Will You Still Need Him, Will You Still Feed Him, When HD Advisor's Sixty-Four?

Posted Fri Jun 25, 2010 at 11:30 AM PDT by

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Answers by Joshua Zyber

Since this week's column is all about aspect ratio issues, I'd like to start by directing readers to two of my existing articles that explain some basic concepts and terms. They both also have plenty of visual illustrations:

Why Don't the Black Bars Go Away?

2.35:1 Constant Image Height Tutorial

Now, on with the show!

1.78:1 vs. 1.85:1

Q: Why is it that some movies labeled as "1.85:1" fill my HDTV screen but others have small black bars?

A: To answer this question, we need to start by looking at the way that movies are photographed. 35mm film has a negative aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Movies shot "flat" (without anamorphic lenses) expose that entire film frame. For 1.85:1 projection, mattes are added to block the top and bottom of the picture. The 1.85:1 image in the center is considered the proper theatrical area.

When transferring that 1.85:1 movie to video, the studio may choose to either transfer it at the precise 1.85:1 with small letterboxing on a 16:9 HDTV, or to slightly lift the mattes, exposing a sliver of extra picture information at the top and bottom. Some studios (like Sony, for example) usually retain the 1.85:1 ratio. Others (like Warner and Paramount) lift the mattes to 16:9 as a matter of policy. And some could go either way on a case-by-case basis.

The image is rarely cropped on the sides during this process. Almost always, extra picture is exposed to the top and bottom. Cropping might occur if the movie was photographed with hard mattes in the camera that actually blocked light from ever exposing the top and bottom of the frame. Thus, the letterbox bars would essentially be burned in to the camera negative. If the studio wanted that picture to fill a 16:9 TV, they'd need to zoom in a little and crop the sides. But that almost never happens anymore. In-camera hard mattes went out of favor decades ago, and were never very common even before that.

Some film purists might argue that any alteration of the movie's aspect ratio is an artistic travesty. I'll admit that in my Why Don't the Black Bars Go Away? article, I argued against open matte 16:9 transfers for 2.35:1 movies, and stated that more picture is not always better picture.

However, when it comes to 1.85:1 movies, we should look at the issue a little more pragmatically. The difference between 1.85:1 and 1.78:1 (16:9) is barely a few rows of pixels, as demonstrated in the following examples from the remake of 'The Manchurian Candidate'.

First, let's see what the movie would look like if the studio had letterboxed it to a precise 1.85:1.

Now, let's see how it actually looks on disc with an open-matte 16:9 transfer.

As you can see, the difference is negligible and doesn't affect the compositional intent of the photography. In fact, it's less than the average projection variances at commercial movie theaters, and less than the 5% overscan on a typical consumer television.

Here's what that same shot looks like when viewed on a television with overscan. The black bars wouldn't be visible even if they were encoded in the transfer.

Professional cinematographers are aware of the variances common in theatrical projection, and the complications caused by TV overscan. Most acknowledge this and try not to frame their shots with important picture information at the extreme edges of the frame.

Opening the mattes from a 1.85:1 movie to 1.78:1 is not a significant alteration, and doesn't affect the compositional intent. Frankly, it's not worth getting worked up about. This is a far different situation than altering a 2.35:1 movie to 16:9, which is a much more drastic and artistically harmful change.

2.35:1 vs. 2.40:1

Q: I'm planning to install a projector and scope screen in the near future. I'm confused about whether the screen should be 2.35:1 or 2.40:1? I can order either way. Some Blu-rays are labeled with one, and some the other. What's the difference, and which is correct?

A: Although this may sound like a simple mathematical problem to solve, the heart of this question actually goes to a longstanding misuse of terminology that has been perpetuated by the film industry for decades. Let's take another look back at film history for a minute.

When CinemaScope debuted in 1953 with the biblical epic 'The Robe', the process had a wide aspect ratio of 2.55:1. The following year, the format was reduced to 2.35:1 due to the addition of an optical soundtrack printed on the edge of the film frame (as opposed to the 4-track magnetic soundtrack previously used). 2.35:1 then became the standard for "scope" movies.

CinemaScope itself actually went defunct in the late 1960s. It was supplanted by competing anamorphic lens processes, the most popular being Panavision. (Nevertheless, the phrase "scope" is still commonly used to refer to productions shot with anamorphic lenses.) At first, Panavision employed the same 2.35:1 ratio as CinemaScope. However, this frequently resulted in frame splices being visible at the top and bottom of the screen. In 1970, Panavision modified the process to reduce the height of the frame, thus masking the splices. This resulted in a new ratio of 2.39:1 and some change, which is usually rounded up to 2.40:1 when discussing it. The theatrical standard for anamorphic projection has been 2.39:1 / 2.40:1 ever since.

Despite this, people in the film industry have continued to refer to the format as "2.35:1" out of habit, even though no movie has been photographed or projected at a ratio of 2.35:1 since 1970. It may not make any mathematical sense, but in filmmaking, the terms "2.35:1," "2.39:1" and "2.40:1" all refer to the same thing, and can be used interchangeably. The actual number is somewhere between 2.39:1 and 2.40:1. (I'm just going to call it "2.40:1" for clarity in response to this question. For the other questions in this article, I'm doing what everyone else does, and just saying "2.35:1.")

So, where does this leave things in the home video realm? Even more confused, that's where.

