HD Advisor X

Posted Fri Apr 10, 2009 at 11:45 AM PDT by

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Answers by Joshua Zyber

Widescreen Photography Formats

Q: I recently learned that many movies are made without anamorphic lenses, and the camera negative that has a 1.37:1 aspect ratio is matted to the desired aspect ratio, and that this can be done for Academy flat and scope movies in place of anamorphic lenses.

If that is true, except for cost savings for lenses, why is this done, and how is it that I can't tell the difference between an anamorphic scope movie and a scope movie that was simply a matted 1.37:1 image? In anamorphic movies, you get a wide lens that is compressed onto the 1.37:1 camera negative, and then reversed at the theater. In essence, isn't the only way to get "wide" shots in a matted movie is by simply backing the camera away, as you don't have a wide lens? You would think you would be able to tell the difference between a movie shot with anamorphic lenses and a matted image based on the type of shots you see in the movie. I also know that because Super 35 only uses part of the film, the grain is much more apparent (like 'Terminator 2') because you are blowing up part of the camera negative.

For example, I learned that 'Equilibrium' and 'Enemy at the Gates' were shot in Super 35, but I remember a lot of cool shots that used the entire frame, but it doesn't seem any different than, say, the 'Star Wars' series that used the Panavision anamorphic lenses. I also don't remember either of those movies looking especially grainy ala 'T2'. Can you explain why there seems to be no difference between anamorphic movies and matted movies?

A: This is a pretty big question you're asking. To start, I'd like to direct readers to my Why Don't the Black Bars Go Away? article for more information about aspect ratios and why not all movies on Blu-ray are the same shape as one another. Now, let's take a look at how widescreen movies are photographed.

35mm film has a negative aspect ratio of 1.37:1. In order to shoot a movie intended for 2.35:1 theatrical exhibition, filmmakers generally use one of two common processes.

In the first, an anamorphic lens is fitted onto the camera, which will horizontally squeeze the image being photographed, like this example from 'Batman Begins':

Upon projection, another anamorphic lens will unsqueeze the image back to its proper dimensions.

Alternately, filmmakers may shoot their movie on the Super 35 format, which uses spherical lenses that maintain normal geometric proportions. Directors will compose their shots with unneeded dead space at the top and bottom of the frame, like this shot from the "full frame" DVD transfer of 'Dark City':

That extraneous picture will then be masked off to show only the intended composition.

Each process has its own unique characteristics. You can often tell them apart if the photography features any lens flares. Anamorphic lenses cause lens flares to appear oval in shape. Here's a famous scene from 'Die Hard' where a helicopter shines a spotlight directly into the camera:

Compare that to a similar shot from 'Terminator 2', which was photographed on Super 35. Note that the lens flare is round here.

(To complicate matters a little, many older movies with special effects sequences would usually shoot the FX footage on 65mm film stock with spherical lenses. The larger film format was helpful in maintaining image quality after optical compositing. Movies like 'Close Encounters' or 'Blade Runner' were shot with a mix of anamorphic 35mm and 65mm, and will feature both types of lens flares.)

In another difference, anamorphic lenses tend to have shallower depth of field than spherical lenses. Objects in the background of shots usually fall out of focus at a much shorter distance, especially in medium and close-up shots.

It's true that Super 35 utilizes a smaller portion of the 35mm film frame than the anamorphic process. In the past, this usually meant that Super 35 movies were grainier than anamorphic movies after the picture had been blown up to fill the same sized screen. However, modern fine-grain film stocks have largely mitigated that problem. A director can get excellent results with either method now.

It wouldn't be fair to claim that one process is "better" or more "correct" than the other. Either can be used for deliberate artistic or stylistic effect. Cinematographer Jan de Bont went out of his way to incorporate anamorphic lens flares all throughout 'Die Hard' because he loved the way that they looked. The two formats simply have different visual traits.

Practical concerns will also play a role. Anamorphic lenses are often larger and heavier than spherical lenses. As a result, Ron Howard chose to shoot 'Apollo 13' on Super 35 because the cameras were easier to maneuver in the confined spacecraft sets.

In the end, the photographic process is just one tool among many that a filmmaker uses to tell his story. Directors will choose whichever one fits their needs and their vision for the material best.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

Some questions that the HD Advisor receives are best answered with a consensus of opinions from our readers. If you can help to answer the following question, please post your response in our forum thread linked at the end of this article. Your advice and opinions matter too!

This week we have two questions along similar lines.

Onkyo Receiver Setup

Q: I've heard a lot on confusing information on how the PS3 decodes audio and sends it to an amplifier. I am waiting for delivery for an Onkyo TX-SR606. I know the PS3 has to decode the audio itself. How do I know what settings to use to make sure I'm getting the best sound out of the amp?


Q: I have an Onkyo TX-SR806 receiver and a Panasonic DMP-BD35 Blu-ray player, along with seven speakers. When I play certain Blu-ray movies that are encoded in DTS-HD Master Audio, the Onkyo reads Neo:6, yet others such as 'Wall-E' read Master Audio. I sent an e-mail to a home video magazine, and they wrote that I should first check the disc's set-up menu for the correct audio track, and if that did not help to press the Audio button on my remote, and that would do it. Well, it didn't. The discs of 'Live Free and Die Hard', 'Kingdom of Heaven', etc. still read Neo:6. Do you have an explanation for this?

JZ: This sounds to me like a setup issue with your A/V receiver, not just a matter of selecting the right audio track on the Blu-ray discs. Can any Onkyo owners out there help?

Check back next week for another round of answers. Keep those questions coming.

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Tags: Joshua Zyber, HD Advisor (all tags)