Aspect ratio describes the width and height of a cinema or television screen, or the size in which a film has been shot and should be projected. The size is not standard, so an aspect ratio may be defined in centimetres or inches or yards, etc. Aspect ratios are also used in photography.
There are many aspect ratios. In very simplistic terms, the most common are:
1.85:1 – widescreen standard in cinemas in the US and UK;
4.3 – universal video and television format of the 20th century;
16:9 – universal high-definition and digital video and television format of the 21st century;
The most common aspect ratios for photography are 4:3, 3:2, and 16:9.
A Little History…
Silent movies were shot on 35mm black and white film with a standard aspect ratio of 4:3. When talkies started being made in the late 1920s, the type of film and aspect ratio remained unchanged. When films started being made in colour, again, the standard aspect ratio remained at 4:3.
Television adopted Hollywood’s 4:3 “Academy Ratio” from the mid-1930s onwards. This allowed films to be shown on television without distorting the image. The almost square 4:3 ratio could conveniently be displayed on the round cathode-ray tubes which were being manufactured for televisions at the time.
By the 1950s, televisions were commonplace in homes and had become the main vehicle for moulding public opinion. Television was primarily a medium for entertaining, providing up-to-date news, and pushing advertising.
In 1953, as a competitive response to the growing popularity of television, Universal Pictures introduced the 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. Although initially only a gimmick, this widescreen aspect ratio remains to this day the standard format for theatrical film in the US and UK.
With theatrical releases appearing in a different format to television, television studios had to find a way to tackle the mismatch in order to retain the movie’s aspect ratio without distortion. This conversion is still necessary today. Televisions use the following methods to manipulate the image from a DVD, Blu-Ray or broadcasted film:
– shrink the image to fill the screen vertically and add horizontal letter-boxing
– enlarge the image to fill the screen horizontally and add vertical pillar-boxing
– enlarge the image to fill the screen and cut off excess picture information
– stretch the image to fill the screen (however, this distorts the image)
Some directors, for various reasons, choose to make a film in a non-standard format. George Roy Hill made The Sting (1973) in 4:3 in order to recreate the classic film look.