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.
IN THE BEGINNING...
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.
Next page: How Hollywood got flexible...