Persistence of Academy Ratio

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Paul Penna

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Persistence of Academy Ratio

PostSat May 22, 2010 11:11 am

Are there any documented instances of major studio productions made well after the switch to widescreen formats that were deliberately composed for Academy Ratio, say as late as the 1960s? There's a chap on the TCM forum insisting that it wasn't uncommon, both in photography as well as exhibition, centering around his "definite recollection" that in 1967 he saw and studied as a film student "Bonnie and Clyde" "numerous times" in "many theaters" projected in Academy Ratio. He also says that's how he saw "Barry Lyndon" in 1975. I pointed out to him that the likelihood of any of this was vanishingly small, citing all the usual points and suggesting he Google Jack Theakston and Bob Furmanek articles and posts online, but he remains adamant. It's really the same old "I remember what I saw" vs. how things really were argument, but it would be nice to cite a concise smoking-gun statement about the 1960s and B&C specifically.
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Mike Gebert

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PostSat May 22, 2010 11:40 am

I suspect he's confused by movies shot for 1.85 but with the full frame exposed. It's not uncommon to see those on TV-- any time Pee-Wee's Big Adventure plays on standard TV, you're bound to see a bunch of stuff that wasn't meant to be projected, like the road signs he passes being pulled on wheels by a crew person, or the endless chain in his bike basket being fed through the open bottom of the basket.
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Christopher Jacobs

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PostSat May 22, 2010 12:48 pm

This should probably move over to the "Tech Talk" forum, but films shown in theatres by the 1960s were most likely showin in 1.85 and/or 1.66 or somewhere in between, whether or not they were composed for that ratio, so most cinematographers "protected" the frame to be compatible with a variety of projection ratios. Any place like schools, film societies and small art houses that ran 16mm instead of 35mm, however, (or any TV showings) would have run the same films in 1.33, with extra image available above and below.

Some directors did hang on to 1.37, especially independents who often used 16mm, and foreign auteurs like Godard, who stated that black and white should be in Academy ratio (or vice versa) whereas color should always be in CinemaScope (or vice versa). Bergman's PERSONA and others, are stil 1.37 in the mid to late 60s. And there are hybrids like RED ROCK WEST, GETTYSBURG, MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and others originally planned for television (and composed for 1.37) but released theatrically where they played in 1.85 in almost every theatre. A lot of movies in the 80s, after the rise of home video, appear to have been compsed for television and protected for 1.85 instead of the other way around, but with the increase of letterboxing and growth of 16x9 TV sets, that appears to have switched to composing for 1.85 and protecting for 1.78 or vice versa. Movies as recent as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN appear to be very well composed for 1.33, yet almost equally well-composed for 1.85. Woody Allen's PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, on the other hand, looks severely cramped at 1.85 and appears to have been shot for 1.37, as does DEAD MEAN DON'T WEAR PLAID, matching the style of their inspirations and old film clips. These kind of films pose a problem on video when the DVDs proudly announce that they're letterboxed to match the original theatrical presentations and do not include alternate "full-screen" versions.

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Paul Penna

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PostSat May 22, 2010 2:01 pm

This guy is pretty much aware of all this and does seem to be conversant with film aspect ratios and how they are achieved; it's just his chronology that's off, centering mostly around "Bonnie and Clyde." He claims it was "never intended by the director" to be widescreen based on:

a. His memory of having seen it in Academy Ratio numerous times in several theaters in 1967 when he was a NYU film student.

b. What he claims is incorrect cropping of opening title sequence framed photos if the film is matted; says the tops and bottoms of vertical (portrait) format photos are chopped off top and bottom.

To help back up his contention that B&C wasn't supposed to be widescreen, he contends that based on his own "life experience" he knows that Academy ratio films "were made long after 1954, 1964 and even today!"

On the one hand, he does come off as having some grounding in film technology ("it's my business") but on the other one of those "I'm positive I saw it in 3-D/color/black and white/with/without Episode 4/" faulty memory types.
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Jack Theakston

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PostSat May 22, 2010 7:41 pm

There's all the possibility in the world that your friend went to a particular theater that ran flat films in the Academy ratio, but I do doubt that he saw anything other than the 1.85 ratio in any more than one theater during the 1960s. By that point, most theaters had replaced their screens and during the late '60s, started twinning theaters, so the 1.85 ratio would have been maintained.

Memories are funny things. There are people who swear they saw PSYCHO in color. What can I say or show them that they would possibly believe?

As far as flukes, they happened— usually they are independent films where the photographer had only ever shot 16mm and had no conception of what the guidelines on his viewfinder meant. Hence the various camera operators on NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, which is obviously a cornucopia of shots where someone knew to block for widescreen, and then plenty of others where they had no clue.

