Widescreen Unravelled Part 2

We’ve now added a new set of feature pages to the site and the first feature to have been upgraded to the new dynamic format is Michael Brooke’s excellent Widescreen Unravelled article which looks at the ins and outs of the various widescreen ratios. It also goes into some depth on what the term ‘anamorphic’ actually means…

Cinema and TV Aspect Ratios

The following are the standard aspect ratios that we’re likely to encounter most of the time when watching films either in the cinema (colour-coded blue) or on television (colour-coded green).

Other aspect ratios are occasionally used (1.75:1, 2:1, 2.2:1 and 2.66:1 are rare but not unknown), but the vast majority of films will conform to one of the following:

Until 1952, this was the standard cinema and TV aspect ratio, with 99.9% of films conforming to it (this is why you’ll never see a deluxe widescreen edition of Citizen Kane (1941) or The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Since the 1950s, the Academy ratio has been used for virtually all TV films made before the mid-1990s, and still a fair number of cinema feature films – though these are generally projected at 1.66:1 or 1.85:1 when shown in cinemas (most cinemas can’t show films in 4:3 any more). These films are described as “open matte”, and I go in to more detail in the next section.After the 1950s shake-up, the 1.66:1 ratio became popular in Britain and Europe. In general, only European films are shot in 1.66:1 – when Stanley Kubrick shot Barry Lyndon in this ratio, he had to send special projector masks out to American cinemas so they could show it properly!
Note that many European films are shot in 1.85:1 in order to make them attractive to the US market.1.85:1 is by far the most common cinema aspect ratio in use today.
Note that many films projected in this ratio were actually shot in 4:3, but designed to be masked to 1.85:1 when shown in cinemas. These “open matte” films can therefore be converted to normal TV screens with minimal hassle.This is the widest aspect ratio in general use, and is achieved via anamorphic compression using a special lens fitted to both the camera and projector. Various other processes are in use as well, though CinemaScope and Panavision are the best known and most common.
In general, only around 20-25% of cinema films use this aspect ratio – but because they include many of the most popular titles, their influence is disproportionately large, particularly when it comes to high-profile DVD releases. It’s most frequenlty used in major blockbusters where visual impact is important, though filmmakers have used it with striking effect on smaller-scale films (i.e. Woody Allen’s Manhattan)

TV Aspect Ratios

The old box in the corner of the living room that we all grew up with.
It’s great for showing films shot in Academy ratio – but compromises have to be made when showing anything wider, either by cutting off part of the screen at the sides, or by ‘letterboxing’ the image.The new standard, which is roughly halfway between the four cinema aspect ratios (it works out at 1.77:1).
This is an ideal solution (or at least the best we’re likely to get for as long as TV screens are made of glass and set at fixed widths), as it means that all four standard cinema ratios can be shown with as little disruption as possible.

The next section describes how cinema films are adapted for showing on 4:3 and 16:9 TVs

The History of Widescreen CinemaCinema and TV Aspect RatiosFitting Cinema Films on TV ScreensWhat is an Anamorphic DVD?

Michael Brooke

Updated: Jan 13, 2002

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