This page details the widescreen aspect ratios used in movie production, plus a guide to the widescreen and pan-and-scan ratios used in DVD for home cinema. There are comparisons between the original cinema releases and the cut-down version used on the home video and television releases.
There are two ways a picture is encoded onto video tapes, DVD's and laserdiscs - either its original widescreen aspect ratio or a cut-down 4:3 aspect ratio. Each has its own good points and bad points depending on the aspect ratio of the TV you are using. Here is some information about the different picture ratios, and how they are viewed on your TV.
Pan and Scan
1.33:1 (4:3) aspect ratio. The Pan and Scan is what you see on most VHS Videos and movies shown on television that fit completely on a regular 4:3 television screen. Pan and Scan is the process of clipping the edges of an original widescreen picture so that it fits a 4:3 TV. In the process a large part or the picture is lost. It's not just a simple process of clipping a standard amount from the edges of the picture, though. If the action is in the part of the screen that would normally be cropped, the 4:3 image can be moved 'off-centre' to ensure that the important things are left in.
Now that widescreen televisions are readily available, software with a 4:3 Pan and Scan version can usually always be found in its original widescreen ratio also, such as side 2 of a DVD-Video disc or a special edition VHS video tape. Digital TV gives you the option of receiving programmes in the original widescreen format (for those with widescreen televisions) or in 4:3 Pan and Scan (for regular TV users).
Variable aspect ratios. The quality and resolution of a picture displayed on a TV depends on the number of horizontal lines the original software has been encoded with. VHS Video has 240 horizontal lines resolution, while the sharper, higher quality DVD-Video format has 500 horizontal lines. When viewing a widescreen picture on a widescreen television, the normal method of filling the screen is to 'zoom' the television and increase the picture size both horizontally and vertically, while keeping the existing aspect ratio of the picture intact. By doing this, the picture resolution is decreased vertically - there are less horizontal lines per vertical distance of television screen, so the image appears less sharp. Anamorphic pictures solve this problem. A normal anamorphic widescreen picture has an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 (4:3); the letterbox widescreen picture has been been pre-stretched vertically before being encoded onto video or DVD. This makes the whole thing look squashed on a 4:3 television, and people look very tall and far too thin! To restore the original widescreen picture size, the widescreen TV expands the frame sideways, thus leaving the horizontal resolution unchanged.
Widescreen DVD's come in either the letterbox or anamorphic formats. Letterbox movies viewed on a 4:3 TV appear, obviously, as a letterbox picture with the familiar borders above and below the picture. On a widescreen TV, the picture must be zoomed-in, and the resolution is affected. Anamorphic movies viewed on a 4:3 television appear squashed at the sides, so the most common way to watch them is to select the 'Letterbox' feature on a DVD player to display the picture with the borders. But watching an anamorphic movie on a widescreen TV where the picture has been expanded reveals the full, original frame size with no loss of picture quality.
The above techniques are methods of displaying recorded pictures. What follows is a guide to the actual film formats employed to create the original picture.
Original movie theatre aspect ratios of 3.0:1, 2.77:1, 2.75:1, and 2.59:1. The Cinerama format used three separate cameras in every camera position. During editing, the three shots of each frame were joined together to produce a high-definition, super-widescreen picture. How The West Was Won was filmed in this format.
The film How The West Was Won was filmed in Cinerama, with the three images put together. If you look very carefully at the frame above you can see the lines where the three pictures interlock, and the slight difference in color between the frames.
Original aspect ratios of 2.66:1, 2.55:1,and 2.35:1. The aspect ratio started out 2.66:1 but was reduced to 2.55:1 when the addition of sound tracks on the film made less space available. This was the most commonly used method of filming movies because it's only major requirement was a special CinemaScope projector lens, which was available at virtually every movie theatre. CinemaScope was originally created by 20th Century Fox, but it is no longer in use. Panavision replaced CinemaScope in the early 70s. The Robe, and Disneys 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea were filmed in Cinemascope.
On the left Disney's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 2.55:1 which means the screen is 2.55 times wider than its height, and on the right is an example of the Pan and Scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, cut down so it can fit your TV screen.
With aspect ratios of 1.96:1, 1.85:1, and 1.66:1. VistaVision was filmed with a specially designed camera which was mounted on its side and it required a special projector, but its image quality was better than standard 35mm. Vertigo, To Catch a Thief, and North by Northwest were filmed in this format. This film format is still used today, but only for special effects shots, because it gives the film maker a large clean negative to work with, which is especially important if you are adding computer graphic imagery to the shot. Apollo 13, Contact, and Twister all used Vista Vision for special effects shots that had computer graphics added to them.
