A film’s aspect ratio is the proportion of the width of the projected image in relation to its height. Over the decades of cinema history, the proportion of the projected image has changed for various reasons, though chiefly for dramatic composition. Starting in the 1950s, television had a significant influence on the changing aspect ratio of the film.

The beginning

We owe the first aspect ratio to one man: William Kennedy Dickson. Dickson worked at Thomas Edison’s Lab as a staff photographer. After Eastman Kodak began mass production of a flexible film in the early 1890s, Thomas Edison wanted to put this new film to use in a device called a Kinetoscope – the precursor to the projected film. After a few years of start-and-stop experimentation, they finally arrived at a working prototype.

In the earliest years of cinema, there was not an established standard aspect ratio, and films were released in a variety of aspect ratios. Silent films eventually settled on a 4:3 aspect ratio based on the space between the perforations of standard 35mm film. That means that for every four inches in width, the projection was three inches in height.

Academy ratio

By the end of the 1920s, the sound-on-film process became industry standard. Since the soundtrack was imprinted on the film itself and the same size of 35mm film was used, it required shifting the size of the image on the film to make room for the sound.

This new element required the size of the image to be changed. In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established the standard ratio for Hollywood films, 1.375:1, which became known as the “Academy ratio.”

Widescreen film

During the early 1950s, Hollywood studios tried new techniques in the face of declining attendance in movie theatres. One strategy was to increase the size of the screen and projected image, especially as a way to combat the growing popularity of television’s much smaller screen. The first narrative film released in one of these new widescreen formats, Cinemascope, was 20th Century Fox’s The Robe.

Within a few years, various widescreen processes made widescreen films standard throughout the industry. Other widescreen film formats utilized 70mm film, a larger-size film stock. It was used in a number of films in the late 1950s and 1960s, including popular musicals like Oklahoma (1955), South Pacific (1958), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965).

Aspect Ratios in the Modern Era

In the 1990s, technicians drew up the standards for high-definition television. They wanted to create an aspect ratio that worked equally well for legacy 1.33 TV broadcasts and movies shut in the popular 2.4 aspect ratio. So, they settled on the average between the two. 1.78 is so similar to 1.85. It shares all of the same strengths and weaknesses. 

In a funny kind of way, technological innovation has driven the rise of the vertical aspect ratio. Smartphones shoot and display 1.78 or close to. But to do that, you have to rotate them 90 degrees. 

2.0 (widescreen for 16:9 screens) is currently enjoying a renascence. It’s existed in various guises for years but has recently become a go-to format for streaming services like Netflix, Amazon and Apple. It’s a nice middle ground between 1.78 and 2.4. People love widescreen. However, excessive letterboxing on small screens can waste precious screen space. So, 2.0 seems to offer a good compromise, the allure of a wide screen without the waste of letterboxing.

Conclusion

The frame is a motive. It has nuance and history. But at the end of the day, we don’t want people to be looking at the frame. We want them to be looking through the frame. If you can create something invisible, then you have achieved your goal. 

Are you in need of professional video production? Contact us at info@kobalproduction.com and we’ll tell you more about our approach.