I haven’t written one of these posts for quite some time so I thought it about time to put that right. Always wondered what aspect ratio is? Here’s your answer…
Aspect ratio is the relationship between the width and height of the image on screen. It is represented by two numbers separated by a colon – the first number is the width of the screen, the second is the height. An example is 4:3, where for every 4 inches (or centimetres or whatever) wide an image was, it would be 3 inches high.
You may also see 4:3 written as 1.33:1, which is just purely stylistic. If the second number is a ‘1’ then some people like to drop it completely, so it would just be 1.33, again just for stylistic reasons.
When films first started to be made, they were done so in the above ratio, 4:3, as they were 4 perforations high on a film reel. This altered slightly when sound was introduced onto the reel, making the ratio 1.37:1 rather than 1.33:1. In 1932, this ratio was officially approved by the The Academy, and therefore pretty much the whole of popular film making, and thus was known as the Academy Ratio.
In this famous clip from Casablanca you’ll notice the black bars on either side of the frame, a feature of 4:3 aspect ratio.
The Introduction of Widescreen
Cinema was the be all and end all until televisions started to become a more staple fixture in people’s homes in the 1950s. This made the film studios nervous and they looked for something new to keep the punters coming in.
1952 saw the development of Cinerama which used an aspect ratio of 2.59:1 and need three cameras and three projectors to display the picture on a curved screen. As you might imagine, this wasn’t particularly practical. CinemaScope was another widescreen development with a slightly more narrow 2.35:1 and used only the single camera and projector.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was filmed in widescreen 2.2:1 – you can see the black bars at the top and bottom of the screen rather than the sides.
When widescreen films were shown on TV (which back then was 4:3 only), the picture either had to be chopped at the sides or squashed down to fit it all in, the latter producing big black bars at the top and bottom, known as letterboxing. Interestingly, when 2001 was first screened on TV by the BBC in the 1980s, they bizarrely inserted fake ‘stars’ on the black bars to fill in the gaps during the outer space sections as they thought audiences would be confused that the picture didn’t fill the whole screen. The effect was apparently very cheap and looked like someone had painted them on.
A technique was also developed called ‘pan and scan’ in which the manufacturer decided which was the most important part of each shot and showed only that, lopping off parts either side. A ‘centre cut’ was also sometimes used, which only showed the middle part of the widescreen image.
Studios started to try and push what they could do, with MGM using 2.76:1 on 70mm film (twice the size of the regular 35mm film) for Ben Hur.
As with many aspects of cinema, directors decided to manipulate aspect ratio for stylistic purposes and used it as a vital part of the film. One of the most recent and effective examples of this is Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson presented the film in three different aspect ratios, each indicating a different time period.
The film starts off with a prologue displayed in the, now regular, 1.85:1.
It then changes again to the Academy Ratio of 1.37:1, and it’s in this ratio that most of the film is displayed.
Interestingly, the change in aspect ratio indicates a journey back in time through cinema, moving from modern day back to how films used to be shown back in the day. Not that I’m old enough to remember that. Even more interesting is that Anderson (or perhaps the studio, or both) actually sent a set of instructions to cinemas about how to properly display the film.
The change and use of aspect ratios is something that is constantly in flux. The use of IMAX has changed this again, especially when certain scenes in a film are filmed in the format and other aren’t, with it switching part way through. Some filmmakers for both cinema and TV also employ what’s known as ‘shoot and protect’ where they ensure the most important parts of the scene are shot in the middle so that as little as possible is lost should the aspect ratio not convert to different size screens – from cinema to TV, for instance.
Do you have any opinions on aspect ratio? Prefer one over another? Couldn’t give a flying film reel? Drop me a comment and let me know. If you want to read more in the ‘What is…?’ series, click here.