History of Cinema 3 – Aspect Ratios

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.

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History of Cinema 2 – The Mutoscope

The Mutoscope was invented by W. K. L. Dickson and Herman Casler and later patented by Herman Casler on November 21, 1894. It was incredibly popular and spread across the world quickly.

Many different styles and sizes were made. They could be set up anywhere as they were manual machines. You would insert you coins, anywhere form one cent to five cents, and turn the crank. The payment gave you a set amount of time to view the film.

The principal was simple so many different versions of the Mutoscope were made. Occasionally the machine would be altered to fit a client’s needs. The differing versions included a countertop design, more elaborate housings for fancier venues, a row of connected machines to show a longer film (something for another post), and they could alter the size of the spindle to have more or less frames.

It functions very simply. There are cards with individual images, frames in current terms, secured in order on a spindle. A small stop causes the cards to pause long enough for the eye to register the image before moving on.

Anyone with the means of production could make a film and distribute it. A person in Ohio could see a film in New York, go back to their studio and produce the same content for distribution. At this time, content would be very similar to YouTube today.

Below is an example of what was seen in the viewer. This is a complete film which depicts a popular dance at the time. Cakewalk was exhibited in the early 1900s.

Cakewalk 1903
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Silent Movies 2 – Shadows

Cabinet of Dr. Caligari

There are three aspects of silent film that I study: acting poses, storytelling, and use of shadows. This post will focus on shadows.

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Silent filmmakers were very aware of light and shadow because their cameras needed extreme amounts of each to create good images. As creative as the Lumiere Brothers dived headfirst into fantasy and pushing what film could do. The German expressionists went full tilt light and shadow. Their design esthetic was crafting light and shadow into shapes and characters.

Haxan

Shadow is integral to the storytelling, the emotional content, and set design. The power they were able to create is amazing to me. I think the best movies use what the expressionists made. It is a specific language of light that shows up in every decade of film, mainly in the Noir period.

Warning Shadows

Strong, cutting shadows could show magic, internal thought, emotion extending from a character. Shadow could focus your attention to a specific spot, add depth or importance to something. It can make light brighter. It can expose intent. It can also be used as artifice and create interesting shapes and patterns.

Faust

I try to incorporate this into my art when it’s appropriate. It also influences my sense of design. In my comics work, it plays a more important role.

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History of Cinema 1 – Earliest Cinematography

I am going to document the factual history of cinema in a very random order.

In the 1600s-1800s artists were discovering a concept later called cinematography. Painters were trying to find a way to improve their realism for a variety of reasons. This led to a crude Camera Obscura, a hole in the wall of a dark room that acts as an iris, projecting the reflective light coming into the hole on the opposite wall. Like our eyes, it projects it upside down.

As this process was refined, it became an entertainment. Mirrors and lenses were incorporated to better capture, project and focus the image. This entertainment version of the Camera Obscura was no longer a tool for artists, rather it grew past its usefulness as a tool.

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