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A few aspects of picture ratio

Robert Weedon | Film | Sunday 19th July 2009

One of those things that really annoys me is coming in to a room to find somebody watching a film or TV show in the wrong aspect ratio. Trivial as it might sound, watching a film in the wrong aspect is a bit like reading a book sideways - the words are still comprehensible, but doing so is ultimately stupid and unfulfilling. Probably a bit like your life.

"Aspect ratio" refers to the framing of a picture, and more usually the framing of a television or film. For example, when people say they have a widescreen television, it means that they are watching a picture that is roughly 1.77 horizontal to 1 vertical, often referred to as 16:9 in television/DVD brochures (and about the same ratio as a bourbon biscuit). The reason this number was chosen was primarily a compromise.

In ye olde times, 4:3, also known as 1.33:1, or the "Academy Ratio" was the definitive ratio for both cinema and televisions, as it roughly corresponded to the 35mm frame of cellular film. However, with the growing popularity of the home television set in America in the 1950s, the cinema needed to regain the edge on its small screen rival. The answer was W I D E S C R E E N !

At first, all sort of ratios were tried, culminating in the extraordinary ratio of 2.76:1 for Ben Hur in 1959. Things calmed down in the 1960s with the rise to prominence of a company called Panavision. Since Panavision and to a lesser extent Arri/Zeiss have become the definitive companies to hire cameras and lenses to shoot your big-budget movie on these days, the widescreen aspect ratios of 1.85:1 and 2.39:1 (usually still referred to as 2.35:1) have become the most prevalent. However, in Europe, including Britain, the aspect ratio 1.66:1 was a popular choice until relatively recently, and other more obscure ratios still do the rounds in independent films.

TV took about 40 years to catch up with the concept of widescreen, meaning that for years, they had had to stupidly crop cinema films to the point of incomprehension so that black bars couldn't be seen on the top and bottom. As a result, when a ratio was chosen for new widescreen televisions, they went for a compromise between 1.85:1 and 1.66:1, 1.77:1. Great, apart from it still didn't solve the whole 2.35:1 problem. Philips have recently come to the rescue with their absurd (but ultimately covetable) 21:9 LCD TV. However, broadcasters (with the exception of Channel 4/Film4) still feel the need to pan and scan 2.35:1 films into 1.77:1 when they show them on television. DVDs are therefore probably a safer bet (although always check to make sure it's in "widescreen" on the packaging and not "full screen", a euphemism for pan-and-scan: this won't be "full screen", except on an ancient TV).

At this point, it's worth mentioning that when you watch a film on TV, the TV zooms in by quite a noticeable amount anyway - if one watches a DVD on a computer, you will often notice things at the edges that you don't on your TV, sometimes even little film print errors. This is just a quirk of the format, although it can sometimes spoil framing. I would recommend watching on a computer, but computer monitors are also idiosyncratic - a widescreen computer monitor is 16:10, which means you'll have to compromise in any aspect ratio.

Ultimately, there is no completely satisfying way to watch a film at home, and unfortunately, cinemas are generally full of popcorn rustling cretins. Home projection unit, anyone?



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