Aspect ratios are basic shapes. Nothing more. 4 Stars

I recently received a message querying the concept of aspect ratios, and why I seldom make note of them.

While I’ve covered this in the past, here (once again) is the simple answer.

In the most general sense, aspect ratios don’t matter.

And by that, I mean that with specificity, while a film originally released in 2.55 or 2.1 or 1.66 should certainly follow the intent of the filmmakers, that it doesn’t matter precisely how closely.

Aspect ratios are basic shapes. Nothing more.

Does it matter, aside from possibly exposing something in the frame (an actor’s marks, a microphone) it makes no difference if a home video release fills out a projector display or flat panel at 1.78 or arrives in 1.85.

And that is because in original theatrical presentations, aspect ratios were a guide, and that was all.

Image a huge old theater, a beam of light projecting an image on a screen forty feet below the booth and one hundred fifty feet away.

It mattered not precisely what the aspect ratio was, as long as an image, in basically the desire shape hit the screen, as the aperture plate cut for the projectors, would never have been the exact aspect ratio anyway. In the case of those beautiful old movie houses, they would have been cut into the shape of an inverted trapezoid, in order to attain a rectangle on screen.

Anywhere from five to twenty percent of the image might be lost in creating that shape.

When it comes to home video, we’re usually seeing far more of the frame than was ever seen theatrically, and the shape that’s carved out of the available real estate can be far different than seen in theaters.

Perfection was the last thing on a projectionists’ mind. For no matter how hard he or she might try, they were still dealing with that same old trapezoid.

What this means is that attaining a 1.85 aspect ratio can mean cropping the top and bottom of a frame, or just as likely exposing a bit more of the sides to create a slightly wider image.

And the viewer is seeing the same shape, or aspect ratio, with different information.

While I’m not suggesting that aspect ratios don’t matter, for in the general sense, they do. I’m simply stating that within rational parameters, a few lines of information don’t matter.

RAH

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Todd Erwin

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What used to drive me crazy were the theaters that would use a fixed 2:1 screen, then matte the image to fill the screen. This meant that films shot flat were overly cropped top and bottom while scope movies were cropped left and right. This was standard practice at Edwards Cinemas that were built in the 1980s and 1990s, with the (possible) exception of the largest auditorium in the complex. This was more or less corrected as many of those theaters were closed as part of the chain's bankruptcy and eventual conversion to digital of those that survived.
 
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Carlo Medina

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Wow. File this under Things I Learned Today. Your expertise and insight is always welcome and educational, Mr. Harris, thank you for your willingness to share your knowledge with us!
 

Billy Batson

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Yes, how many 1:66, 1:75, 1;77 films were in fact projected at 1:85 (or thereabouts), a great many I'd think, & did anyone notice? No.
 
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RichMurphy

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What used to drive me crazy were the theaters that would use a fixed 2:1 screen, then matte the image to fill the screen. This meant that films shot flat were overly cropped top and bottom while scope movies were cropped left and right. This was standard practice at Edwards Cinemas that were built in the 1980s and 1990s, with the (possible) exception of the largest auditorium in the complex. This was more or less corrected as many of those theaters were closed as part of the chain's bankruptcy and eventual conversion to digital of those that survived.
Many theatres of that era had those horrible 2:1 screens with one-size-fits-all projection. They were barely acceptable for "flat" contemporary films, but disastrous for 'scope or pre-1953 films. A Roth theatre in Tysons Corner Mall, Virginia had a showing of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and I was thrilled to be able to see it in a theatre. Imagine my surprise to see Gene Kelly's thighs moving in and out and weird tapping noises coming from the speaker. Rumor has it he was dancing at the time.
 

Carlo Medina

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I'm always impressed when I go to a theater that's been refurnished (upgraded digital projection screen, stadium seating, etc.) and it has movable mattes and uses them to optimal effect for the main feature. Sometimes I've noticed theaters here take the path of least resistance and if a screen is say 1.85 and they project a 2.35 screen, they don't move the mattes, and just think we won't notice the extra screen surface reflecting light ever so slightly. It's not a make or break, but just a nice touch when they move the mattes to truly give a black border around the picture. Makes it feel more immersive to my eyes.
 
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Robert Harris

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First time I saw Kane in 35.

Film started.

1.85.

Went to booth. They only had scope and 1.85 optics and mattes.

I suggested he run it scope without anamorphic.
 

Patrick McCart

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It's one thing when a 1.37:1 film is shown at 1.78:1 or a 1.85:1 film shown at 1.33:1, but nitpicking is kind of obnoxious. It's great when a transfer or master uses 100% accurate STMPE framing and aspect ratio, but I roll my eyes every time a reviewer laments a 1.85:1 film being 1.78:1.

