Aspect Ratio Script

This project took longer than most to complete for two main reasons: research and graphics - and I'm slow at both.

Here is the finished voice over for those that might be interested in some of the facts associated with the video. I try to limit these videos to around 10 minutes - so there is considerably more to this subject to be studied. That being said - as an overview - I think it serves it's purpose well.


AR Voiceover v.15 (Final}  4/15/2019

Thomas Edison received US patents for his motion picture camera in 1897. I’m interested in the two key factors that contributed to its design and function – the gauge of the film stock and the size and shape of the camera aperture and its aspect ratio. I’m standing within a frame that has an aspect ratio of 1.77:1 or 16 units wide by 9 units tall. By 2010, this format was adopted worldwide as the standard aspect ratio for computer monitors, video cameras and broadcast television. It’s the most recent in a long line of screen shapes and sizes developed throughout cinema history. This video is about the technical and cultural reasons that influenced all of those aperture shapes and screen sizes.

In its infancy, the motion picture industry was a no standards, anything goes, provincial medium whose participants photographed and projected images at random frame rates and aspect ratios. As these entertainment regions expanded, it became clear that standardization was necessary as a means to promote and distribute films globally.

In the late 19th century, worldwide Interest in movies was growing rapidly and thus - fueling the need for new content. Thomas Edison and George Eastman attempted to monopolize film production by patenting the camera system and the film stock. Eastman was already making un-perforated 70 mm roll film but that was an unwieldy size for the camera Edison had in mind. So Eastman sliced the 70mm film in half, perforated both sides and presto! the 35mm film format is born. The next step was to determine the size and shape of the taken image. Edison’s senior assistant, WKL Dixon is credited with suggesting the rectangular shape known as the “Golden Ratio” - a shape considered aesthetically pleasing by the ancient Greeks. Edison liked the idea and it fit nicely between 4 perforations.  Measuring 4 units wide by 3 units tall this frame shape is known as the 1.33:1 aperture and would become the world’s first standardized aspect ratio.

In the end, Edison added this 1.33 aperture to the other camera patents he applied for and in 1897 was granted.

Because of these patents, early filmmakers were forced to use Edison’s camera threaded with Eastman film. Within a few years, filmmakers escaped Edison’s onerous patent   agents by re-locating to California - where they ditched the patents - kept the 35mm camera with its 1.33 aperture and got to work. For the next three decades, the 1.33 aspect ratio was the standard in the U.S.

In 1927 – Warner Bros released “The Jazz Singer” - the first film with synchronized dialogue. Al Jolson’s crooning was made possible with Vitaphone, a system that relied on manually syncing a phonograph record with the print. It was a sensation. Across town, 20th Century Fox rolled out a sound on film process called Movietone and it debuted on FW Murnau’s – Sunrise. To accommodate the sound track, the aperture was resized and moved over. This new aperture size and position became standardized in 1932 - known as the “Academy” aperture – and it’s still in use today. 1.375:1

1952 – the year Television changed moviegoing forever. The growing popularity of TV was seen as a major threat to the financial health of the film industry.  To re-ignite audiences interest in the movies - the major studios invested heavily in elaborate wide screen formats.

Take Cinerama for example. This mindboggling system required three interlocked cameras with re-engineered 6 perf vertical apertures and 3 specially matched 27mm spherical lenses.  Cinerama films were shown in custom theatres, requiring no fewer than 5 technicians to put the show on – 3 projectionists a picture engineer and a sound engineer. With a whopping 2.65:1 aspect ratio, Cinerama was hailed as a sensational new movie experience.

In 1953, Fox introduced Cinemascope, a proprietary wide screen process that depended on anamorphic lenses for principle photography and theatre projection. It works by squeezing the image horizontally by 2.4 times and then un-squeezing it in projection to achieve the wide screen effect. The lenses were originally developed by Bausch and Lomb and later significantly improved by Panavision.   

Also, in 1953 – a simpler wide screen spherical format was introduced and achieved by cropping the top and bottom of the Academy aperture. Widely popular today, literally thousands of movies have been photographed and released in the 1.85:1 format.

1954 - Paramount debuted VistaVision - its answer to the wide screen craze consuming Hollywood in the 50's. This 8 perf horizontal format consumed twice as much film as regular 35 mm. The large frame could be matted for multiple aspect ratios. Vistavision only lasted 7 years, but was resurrected in the 70’s to shoot visual effects elements for Star Wars.

1955 – Mike Todd and American Optical went big with a spherical 65mm wide screen system boasting a native 2.20:1 aspect ratio, incredible image quality and 6 tracks of high fidelity sound. “Oklahoma” and “Around the World in 80 Days” are the first two films shot in the format and were box office hits that won 7 academy awards between them.


1957 – MGM got into the wide screen game by partnering with Panavision to create MGM 65 – also known as Ultra Panavision. This system created the widest frame in Hollywood history with a mind blowing 2.76: 1 aspect ratio. This was accomplished by adding a 1.25 squeeze to the already massive 65mm frame. This single camera system doomed Cinerama overnight and after a 50-year hiatus, Quentin Tarantino revived the format for “The Hateful Eight”.

1970 – In 1970, the last and arguably the biggest film format debuted at EXPO 70 in Japan. Imax - a spherical, 65 mm 15 perf horizontal format that renders an image 9.5 times larger than a 35mm academy aperture.  Imax was created first as a special venue format but by the mid 2000’s a handful of feature films were digitally re-mastered in either 1.90 or 2.40 to 1 aspect ratio’s. 75% of “Dunkirk” was photographed in IMAX, the most so far in cinema history.

In 1950, Eastman Kodak released the world’s first color negative film. Up until then, the three strip Technicolor process was the only option for a color movie. Now, one roll of film could do the job of three meaning that engineering exotic camera systems was significantly simplified. And finally – if in 1897 Thomas Edison had chosen a 3 perf aperture instead of four – that’s right! - our latest world-wide standardized television aspect ratio could well have been the motion picture industries first.

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