BONNIE AND CLYDE, as I recall, is hard-matted in some scenes. If it is, there's no argument.
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Mitchell Dvoskin

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PostSun May 23, 2010 11:03 am

> GETTYSBURG, and others originally planned for television (and composed for 1.37) but released theatrically where they played in 1.85 in almost every theatre.

All the Gettysburg (1993 version) 35mm prints were anamorphic Panavision, 2.35 aspect ratio, and the film makes good use of the wide "scope" aspect ratio. Gettysburg may well have been originally planned for television, but the decision to go theatrical was made before they started shooting and the film was clearly shot as a wide screen movie.

Jack, I saw Psycho in color. Of course, it was that forgettable 1998 Gus Van Sant remake, but I swear, I saw it in color. :lol:

> He claims it was "never intended by the director" to be widescreen based on

Paul, unless he has written documentation such as a 1967 interview with the director, or written production notes, he has no way of knowing how the director intended the film. Further by 1967, there was not more than a handful of theatres nationwide that still had lenses and masking for 1:37, it is unlikely that the studio would have allowed him to shoot for 1.37 even if he had wanted to. Home Video was still a decade away, and TV airings were still an afterthought to the studios. Memory is always suspect without documentation, and being in the industry does not exempt one from this, nor does it exempt one from being an idiot.

Many non-anamorphic films were/are printed open mat, but were never intended to be projected that way. Anyone who has ever been a theatre projectionist can tell you that.
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Christopher Jacobs

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PostSun May 23, 2010 2:44 pm

All the Gettysburg (1993 version) 35mm prints were anamorphic Panavision, 2.35 aspect ratio, and the film makes good use of the wide "scope" aspect ratio. Gettysburg may well have been originally planned for television, but the decision to go theatrical was made before they started shooting and the film was clearly shot as a wide screen movie.


You may be thinking of GODS AND GENERALS, the "prequel" to GETTYSBURG, which was in scope and had many of the same cast members. I remember GETTYSBURG being flat, sometimes looking okay at 1.85 and sometimes looking a bit too cropped, and being very disappointed that the DVD version was letterboxed only, rather than including a full-screen version the way it was actually shot. It was blown up to 70mm for some theatres, apparently retaining the 1.85 ratio but boasting a 6-track magnetic stereo soundtrack in the days before digital theatre sound was widespread.

Jack is right that individual theatres might have made a practice of running flat films in 1.37 longer, or they may simply have had a projectionist who felt certain films needed to be run in certain aspect ratios and it might have been in a different aspect ratio the next night. When I ran the BEAVIS & BUTTHEAD movie, it opened on a screen that showed flat films at 2:1, so I borrowed a lens from a different screen to run it closer to 1.66:1, and it was obviously composed for 1.33 since it originated as a TV show and home video was its intended main audience. I also ran MULHOLLAND DRIVE at 1.18, since we didn't have a lens for that screen that would quite show 1.37, and it was obviously overcropped at the standard 1.85. Nights I wasn't working, more often than not a projectionist would go back to the default flat lens for those screens. When we'd get a rare revival print, it was hard to find lenses from other screens to fit the exact ratio if the film had to run on certain screens, so CITIZEN KANE wound up being projected at roughly 1.5 to 1 instead of 1.37 and REAR WINDOW was 1.37 instead of the correct 1.66 (although I probably should have just run that one at 1.85). CASABLANCA had to run at 1.66 and actually looked pretty darn good at that ratio, as it did not cut off any of the opening titles on the top or bottom, and even 4x3 TV sets often crop into the title area!

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Ray Faiola

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PostMon May 24, 2010 9:02 am

Coppola made ONE FROM THE HEART in 1982, composed and released at 1:37. I saw it at Radio City.
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Mitchell Dvoskin

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PostMon May 24, 2010 10:42 am

I stand corrected, Gettysburg is indeed 1.85 as Christopher posted above.
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Bob Birchard

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Re: Persistence of Academy Ratio

PostMon May 24, 2010 5:49 pm

Paul Penna wrote:Are there any documented instances of major studio productions made well after the switch to widescreen formats that were deliberately composed for Academy Ratio, say as late as the 1960s? There's a chap on the TCM forum insisting that it wasn't uncommon, both in photography as well as exhibition, centering around his "definite recollection" that in 1967 he saw and studied as a film student "Bonnie and Clyde" "numerous times" in "many theaters" projected in Academy Ratio. He also says that's how he saw "Barry Lyndon" in 1975. I pointed out to him that the likelihood of any of this was vanishingly small, citing all the usual points and suggesting he Google Jack Theakston and Bob Furmanek articles and posts online, but he remains adamant. It's really the same old "I remember what I saw" vs. how things really were argument, but it would be nice to cite a concise smoking-gun statement about the 1960s and B&C specifically.


Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart" was intended to be projected in 1.37 format (1.37 is Academy aperture--1.33 is full frame silent and TV aperture).
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Re: Persistence of Academy Ratio

PostMon May 24, 2010 6:28 pm

Bob Birchard wrote:Francis Ford Coppola's "One From the Heart" was intended to be projected in 1.37 format (1.37 is Academy aperture--1.33 is full frame silent and TV aperture).


Am I right in assuming that projecting in this ratio would have been an unusual procedure for most theaters at this late date? If so, would most have complied, or perhaps just high-profile big city venues?
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Jack Theakston

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PostMon May 24, 2010 6:34 pm

Some readers may find this article I wrote about a year ago for a projectionist's journal an interesting insight into the varying aspect ratios of film over the years. I think, for the most part, I covered all of the major bases here:

If there is one topic that is most neglected by technical papers, it is the shape of the image in which a film is projected. Over the years, there have been a number of standards for which films have been shown. In some cases, some of these standards differ on a studio-to-studio basis. This section will try to overview generally the changing size of the screen.

All Edison-standard silent films are the same aspect ratio: 1.33-1. The aperture plate measures .906" x .6795".

When sound film was introduced in 1927, the aperture remained the same with sound on disc formats. However, for sound-on-film formats, there are some drastic differences at the studios between 1927 and films produced in November, 1929. Between that time, these are the intended aperture sizes from studio to studio:

Studio------------Dimensions of Apertures
Paramount----------.623" x .812"
Fox------------------.650" x .835"
MGM----------------.723" x .835"
Columbia------------.725" x .950"
United Artists-------.700" x .920"
Universal------------.720" x .969" (films shot with Bell & Howell cameras)
---------------------.723" x .835" (films shot with Mitchell cameras)
Sennett-------------.720" x .865"
RKO-----------------.720" x .855" (films shot with Bell & Howell cameras)
----------------------.723" x .835" (films shot with Mitchell cameras)
Educational----------.723" x .895"
Darmour-------------.700" x .840"
Tiffany-Stahl---------.700" x .868"
Pathe-----------------.723" x .887"


(The standard aperture in B&H cameras was .720" x .969"; in Mitchell cameras, .720" x .923")

Because of this irregularity, the first approach towards a standard was set in November, 1929, when the Society of Motion Picture Engineers set the "1930 standard". At this point, all films thereafter were shot for a projected aperture of .600" x .800" in order to stay as close to the original ratio of 1.33-1 as possible.

In November, 1932, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences set the final standard for the motion picture aperture at .600 x .825" (1.37-1). This standardized the aspect ratio of theaters across the country and ultimately across the world.

When studios looked to new aspect ratios to combat the success of television, a number of flat aspect ratios turned up. The Academy ratio image was exposed, but guidelines were marked off on the camera viewfinder in order to compose the image correctly. Because of this, there is dead space on the top and the bottom of the Academy image that is not meant to be seen. It is important to use the correct aperture plate so that unwanted things such as boom mics are not seen, but that it is not so narrow that important information is cropped.

When identifying the correct aspect ratio of a film if it is not given in the leader or reel bands, there are several key things to look for. The first is to look at how the opening titles are blocked. When centered, the opening titles will rest comfortably in a certain ratio, and no lettering should be cropped off. Likewise, medium shots of actors should exhibit moderate to little head room, with the eyes or mouth resting on the top third line of the image. Do not be confused by extreme close-ups, in which the top and bottom of a head that may be cropped.

Between March, 1953 and September, 1955, various ratios were used by the American studios for their flat productions. Here is a general list of each studio based on shooting dates, although there are exceptions to all of these rules:

STUDIO_________ASPECT RATIO
Paramount_________1.66-1 (March 1953 - January 1954)
_________________1.85-1 (Flat pictures after February 1954)
_________________2.00-1 (VistaVision titles after Feb. 1954)
Universal__________1.85-1 (After April 1, 1953)
_________________2.00-1 (July 1953 - October 1955)
Columbia__________1.85-1 after April, 1953
Fox______________1.66-1 (for all non-CinemaScope titles after September, 1953)
Warner Bros._______Variable ratio in 1953, 1.85-1 after March 1954
MGM_____________1.75-1 (April 1953 - September 1955)
_________________1.85-1 (After September 1955)
Allied Artists________1.85-1 (After May 1953)
United Artists_______1.85-1 (After May 1953, but ratios vary from independent studios to studio)
Republic___________1.66-1 (April 1953 - September 1955)
_________________1.85-1 (After September 1955)

After September, 1956, studios more or less went to the 1.85-1 aspect ratio unanimously. Ratios overseas varied greatly. Many European productions stayed at either 1.37-1 or 1.66-1. British films over the years varied from 1.66-1, 1.75-1 and finally 1.85-1 depending on the studio and distributor.

Measurements for these plates are respectively:

RATIO DIMENSIONS (INCHES)
1.66-1 .825 x .497
1.75-1 .825 x .471
1.85-1 .825 x .446
2.00-1 .825 x .4125

In September, 1953, Twentieth-Century Fox introduced CinemaScope, the first widely accepted anamorphic widescreen process. Using a 2x squeeze lens, images were photographed on film at a ratio of 1.33-1 (full silent aperture). In printing, the image area was cropped down to 1.28-1 (.912" x .715") and striped with magnetic soundtrack (see AUDIO). When unsqueezed on the screen, these prints yield an aspect ratio of 2.55-1. After complaints from exhibitors, an optical audio soundtrack was added to accommodate those theaters not equipped for magnetic sound. This cut the image down to a ratio of 1.18 on film (.839" x .715"), expanded to 2.35-1 on screen.

In 1954, another anamorphic system appeared on the market called SuperScope. The initial idea of the specialized lens invented by the Tushinksy Brothers was to create a system in which variable ratios could be projected with one, variable anamorphic lens. The end results for these SuperScope prints is an image size 2.00-1 on the screen at full width at 2x un-squeeze. The plates for this ratio are .715" x .715".

Because of the narrow frame line, studios that did not use standard CinemaScope splices opened themselves up to splices appearing on the screen. In October, 1971, SMPTE resolved to set the anamorphic standard plate at 2.39-1 (.838" x .700"). In August of 1993, this was revised one more time in order to standardize with flat ratios. The same aspect ratio was kept, but the plates are now cut at a size of .825" x .690".
Last edited by Jack Theakston on Tue May 25, 2010 2:05 pm, edited 4 times in total.
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Jack Theakston

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PostMon May 24, 2010 6:41 pm

Am I right in assuming that projecting in this ratio would have been an unusual procedure for most theaters at this late date? If so, would most have complied, or perhaps just high-profile big city venues?


I don't know what they did specifically for that film, but the usual procedure to show Academy ratio films after the '60s was to make a 1.85 or scope print with the Academy image pillarboxed in it.
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Bob Birchard

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PostTue May 25, 2010 12:22 am

Jack Theakston wrote:
Am I right in assuming that projecting in this ratio would have been an unusual procedure for most theaters at this late date? If so, would most have complied, or perhaps just high-profile big city venues?


I don't know what they did specifically for that film, but the usual procedure to show Academy ratio films after the '60s was to make a 1.85 or scope print with the Academy image pillarboxed in it.



I don't believe they did this with "One From the Heart." Part of what Coppola was going for was using the whole 1.37 frame to achieve better image quality on screen. The film was such an immediate and resounding flop that it probably wasn't an issue outside major cities.
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Christopher Jacobs

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PostFri May 28, 2010 11:37 am

ONE FROM THE HEART actually played in our town, and in our largest theatre, but I'm pretty sure it was run in 1.85 as I don't recall the image being unusually small. It's been decades since I've seen it, and I don't remember whether it looked unnaturally cropped in the theatre (of course the old VHS was 1.33).

During one of the later FANTASIA reissues, Disney required any theatre playing it to obtain a lens and hang new masking so it could be shown in 1.37, but after that they just made reduction prints to fit within the 1.85 frame area. Disney reissues before the mid-80s were simply shown cropped to 1.85, often with hard mattes printed on the film so theatres that actually had 1.37 lenses and aperture plates were still stuck running a cropped version. SNOW WHITE and PINNOCHIO looked terrible in theatres in the 70s.

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PostFri May 28, 2010 2:49 pm

Jack Theakston wrote:
Am I right in assuming that projecting in this ratio would have been an unusual procedure for most theaters at this late date? If so, would most have complied, or perhaps just high-profile big city venues?


I don't know what they did specifically for that film, but the usual procedure to show Academy ratio films after the '60s was to make a 1.85 or scope print with the Academy image pillarboxed in it.


A few years ago at a local university screening of a 35MM print of TWENTIETH CENTURY, they started with it masked for 1.85, but a few audience members complained and they restarted it at the proper ratio.

The opposite happened at mall matinee I caught of de Palma's UNTOUCHABLES in its opening run. The projectionist forgot the anamorphic lens, and the first ten minutes ran "squeezed." That crowd got REALLY vocal about it.

Once, in a college "history in film" course (around 1983), we had to watch a 16MM 'scope print of THE COURT MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL squeezed because there was no anamorphic lens available! Plus, as I recall the print had faded and was heavily reddish-brown, so that counts as one of the most ridiculous filmgoing experiences I've ever had.
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