Highlights from the History of Motion Picture Formats

By Patterson, Richard | American Cinematographer, January 1973 | Go to article overview
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Highlights from the History of Motion Picture Formats


Patterson, Richard, American Cinematographer


Throughout its relatively short history, the film form has assumed a wide variety of shapes and sizes

The history of technical developments in motion pictures is a relatively poorly documented field, even though it spans less than 100 years. Because of the spontaneous development of techniques on many fronts it is often difficult to say who did what first. Moreover, because it was a field so open to commercial exploitation, experimenters often worked in complete secrecy, and many of the accounts we have of early developments were written by people who had no way of knowing what others were doing in the same field. Historical accounts are also subject to a very natural chauvinistic bias, and it is often quite revealing to read accounts of early developments written from a French or Russian perspective.

All this is simply by way of saying that this article is not intended to be a contribution to scholarly research in the history of motion picture technology. It is simply meant to be a survey culled from a variety of publications which sums up some of the highlights in the development of motion picture formats. My concern has not been to make judgments as to who invented or introduced a particular format, but to examine the major trends and indicate what some of the sources were. The criterion used in selecting developments was simply the impact that they had on the industry as a whole. This is, admittedly, an arbitrary criterion, and I do not by any means wish to slight the significance of developments which have not (yet!) affected the industry at large. Had I been writing in 1950, I might very well have passed over Henri Chretien's anamorphic lens as an interesting but essentially irrelevant development in the history of motion picture technology.

The history of motion pictures has been one continuous experiment with various film widths and projection formats. In addition to 8mm, 16mm, 35mm, 65mm and 70mm, there have been as many as 25 other film widths used for motion pictures. Film historians are always amused by the implication that wide films are something new, since some of the earliest experiments in motion picture photography used film over 60mm wide. In 1897, for example, Enoch J. Rector photographed the Corbett-Fitzsimmons prize fight using 63mm film. He had about 20 of his Veriscope projection machines made, and the fight films were exhibited all over the country.

Thirty-five millimeter became the standard film width simply because Edison chose to work with 35mm film. Since he sold more equipment than his competitors in this country 35mm became more widely adopted. In 1895, Lumiere, in France, redesigned his Cinematograph to be compatible with the kind of film Edison used so that he could take advantage of the motion pictures produced by Edison's company. Prior to that Lumiere had used 35mm film with a single round perforation for each frame. In 1907 an agreement was reached standardizing 35mm film, and in 1916 the formation of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers furthered the trend toward standardization.

The fact that Edison chose to use 35mm film with four perforations on each side of the frame also resulted in the 4 × 3 format which became standard for the motion picture frame and screen. It has been suggested that if Edison had been designing his original film for projection rather than for viewing in a Kinetoscope, then he would have naturally designed a wider format, since he would have thought in terms of a stage. As it was, though, the 4 × 3 format became standardized, and there was little real impetus to change it until the advent of sound.

This is not to say that there were not other formats used. During the first decades of motion pictures, there was of course a plethora of film formats and screen sizes. One of the most striking experiments and perhaps the first "wide-screen" presentation was Raoul Grimoin-Sanson's Cineorama patented in 1897. His system consisted of ten synchronized projectors projecting from a central booth onto a huge circular screen.

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