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.

Mike Todd

Mike Todd

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.

Ben Hur

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 Freddie 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 were used for special purposes

Where is 16x9?

So we’ve seen the original silent ratio of 1.33 or 4x3, 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 16x9 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. 16x9 was the geometic mean between 4x3 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 16x9 with letter boxes.

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And so, out of a compromise, the 16x9 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 4x3 image conceived in Thomas Edison’s lab to the widescreen explosion of the 1950s starting with Cinerama to the digital compromise of 16x9, 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.