With aspect ratios of 2.35:1, 2.20:1. This process uses a 65mm negative printed onto 70mm film, with a six-channel soundtrack, producing a very high quality picture. Many of the great epics and musicals of the 50s and 60s used this format. Oklahoma, South Pacific and Around the World in 80 Days used the 2.20:1 aspect ratio, and movies in the 70s and 80s like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dune and Logans Run used the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
On the left Around the World in 80 Days in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 2.20:1, while on the right is an example of the Pan and Scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, cut down so it can fit a regular 4:3 TV screen.
Variable aspect ratio. This process was developed by the Technicolor Corporation, as a way to continue using its three-color process in the wake of competing Eastman Color. It required both a specially developed sideways camera (like VistaVision) and a widescreen lens (like CinemaScope). Night Passage, Disneys Sleeping Beauty, and Spartacus were filmed in this format.
On the left Disney's Sleeping Beauty in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and the same frame using Pan and Scan with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. You can see the Pan and Scan version cuts off half of one character, and cuts out two others completely.
Ultra Panavision 70
2.76:1 aspect ratio. MGM Camera 65 used identical film stocks as Todd-AO for camera negatives and prints. Only two films were shown using the anamorphic squeeze in the 70mm print. Other 70mm presentations were done with optical 70mm prints made with the compression eliminated or the quasi-Cinerama 70mm single film system. After Raintree County and Ben-Hur, which used 35mm prints made with letterbox type maskings at the top and bottom of the frame to preserve the 2.76:1 aspect ratio, all other productions used 35mm anamorphic prints with dimensions compatible with CinemaScope.
On the left is Ben-Hur in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 2.76:1, where the screen is 2.76 times wider than its height, and on the right is an example of the Pan and Scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, cut down so it can fit a 4:3 TV screen. This is a great shot to show the advantage of seeing the original widescreen picture rather than the severely cropped Pan and Scan version, where an awful lot of information is missing.
With aspect ratios of 2.35:1 and 1.85:1, the Panavision company became the most successful maker of widescreen lenses, and in the 1970s their Panavision lenses became the "standard" for widescreen. CinemaScope was retired in favour of Panavision, and Panavision still makes the lenses for most of the major studio productions today. Panavision also makes lenses for films made with matting (see Super 35 below) as opposed to true widescreen, and these matted films are not necessarily 2.35:1. Another aspect ratio from Panavision is the 1.85:1 or known as 16:9, and is the standard ratio for widescreen televisions. DVD-Video commonly uses the 16:9 viewing option, but not all DVD movies are in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio.
On the left Star Wars in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 2.35:1,where the frame is 2.35 times wider than its height, and on the right is an example of the Pan and Scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, cut down so it can fit a 4:3 TV screen. As you can see it cuts out Ben Kenobi and Han Solo, so when they start to talk the camera must pan to the right to see them, and pan back to see Luke Skywalker.
On the left, The Lost World in its original Widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1 where the screen is 1.85 times wider than it is high, while on the right is an example of the 4:3 Pan and Scan version, with the aspect ratio of 1.33:1. In this aspect ratio when its cut down to fit the TV, its not cutting out a whole lot of the movie, but it still isnt what the director intended.
2.35:1 aspect ratio. This process does not involve widescreen lenses, but involves chopping down the larger filmed frame to suit the final aspect ratio of the released version. The top and bottom of the frame are "matted" out to remove unwanted material (such as electric cables on the floor or boom-mikes above the actors), resulting in a rectangular picture in the desired aspect ratio. Some of the older movies made in this format are transferred to video with the top and bottom of the frame restored, so that you actually see more of the picture on video than you did in the theater...but this is not always a good thing, because the director did not intend to use the top and bottom of the frame in the first place and may, as stated above, reveal hidden, unwanted material. This is more proof that the 'letterbox' style is the proper format, because it shows us the movie exactly as the director intended. The Abyss, Aliens, Terminator 2, True Lies and Titanic were all shot in Super 35.
When making Terminator 2, James Cameron intended the finished movie to be released with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. He shot the movie in Super 35. He then transfered the whole movie from the original Super-35 film to a high-resolution digital format. From that it is fairly easy to manipulate the picture and extract the theatrical widescreen version (2.35:1), as well as a special Pan & Scan version (4:3). The original Super 35 movie frame is shown in the middle (below)- the red square indicates the 2.35:1 widescreen area and the blue area shows how this frame will be displayed using 4:3 Pan & Scan. Whereas the widescreen version remains a fixed width on the frame that is moved up or down as required, the Pan and Scan view can be moved in any direction and can change in size, too, in order for the most important screen action to remain visible.
The examples below show the 2.35:1 theatre release on the left, and the same frame that has been Panned and Scanned, usually for release on television or VHS Video.