The Misunderstood Aspect of your Screen Shape

Nearly everyone has been into a store and seen the new, huge HDTV sets. At some point, we probably notices that the screen is more rectangular than square, and while this fact may have made a small impression, the reasons why, and the impact of the new shape may have gone right on by us. Here’s some help.

So what do we call it? To call it rectangular is not very specific. Just how rectangular is it? To define its shape in a number to two, it’s been reduced to a ratio of width to height. A standard TV has a width to height ratio of 4:3, which can further be reduced to 1.33:1. Sometimes this is just stated as 1.33, assuming the “:1” part as understood. That aspect ratio came from the early days of movies, when the screen size was picked. It was standardized as 1.33:1 nearly 100 years ago, in 1907, when the fledgling film industry recognized the need to set a standard film size and frame shape. Yet, even as early as 1897 there were experiments with wider screen shapes. But big changes really happened in the early 1950s, when TV began to supply to the consumer the bane of movies existence: free entertainment. To the TV boys it made perfect sense to make the screen the same aspect ratio as movies, since there would probably be a lot of film shown on TV. But size and shape aside, TV did one thing very well…it caused theater ticket sales to plummet. The movie industry was desperate to save itself in any way it could. It stepped up the production of color films, but TV responded by announcing that it too would soon be in color. The movies only real option was to build on the physical size of their screen, to emphasize that a movie was more of a special experience than just entertainment. So, out of desperation, the movie industry developed ‘wide screen’ movies. But since wide screen was more of a knee-jerk reaction than a well-planned strategy, there were many different systems, film formats, and aspect ratios tried. The names of these processes are entertainment in themselves: CinemaScope, Cinerama, Panavision, Super Panavision 70, Technirama, Todd AO, VistaVision, and more. (My favorite one is “Cinemiracle”…just the name, not the wide screen process). Enough to fill a book! And in fact, it did. You can buy “Wide Screen Movies – A History and Filmography of Wide Gauge Filmmaking” by Robert Carr and R. M. Hayes on for the full story. It’s an exhaustive studio of the wide screen movie concept, the variations, screen sizes and shapes, and the people that invented them (or in many cases just copied from others!) While much of the book is an extensive filmography of each wide screen process, the stories of the development of these formats is nothing short of fascinating, though possibly not quite worth the hefty price of the book.

But back to wide screen movies. Since each process was somewhat different, and movies had to show on thousands of theaters, there had to be at least some standards. Two methods proliferated above all others. Generically known as “Scope” (from CinemaScope), but used to refer to any film made with an anamorphic process, the screen became 2.35:1. The film is shot through special lenses that squeeze the image horizontally by 2X, then re-stretch it during projection to take a 1.18:1 film frame (yes, it was more square than even 1.33) out to 2.35. The various squeeze/stretch amounts were eventually standardized, and we now have “Panavision”, a company that makes equipment used to produce the current most popular “Scope” format. But, since 2.35 was quite wide, and some theaters couldn’t even show the full width properly, and since there are limitations in cinematography imposed by the special lenses, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences chose to standardize an in-between aspect ratio of 1.85:1 (known today as “flat” in the film world). It requires no special lens, and is achieved by masking off the upper and lower parts of a 1.33 frame by using an appropriate aperture plate in the projector. Cheap, easy, and at no additional cost…the film industry embraced it wholeheartedly. With very few exceptions, all films made today are either 2.35:1 “scope” (anamorphic) or 1.85:1 “flat”, and shot on 35mm film.

Fast-forward to HDTV. The TV industry had long experienced the difficulty of showing a 2.35 scope film on its 1.33 screen. You’ve seen “letterboxed” versions, panned and scanned versions, and just plain bad cropping where one of the key actors is on screen in the theater, but off screen on TV. Since every theatrical film made in the last 40 years was at least 1.85, but TV was standardized at 1.33 over 50 years ago, broadcasters had a problem, and with new standards being developed for HD television, they had a chance to solve it. But the problem proved more thorny than anyone though. Introducing a new standard aspect ratio in TV would alienate old TV viewers. You’d have the cropping and pan/scan issues all over again, but this time on every program all day long, not just movies. It would have made sense to pick an HD aspect ratio that matched Hollywood’s 1.85 standard, right? But broadcasters know about compromise, and being worried about letterboxing a standard image within a 1.85 frame, they chose a compromise of 16:9, which reduces to a rather inconvenient ratio 1.7777777:1 (the 7’s go on forever). Now, you have to wonder what drove this. And the simple answer is, it’s related to the problems of scanning the front of a picture tube with an electron beam, and getting it to work into the corners of the tube. Yes, it’s rooted in a display technology that virtually vanished once 16:9 flourished. Sure, as HDTV slowly penetrated the market, for a time there would be two side bands when a 1.33 image was shown on a wide screen TV, but soon every TV made would have the new wide screen, and eventually 1.33 sets would go away. But rather than match the prevailing 1.85 standard, they picked the 1.77 compromise because it results in a little letter box to show 1.77 on a 1.33 set, and a little vertical letterbox (pillarbox) to show a 1.33 image on a 1.77 set. Neither is optimized, and when you see a real wide screen ‘scope film, it’s always a large letterbox. Actually, my personal theory is that Broadcasters picked 16:9 because it matches the aspect ratio of the original Star Trek series View Screen. Hey, it’s as valid a reason as any other given.

Simply put: they goofed, big time. They compromised the long term aspect ratio by catering to a short term problem. It turns out nobody likes to see a letterboxed image, and constant display of a letterboxed image will actually burn a letterbox into a TV screen, so TV manufactures developed their own compromise: stretching. If you have a new HD set and have a standard image to show, the set can stretch it to fit the new wide screen…and in doing so add 30 pounds to every actor or actress, distort the image, and mess up the cinematographer’s composition. You’d think this would be something any viewer would object to, but go into any TV store and you’ll see one stretched image after another. Go into any sports bar and you’ll see more of the same. In fact, we were shocked recently to go into a Sushi bar and see a nice non-stretched 1.77 HD image TV program with 1.33 aspect commercials, just as it was meant to be…at least in the world of broadcast television.

So that’s the story. It’s a compromise, and a poor one. But there are solutions! You can still see a 2.35 wide screen movie letterboxed inside your 1.77 screen. Several projector manufacturers are now making equipment designed to utilize the anamorphic images found on some DVDs and make them fit a real 2.35 screen. When this is done with HD DVD or BluRay DVDs, the result should be real, honest to goodness, 2.35, ‘scope, Panavision, CinemaScope, Technirama images on your home screen. That’s your own, home, 2.35:1 aspect ratio screen! And what to do about 1.85 or 1.33 material? How about motorized masking curtains that make your screen the right shape for every format. It’s available. Today. From Platinum Home Theaters.

If you’re interested in taking the ‘wide view’, give us a call, and we’ll help you do it. In fact, we look forward to it!

For more information on wide screen projection in the home, call Platinum Home Theaters at 708-588-0880.