A Brief History of Aspect Ratios

A rectangle is a rectangle is a rectangle. Unless it’s a screen.

A couple of years ago, I spoke about an immensely boring yet necessary film and television topic: aspect ratios. To put it in the most uninteresting way possible, an aspect ratio is measured as the height by width of your screen, say 4 by 3 (or 4×3) or 16 by 9 (16×9).

So I know what you’re thinking: Who the f— cares, amiright? But have you ever tried to watch a movie on your television, and had big black bars on the top and the bottom of your screen and wonder what was up?

Yeah, aspect ratios. Let me explain.

In the beginning, there were silent films, and no movie theaters. People showed films on whatever they could get their hands on – walls, sheets, etc. Eventually, most silent films settled on a rough standard of 1:33 to 1 (commonly referred to as 4:3, but we’ll stay with the 1:33:1 for better comparison), where there were four inches of width to every three of height.

This size screen tends to view as just wider than a square. While it’s great when one person is on screen, it’s difficult to get a close up of two people on the screen at the same time. One head fills the screen; no room for anyone else.

When silent films gave way to “talkies” around the time of the Great Depression, the Academy (yeah, the same guys who give away those little golden statues), developed a standard of 1.375:1 for all studio films, which was slightly wider than what had been done before. That’s because the sound was stored on the film in a small stripe running vertical along the side of the frame, and the frame needed to be widened to accommodate for that.

In this time period, independent film wasn’t really a thing (no one else could afford it for the most part), and this standard dominated until 1953.

What happened in 1953? All of a sudden, filmmakers wanted to go wider. They realized there was something to having a wide expanse of a frame – scenes could be more epic with wider landscape shots, with enough room for two or even three people speaking in a closeup. (Some films continue to use the 1:375 aspect ratio today, most recently/notably The Grand Budapest Hotel).

A few different ratios were tried at the time, with the filmmaking community eventually settling on two: 1:85:1 and roughly 2:35:1. The latter is what’s called an “anamorphic” format, and a lot of films are shot in this still today. Without getting into the technical details, the format is wider than the lenses and film stock of the day were capable of achieving. So the picture is stretched vertically to cover the entire frame, much like if you took a panoramic picture and stretched it to fill the space for your Facebook profile photo. The difference is, the picture would then be “re-squashed” to the correct proportions, and its widescreen view (again, think panoramic photos) is restored by the projector.

Ironically, this is about the time that television came in, and the new invention went old school. At the time, televisions used cathode ray tubes to essentially project the picture from the back of the TV to the screen in the front. The shape of those tubes eventually landed in the 1.33:1 ratio.

Things kinda went on like that for a while – TV at 1:33:1 and films either landing at 1.85:1 or 2:35:1, depending on the needs of the filmmaker. Cable TV eventually became a thing, giving everyone a consistent picture, and by the turn of the century, the majority of the population stopped getting their television signal from an antenna. Televisions moved away from the tubes and into a digital format that could hang on your wall. This allowed TVs to take different sizes, since they were no longer constrained by the shape of the picture that came off the tube. The consensus seemed to be to make the TVs wider, like the film screens, right? Just makes sense.

Right?

For reasons passing understanding, the standard for televisions became 1.78:1 (commonly referred to as 16:9), just short of the smaller 1:85 that film was using. There’s some technical explanation for this, though the result is just silly to create something new as opposed to using one that exists.

This is all a long way of telling you why your television has black bars. Watching almost any film will give you black bars on your TV screen – very small ones if the film was shot 1.85:1, and much larger ones if the movie was filmed in 2.35:1.

Now don’t you feel better about knowing where those bars come from?