Aspect ratios—they’re a funny business aren’t they? Now I’m sure you’ve all seen those pretty little...
Aspect ratios—they’re a funny business aren’t they? Now I’m sure you’ve all seen those pretty little diagrams on the back of your DVD cases with numbers like 1.85:1 or 2.35:1, but what do they mean? Hopefully this little guide will help you to better understand what aspect ratios are all about, and how they affect your viewing experience.
The term aspect ratio is used to describe the relationship between the width and height of a film image. From the beginnings of film, up until the early 1950s, virtually all films shared the same aspect ratio. This was originally 1.33:1, but later became 1.37:1, meaning the image is 1.37 times wider than it is tall. This is often referred to as Academy Standard ratio. When televisions arrived it seemed only natural that they be designed with an aspect ratio matching that of the Academy Standard. This allowed movies to be shown the same way in people’s homes as they were in theatres. Some films originally shot in Academy Ratio include Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life, shown below.
The advent of television created problems for the film industry. More and more people were staying at home to watch their sets, rather than go to the movie theatres. The studios decided to fight back against the rapidly declining attendance levels by introducing some new ideas, the most enduring of which is widescreen. Widescreen affords the filmmaker greater freedom when composing a shot, allowing for far more dramatic scenes.
There are a number of difficulties when translating a widescreen film from the big screen to the small screen. Because widescreen presentations are wider than the 1.33:1 (sometimes referred to as 4:3) aspect ratio of a standard television, the image has to be zoomed until it fills the whole of the screen, chopping off the sides of the image in the process. This process, referred to as ‘panning and scanning’, not only compromises the director’s original vision of the film, it dramatically increases the amount of visible grain and defects in the image.
Therefore, the best solution is to preserve the original aspect ratio of the film when broadcasting for television or transferring to DVD This means that the entirety of the image is shown, albeit with varying sizes of black ‘bars’ at the top and bottom of the screen. Unfortunately some individuals perceive the resulting image as being ‘incomplete’ and somehow inferior to the zoomed image. In reality the opposite is true, with the panned and scanned image losing in excess of 40% of the original picture in some cases!
Let’s take a look at some examples of the panning and scanning process by comparing images of films in their original ratio, to those that have been panned and scanned. The two most common widescreen aspect ratios in use today are 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, so we’ll begin by examining the 1.85:1 ratio.
Here’s a shot from the movie The Silence of the Lambs, which was filmed with the 1.85:1 ratio in mind. Here you can see Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) interviewing a witness while on the trail of serial killer Buffalo Bill. You can see how the director has composed the shot so as to show not only the two actors, but also the surrounding environment. Here the black borders are fairly thick.
Now let’s take a look at the same scene as it would appear if panned and scanned. While the general make-up of the scene is unaffected, it’s more ‘cramped’ than before. A lot of the background information has been lost, as have portions of both actors’ bodies. Among other things the glass, which was clearly visible in the widescreen image, is now missing from the frame. While this may not seem like a big deal, almost 30% of the picture is missing!
With movies filmed in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio the effect is even more pronounced. Let’s look at a scene from The Thing as an example. In the image below you can see a helicopter coming in to land near a remote Antarctic base. Notice how the shot gives an impressive sense of scale to the proceedings, with the tiny outpost dwarfed by the snowy mountains in the background. You may also notice how much bigger the black borders are in this image. This is to accommodate the wider image.
Now let’s take a look at this scene as it appears when panned and scanned. The difference is immediately apparent. The image now fills the entirety of the 4:3 frame, but at great expense to the director’s original vision. The image is now very cramped, with most of the outpost and the surrounding environment missing. In fact, over 40% of the original image is missing in this version of the film!
I’m sure you’ll agree, the pan and scan versions of both films destroy the original composition of the image, especially in the scene from The Thing. Thankfully the introduction of widescreen television sets helps cushion the blow for those who don’t like the black borders. Unlike a standard television with its aspect ratio of 1.33:1, widescreen televisions have an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (sometimes referred to as 16:9), which is much closer to theatrical ratios. This means that films can be shown on widescreen televisions in their original aspect ratios with less obtrusive black borders at the top and bottom of the screen.
Here’s how Aliens, which was filmed with the 1.85:1 ratio in mind, would look on a widescreen television. Here the marines are spread out in flanking positions as they prepare to enter the colony on LV-426. You can see how the director has composed the shot to give us a good look at the compound—something that would be lost with a pan and scan transfer. Notice how the bars at the top and bottom are much smaller in this shot than in The Silence of the Lambs above. In fact, they're barely visible.
Now let’s take a look at a scene from Pulp Fiction as an example of how 2.35:1 images appear on widescreen sets. In the image below you can see Mia Wallace and Vincent Vega twisting the night away at Jack Rabbit Slim’s. Notice how the full width of the frame is used to enhance the visual impact of the scene? By comparing this 2.35:1 image with the image of The Thing above you can see that, while visible, the borders are much smaller here than they would be on a standard television.
This article isn’t intended as the be all and end all of widescreen, but as more of a guide to those new to DVD. I do hope it’s given you some insight into the way aspect ratios work, and why widescreen is integral to preserving the director’s vision. I for one refuse to watch films that have been panned and scanned, simply because I am not seeing the film the way it was intended, which is important to me. For a more detailed account of widescreen and aspect ratios I recommend visiting the American Widescreen Museum. As well as detailed information on a plethora of widescreen aspect ratios, the site also includes a very useful animated demonstration.
Editorial by Chris Gould
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