At the nicer theaters in Atlanta, I've had good success. The Fox Theatre ran Citizen Kane in 35mm at proper 1.37:1, complete with mattes taken in. Midtown Art Cinema ran Safety Last! in 1.33:1 and Mr. Hulot's Holiday at 1.37:1 from 35mm.

I went to a small theater in North Georgia that ran Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz from 35mm, but cropped to 1.85:1. Thankfully, the tickets were free (grand opening). Also saw The Avengers in DLP and it was cropped to 2.40:1 instead of shown at 1.85:1.
 

notmicro

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Speaking of which - in 1955 when Disney made the major decision to switch Lady and the Tramp to a CinemaScope release, did they also switch to using an anamorphic lens in the multi-plane camera? Or did they trim the standard full-frame version down to a wide-screen ratio? My understanding is that there were release-prints in both formats, which leads to a bit of confusion.
 

Robert Harris

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Speaking of which - in 1955 when Disney made the major decision to switch Lady and the Tramp to a CinemaScope release, did they also switch to using an anamorphic lens in the multi-plane camera? Or did they trim the standard full-frame version down to a wide-screen ratio? My understanding is that there were release-prints in both formats, which leads to a bit of confusion.
Different SE negatives
 
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atcolomb

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First time I saw Kane in 35.

Film started.

1.85.

Went to booth. They only had scope and 1.85 optics and mattes.

I suggested he run it scope without anamorphic.
Saw Citizen Kane for the first time in a theater about 15 years ago and the same happened to me and told the manager. The sad thing about it was there were around five in the theater watching it.
 

Lord Dalek

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I've said it before. Everything between 1.33:1 and 2.20 is a turkeyshoot. They were bascially controlled by the projectionist's whim.
 
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Tony Bensley

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Many theatres of that era had those horrible 2:1 screens with one-size-fits-all projection. They were barely acceptable for "flat" contemporary films, but disastrous for 'scope or pre-1953 films. A Roth theatre in Tysons Corner Mall, Virginia had a showing of SINGIN' IN THE RAIN, and I was thrilled to be able to see it in a theatre. Imagine my surprise to see Gene Kelly's thighs moving in and out and weird tapping noises coming from the speaker. Rumor has it he was dancing at the time.
I found a somewhat similar experience in viewing The Three Stooges short, GOOF ON THE ROOF, which was filmed in 1952 (But not released until late 1953, after the Widescreen format had been adopted by most studios!), on their Sony DVD set. Unfortunately, Sony decided to release this as it was shown in Theaters at the (presumably, and approximately) 1.85:1 aspect ratio, rather than the 1.37:1 frame, which was the original intent when it was shot. For me, that the former was clearly the wrong AR was painfully obvious, especially during one scene involving a bucket.

CHEERS! :)
 
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Douglas R

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I found a somewhat similar experience in viewing The Three Stooges short, GOOF ON THE ROOF, which was filmed in 1952 (But not released until late 1953, after the Widescreen format had been adopted by most studios!), on their Sony DVD set. Unfortunately, Sony decided to release this as it was shown in Theaters at the (presumably, and approximately) 1.85:1 aspect ratio, rather than the 1.37:1 frame, which was the original intent when it was shot. For me, that the former was clearly the wrong AR was painfully obvious, especially during one scene involving a bucket.

CHEERS! :)
I saw many films in the mid to late 1950s at my local suburban cinema in London. They would often show re-issues from the 1930s onwards as a support to the main feature. I remember CAMILLE (1936) being shown for example as well as one or two Marx Brothers films. These pre-1953 films would always be shown on the wide screen and they gave the projectionist a full-time job in ensuring that the picture was frequently adjusted top and bottom, to ensure no essential information was lost - Main Titles were especially problematic of course. It never dawned on me at that young age to wonder why the picture scrolled up and down like that on older films!
 

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>Many theatres of that era had those horrible 2:1 screens with one-size-fits-all projection.

They're doing a modern version of that today. At the Regal 24 in Chamblee, GA, the smaller theaters stay masked at 1:85 even if they're projecting a 2:35:1 film, so you get bars at the top and bottom. At the Midtown Art Cinema (art cinema!) in Atlanta they have a brand new policy of no longer masking to fit the films. Their big room stays fixed at 2:35:1 (so when I saw The Shape of Water in that auditorium, it had huge bars on the side) and all the other theaters are masked at 1:85 -- or should I say, something approximating that. Even the 1:85 movies in those rooms have slim bars on the sides.

Anyone else experiencing this in their local theaters?