Aspect Ratios Explained: Part One
Chris has decided to examine one of the more confusing aspects of film, aspect ratios. In this, the first of a series of articles ...
1.37:1 (Academy Standard)
If you've ever taken a good look at the back of one of your DVD cases you may have spotted those little diagrams shaped like televisions, with accompanying numbers such as 1.33:1, 1.85:1 or 2.35:1. Well, those numbers are aspect ratios, and they are used to describe the relationship between the width and height of a filmed image.
From the beginnings of silent film, up until the early 1930s, virtually all movies shared the same aspect ratio of 1.33:1, meaning that the image is 1.33 times wider than it is tall. Around 1930, with the introduction of the first 'talkie' movies, the ratio was changed to 1.37:1, and it became known as the 'Academy Standard' (after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences). The ratio has remained unchanged to this day, although more often than not it is still quoted as 1.33:1. Some films originally shot in Academy Ratio include Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, It's A Wonderful Life and State Fair.
The cinematographic process used to shoot movies in the Academy Standard ratio is called Spherical, and involves the use of magnifying lenses on both the camera and the projector. When filming, the camera lens takes the image being photographed and condenses it to fit onto a much smaller space, i.e. the 35mm film. Later, when the film is projected, light is passed through both it and the magnifying lens, which blows the resulting image up so it can be projected onto the cinema screen.
When television arrived in the 1950s, it seemed only natural that the sets be designed with an aspect ratio closely matching that of the Academy Standard. Even today the majority of televisions feature this familiar, squarish shape, which is often referred to as 4:3 for simplicity (four units of width to three units of height). This design allowed movies originally shot in the Academy Standard ratio to be shown the same way in the home as they were in theatres.
However, the advent of television created problems for the film industry. As more and more people deserted the theatres in favour of their TV sets, the studios decided to fight back against the rapidly declining attendance levels by introducing some new ideas, the most enduring of which is widescreen.
Having examined the Academy Standard ratio, the next part of the guide will deal with one of the most common widescreen aspect ratios in use today: 1.85:1.
1.85:1 (Academy Flat)
The 1.85:1 ratio, often referred to as Academy Flat, is probably the most common widescreen ratio in use today. Technically, Academy Flat also encompasses the ratios 1.66:1 and 1.75:1, but for the purposes of this explanation we'll concentrate on 1.85:1. Just as with the Academy Standard ratio of 1.37:1, the 1.85:1 ratio uses the Spherical cinematographic process. Examples of well-known films presented in the 1.85:1 ratio are The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, American Pie and, most recently, Spider-Man. When it comes to shooting films in this form of widescreen, there are two ways to achieve the desired effect.
The first of these methods, and the most popular, is called 'soft matting'. With this method, movies are shot using the entirety of the Academy Standard frame, but part of the camera viewfinder is masked off to allow the director/cinematographer to compose shots for the intended theatrical ratio of 1.85:1. Let's take a look at the process with the aid of some stills from the film Trainspotting.
In the uppermost image you can see the 1.37:1 frame in its entirety, while the bottommost image shows the same frame with the top and bottom of the camera viewfinder masked off to 1.85:1. Even though the entire negative is exposed, the director/cinematographer will compose the shot so that important information is captured inside this 1.85:1 frame. When shown theatrically, mattes will be added to the top and bottom of the projector so that only the area of the frame intended for viewing can be seen. The downside of this technique is that if the projectionist fails to align the image correctly the audience may see things that were never intended to be seen, such as microphones and even crewmembers! Of course the format also has its upsides, particularly when transferring to home video.
Those of you who hate 'black bars' will no doubt be delighted to hear that soft matted films can be transferred to VHS or DVD with virtually no loss of picture (unlike pan and scan releases). In fact, these transfers actually show more of the image than the theatrical versions. While this sounds like a good idea at first, it's worth remembering that this method greatly increases the likelihood that unwanted objects (such as stage lights, microphones and tea-boys) will appear in the frame, and can also compromise the integrity of some shots (close-ups are no longer close-ups etc.).
The second method for bringing Academy Flat films to the screen is called 'hard matting', and is accomplished by placing a filter between the camera lens and the film. This filter blocks the top and bottom of the frame so that the camera will capture only the 1.85:1 portion in the middle, not the entire 1.37:1 frame. Let's take a look at some more stills from Trainspotting to help illustrate the differences between soft and hard matting.
In the uppermost picture you'll notice that the image fills the entirety of the frame, much as it would on a standard 4:3 television screen. This is how the image would look if the entire 1.37:1 negative were to be exposed. However, when a film is hard matted, filters are placed between the camera lens and the film to produce black bars that are 'burned’ onto the negative and cannot be removed. The second picture shows how the film would look if it were to be hard matted to 1.85:1. The picture information above and below the 1.85:1 frame is lost forever, as it is never captured on film. The upside of this is that it's impossible for foreign objects to appear in the frame by mistake; the downside is that when it comes to transferring the film to home formats, the image must be panned & scanned to fit the entire width and height of a 4:3 television set.
Panning & Scanning
Let's take a look at some more images from Trainspotting.
You can see here how the hard matted image on the top has been panned and scanned until it fills the entire 4:3 frame of a standard television. Notice how cramped the image appears, and how the actors on the far left and right of the frame have been all but cut out of the picture! As I'm sure you'll agree, the panning and scanning process has a detrimental effect on the artistic integrity of the shot.
Because the images do not use the full height of the available negative, one of the biggest downsides to shooting films in the Academy Flat ratio is lack of resolution. As a side effect of sacrificing a fair portion of the available resolution, the process can also lead to increased instances of grain and other defects in the final image. Considering these problems, you may ask yourself why people continue to shoot in Academy Flat, especially as it's not a 'true' widescreen format? The answer, as with so many other things, is cost. It is cheaper to shoot films in this manner than in the superior anamorphic widescreen format, but more on this in the next instalment of the guide.
Editorial by Chris Gould
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