The Truth About Aspect Ratios

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. The video doesn’t mention the Super 35 format at all.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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?
  10. 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?
  11. 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.]


  1. Mr Apollo

    Well said. I think these are the kinds of things that the average consumer should be learning about. I miss your weekly articles you use to write on hdd. This was very much appreciated.

  2. Ted S.

    I totally agree that John Hess should’ve at least mentioned something about IMAX’s aspect ratio. Especially now that IMAX has become more popular, some filmmakers have modified aspect ratio of their films to fit the tall screen. Prometheus, Skyfall and Oblivion were some films that were shown at the aspect ratio of 1.90:1 on IMAX.

  3. William Henley

    Something that gets really fun is when your 1.44:1 Imax film gets the home-video treatment. Do you stretch, compress, or crop the video? I have seen all three used, sometimes on the same film. However, back in the early 90s, I had a couple of VHS home video releases that I think they put the full-frame Imax picture on a 4:3 screen – that lead to some interesting visual fish-eye looking images.

    And then, for your 1.44:1 Imax picture, what happens when you play it on an IMAX screen versus a dome? I was thinking about that last night as I was watching Tornado Alley on the dome. IMAX screens are still wide, but not as wide as a conventional movie screen – er, I think, I could have sworn when I was a kid, I went to an IMAX screen that seemed wider than a conventional movie screen, but according to their website, its a 60×80 foot screen, so that is…. 3:4? That doesn’t sound right.

    It sounds like most internet videos – someone trying to make it sound like they know what they are talking about while only doing a bare amount of research.

    • William Henley

      Talk about an effed up memory – just did some research on the two movies I caught at that musuem as well, and both are clearly 1.44:1. So strange – for the past 20 years, I was convinced that it was like a 2.8:1 aspect ratio or something.

  4. August Lehe

    Josh, you have DEFINITELY DONE YOUR HOMEWORK! I am still puzzled by CinemaScope 55 and which TODD AO 65MM films were shot at 30 fps and which were SHOT AT 26 fps (CLEOPATRA?)…SOMEBODY NEEDS TO DO AN ASPECT RATIO BLU RAY SET COMPLETE WITH SMILEBOX DISCS!
    The thing that really impresses me about VistaVision is that the frame area is ACTUALLY larger than 70mm! (meaning you can touch up the negative more easily!)

    • William Henley

      The thing that really impresses me about VistaVision is that the frame area is ACTUALLY larger than 70mm! (meaning you can touch up the negative more easily!)

      Interesting – where are you getting that information from? Both VistaVision and Imax shoot horizontally on the film, so an Imax 70mm film should still have a larger area than VistaVision which is shot on 35mm.

      Only Oklahoma and Around the World in 80 Days was shot at 30 FPS

  5. Wow, Josh.

    That was quite a post. Did you know all of those facts right off your head if so maybe you should create a web vid of your own. Whats more is this is just the sort of documentary that should be coming out of hollywood but isn’t.

    That makes me sad. 🙁

  6. Ed Q.

    I am sure that a discussion on aspect ratios could last for hours. However, your whiny attitude in you article totally invalidates your arguments. As some of the other commentators noted, be positive and publish your own article on aspect ratios. This article is basically the equivalent of a “liar lair pants on fire” rant.

  7. William Henley

    Going back and watching this video again, I think I understand what they are trying to do here. This is supposed to try to explain aspect ratios to the masses. Kinda like an hour long documentary on History Channel is for people who are mildly interested in a subject, but how it doesn’t really scratch the surface.

    The documentary isn’t BAD – its just incomplete – from our standards. It seems to accomplish what it set out to do – to explain some of the technicalities about why aspect ratios are like they are, and why we have black bars on our television when a movie is released on DVD or Blu-Ray even though we have a widescreen television (you don’t know how many of my friends scream and complain about that). It’s kinda like a Beginner’s Guide to aspect ratios. While not complete, it doesn’t need to be. That wasn’t the purpose of this film.

    What really drives me nuts, though, is just the way its shot – ie the camera movements compared to the host talking. It makes John Hess come across as kind of a dick. Different framing and directing would have made this a lot more watchable.

    In retrospect, they could have also have cut out about 2-3 minutes of runtime if they didn’t keep cutting to scenes of movies. If they wanted to give some visual examples, they could have done like any other movie documentary and cut to a 5-10 second video clip with the host talking over it. Them cutting to a movie clip for 30 seconds to a minute at a time really pulls you away from the documentary.

  8. John Hess is a young man whose first language is Chinese. He lives in Temecula, and has apparently no professional movie experience whatever. He has a sponsored blog, and now provides a seemingly unending stream of online movie “history” videos, which are fast and loose with the facts, and seem to have no fact-checking at all. Much of it is fiction.

    Mr. Hess doesn’t know the difference between “chromakey” and “greenscreen compositing” (one is Film the other is TV) and insisted I am “old and out-of-touch” when I suggested he could easily look up technical standards, either at the Motion Picture Academy or the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers, and that is what those organizations are for. He said, “nobody cares what they used to believe, this is what we believe now.”

    The last straw for me was when Mr. Hess kludged together a wanky plastic rig with his DSLR and computer, to “duplicate” the high-quality engineering of the slit-scan “Star Gate” effects of “2001 – A Space Odyssey” much of which was constructed by my friend, the late Don Trumbull, for his son Doug Trumbull’s excellent Visual Effects work on that film. Mr. Hess’s claim that he has somehow duplicated the work of the men who actually did the actual work in the actual film, is unbelievable arrogance, and strictly an ego trip.

    I have tried to correct many of Mr. Hess’s inaccuracies and erroneous videos on YouTube, but (perhaps you’ve noticed), he simply deletes any correction or contradiction.

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