Richard W. Haines on Issue with Motion Picture Aspect Ratios


The reason the aspect ratio of "War of the Worlds" is 1.85 is probably due to the extensive digital effects utilized throughout the feature.  I believe CGE (computer generated effects) are difficult to do when the image is compressed anamorphically during principal photography.Digital effects extravaganzas are usually shot flat (1.33) and then scanned digitally to add the computer generated special effects and out-putted back to film in 1.85.  One option to get a widescreen image is to use the 'Super 35' format which means the entire silent academy 1.37 ratio is photographed during principal photography.  It's then scanned into a computer to add the CGI.  Then it's outputted to film in two formats.  The tops and bottoms of the image are severely cropped to generate an anamorphic 2.35 x 1 ratio for theatrical presentations.  A full frame 1.33 image is also out-putted for broadcast.  "Titanic" was made in this system which was similar to the old "SuperScope" process in the fifties.  The problem is that compromises have to be made to accomodate both formats as well as the CGE.  The projected image lacks the resolution of a Panavision or 65mm film too since so little of the available frame is used for the release print.  The dramatic use of widescreen is rare today as a result.  You won't see too many features using the entire width of the screen and characters spread out as you did in the days of 70mm ("Lawrence of Arabia") or Cinerama ("It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World").  Since the majority of people will be seeing the film on DVD or cable, most directors compose Panavision films as well as 1.85 flat films with the key action in the center of the screen so little is lost if some of the sides are cropped for current letterbox presentations on home video or future HD presentations in 16 x 9 ratio.  The emphasis is no longer on theatrical exhibition which is primarily used as 'paid advertising' for the home video formats.  Processes that would dramatically improve the theater experience like 70mm or dye transfer (Technicolor) printing have been abandoned. 


©Copyright 2005 by Richard Haines, reprinted on this site with permission.

author, "Technicolor Movies", "The Moviegoing Experience 1968-2001"



This is in response to my review of the new “War of the Worlds.”

I also posted some comments by him on my review of “Down With Love”.