Aspect Ratios

Okay blog readers, listen up: today we’re going to learn something about aspect ratios.

Why, you ask? Because I, for reasons passing understanding, feel the need to throw out my three cents on them, and it’s my blog, so shut up.

First, a refresher on aspect ratios or, for the uninitiated, a quick note as to what the hell an aspect ratio actually is. You may have noticed your TV is wider than it is tall (yeah, seriously, it’s not square). In fact, the vast majority of TVs sold are the same ratio of width to height, no matter how big: 1.78 units wide (feet, inches, etc) for every 1 units tall. That’s what an aspect ratio is: how many units wide for units tall.

Most films are shot in two aspect ratios – 1.85 to 1 (commonly written as 1.85:1) and 2.35:1. The latter is, of course, wider than the former, and often called Cinemascope. It’s pretty wide. The former, 1.85:1, is quite close to television’s aspect ratio (it’s also called 16×9, a different way to measure things).

The reason why I bring this up is I have the impression that most commercially released films are shot 2.35:1. Which is great in the movie theater – wider screen, more seats, that epic look we all know and love.

However…and it’s a big however…

A good run for a film in a major commercial theater is around four weeks. A great run, eight weeks. Titanic, which was among the longest runs in US history, went for something like six months. Star Wars Episode VII has a chance to beat that.

Speaking of Star Wars, the original (Episode IV), the original was released in 1977. Empire (V): 1980. Jedi (VI): 1983.

Getting my point here?

Okay, let me try again. How many times have you seen Star Wars? Now, how many times have you seen Star Wars in the theater, vs. on your TV at home? I pretty much guarantee you it’s the latter. In the 21st century, with something like 600 films released a year, and things like Netflix, Amazon and other streaming services coming straight into your home, the vast majority of people will experience the vast majority of films on their home televisions the vast majority of the time.

If you watch a 2.35:1 film on your home television (or iPad, computer, etc), you’ll get black bars on the top and bottom of your screen (called “letter boxing”). If you watch a film in 1.85:1 on your home television, there are very slight bars – you probably won’t even notice them.

So I’m wondering, if the shelf life of a film is far greater on your television than on a theater screen – why aren’t most films released in 1.85:1? If for no other reason than black bars are damned annoying after a while, and burn out your television’s pixels faster than a regular picture would.

If you have an answer to this, you’re smarter than I am. It seems to me that the filmmaker thinking long-term would put some thought into this.

Now watch – I’ll find some reason to release my next film in 2.35:1.