Controlling the Aspect Ratio

The bulk of this article comes from Benjamin B’s article in The ASC magazine, entitled THE ELASTIC FRAME, any remarks or additions have been marked in blue.

In our current age of digital projection, the projection aspect ratio is subject to change at the will of the filmmaker, giving the filmmaker unprecedented control of how he or she wants to present their work on what canvas.

The aspect ratio of a film the “canvas” in which we filmmakers compose our images.

Let’s take a look at the options and their history.

1. Film-Projector Gates
2. Digital Projection
3. Biutiful (2010)
4. Anamorphic is not 2.40
5. Mommy (2014)
6. The Elastic Frame
7. Tradition and Innovation

11 35mm and 70mm Aspect Ratios


1. Film-Projector Gates

In the days of film projection, aspect ratios were defined by pieces of metal. In film cameras the gate is the window that lets light through to the negative. Gates have a slot for sliding hard mattes, thin pieces of metal that narrow the window to a desired aspect ratio. (Hard mattes were more frequent in European cinema than Hollywood, where producers demanded open gates to have the option to do minor reframing). Many (but not all) film prints were also exposed with metal mattes that blocked light, putting black around the intended image frame.

Film projectors were outfitted with metal gates that matched the aspect ratio of the film, though these gates were often slightly bigger than the target aspect ratio; for example, some theaters used 1.66 gates for 1.85 films so as to be sure to not impinge on the image.

In traditional 35mm, aspect ratios could be changed by optical printing, but it was a complicated process. Note also that prints of anamorphic films had squeezed images, and required changing the projector lens as well as the gate so as to unsqueeze the image optically during the screening.

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