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December 1997, Week 1


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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Leo Enticknap <[log in to unmask]>
Wed, 3 Dec 1997 14:24:56 +0000
TEXT/PLAIN (103 lines)
In response to some of Chris Worsnop's remarks:
The use of multiple aspect ratios is clearly the largest problem faced in
cinemas today: to understand why this has come about it's necessary to go back
in time a little bit.
It all started in the 1920s, with the arrival of sound.  The one and only ratio
in use at that time was 1:1.38: the frames spanned the entire width of the film
and had a height of four perforations: exactly the specification which W.K.L.
Dickson had settled on in 1899 and which had remained the standard up until
then.  The Fox-Movietone optical sound system took a strip of that frame on the
right hand side of the print out of the picture: the ratio then changed to
about 1:1.15.  For the first time, projectionists found themselves having to
deal with two different picture shapes: the old silent ratio (which was also
used for sound-on-disc) and the Movietone ratio.  Up until that point, a
projection box would only have had one plate and lens per machine.
To recap on some theory, there are two variables which determine the shape of a
projected image from a 35mm projector:
1.  The shape of the aperture plate in use, which is determined by the film
2.   The focal length of the lens in use, which is determined by the shape and
size of the screen, and the distance between the projector and the screen
Thus, the unique combination of three variables - the shape of the film frame,
the shape of the screen and the distance between projector and screen -
necessitate a seperate aperture plate and lens for every ratio you intend to
Once Movietone came along, there was a broad concensus among critics and
exhibitors that the almost perfect square shaped screen it gave did not look
very nice (despite Eisenstein commenting on its aesthetic possibilites on a
trip to Hollywood in 1929).  So projectionists started to take things into
their own hands, and cut new plates which masked off the top and bottom of the
frame, and used a lens with a slightly shorter focal distance, in order to
restore the shape of the silent frame (this also had the advantage that
variable screen masking was no longer needed).
The production side of the industry started to get alarmed by this trend, and,
once it became clear that sound-on-film would supercede sound-on-disc, it was
decided to reduce the height of each frame a little bit, and to put a blank
space in between each frame, to retain the four-perf motion in cameras and
projectors (to do anything else would mean new intermittent mechanisms for
every single camera and projector in use anywhere in the world - far too
expensive!).  This was the Academy Ratio - or 1:1.33 (it's actually nearer
1:1.37, but for some reason is always referred to as 1:1.33).
Thus, no problem for another twenty years.  The next developments - the ones we
are still dealing with today - as Chris Worsnop mentions - came with the
widescreen revolution.  Anamorphic cinematography - or CinemaScope, to give it
the first of its many trademarks - worked by squeezing a frame of between
1:2.35 and 1:2.55, depending on the sound format, horizontally into a
full-height frame (so a 'scope frame and a Movietone frame are almost identical
in physical shape/size).  Thus a different plate and lens was needed for 'scope
and Academy.
Rival companies then tried to do widescreen on the cheap, by simply expanding
the principle used by those projectionists back in the 20s.  They just lowered
the height of the frame even more and used even shorter lenses to blow it up
even further.  But since there was no definite standard for this, complete with
a name and a trademark, there was no co-ordination between producers and
exhibitors as to what ratio was being used.  Various conventions have sprung
up, for example 1:1.66 in European studios and 1:1.85 in Hollywood, but there
is nothing set in stone, no way of knowing for sure what the d/p intended
unless the distributor tells you - hence all the boom mike problems.  As there
are definite standards for silent, scope and Academy, there is no ambiguity
Of course, if you encounter technical problems at a film show, the impulse is
to blame the projectionist, as (s)he is the nearest link in the technical chain
to the spectator.  Walter Lassally (see the last "Image Technology") has argued
that one single w/s ratio ought to be standardised across the film and
television industries, as this would solve all the problems both with
theatrical presentation and the televising of w/s films, HDTV and so on.  He
has suggeted 16:9 (about 1:1.77 in my language).  In other words, he wants a
sort of Academy ratio for the next century.
My own view is that that is a bit restrictive and that the system ought to be
capable of supporting a wide range of rations.  If that technical chain were
somewhat better integrated, then the results would be positive all round: the
good projectionists would be able to put on almost perfect shows, and the bad
ones would be less likely to make severe aspect ratio cock-ups (for example,
the West End venue which showed a re-release of 'Casablanca' in 1:1.85 would
not have done).
Leo Enticknap
Postgraduate Common Room
School of English and American Studies
University of Exeter
Queen's Building, The Queen's Drive
Devon EX4 4QJ
United Kingdom
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