Monday, January 27, 2003

Here we have a very interesting piece in the Los Angeles Times on the development of CinemaScope movies, with a particular emphasis on black and white anamorphic films.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art's film department is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the wide-screen format with a 23-movie festival, "In Glorious Black-and-White Scope." The eclectic retrospective highlights the artistry of such cinematographers as Joseph LaShelle, Gordon Willis, Conrad Hall, Raoul Coutard, Jack Cardiff and Otello Martelli.

Billy Wilder's "The Apartment," Woody Allen's "Manhattan," Francois Truffaut's "Jules and Jim," Martin Ritt's "Hud," Robert Wise's "The Haunting," Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" and Cardiff's "Sons and Lovers," along with "The Longest Day," are among the films featured in the festival that kicks off tonight.

I will note that there are some fabulous films in that list, and that it is sad that I am not in Los Angeles and cannot catch up with some of them. Actually, I have written a section on this in my yet unpublished book Much Bigger Than Colour: An Overview of the Future of Television , where I am comparing the transition to widescreen that took place in movies in the 1950s with the transition to widescreen that is taking place in television at the moment. There are perhaps one or two things in it which might be a little clearer with more context. I can provide the context if you really want it.

If anyone out there would like to read some more of the book, let me know. The complete contents is here . If you know someone who might be interested in publishing the book or offering me a job definitely let me know.


While the main focus of the European HDTV standard was, unsurprisingly, high definition television, another minor television option was built into the standard. HD-MAC, and Muse, for that matter, were intended for displaying widescreen pictures with approximately the same shape as a movie screen. The designers of HD-MAC recognised that not everyone would upgrade to HDTV immediately, but that some of these people would still like to be able to view pictures in the same shape as movies are shown in on a movie screen. Muse therefore provided an intermediate standard, called DB-MAC. This was essentially a standard for widescreen television at standard definition. This defined widescreen as having an aspect ratio of 16:9

Until recently, all televisions had screens in which the horizontal width to vertical depth was in the ratio 4:3 (or 1.33 :1, meaning that the width was 1.33 times the depth). Until the 1950s, virtually all movies were projected in cinemas in the so called “Academy Ratio” of 1.37:1, which was extremely close to this ratio, and most movies thus looked very similar in shape on television to the way they looked in the cinema. In fact, television was deliberately designed to have a very similar aspect ratio to that of the movies. In a move that was to become curiously familiar to people who have studied the political movements of entertainment companies and Hollywood studios since, the studios concluded that this new medium would stand a chance of killing the motion picture industry. Rather sensibly, the motion picture industry decided to fight this by improving the product that they were selling. There were various gimmicks invented (Smellovision and the like), but only one change that in the long term took off.. This was widescreen. Rather than projecting an image in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1, filmmakers started producing films in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1. With a film projection system, making this change is very simple, as you simply change the shape of the image on the film that is being projected. In order to make the image fill up the full screen, you simply adjust the focus and zoom on the projector: it is possible to make any projector produce an image as large or small as you like. The invention of widescreen allowed much more dramatic vistas and scenes to be shown on the screen at the same time. The vast majority of filmmakers preferred this, and it soon became the standard for motion pictures. (At least, it did in America. Many European filmmakers preferred an intermediate aspect ratio of 5:3 (1.67:1), and many classic French and other European films were shot in this ratio. This presented no technical obstacle, as projectors do not know or care what aspect ratio they are projecting. This ratio is still used occasionally, but most European films now use the same 1.85:1 ratio that do American films.

Hollywood was pleased with this for one other reason: as films were now a different shape than television pictures, it meant that movies could not be shown on television. In retrospect, this sounds stupid, and it fairly quickly became clear that it was stupid. However, at the time, Hollywood was delighted, and awarded a special Oscar to the engineers who developed widescreen Hollywood studios started making money through television sales, and the fact that movies were generally a different shape to television screens was once again a problem. A solution to this was quickly found, however, known as “pan-and-scan”. Hollywood was again delighted and awarded another special Oscar to the developers of pan and scan.

The simplest way of showing a widescreen movie on a conventional television is to simply crop the sides off the picture: show what is in the middle of the screen. However, this is not ideal, as the action is not always in the centre of the screen. However, at most times in most films, the important action is going on in one area of the picture – it is happening on one side of the picture or in the centre: not generally on both sides. Therefore, in order to produce a television version of a film, the actual section of the original picture that is shown depends on what is going on in the film. If the film shows two people talking on the left of the film, then everything is cropped from the right. If the action is on the right, the left is cropped. If the action is in the middle, both sides are cropped. (PICTURE). As the film goes onwards, the section of the image pans from side to side as the action moves from one part of the screen to the other. This gives the impression that the camera was moving when the film was shot, when sometimes it actually wasn’t. Sometimes, film directors will shoot extra shots and camera angles when making a film so that a slightly different cut of the film can be released on video that eliminates these problems. In most cases this does not happen, however. It depends on how much care the particular director wishes to take. Some directors, famously Martin Scorsese and James Cameron, are utterly obsessive about producing the best possible presentation, even on television. Others are less so.

This process is obviously not ideal: we are not seeing what the director and cinematographer of the movie intended if part of the picture is cut off. We thus do not see the full scale of the images. 28% of the image is missing. However, the worst problems occur when action is occurring in more than one part of the picture at the same time. For instance, if there are two people on the far left and far right of the screen who are talking to each other, then serious problems occur. Either one of them must be cut off, or the section of the image being shown must move backwards and forwards as the conversation goes on: it appears that the camera is moving from the left to right and back. This is absolutely not what the film-makers intended.

Until about 1990, most people were generally satisfied watching films that were panned and scanned. However, a consciousness gradually arose concerning the quality of the experience of watching movies. (This is essentially what this book is about). People were less satisfied with poor quality images and poor quality sound.

In the 1980s, movie buffs became more and more dissatisfied with the pan and scan process for viewing films on television. Many wanted to see the whole picture, even if it meant that the picture was smaller As a consequence of this, some (relatively few) VHS video cassettes were produced in “letterboxed” format rather than pan and scanned. (These are often referred to as “widescreen” on the packaging, but aficionados refer to them as “letterboxed”, and prefer to retain the word “widescreen” for situations where they actually have a wide screen).

Letterboxed films show the whole image of the picture, and have black bars on the screen above and below the image. Rather than the screen not showing the whole image, we now have a situation where the image does not take up the whole screen. (28% of the screen is covered by the black bars). Therefore, on a small television screen, the image is quite small. On larger screens (which became popular around the same time that letterboxed movies became available, which is probably not a coincidence) the image is quite tolerable.

In 1953, a even wider screen pictures came into being in cinemas with the invention of anamorphic widescreen formats, often referred to by the proprietary names of Panavision or Cinemascope. These formats (usually) use an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. While the invention of this ratio did not take over motion pictures as did 1.85:1 widescreen, it was and is a moderately successful format, popular for epic movies in particular. In recent years, this format has become more popular, with as many as 50% of big budget Hollywood movies being made in this aspect ratio. With an anamporphic film, the image on the film is not the same aspect ratio as the image on the screen. A special anamorphic lens is put on the camera which compresses the image into a distorted shape that better fits the shape of the film. When the film is projected, an identical lens is placed on the projector, which decompresses the image back to its original shape.

Of course, a pan and scanned version of a Cinemascope film loses even more of the image than is the case with a 1.85:1 film. When the sides are cropped off a 2.35:1 film, fully 43% of the picture is lost. The amount of panning that goes on in the pan-and-scan process is greater and more noticeable. When a Cinemascope film is shown in letterboxed format on a standard television, 43% of the area of the screen is covered by black bars. Not everyone finds this tolerable.

One way of improving the quality of widescreen movies is to change the shape of the television screen, to something closer to what movies are projected in. By the 1980s, it was technically quite easy to build a screen in a wider aspect ratio, and various Japanese and European companies set about developing (analogue) television systems that broadcast a wider image. (They also developed analogue systems that provided high definition images with a greater number of lines, but nothing much ever came of this). Both the Japanese and the Europeans (who developed a widerscreen analogue television format called HD-MAC) chose the aspect ratio of 16:9 (1.78:1) for widescreen images. The consumer electronics companies wanted this ratio (which is the square of the existing 4:3), but the reasons why they did are rather perplexing and obscure to many people, given that precisely zero widescreen movies are made in this ratio. In any event, the 16:9 aspect ratio that was decided upon is sufficiently close to the 1.85:1 of most movies that few alterations have to be made to the movies.

When the American Television Standards Committee was developing high definition television standards for the United States in the 1990s, it was decided that new high definition television would use widescreen for most of its programming. The ATSC adopted the same 16:9 ratio that the consumer electronics companies had been keen on before. Similarly the designers of the DVD, and of the European digital television format DVB also chose 16:9.