The sad fact of the matter is that there's little to no standardization when it comes to transferring scope movies to home video. Some movies are transferred at the original 2.40:1, while others are slightly cropped (or open matte, in the case of Super 35 productions) to 2.35:1. The variance may extend as far as 2.30:1, or any number in between. There are rules of thumb regarding certain studios who are usually good about retaining the full 2.40:1 (Warner, Paramount and Sony), and others who usually go with 2.35:1 (Fox). But none of these can truly be set in stone. Even within any given studio, you may get a mix of discs at 2.35:1 and others at 2.40:1. The discrepancy depends on how the specific telecine machine used for the transfer happens to be calibrated. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio specs printed on the back of the Blu-ray or DVD packaging are rarely accurate and cannot be relied upon to tell you how the disc was actually transferred.

As with the 1.85:1 vs. 1.78:1 issue discussed in the previous question, the difference between 2.40:1 and 2.35:1 is negligible and doesn't harm the compositional intent of the photography. I doubt that many viewers with 16:9 HDTVs have ever even noticed that not all "2.35:1" discs are precisely alike.

Now, what aspect ratio screen should you install in your home theater? This will ultimately be a decision that you'll have to make based on your own preferences. Personally, I went with a 2.35:1 screen in my Constant Image Height theater. Discs transferred at 2.35:1 fill my screen completely. Discs transferred at 2.40:1 have tiny letterbox bars. Those bars are so small that they don't bother me. You may feel differently.

Regardless of which ratio screen you choose, you always have the option of adjusting the zoom on your projector to slightly overspill the screen for discs of the type that don't match the screen. Thus, if you get a 2.35:1 screen, you can zoom 2.40:1 discs to fill the height, and let a tiny smidge of picture fall off the sides. Or, if you get a 2.40:1 screen, you can zoom 2.35:1 discs to fill the width, and let a bit of the top and bottom fall off. Yes, you'll be intentionally cropping the picture – but to such a small degree that it shouldn't be noticeable, especially not if you use dark masking around the screen.

Are Scope Movies in Decline?

Q: I thought most movies on Blu-ray were 2.35:1? It seems like most of the movies I've watched recently have been 1.85:1. Is 2.35:1 being phased out? Is this all because of 3-D?

A: I've seen this question come up a few times recently. This most likely is prompted by the fact that a few recent high-profile movies (notably 'Avatar' and 'Sherlock Holmes') that viewers may have expected to see in 2.35:1 were instead released on video at 1.85:1 (or 16:9).

I discussed the controversy surrounding the 'Avatar' aspect ratio in my review of that disc. I'll direct you to read more about it there. (The movie was projected in theaters in both 2.35:1 and 1.85:1 versions). 'Sherlock Holmes' was directed by Guy Ritchie, a filmmaker who has favored 1.85:1 composition for all but one of his previous movies, and is likely most comfortable shooting in that format.

The fact of the matter is that there has been a roughly 50/50 split between 1.85:1 productions and 2.35:1 productions for decades. There's been no sign of that changing recently. Although it's common for many blockbuster-type movies to be photographed in scope 2.35:1 to make them seem "epic," the decisions about aspect ratio are made on a case-by-case basis by the filmmakers, based on what they feel is appropriate for the material. Some directors favor one format, some the other, while many directors will alternate as they see fit. For his 2-part historical biopic 'Che', Steven Soderbergh chose to shoot one half of the movie at 2.35:1 and the other at 1.85:1, just to mix things up.

Here's a partial list of recent movies I've happened to notice were 2.35:1 productions:

'The Book of Eli'
'Edge of Darkness'
'Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief'
The Ghost Writer'
'Shutter Island'
'Cop Out'
'The Crazies'
'Green Zone'
'Brooklyn's Finest'
'The Bounty Hunter'
'Repo Men'
'Clash of the Titans'
'The Losers'
'Robin Hood'
'Iron Man 2'
'The A-Team'
'Knight and Day'
'The Sorcerer's Apprentice'
'Twilight Saga: Eclipse'
'The Expendables'

As you can see, the 2.35:1 format doesn't seem to be in any sort of decline.

On the subject of 3-D, James Cameron has made some statements that he prefers 1.85:1 for that format because he finds it more immersive. That's his personal preference, not a hard-and-fast rule that all filmmakers must adhere to. A number of existing 3-D productions (like 'Monsters vs. Aliens' and 'Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs' were composed for 2.35:1, and more are upcoming. As with 2-D, the choice of aspect ratio will be a decision made for each movie based on what the filmmakers prefer. This should not affect the overall balance of 1.85:1 and 2.35:1 films in the marketplace.

Homework Assignment: You Be the Advisor

The HD Advisor knows many things, but he doesn't know everything. Some questions 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!

TV Stand Recommendations

Q: My question is regarding my current set up. I have a Philips 42 inch flat screen LCD TV that came out a few years ago and a Polk Audio SurroundBar 50 that I've added rear speakers to. I currently have a homemade stand consisting of some cinder blocks and a few shelves that I made myself. It's actually not as bad looking as it sounds, but I am looking to upgrade the look of my living room. The Polk sound bar is just slightly too big to sit in front of the TV itself. When I put it there, it obstructs part of the screen. I solved the problem by adding a small stand on the top shelf that the TV itself sits on. Most of the TV stands that I've seen have smaller shelves below the top shelf that you place the TV on, and I can't mount the TV and sound bar to the wall. The sound bar is also too big to rest on top of the TV. Would you happen to know of any TV stands that would accommodate both my current TV and the Polk 50 surround bar?

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

Joshua Zyber's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this site, its owners or employees.

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