Film Aspect Ratio: The History of Widescreen Movies

Early movie house interior with audience and piano player. A Keystone film of 1913 is shown on the screen with Ford Skating up to his usual tricks.

A film's aspect ratio is the proportion of the width of the projected image in relation to its height. Over the decades of cinema history, the proportion of the projected image has changed for various reasons, though chiefly for dramatic composition. Starting in the 1950s, television had a significant influence on the changing aspect ratio of film.

Did You Know?

The 1959 epic Ben-Hur was one of the "widest" major studio releases of all time, with an aspect ratio of 2.76:1

Early Aspect Ratio Standards

In the earliest years of cinema, there was not an established standard aspect ratio, and films were released in a variety of aspect ratios. Silent films eventually settled on a 4:3 aspect ratio based on the space between the perforations of standard 35mm film. That means that for every four inches in width, the projection was three inches in height.

By the end of the 1920s, the sound-on-film process that was developed by DeForest Phonofilm became industry standard. Since the soundtrack was imprinted on the film itself and the same size of 35mm film was used, it required shifting the size of the image on the film to make room for the sound. This new element required the size of the image to be changed. In 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established the standard ratio for Hollywood films, 1.375:1, which became known as the "Academy ratio."

Chinese Theater in Hollywood
1953: View of Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood with floodlights shining and crowd standing in line at the premiere of director Henry Koster's film, 'The Robe', the first film made in Cinemascope. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

How Television Introduced Widescreen Film

Some early films were projected in widescreen formats, such as the 1927 epic film Napoléon, which used three projectors side-by-side to have a total image size of 4:00:1, and the 1930 John Wayne Fox Film feature The Big Trail, which was shot in a 70mm film format dubbed "Fox Grandeur." However, almost all films from 1932 through the mid-1950s were released in the Academy ratio.

During the early 1950s, Hollywood studios tried new techniques in the face of declining attendance in movie theaters. One strategy was to increase the size of the screen and projected image, especially as a way to combat the growing popularity of television's much smaller screen.

The first narrative film released in one of these new widescreen formats, Cinemascope, was 20th Century Fox's The Robe. Within a few years, various widescreen processes (like Super Panavision 70 and Paramount's VistaVision) made widescreen films standard throughout the industry. Of all the various gimmicks the industry tried in the 1950s to attract audiences back to theaters, widescreen formats were the most successful.

Other widescreen film formats utilized 70mm film, a larger-size film stock. It was used in a number of films in the late 1950s and 1960s, including popular musicals like Oklahoma (1955), South Pacific (1958), My Fair Lady (1964), and The Sound of Music (1965). It remains a popular artistic format for filmmakers for some of their films, including Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson.

Fullscreen vs. Letterbox

A second issue with television and aspect ratio is that television was developed with a 4:3 aspect ratio, which is similar to the original silent film ratio and Academy ratio. This meant that when films shot in Academy ratio were broadcast on television, the movies could be seen in their proper format.

Unfortunately, that meant films shot with widescreen lens like CinemaScope were not formatted properly to appear on television screens. The most common solution to this issue was to "pan and scan" films, which crops off the horizontal sides of the film to make it "fit" the 4:3 television screen. Of course, that would mean that parts of the visual—including some that could be significant to the film—would be cropped out.

To include the most important aspects of a shot, the formatting process was required to create camera "pans" that were unintended by the filmmakers. For example, what appeared to be a static shot on a film screen with important elements on both sides of the screen would need to incorporate a "pan" camera movement across the frame to show both elements.

Sadly, depending on the size of the original film's aspect ratio, large portions of a film's original image could be lost by this process. An alternate was "letterboxed" format, which inserted black bars on the top of the image to "reformat" the screen to include the entire film image. With the introduction of VHS, letterboxed versions of some films were available, particularly in speciality video shops.

However, pan and scan was the far more popular format on television and on VHS. In fact, many uninformed consumers thought the black bars used in the letterboxed format actually hid portions of the image. This misconception continued during the early days of DVD because many films were released in specialty labeled "Fullscreen" (i.e., pan and scan) and "Widescreen" versions, with some consumers misunderstanding the term "Fullscreen" to indicate that it would include a film's full image even though it did not.

Widescreen Today

With the increased popularity of widescreen television sets and high-definition broadcasting (both typically in a 16:9 aspect ratio), the pan and scan format has decreased in popularity and most home media releases and content (including content shot for television or streaming) is now released in a widescreen format. Nonetheless, some filmmakers still utilize Academy ratio for select projects for artistic purposes, such as the Academy Award-winning films Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel.