The first installment of why movies are in my blood
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.
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.
I have been 100% digital since 2019. When I was in art school, back in the eighties, I took my university’s first computer art class. I participated in heated debates within the department about computers and art.
I had an Atari 800 with a disc drive and a drawing pad in 1983. I was no stranger to computers and was already dabbling in the digital world. I entered the fight knowing what was going on in the tech world and what potential it had.
The debates were this: should computers be used in art? The idea was that the computer would create soulless images that would never be art. Computers were the enemy. Mass producing images, made of little squares, limited colors and size, and tainted by maths.
I am a lifelong detractor of math. Hate the stuff. However, the computer does not create images by this ludicrous concoction of numbers. It doesn’t create images at all. It doesn’t create at all. the user creates. The computer is but a tool like a palette knife, pen or brush.
In the eighties this meant struggling with inadequate tools. There was little non-commercial software, what was available was incredibly basic and there was no decent way to display the digital creation. MOMA and a handful of other museums accepted it and dedicated to screens to display what they chose. Occasionally it was connected to a computer but normally it was presented via vhs tapes. there were haggard attempts to find a good way to print the files. Nothing stuck.
One mastered the software you had. One learned to abuse, contort, and bend the software to meet the imagination. Some artists began creating work thought impossible by the limitations of the tool. This growing idea of digital working its way into one’s process improved. Mixed media was the key. An artist could create images, print them or film them, and manipulate them through other media. Soon, it was recognized as art.
The first digital art began in the 50’s using oscilloscopes.
Teletype was used in the 60’s as well as the invention of the light pen and CAD
The 70’s brought computer assisted drawing, a term created to better explain what the process was.
The 80’s gave us the Macintosh, allowing the tool to go from this…
…to this in 2020
The tool the computer provides has irrevocably changed how we see art. The concept, the process, the viewing, the commerce of art has caught and and surpassed my adolescent imagination.
I first saw Nosferatu (1922) in college. The library had hundreds of VHS films that were rare. I took advantage. If I had free time I would sign out a film or two and sit at the line of players with small TVs and headphones. The library didn’t believe in censorship so they had films that were not supposed to be seen available.
Every sci-fi, horror and film magazine had Nosferatu and Metropolis as must sees. I owned a copy of Metropolis, loved it, and craved viewing Nosferatu. The library had it. It was on!
Two movies have scared the shit out of me: The Shining and Nosferatu. I was petrified the first viewing, tense and anxious the next several. I was stunned at the power this film had. It took years of reading about it, analyzing it, to learn why.
Nosferatu, to me, is a kind of filmic touchstone. German expressionism influenced me quite a bit as an artist. German expressionistic film is what I want to be when I grow up. The unrealistic exaggeration of forms that make the sets, the shots and the costumes makes my heart sing. The overwhelming creativity of it all astounds and intrigues me.