Anamorphic Widescreen

To some extent, it doesn’t really matter what aspect ratios that the designers of a particular television format had in mind when they designed the format, as this can be changed on a television by television or program by program basis. This can be seen by thinking about what happens if you attempt to display a program on a television with the wrong aspect ratio.

Consider a normal 4:3 television program, and imagine what happens when we play it on a 16:9 television screen. Generally what happens is that the image is stretched so it takes up the whole screen. The image is stretched, and the picture is distorted out of shape.

Now consider what happens if we squeeze the image inwards rather than outwards before transmitting the image. The image is now distorted when we display it on a 4:3 television, but is stretched out again when we play it on a 16:9 television. Therefore, we have succeeded in displaying a widescreen image perfectly successfully on a widescreen television, by transmitting and storing the image in the conventional way we would transmit and store a 4:3 image.

This process, in which we display store and transmit a widescreen image by squeezing the image inwards before storing or transmitting it and then stretch it outwards again before displaying it is known as anamorphic widescreen. By choosing the amount by which we squeeze the image inwards, we can transmit an image that has the right aspect ratio on any widescreen television.

While anamorphic widescreen works perfectly well with analogue television, analogue anamorphic widescreen is not common. This is because the vast majority of analogue 4:3 televisions cannot do anything with analogue anamorphic images other than show a squeezed picture. That said, many modern 4:3 analogue televisions do have a widescreen mode that squeezes the image vertically and places black bars at the top and bottom of the screen. This will allow the image to be presented in the correct aspect ratio, but it requires the user to be aware of the option and to understand when to turn this system on and off. In a world where most people do not know how to program a VCR, this is considered to big a hassle to deal with. In any event, the people who really care about this sort of thing are using digital equipment by now.

Anamorphic widescreen is, however, extremely common with digital equipment, most notably DVD players. The vast majority of DVDs contain anamorphic widescreen movies. (These are often referred to as “16:9 enhanced” on the packaging). Because everything is stored digitally, it is possible for the disc to contain information telling the DVD player and television that it is anamorphic widescreen and designed for 16:9 televisions. The player and television (which know what aspect ratio they are) can then decide what to do with the image. In the event that the television is widescreen, then the image can be stretched and displayed. In the event that the television in normal 4:3, then there are three options. The image can be left as it is, and it will appear squeezed on the picture. The image can be squeezed in the vertical direction, black bars will appear at the top and bottom of the screen, and a letterboxed image will appear on the screen. Thirdly, the image can be stretched, the sides can be cropped from the image, and the resultant 4:3 image can appear on the screen.

DVD players have the option of doing all three of these things. By far the most commonly used is the second. The DVD player converts the image into a letterboxed image which appears on the screen. The disadvantage of this method is that the DVD player does this by chopping lines out of the image being sent to the television, and instead transmitting lines that are completely black at the top and bottom of the image. This means that instead of 480 or 576 lines, the image generated by the DVD only contains 360 or 432 lines. Some of the picture quality stored on the disc is lost. If instead you use a television that has its own letterbox mode, and use the TV rather than the DVD player to letterbox the image it may well be that the number of lines is not reduced, as the television may be capable of showing the same number of lines, but closer together.

In an ideal world, a DVD would contain a full, anamorphic widescreen image, as well as information about which sections of the widescreen image to show in a pan and scan image on a 4:3 television. If the television being used was a widescreen television, the anamorphic image would be stretched and the full image would be displayed. If the television being used was a 4:3 screen, then on the preferences of a user, the image would either have a portion of lines removed from it, so that it appeared letterboxed on a normal television, or it would be stretched, and then the edges would be cropped of in accordance with the pan and scan instructions so that the viewer could watch a letterboxed widescreen movie.

A disadvantage of using anamorphic widescreen is that although the size of the image is changed, the total amount of information stored in it is not. Therefore, pixels are stretched from square to rectangular, and the resolution in the horizontal direction becomes considerably less than in the vertical direction. In instances where an anamorphic image is stretched and then cropped to appear on a 4:3 television, the resulting image has lower quality than if a 4:3 image had just been sent. For this reason, it is better to actually send a non-anamorphic image with more pixels in the first place, but not all equipment can do this, and of course the data storage and bandwidth requirements are greater.

Notwithstanding these reservations anamorphic widescreen is very commonly used in digital television, in both satellite and terrestrial digital television as well as DVDs.

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