Aspect Ratio is a fundamentally simple concept with a deep and important history.
Simply put, the aspect ratio is the ratio of the width of the image to the height. This can be expressed as two numbers like 4×3 or 16×9 or as a decimal such as 1.85 and 2.35 – though these can be written as a ratio as in 2.35:1.
But how did it all begin? Let’s turn the dial of history and look back at the very first aspect ratio of the very first motion pictures.
The First Films
We owe the first aspect ratio to one man: William Kennedy Dickson. Dickson worked at Thomas Edison’s Lab as a staff photographer. After Eastman Kodak began mass producing flexible film in the early 1890s, Thomas Edison wanted to put this new film to use in a device called a Kinetescope – the precursor to the projected film. After a few years of start and stop experimentation, they finally arrived at a working prototype.
Using 35mm film Dickson settled on an image that was 4 perforations high – resulting in an image that was .95” by .735” – a 4:3 aspect ratio – or 1.33
We really don’t know why William Dickson settled on 4 by 3 but it stuck. In 1909 the Motion Picture Patent Company (a trust of major American film companies who were all practically under the thumb of Thomas Edison himself) declared that 35mm film with Edison perforations, and 4×3 aspect ratio with an image 4 perforations high as the standard for all films that were to made and shown in the US. This settled it – making film and projection ubiquitous across the United States.
And for a whole generation, everything stayed pretty much the same. When synchronized sound came in the scene in 1929 and optically printed on the film itself as a strip that ran along side of the image, there was a slight shift in the aspect ratio.
In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted on and declared that in order to make room for the sound track, the image should be masked off on the top and bottom for a 1.37 aspect ratio (so close to 1.33 that it’s sometimes used interchangeably). This image size would be called the Academy Ratio and it remained the standard in Hollywood for yet another generation of movie goers.
The Widescreen Wars
The 1950s was a tumultuous time for film, the industry was forced to restructure and decade saw the rise of Film’s little brother – Television. Since everybody alive at that time had been going to theaters and watching films in 4×3 aspect ratio- it was only natural that television would carry over that same screen shape. Like a new sibling in the Entertainment family, TV was getting all the attention and that reflected in smaller movie going audiences.
How could film get butts back into sets? By offering something they couldn’t get at home.
On September 30, 1952, a film premiered that sparked off a decade long war for widescreen film formats and the result would be a new cinema aesthetic.
Brain child of Fred Waller, who pioneered a multicamera / multiprojector system for a combat training simulator for World War 2 Bomber Gunners – Cinerama used three 35mm cameras shooting 27mm lenses and exposing 35mm film at 6 perforations high. This process captured a 147 degree field of view for an aspect ratio of 2.59.
Projected on a deeply curved screen using three projectors and boasting a 7 track surround sound system – This is Cinerama, was a huge hit – running for two years at the Warner Theater in New York City.
As you might be able to imagine – there were a lot of problems with shooting and projecting three cameras at the same time for the Cinerama process. One of them being – you had one and only one focal length – and it was wide. So wide that you had to position people differently to keep their eye lines correct.
Though hugely popular as an event film format, they made tons of money holding road shows from city to city featuring travelogue films, it would take 10 years, until 1962 when Cinerama would be used in a dramatic film – only two to be precise. The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm and the epic film “How the West was Won”
The problem with Cinerama was it was expensive to shoot and expensive for theaters to project. But the widescreen experience was too popular to ignore. Eight months after Cinerama hit the screen in April of 1953, Paramount released the first “flat” widescreen studio film. The film was “Shane” – originally shot in Academy ratio – but Paramount lopped off the top and bottom of the image to create a 1.66 aspect ratio. The result wasn’t really that much different – perhaps more groundbreaking was the fact that it was projected on a much bigger screen, a newly installed 50 footer at Radio City Music hall replacing the old 30 foot screen. The film also featured a three channel stereophonic sound track.
Masking off portion of the frame to create wider images wasn’t an ideal process and Paramount knew that. With larger screens, this technique enlarged the film grain – reducing the quality of the image. New processes would have to come along.
After seeing the impact of Cinerama, executives at 20th Century Fox rushed over to France to meet with Professor Henri Chrétien, the inventor of a technique called “Anamorphoscope” which he had invented in the 1920s. Anamorphoscope used a specialized lens that would distort an image in only one direction – in other words squished it.
