September 11th, 2009
I saw, The Proposal, the other day, an entertaining movie, but something struck me as I drifted off during one of the less engaging moments, how did the screen get to be that shape and why do I like it so much? I know for a fact that silent movies were shown as a virtually square shape, like the old TV screens, and now there are a two main shapes, neither of which are square.
The Proposal was shown, and shot, in widescreen – that’s when the screen gets even wider after the ads and we tense slightly in our seats awaiting something awesome. For the technorati, it’s 2.35:1, which means the screen is 2.35 times wider than the height, who chose that number and why?
When movies were first invented, the shape of the picture wasn’t a matter of choice, it just had to be that way.
When William Dickson and Thomas Edison first used 35mm for their 1892 silent, Blacksmiths Scene , they had to get the picture frame between the perforations, so they ended up with a pretty much square shape. Then when sound came along, the picture area got smaller to allow for the sound track down the side. Many and various film sizes then appeared, though all pretty much maintained the same square-ish shape of image. Some were widescreen experiments using 65mm film but that needed a special projector to show it, so wasn’t seen in many theatres. The radically huge, and epic Napoleon, was another story.
A classic to this day, Abel Gance’s, 1927, five and a half hour movie, was mostly seen in square format until the final reel opened the screen with images from two further projectors creating a triptych. The screen was four times its height, 4:1, people were amazed, it was Polyvision but was never used again. A similar system, Cinerama in the fifties, showed films shot with three cameras and projected with three projectors, you could hardly see the join. But imagine the cost, producers did and only two films were made.
As time went by and more cinemas were built throughout the world, some kind of standard shooting and screening format had to be decided and that was 35mm and 1.33:1, square-ish, but by now everyone had discovered they liked widescreen, so they created this by masking the square frame in the projector and the standard became 1.85:1, a rectangle with almost magical properties.
In the fifties, cinemas were losing out to television, studios had tried everything, colour, talkies, 3D, wide-ish screen, then one day, it was back! Big wide screen. Special lenses enabled, The Robe, to be optically squashed into the standard frame while shooting, and un-squashed when projected. The famous Cinemascope logo hailing its 2.55:1 screen size, on ordinary film. Pretty much the same system as The Proposal all those years later – The Proposal is a little smaller.
So we like widescreen, audiences and film makers alike. For its vistas and interestingly, it’s the way we naturally view the world, our eyes have a widescreen field of view. But the two formats we’ve ended up with, may be for the same reason, as these two numbers, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1, are significant.
The first is very close to the Golden Ratio of 1.62:1, the magical ratio identified by Greek mathematician Pythagoras in 5BC. This shape was later discovered by artists and architects as a means to create a pleasing piece of work. Amazingly however, various pottery, vases and sculptures from as early as the bronze age, have been discovered to have been made to these proportions, way before it was even identified by Pythagoras, indicating a basic, instinctive, human preference for the golden ratio.
The second is very close the second most famous work by artist and mathematician, Leonardo DaVinci – The Last Supper. The entire piece, a fresco, is in the ratio of 2:1 and the design is constructed in the ratios, 12:6:4:3. The overall work measures 12 units by 6 units, the back wall is 4 units, the tapestries, 3 units.
So our preference for movies shown on a simple rectangle, though in special proportions, may be much more than merely for it’s vistas, but may satisfy a desire for fundamental proportions which can be attributed to the very form of man himself.