen Kane, with Welles’ extraordinary visual experimentation and pioneering techniques all captured in the Academy Ratio.

If you go fullscreen, you'll notice the black bars, or pillarboxes, at the sides of that clip. They’re important…


In the 1950s, TV became ever more popular, and film studios got nervous. Some predicted the death of cinema, and it seemed like something had to be done to drag punters back towards the silver screen. Enter (through a very accommodating doorway) widescreen.

Insecure Hollywood types soon got nervous and started measuring themselves against one another.

In 1952, Cinerama was unveiled, boasting a hitherto unheard of 2.59:1 aspect ratio. Well, “unheard of” isn’t quite true: in 1927, a system called Polyvision was developed, boasting the absurdly wide aspect ratio of 4:1. It necessitated three 1.33 films being projected side by side, and was devised exclusively for the epic final reel of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. Unfortunately, you could clearly see the divides between each of the three projected images, so it was far from a seamless image. The whole thing was ridiculous, and didn’t take off.

However, Cinerama managed the technique rather better. Similar to Polyvision, it used three cameras and three projectors to achieve a wide image, but it was a lot smoother. In addition, it was projected onto a curved screen, thereby enhancing the immersiveness of its 2.59:1 ratio.

While the technique of a multi-camera/multi-projector set-up wasn’t that cheap or practical (particularly given you could only have one focal length), the allure of widescreen proved too strong to ignore. As such, since Cinerama, moviegoers were inundated with various widescreen offerings.

CinemaScope managed 2.35:1 (so slightly less wide than Cinerama), and did so with just one camera and projector, using an anamorphic lens. In order to achieve this, the camera must use an anamorphic lens to shoot the action. This basically results in the image on the 35mm film strip being distorted, but also being higher quality, as it has no wasted surface area on the film strip. The projector must then have a complementary anamorphic lens when the film is screened, thereby returning it to a non-distorted, lovely widescreen version.

As you’d expect with these insecure Hollywood types, they soon got nervous and started measuring themselves against one another. MGM had such small-man syndrome that it launched MGM 65, which boasted an extraordinary aspect ratio of 2.76:1 on 70mm film – twice as large as the standard 35mm film we’re used to. This was most famously used in Ben-Hur in 1959.

Ben Hur

Next page: How Hollywood got flexible...

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Your Comments

1 In a different problem arising from Joss Whedon shooting Buffy "full frame"...
(presumably 4:3); in widescreen versions of the show things like camera equipment and actors waiting to walk onto the frame can be seen at the edges of the screen. A fuller explanation is available here: .html More

Posted by partybee on Friday July 11, 2014, 12:17

2 Blue
I remember when Derek Jarman's Blue was shown on Channel 4. In Widescreen. What was the point of that? It's not like you see more blue - in fact you get less blue, because you had all the black bars. Kind of missed the point of the movie I think... More

Posted by zenithbootleg on Friday May 9, 2014, 18:52

3 Altered Images
Interesting article. Readers of a certain age might remember the BBC's first disastrous televising of '2001: A Space Odyssey' in the early eighties. They panned and scanned most of the movie, but showed the special effects sequences in widescreen. But then some silly sod decided that the black bars at the top and bottom of the (4:3 TV) frame would upset granny and had makeshift 'stars' added, looking like paint splats. I have a Betamax recording of it somewhere. On the subject of dead formats, I'd like to wave a flag for LaserDiscs, which was the first home cinema format to pioneer quality widescreen film transfers well before DVD or Blu-Ray were an itch in their inventors' pants. The death of pan-and-scan is largely thanks to LaserDisc. I would take issue with your assertion that Polyvision (as used in Abel Gance's 1927 six-hour silent epic Napoleon) was "ridiculous" - unless you are referring to the practical challenges of filming and projecting movies in this waMore

Posted by phil billinge on Thursday May 8, 2014, 10:56

4 If only cinemas were wider...
I always loved that moment at the start of the main feature when the matts at the sides of the screen would retract for the full widescreen experience. You knew that you were moving on from the Kiaora ad to the main event. In my nearest multiplex the full size screen is something like 16x9. So now you have the pathetic sight of matts reducing the screen size top and bottom to present 2.35:1 movies. More

Posted by AndyGravidy on Wednesday May 7, 2014, 11:23

5 Great piece Empire
Great piece. I noticed that some blu-ray players seem to force the correct aspect ratio on viewers without having to fiddle with the remote. Some DVDs require a delicate balance between TV settings and DVD player settings to produce the correct aspect ratio... and yes, I hate peeople who zoom in on the image because they think they are wasting the potential of their widescreen tv! More

Posted by claudemg on Tuesday May 6, 2014, 16:37

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