Using a 2 to 1 anamorphic lens, this process which Fox called Cinemascope, delivered a 2.35 aspect ratio using traditional 4 perf 35mm film, that is once you make allotments for the numerous tracks of sound. CinemaScope first saw use in the 1953 film: “The Robe” which went on to become a massive hit.
CinemaScope was a winner. The anamorphic lens, which had some technical issues, was much easier to shoot with than Cinerama and it didn’t require nearly the capital investment on the theater’s part to project. All the major studios switched over to CinemaScope, all but one, the studio started the race to widescreen – Paramount.
Although better than masking, CinemaScope didn’t solve the grain problem – at least not to Paramount’s satisfaction. So Paramount developed their own system – “VistaVision”.
VistaVision took traditional 35mm film and turned it on its side – literally – recording images that were 8 perforations wide for an aspect ratio of 1.85. The release prints would be then print back in the regular orientation – with much smaller visible grain.
VisaVision’s first film was “White Chrismas” in 1954 and it would go on to be used on many films including the epic “The Ten Commandments”.
But perhaps most notable is it’s association with Alfred Hitchcock – who shot many of his films in VistaVision including “To Catch a Theif” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest”
Other widescreen formats popped in the 50s: Superscope, Technirama, Cinemiracle, Vistarama just to name a few… But there is only so much you can do with 35mm film. Film engineers had to go bigger.
Todd AO – developed by a former Cinerama associate and Broadway Producer Mike Todd along with American Optical company was a 70mm film format that sought to do what Cinerama did but with only one camera and one projector.
Using an aspect ratio of about 2.20, Todd AO was first used on the film version of Roger and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma in 1955 (which was shot concurrently in Cinemascope) followed up by Around the World in 80 days – both major hits. Todd AO would dip back into the Roger and Hammerstein repertoire with South Pacific and Sound of Music.
And with the addition of D-150 lenses, shaped the look of Patton in 1970.
In 1954, in the midst of this rush to widescreen, a small company named Panavision started manufacturing anamorphic lenses for cameras and for projectionists to fill the shortage of lenses. Originally only working with Cinemascope, they soon became an industry leader solving many of the technical problems that plagued early Cinemascope. And by the late 50s, Panavision began to replace cinemascope itself. Using their success, they started developing and acquiring new camera systems and formats.
This including the MGM 65 which used 70mm film to capture the Ben Hur chariot race scene in an super wide aspect ratio of 2.76.
The MGM 65 became Panavision’s Super Panavision 70, similar to the MGM 65 except it used regular spherical lenses (not anamorphic) to create an image with an aspect ratio of 2.20. This system would be used for Lawrence of Arabia which would win the Oscar for Cinematographer Frederick Young for 1962.
But 70mm film was expensive. Chemical processes in regular 35mm was catching up, reducing the grain issues so 70mm Film and the its cousin IMAX which came about in the 70s where used for special purposes.
Where is 16×9?
So we’ve seen the original silent ratio of 1.33 or 4×3, Academy ratio of 1.37, Cinerama with 2.59, Cinescope with 2.35, VistaVision with 1.85, Todd AO with 2.20 and even Ben Hur and MGM 65 with 2.76.
Where did 16×9 or 1.77 come in?
For that answer we have to turn back to Film’s little brother Television. In the late 1980s, when the plans where being drawn up for the HDTV standard, Kerns H. Powers, a SMPTE engineer suggested this new aspect ratio as a compromise. 16×9 was the geometic mean between 4×3 and the 2.35 the two most common extremes in terms of aspect ratio. This means that a images of either aspect ratio would have relatively the same screen area when properly formatted in 16×9 with letter boxes.
And so, out of a compromise, the 16×9 aspect ratio was born and it would become the default widescreen aspect ratio for all video products from DVDs to the new UltraHD “4K”
From William Dickson’s original 4×3 image conceived in Thomas Edison’s lab to the widescreen explosion of the 1950s starting with Cinerama to the digital compromise of 16×9, it’s fascinating how aspect ratios have shifted and practically defined our memories of these films. It’s only a shape – a canvas on which you draw your story. But the canvas does matter… How you draw it, makes all the difference – so use it to make something great.