Click here to learn the story.
Below is a screen capture from a Kino-on-Video DVD. Please take a close, careful, leisurely look at it:
What you see above is pretty much what you would have seen on a cinema screen in 1923 when this silent movie was new.
Oh, there are a few differences.
The scratches wouldnt have been there originally, and the density would have been more even.
The centering may perhaps have been a little better.
You see, as films get handled, they get scratched. As they get old, they lose density.
And all films shrink, so all films from the 1920s have now shrunken considerably.
Once a film has shrunken, it may not be possible to align it on printers and projectors properly,
and it may well drift off a little bit to one side or the other.
Also, if a film has shrunken too much, it may be necessary to modify the printer
to drive the film from the sprocket holes on one side only, thereby forcing it to shift a little to the right or, more often, to the left.
That might be what accounts for the image above being slightly off-center.
Originally, this film would have been shown on screen at something close to a width-to-height ratio of 4 × 3, or 1.33:1,
through a projector aperture measuring .90625" × .6796" or thereabouts.
If you measure the above frame, you will see that it is now closer to 1.30:1.
Perhaps thats because of the alignment problem caused by shrinkage, which prevented one edge from being scanned for video.
And perhaps that might also be because the technicians at the video laboratory
discovered that there was a little more usable height on the frame than would have been shown at cinemas in 1923,
and decided to use it for the video transfer. Maybe. I cant know for sure.
More prosaically, this could simply be the result of my
As far as I know, this film was not revived until the 1950s, and if you had gone to see it then, it would not have looked the same. No. It would have looked like this:
Can you see the differences?
First of all, the left side is missing, throwing the image severely off-center.
The reason for this is that by the 1950s, projectors were showing only sound movies,
and since the sound track was where the left side of silent movies used to be,
well, when silent movies were revived, the projectors were no longer set up to show the left side.
Now, you will notice that the top and bottom are missing as well.
This is because when the left side is missing, the resulting image is nearly square.
After showing audiences nearly square movies for a few years in the late 1920s and early 1930s,
studios and cinemas decided, only for reasons of æsthetics,
to return to something like the width-to-height proportions of silent films.
And to do that, the top and bottom were masked off in the projector.
The aperture plate for this format is usually about .825" × .600", for a width-to-height aspect ratio of 1.375:1.
(Trial versions of this format, which you can still find in a few older cinemas, could be as narrow as .796" and as tall as .610".)
When this new standard was formalized in March 1932 it came to be known as the Academy Aperture,
for though it was standardized by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, the usual body for such things,
the SMPE did so at the insistence of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences,
an institution that really has nothing at all to do with technical standards.
Though the resulting image was smaller, a new set of lenses, of a slightly shorter focal length
Now, if you go to a modern commercial cinema today to watch this movie, it will look different yet again. Take a look:
The reason for this is that modern cinemas are set up only to run widescreen. Despite all youve heard and read, widescreen is seldom an improvement. More often than not, it simply means that a smaller portion of the film image is being overly magnified to fill a larger screen. This particular crop that I am illustrating for you is one of the most common, 1.85:1, which utilizes an aperture plate in the projector measuring about .825" × .446".
So, are you ready? Lets do a comparison of several sequences, to illustrate what the movie would have looked like when it was shown originally, what it would have looked like when it was revived 30 or so years later, and what it looks like when its shown at movie theatres now.
|As it looked originally||As it would have been shown
30 years later
|As it would be shown in modern cinemas|
|Isnt it amazing that the background and the sky and clouds look so much like a painting? Thats because they are a painting. I think. This looks to me like a glass shot: a painting on portions of a piece of glass positioned in front of the camera so that the real-life scene is framed through the transparent part of the glass, and the background is in the painting around it. The effect can be most convincing.|
Most people who go to the movies, and even most people who go to older movies, are unaware that anything is wrong. They see an image fill the screen, and they assume it must be right. It is not right not at all. When the cropping is truly egregious for instance, when it is impossible to see peoples heads in most of the scenes then audiences will notice that something is wrong, but wont quite be able to finger the culprit, and will attempt to put this trouble out of their mind and return their attention to the story.
