Recently, a site called Filmmaker IQ launched an interesting web video that attempts to provide a beginner’s guide to the concept of aspect ratios, and to explain why not all movies are the same shape as one another. As a home theater advocate, I love and support this sort of thing. Unfortunately, as a pedantic film nerd, I’m troubled by the video’s considerable list of careless omissions and inaccuracies.
The piece, titled “The Changing Shape of Cinema: The History of the Aspect Ratio” (or, depending on which page you find it, possibly “Everything You Need to Know About Aspect Ratio”) runs over 18 minutes long, quite an epic by web video standards, where three minutes is usually the upper limit of straining a viewer’s patience. Despite this (and despite my problems with it, which I’ll get into shortly), host John Hess keeps it lively and generally informative.
So, what don’t I like about this? I hate to be a wet blanket here, but I think the video’s length really works against it – not because it has trouble holding a viewer’s attention, but because the amount of time Hess spends on the subject suggests that this is a comprehensive overview of aspect ratios, when in fact it’s not. Ironically, had this been a typical 3-to-4-minute web video with only a high-level summary of the topic, I’d be far more willing to forgive it the many details it either misses or gets wrong.
As it is, here are some of the things I’m really bothered by:
- Hess implies that the very first movie aspect ratio was 4:3 (1.33:1). This isn’t quite true. That may have been the earliest standardized aspect ratio, but a number of incompatible narrower ratios proliferated among silent films until standards started to be developed.
- The video states that the CinemaScope format had an aspect ratio of 2.35:1 right from its first production, 1953′s ‘The Robe‘. Actually, the first CinemaScope aspect ratio (used on ‘The Robe’ and several other movies) was 2.55:1. This was reduced to 2.35:1 a couple years later in order to squeeze stereophonic sound onto the theatrical prints.
- VistaVision was not necessarily fixed at an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The format was designed for flexibility and could be projected at any of three ratios: either 1.66:1, 1.85:1 or even down to 2.0:1, depending on the theater installation. Filmmakers who shot in VistaVision had to frame their compositions to be safe for any of these ratios.
- Hess implies that all 1.85:1 movies are shot in VistaVision, which isn’t even remotely true. Aside from specialized use in special effects photography, VistaVision went effectively obsolete as a feature production format by the late 1950s. Subsequent “flat” widescreen movies have been shot with standard 35mm cameras and film stock in 4-perf format (which yields a ratio of 1.37:1 on the camera negative) and are matted down to 1.85:1 by projection plates in theaters. Aside from the advent of digital photography and projection, this continues to be the standard for “flat” 35mm movies to this day.
- The video fails to explain that Panavision (which dominated the field of anamorphic photography after CinemaScope went under) adjusted the technical standard for anamorphic projection to 2.39:1 (often rounded to 2.40:1) in 1970, and it has remained there ever since. Given consumer confusion over the differences between “2.35:1″ and “2.40:1″ labeling on DVD and Blu-ray packaging, this would seem to be a pertinent point worth discussing.
- The video doesn’t mention the Super 35 format at all.
- The video doesn’t mention the complications of “open matte” film transfers on home video at all. Again, this is another area that fosters great consumer confusion, and bears explaining.
- Although Hess name-checks IMAX briefly, he doesn’t say anything about its extra-tall 1.44:1 aspect ratio, much less discuss the difference between the original IMAX 15/70 film format and the (more common these days) digital IMAX projection standard that was reduced to 1.9:1.
- The video doesn’t mention variable ratio movies such as ‘The Dark Knight‘ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises‘ at all. But hey, these are only two of the most popular movies ever made in the history of cinema. It’s not like anybody’s ever heard of them, right?
- The video doesn’t mention movies like ‘Avatar‘ or ‘Life of Pi‘ that were distributed to theaters in multiple aspect ratio versions with instructions to project whichever would be largest on the auditorium screen. Again, who’s ever heard of ‘Avatar’, huh?
- The video doesn’t mention 3D or the dissenting opinions on how aspect ratio affects that format at all.
Would adding in all of these additional points have made the video an unwieldy length? I don’t think so. I believe that Hess could have touched upon them in a few extra minutes. And if you’ve already asked viewers to watch an 18-minute video, would 20 or even 25 minutes really seem that much more unreasonable? Either viewers will commit to watching the whole thing or they won’t. I’m not suggesting that it should be an hour or two hours long.
As I said, this would be much more forgivable if the video was only a three-minute cursory summary of the topic. But if you want to make a comprehensive lesson out of it, I feel that you should be obligated to make sure that all of your facts are correct.
I’d love to recommend this video for newbies, but the nitpicker in me is just too furious at it.
[Thanks to Keith for the tip.]