The Widescreen Scam
by Guy Wright

 

 

 

 

Widescreen ScamThese days there is a lot of talk about widescreen. DVDs feature letterboxed or widescreen versions of films, new TV sets on the market feature widscreen (16:9) picture tubes, and new HDTV video cameras shoot video with widescreen aspect ratios. Even some commercials that are intended to be shown on regular, old TV sets (with width-to-height aspect ratios of 4:3) use artificial widescreen framing in order to impart a "classy", "professional" look. But is widescreen really any better than good old 4:3?

It's debatable whether humans actually prefer widescreen over than 4:3 but that's not stopping the industry. When you look into the origins of widescreen films, it turns out that they were originally nothing more than a marketing gimmick dreamt up by Hollywood in the 50s specifically to thwart TV.

Opening Credits
Originally, all movies were made using a 4:3 aspect ratio because they were based on the film used in the "Eastman-Walker Roll Holder Breast Camera" (patented by George Eastman and William Walker in 1885). In 1889 Eastman introduced 35mm celluloid-based transparent, flexible film for his Roll Holder Breast cameras (commonly known as the Kodak Camera). The 35mm film frames that Eastman used just happened to be 33% wider than they were tall (usually expressed as 4:3 ratio or sometimes 1.33 to 1).

In 1889 Thomas Edison ordered specially designed rolls of the new transparent, flexible film from the Eastman company for use in his development of a motion-picture camera. Eastman saw a market for movie film and soon started full-scale production.

(Historical Note: Transparent, flexible film was actually invented and patented by Reverend Hannibal Goodwin in 1887 and in 1914 Eastman was sued for infringing that patent. Eastman was forced to pay five million dollars in cash as part of the settlement.)

Even though there were a few companies making movie film in different sizes over the next few decades in 1927 the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences officially made 1.33 to 1 the industry standard, it later became known as the Academy Aperture, and nearly every film made from 1917 to 1952 used this aperture. Actually, in 1931 the Academy Aperture was modified to 1.37 to 1 to accomodate sound. (Just in case you were wondering - there are no "widescreen" versions of King Kong, Casablanca, or Gone With The Wind.) Apparently Hollywood (and the public) thought that 4:3 was perfectly fine for the next 60 years.

Evil, Evil Television
When TV was being developed in the 30s and 40s they could have chosen any aspect ratio at all, yet they decided, in order to be compatible with movies (and existing camera lenses), they would also adopt the industry standard 4:3 "Academy Aperture".

As television's popularity increased Hollywood began to see TV as a threat. In the early 50s movie studios began trying all sorts of weird things to make sure their movies wouldn't be compatible with TV sets. Smell-o-vision, 3D-glasses, and various audio and color technologies were tried and finally they hit upon an answer - widescreen.

(Historical Note 2: Color film - not just hand tinting - was tried as early as 1906 but early technologies were expensive and unreliable. Even though by the mid-20s film companies had worked out most of the bugs only four feature films were made in color in the 20s and the technique was put aside by Hollywood until the late 40s and 50s. Did you know that scenes in "The Phantom of the Opera" (1923-25) and "Ben Hur" (1925) were both shot in color?)

The Wide Robe
In September 1953 20th Century Fox premiered The Robe at New York's Roxy Theater using a "new" technique they called CinemaScope. (In fact the "new" technique had been patented 30 years earlier by French physicist Henri Chretien (1879-1956) who invented the technique in the late 1920s.) The CinemaScope technique uses two anamorphic lenses -- one on the camera and one on the projector. The first squishes everything horizontally during filming, like a funhouse mirror that makes fat things look thin, the second un-squishes it during projection. These lenses produced an image that had an aspect ratio of 2.35 to 1.

Soon, lots of different studios started making their own versions of 'Scope' films: WarnerScope, TechniScope, PanaVision, PanaScope, and others. Later, other systems using 70mm film showed up (Cinerama, Todd AO, Polyvision, etc.) that achieved aspect ratios up to 3 to 1, but most of these films ended up being transferred to 35mm 'Scope' proportions for general release.

There were problems with these special anamorphic lenses however. First, the camera lenses were VERY expensive to rent - you couldn't buy them - and second, the projectionist had to remember to put on the special projector lens before showing the film.

In the mid 50s, some clever cinematographer who didn't want to spend the money to rent one of these special camera lenses invented a widescreen trick. Shoot a movie using regular lenses on regular 35mm film and put a rectangular mask or matte over the projector lens that cuts off the top and bottom of the projected image. You just move the projector back a little bit from the screen and ta-da, instant widescreen. Films shot this way had aspect ratios ranging anywhere from 1.66 to 1 up to 1.85 to 1.

For many years widescreen films were shot using this technique. It was cheaper to shoot and the movie theaters didn't have to have special lenses for playback. Of course, you still had to rely on the projectionist to put the rectangular mask on the projector and sometimes they forgot. Later, most studios began putting masks on the camera during shooting so that the top and bottom of the frame wouldn't get exposed.



(Continue to Part 2)