Most cinemas are set up for two picture formats only, regularly and wrongly known as FLAT and SCOPE. SCOPE is an abbreviation for Cinemascope and has come to be a slang term meaning anamorphic, which refers to any widescreen process by which the image is squeezed on the film and stretched out again on screen. FLAT is an almost meaningless term that basically refers to anything thats not SCOPE. At most cinemas the on-screen difference between the two is almost indiscernible. By the way, fewer and fewer cinemas seem to be able to show even 1.85:1, which is supposedly the new world standard. I have visited projection booths and measured aperture plates, astounded that some measure as small as about .750" × 350". As for SCOPE films, well, at many (most?) cinemas, so much of all four edges is cropped off that the scope is all gone.
Projectionists receive a film, possibly check for damage, and then assemble it, put it on the projectors, and press the GO button. Most will not notice that anything is wrong. Oh yes, a few projectionists here and there will notice that something seems missing, and will frame up to get an actors face on screen, and then be confused when in the next shot a woman drops her purse which disappears off the bottom of the screen. Frame down to get the purse back on screen, and then the next shot crops off another actors head. After framing up and down a few times to follow the action, the projectionist will have to attend to a hundred other things, and will leave the rest of the movie alone, assuming simply that it was poorly made and not worth anyones bother. Of course, in the above narrative, were assuming that theres a projectionist in the booth, which is seldom the case anymore. Nowadays, in the usual semi-automated cinema, a popcorn kid or usher runs up, presses the GO button, and runs back down to make more popcorn or tear more tickets. No one attends to the machines for the duration of the program.
Well, maybe Im being a little mean. There are, I would guess, maybe 40 or 50 cinemas in the US, and maybe about another hundred spread through the rest of the world, that have all the formats and use them properly, that have caring managements, and that have captive projectionists who love movies and who know what theyre doing. And, actually, when you think about it, thats a lot.
Now, suppose you want to spend a relaxing evening at the cinema enjoying the light-hearted old German movie M.
As a few people are beginning to recognize, M is not widescreen, nor is it Academy.
It used the taller MovieTone (a/k/a Photophone) aperture, which is nearly square, somewhere between about 1.18:1 and 1.22:1,
depending on how the aperture plate is filed anywhere from about .800" to about .825" wide, by about .6796" tall.
(Im simplifying a bit here. In the 1920s and early 1930s, during the transition to
And thats exactly the way it needs to be shown, without any cropping at all. But how many cinemas can perform that feat anymore? So most cinemas will run it at widescreen. If the cinema you are attending can actually run the recently recognized new world standard, 1.85:1 (chances are that the cinema you are attending will show far less of the image than 1.85:1), the movie would look like this:
Not too bad, you think? Well, remember, this is a German movie, and so it will have subtitles, hence:
So when shown at widescreen, the people in the auditorium who are not fluent in German will have a rather hard time of it, wont they? Compare:
Of course, whats to prevent the projectionist for framing up to make the action a little more comfortable? Like this:
Actually, theres a fair chance that the projectionist will frame down so that you can read the subtitles:
And nobody complains.
Now heres something Ive been wanting to do for nearly four decades.
As you know, Charlie Chaplin made a beautiful movie called The Gold Rush,
which he released in 1925.
Some 17 years later, in 1942, he
Screen captures from the WB
Charlie Chaplin Collection
Screen captures from the WB
Charlie Chaplin Collection
A little note just in case someone wants to accuse me of being biased: When David Shepard, through Image Entertainment, issued the 1942 sound version of The Gold Rush on laserdisc and then on DVD (now sadly out of print), he was able to restore the full image. He did not suffer from the same technical limitations that Chaplin suffered in 1942. He could combine the entire image with Chaplins soundtrack. Im certain Charlie himself would have been tickled pink. As David noted on the back cover: Extraordinary quality achieved from digital mastering of a full-aperture negative in the Chaplin archives. When Image Entertainments license expired and the Chaplin estate licensed the works to MK2/Warner Bros, the Chaplin family decided to go with Charlies final word. Apparently too few people have an understanding of the technical issues to make an informed decision about what is and isnt truly authentic. So, ironically, the out-of-print Image Entertainment edition had the complete image whereas the authorized edition put out by the Chaplin estate through Warner Bros video did not.
