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Black Bars: An Explanation of 'Widescreen'

written by: David Braun•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/19/2011

Contrary to popular belief, widescreen TVs were not created to match the format of widescreen films. In fact, there is no standard size for filming movies. The format controversies began years before film producers felt competition from the popularity of home TV. We begin by explaining aspect ratio.

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    What is Aspect Ratio?

    In order to understand the conversation about widescreen TV and movies, one must first have a basic understanding of a cinematographic term called, "Aspect Ratio." The term describes the relationship between the Width and Height of an image as it is recorded on film and then reproduced on a screen. Aspect Ratios are expressed as X:Z, where X is units of width and Z is the height. Most standard TVs, and what we (sometimes) affectionately refer to as 'Fullscreen' have aspect ratios reflected as 4:3, which is in fact actually 1.33:1 for most TVs and shows produced for television. This is approximately the frame size for images shot on 35mm film, which is the original standard for film (aka Academy Standard). Initially, TVs were produced with aspect ratios closely matching that of 35mm film.

    On the reverse of almost every DVD case, there is a small television icon with some numbers inside. Those numbers are the aspect ratio, and in most cases it will be the same in which the film was originally shot and intended to be viewed. Occasionally, however, some producers will film in one aspect ratio and then use any of a variety of editing techniques to crop or skew the image pre-release.

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    This is Cinerama

    Films for the theater were being created and projected long before TV became popular in the home. In the late 1920s, filmmakers began looking for bigger and better ways to display the full scale of their creations. This is evident in the various different prototypes of cameras, projectors, and sound equipment that were being developed at the time. When the Great Depression swept the nation, however, many of those ambitions to upgrade theaters and film technology were put aside until the 1950s when, in the wake of WWII, Hollywood (and television) experienced a boom.

    This is where many people get confused. In the 1950s, individuals began to purchase televisions for their homes. The argument goes that the film industry was so pressured by a downturn of business in the movie theaters, that they created new film formats, not compatible with standard TV displays, to lure viewers back to the big screen. There is some truth to those claims, as theater technology was vastly outdated by 1952, but the evolution of widescreen at the same time as the rise of television is likely more coincidence and economic timing than anything.

    The truth 1952, a film was released called "This Is Cinerama," which introduced a big-picture experience only rivaled by the likes of Citizen Kane, a 1941 production that revolutionized film technology several years ahead of its time. "This Is Cinerama" used a newly developed system of capturing images with three 35mm cameras and then projecting them side by side onto a massive, arced screen. It also used a new sound technology called Stereophonic, which produced highly realistic, three dimensional sound. The film industry and audiences alike were rocked by the huge sounds and epic magnitude of the giant screens as they scrambled to fit the new format. Many people will recognize Citizen Kane as one of the earliest, and perhaps the most famous, films to be produced for the "wide" screen. As money flowed into the industry, filmmakers continued to break away from the Academy Standard in an effort to produce more magnificent and artistic cinematography.

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    Widescreen DVD vs. Widescreen TV

    Now here we are in 2009. The Digital Age. Televisions come in a dozen different shapes, sizes, and types. Buying a widescreen TV is as tough a decision as buying a new car, with all the various makes and models. But yet...even with my new slim-design Samsung 50" widescreen DLP, when I watch Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers on Blu-Ray, I still get black boxes on the top and bottom of my screen! What gives?

    Looking back to the discussion of filmmakers branching out to new production techniques, we find that movies today are generally filmed in one of approximately twelve different aspect ratios, depending on the particular cinematographic effect the producer is trying to achieve. With the advent of anamorphic technology, which uses magnification lenses to compress an image when it's recorded and then stretch it back out when it's projected onto a screen, most films are now produced on 70mm cameras, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, meaning that the industry standard for filming movies that are intended to be shown in theaters, is still much wider than the general ratio of 16:9 that we see on widescreen TVs and monitors. (Compare to a standard ratio of 1.76:1 for HDTV broadcasts.)

    Why 16:9? Because in the 1980's it was found that, when each of the different aspects were normalized to a constant area, they would all fit within a particular outside rectangle, and that when overlapped, they all shared a common inner rectangle. It worked out to approximately 16:9, which is simply the mean ratio for all the different aspects. Unfortunately, this means that almost no movies are going to naturally fit your widescreen TV. The good news? The popularity of High Definition TV has solidified the role of 16:9 (1.76:1) as the champion format of the future. With new advances in digital filmmaking and the popularity of Internet video, we may yet see the end of those pesky black bars after all.