Aspect ratio is a common misunderstood and under appreciated part of film. It is the relationship between the width and height of the image. Most people are aware of it as flat and scope, or pan and scan.
Aspect ratios change with technological advancement. Sometimes from a new lens or photographic process, sometimes because of the room a film is being projected, sometimes as a gimmick.
I’m going to briefly go through the main historic changes with a brief explanation, enough to understand the change in context. I encourage you to research each era if any of these pique your interest. I will eventually do more on the interesting formats.
- 1895 ORIGINAL 4:3 1.85:1 This is the first official film. It became known as the Edison Standard.
- 1932 ACADEMY 1.375:1 The size of the film had to be altered when sound was added. This format was adapted by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This became the standard for every 35mm film produced from 1932-1952.
- 1952 CINERAMA 2.59:1 A stunning gimmick to directly fight television drawing away the crowds. This format was so big that special technology was created to film and project a picture. Most films were documentaries or entertainment. Few films were made for this format. The format worked and drew millions of people back to the cinema. It was projected on multiple screens to accommodate the image size.
- 1953 CINEMASCOPE 2.35:1 The creation of an anamorphic lens brought a fiscally responsible version of Cinerama to filmmakers. This is what is commonly known as widescreen. It is used to this day.
- 1954 VISTA VISION 1.85:1 This is the companion to widescreen known as flat. The two most common formats from the 50s to the 2010s were flat and scope.
- 1955 TODD AO 2.2:1 70mm film was another attack on television. The image is projected very long, simulating cinerama on one screen. it became the deluxe way to show a film. Some large budget pictures would be filmed in 70mm and converted to 35mm so it could be shown in specialty houses and traditional houses simultaneously.
- 1957 MGM65 2.76:1 A super wide format used for a very limited amount of movies. The most significant example is Ben Hur. This is a short lived event format.
- 1959 SUPER PANAVISION 70 2.2:1 A variant similar to MGM65 and Todd AO.
- 1970 IMAX 1.43:1 An innovation in large format, the film is printed sideways on a stock similar to 70mm. Like Cinerama, this was developed with a new camera, projector, and screen that was only suitable for documentaries. It became a tool used to get people away from home video and back to the theatres. In the 2000s, filmmakers began experimenting shooting isolated sequences in IMAX format. There are a variety of copycat large formats now.
- 1996 HDTV 16:9 1.78:1 This format was created to be a median between 4:3 television screens and 2.35:1 cinema widescreen.
- 2005 DCI 4K 19:10 1.9:1 This is the native resolution of digital cameras. It is being used by fully digital film digitally projected.
Vittorio Storaro has suggested a universal aspect of 2:1 which is, essentially, the dead center between full screen and widescreen. Netflix prefers 16:9, which is almost the proposed aspect.
Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have a variety of aspect ratios that are utilized. 1:1, 16:9, 4:5, and 2:1 are the most common across them.
The future holds more changes. As the world goes back to cinemas post-pandemic, cinemas will adapt to offer a projected image to compete with home cinemas current dominance.