History of Wide Screen Formats
Mitchell, Rick, American Cinematographer
A PACKED AUDIENCE at the Samuel Goldwyn Theatre of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in November, 1985 was treated to the first presentation in 5 5 years of the Grandeur version of The Big Trail, filmed originally on a yomm negative. Like supposedly knowledgeable film buffs who were surprised to learn that Doctor X (1932) had been filmed in color and Dial M For Murder (1954) in 3-D, the audience that night was astounded to learn that The Big Trail was in fact, only one of eight features made on film stocks wider than 35mm and publicly shown, primarily in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, 22 years before Cinerama, CinemaScope, and Todd-AO.
Actually, the wide aspect ratio seems natural for motion pictures and one wonders how the initial 1.33:1 standard came about. Although aesthetic standards drawn from the world of painting have frequently been cited, the actual reason is technical. Motion pictures are photographed through lenses which are placed in cylinders to better gather and focus the rays of light. Aesthetics do come into play in the fact that humans have a preference for a squared-off frame, and although some early experimenters in both still and motion photography went with a circular frame, most went with a squared off aperture within the area of the negative upon which the image was focused. The other aesthetic consideration was not to make this image perfectly square, but to give it a bit more width than height.
Two other factors might also be cited: the precedent of the projection of lantern slides, which were in the 1.33:1 ratio, and the psychological effect of the size of the viewed image. When the image is less than about 2 ft. in height, its shape is not significant. As it becomes larger, or appears to be larger in scale in relation to other known objects, it becomes analogous to human vision; the J.33:1 image appears both squarer, and unnatural when presenting images in motion. It should be noted that although W.K.L. Dickson claims his first device for Edison was a projected, talking picture, Edison was primarily interested in developing a peep show device, in which the images to be viewed would be comparatively small.
It is interesting to note that in a survey of early film widths and frame sizes published in the. January, 1969 issue of the American Cinematographer, all the examples from before 1900 are in the 1.33:1 ratio. Only after 1900, when projection had become the established method of presenting motion pictures, was serious consideration given to a wider aspect ratio, though precedent existed in one of the first American projectors, the Latham Eidoloscope, press shown on May 20, 1895, though apparently never put to commercial use. Two years later, Enoch Rector presented highlights of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight photographed on a negative 2 '/16 in. wide, with the picture in an approximately i.66:é aspect ratio to cover the full width of the ring with the boxers in full shot. Latham and Rector's patents would ultimately evolve into the Biograph Company, which photographed subjects on a negative 221/3é in. wide, but which would be printed onto cards used in another type of peepshow device. For commercial success, Biograph would go along with the 3 5 mm 1.33:1 standard established by Edison for films designed for projection.
While this would evolve into a theatrical standard that would hold true for the next halfcentury, it did not stop experimentation in wider aspect ratios or larger negative and print stocks, especially in France. The best overview of these experiments, with illustrations, can be found in Kenneth McGowan's "Behind the Screen." Just as economics forced the standardization of film width and frame shape, economics forced reconsideration of that standard within a quarter century, from exhibition rather than production.
The problems began during World War I and shortly thereafter when theater chains went on their boom of building huge picture palaces. …