Celebrating the History of Motion Pictures from 1890 to 1960

The History Of “Aspect Ratio” In Movies

The “Academy” Ratio – The Shape of Movies Before 1953

Aspect ratio is relationship of width to height.

Before the successful introduction of Cinerama at the end of 1952, and the release of the movie “Shane” in 1953, which was photographed conventionally on 35mm film but then distributed with instructions to artificially “crop” the film’s image so that it could be shown on a widescreen, the “aspect ratio” of almost all commercial movies was 1.33:1 (or, 4:3, to put it another way). This meant that the actual size of the movie’s image – the width-to-height ratio of the picture – was 1.33 inches wide for every 1 inch that it was high (or, 4 inches of width for every 3 inches of height, if you will.) Because almost all motion pictures up to this time were scaled at this ratio, the standard TV screen was also designed using this same ratio of 1.33:1. (This standard TV screen ratio is now being replaced by a wider TV image that has a ratio of 1.78:1, referred to as 16:9.)

Aspect ratio of TV screen.

Why the original 4:3 aspect ratio was chosen from the very earliest stage of motion picture development remains something of a puzzle. Although the 4:3 ratio had been used often for 19th Century lantern slides and photographs, there was no “standardized” format at that time. Nevertheless, by 1891, soon after some initial experiments in the development of motion pictures, W.K.L. Dickson, Thomas Edison’s assistant, chose the image aspect ratio of “4 units wide to 3 units high” for their exhibition format.

John Belton speculates in his book “Widescreen Cinema” that since Dickson quickly established a film image width of 1 inch (perforations on each side of the 35mm filmstrip that Dickson used left just enough space for a 1 inch wide image), “The use of a three-quarter inch height would appear to maximize the number of frames/images Dickson could create in the short fifty-foot strips of film he initially used, while providing an aspect ratio that still remained close to the Golden Section of 1.618:1 (also known as the Divine Proportion, the Golden Cut, and the Golden Rectangle) of Greek art.” Whatever the reason, Dickson’s choice of the 4:3 ratio for the Edison film images quickly became the “standard”, due principally to, ” the monopolistic practices and business acumen of Thomas Edison and George Eastman, who oversaw the innovation and diffusion of this invention.” (Widescreen Cinema ) By 1896, once the Lumière Brothers, the largest producer of motion picture films in Europe at that time, adopted the 35mm film format and the 4:3 aspect ratio, this “standard” became international.

Aspect ratio comparison.

Thus, everything was hunky dory until the advent of synchronized sound for motion pictures in the late 1920’s, especially Movietone’s sound-on-film system that was quickly adopted by the Fox, Paramount, and Universal studios. When the new optical sound track was put alongside the image on the motion picture film, the width of the area available for the image was decreased, and the 4:3 aspect ratio could no longer be maintained. (Warner Bros.’s sound-on-disc Vitaphone system, however, didn’t have this problem because their sound was not stored on the film itself.) The new aspect ratio became roughly 1.15:1, which was almost square and considered by many motion picture technicians to be static, non-dynamic and inappropriate for dramatic content. The movie theater owners also didn’t like this new image size because their screens were proportioned for the original 1.33:1 ratio.

Finally, in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voted to restore the old aspect ratio by masking the top and bottom of the frame during shooting and projection with specially-cut aperture plates in both cameras and projectors. (The resulting aspect ratio became actually 1.37:1, but this technicality is usually overlooked and it is still generally referred to as a 1.33:1 ratio, or sometimes 1.33/7:1.) This “new” standardized aspect ratio for film images became known as the “Academy” aperture, ratio, or standard, and it was used for most commercial 35mm motion picture productions until 1953.

The Robe.

© 2004 The Picture Show Man. All Rights Reserved.


The following products will help you explore this subject further:

BOOKS:

  • The Emergence of Cinema: The Amercian Screen to 1907, (1994) by Charles Musser
  • Filmmaker’s Dictionary, (2nd edition, 2000) by Ralph Singleton, et al.
  • Restoration of Motion Picture Film, (2000) by Paul Read & Mark-Paul Meyer
  • Silent Cinema: An Introduction, (2000) by Paolo Cherchi Usai

DVDs:

  • The Bat Whispers, (1930) Shot in both the “standard aspect ratio” and in widescreen, this DVD contains both versions.
  • Shane, (1953)
  • Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 1, (1994)
  • Landmarks of Early Film, Vol. 2, (1999)
  • The Movies Begin – A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894-1913, (2002)
  • More Treasures From the American Film Archives, 1894–1931, (2004)

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