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July 2005, Week 2


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Leo Enticknap <[log in to unmask]>
Sat, 9 Jul 2005 15:02:19 +0100
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
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Scott Hutchins writes:

>I've had a question on an online board about the 1.17:1 aspect ratio.  My 
>intro text shows _The Public Enemy_ as an example.  IMDb lists only 11 
>titles in this format, and 8 of these are video games.  Surely the format 
>was used for many films not listed for it.  Surely more films were made in 
>this format than _The Public Enemy_, _Submarine_, and _The Song of the 

This was a transitional ratio which was in use for 4-5 years around the 
time of the conversion to sound, although in most cases it is nearer to 
1:1.15 and is usually expressed as such.

When De Forest Phonofilms and Fox first started using sound-on-film 
systems, the picture was shot using a conventional studio camera (usually a 
heavily blimped Bell & Howell 2709) with a full-frame aperture - i.e. the 
frame exposed covered the entire width between the perforations.  The sound 
record was exposed on a separate mechanism, and synchronisation achieved 
using a clapperboard (electronic interlocking didn't come in until a lot 

Usually the optical sound record was superimposed over a strip on the left 
hand side of the film (as you look at it the right way round from the 
picture's perspective), thereby obliterating part of the image and changing 
its aspect ratio from roughly 1:1.33 to roughly a square.  This created a 
big problem for theatres, because they either had to mask off the track 
area on one side of the frame or screen (by using an aperture plate cut for 
the purpose and by altering the screen masking system, if it existed), 
and/or use a lens of a different focal distance to crop and magnify the 
square frame to fit their existing 1:1.33 screen.  Remember, apart from a 
few Magnascope installations, projectors and screen masking systems simply 
weren't equipped to deal with multiple ratios in the way they are 
today.  In the worst case scenario, over a third of the total image was 
being cropped.

As a temporary measure, cameras were fitted with apertures that masked the 
soundtrack area cinematographers began to compose their shots for the new 
'early sound special' ratio.  Even this caused no end of problems when the 
finished film had to be released both with film and disc soundtracks, and 
in most cases optical enlargement or reduction was needed for at least one 
of the release versions.

In 1933, when it was clear that Vitaphone was in its death throes and that 
optical sound was becoming the industry norm, the SMPE and AMPAS decided to 
restore and standardise the old 1:1.33 ratio by introducing a matte between 
each frame in the smaller picture area left by the optical 
soundtrack.  This became the so-called 'Academy ratio', and properly 
projected it is in reality 1:1.38.

No single, accurate source of information for which films were intended to 
be shown as 1:1.15 exists as far as I am aware.  Also, very few theatres 
are equipped with the proper lenses and plates to show it, but you can get 
an almost perfect result by using your anamorphic (CinemaScope) plate and 
prime lens (i.e. remove the anamorph from its backing prime).  This is 
because the optical sound version of 'scope uses the extra bit of frame 
which is matted out in 1:1.38, and therefore the frame area is almost the 
same as that of the early sound ratio.  Given its date, The Public Enemy 
could be a candidate, though being a Warners production, it might have been 
shot for Vitaphone and therefore reprinted from the full-frame 
sound-on-disc o-negs through 1:1.38 intermediates.  I can't remember ever 
having projected it.  It's a question of what preservation elements 
survive.  The only films I know for an absolute fact should always be 
projected and electonically presented in the 1:1.15 'early sound special' 
are 'Sunrise' (originally released with a synchronised Movietone orchestral 
soundtrack), 'M' and several of the early '30s Universal horrors.  When 
examining a print, the most obvious tell-tale sign are opening titles that 
are very tight or even slightly cropped when projected in Academy.  The 
existence of full-height frames doesn't necessarily mean that the film was 
intended to be shown in 1:1.15. My only advice for projectionists is to 
examine any print of a 1928-33 title very carefully before deciding on 
which ratio to use, and for DVD producers to check with the archive 
supplying material for TK and/or studio records wherever possible.

Incidentally, Eisenstein wrote a defence of the early sound ratio in an 
essay called 'The Dynamic Square'.  I think it's translated in one of the 
Jey Leyda anthologies.

Shameless plug - aspect ratio standardisation in the aftermath of the 
conversion to sound is covered (though admittedly, very briefly) in my book 
'Moving Image Technology - From Zoetrope to Digital', published by 
Wallflower Press in the UK and Columbia University Press in the United States.


Leo Enticknap
Curator, Northern Region Film & Television Archive
Middlesbrough, UK  

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