The major studios understand that no commercial cinema these days will show the entire image, and so their films (with the rarest of exceptions) are composed for cropping. Often, especially in countries outside of North America, the image is masked directly in the camera. This, of course, can lead to the opposite problem. Below are some screen captures from a film that was shot with a 1.85:1 mask in the camera. These I took from the Koch Media DVD. Next to it are similar captures from an older VHS tape.
|DVD from Koch Media (2007)||VHS from DeltaVideo (1990)|
So maybe now youre getting the idea that if you want to watch an old movie, you would be better off with the video, but that if you want to watch a new movie on video, you had better choose the widescreen edition. If thats what youre thinking, youre leaping to a conclusion. Below are some frame captures from a VHS tape (from CVC in Italy) of a movie that was shot at 1.66:1, and which should be projected with an aperture measuring .825" × .497". Actually, as with so many movies, the camera aperture was a little bit overfiled, and if we measure the image on the film, we see that it is about 1.51:1, a ratio that is never used in projection. So a 1.66:1 crop would be right. Now, to the right are similar frames from the DVD (also issued by CVC in Italy), which proudly boasts that it is widescreen. The problem is that it is a different widescreen, namely, 1.75:1 (projector aperture measuring about .825" × .471"). Watch what happens:
|This is one of the two or three shots mistakenly masked in the camera at 1.75:1.|
|Emotional turmoil depicted by a deliberately mistimed and undersized shutter. (This effect induces emotional turmoil in the projectionist, who will panic that the shutter clamp has slipped or that a gear has stripped.) The effect, of course, bleeds into the part of the frame that is masked off.|
Little by little, Ill be posting actual film clips as illustrations. Click here to see what Ive posted so far. Also, for those three or four people on this planet who are interested, keep scrolling down to the bottom of this page and youll see the common image formats for 35mm movies. In the meantime, the above few frame grabs lead to my next gripe:
Whenever you go to a movie, theres nearly a 50% chance that the credits will look something like this:
(This is a simulation created by my buddy Burt with his Photoshop program.)
Isnt that lovely? And all these years you thought there was something wrong with your eyes, didnt you? Few people complain, because few people understand what this is. And how can you complain about something you dont understand and cant explain or describe? For all you know, maybe its supposed to be this way. Right? Well, no, its not supposed to be this way (usually). Mind you, though, that this fault is nearly impossible to see from the projection booth, except through binoculars. The light seeping at you from the lamphouse and the light flashing in your face from the film gate and the reflected light beaming at you from the porthole window make you nearly blind to these subtleties. But you can sure see this fault from the auditorium! The problem is simple. The shutter blade is out of time, meaning that its just a smidgin late in cutting off the light before the projector starts moving the film from one frame to the next one.
Sounds like its difficult to fix this problem, doesnt it? Hardly. On most projectors theres a knob called SHUTTER. Turn the knob until the problem goes away.
On some projectors, though, it really is a major problem.
On a Cinemeccanica Victoria 5, for example, there is no SHUTTER knob.
There are few gears; instead there are pulleys and timing belts.
One of those belts slipped a notch.
To fix the problem, you have to stop the show,
pull a dirty greasy filthy grimy timing belt out,
Then theres the Norelco AA. Ive never run this type of machine, but its seductively beautiful and can run nearly any film in the world without any problem. The Norelco AA has only one fault: no SHUTTER knob. If the shutter clamp slips, you just have to shut down the show, open up the mechanism, and spin the shutter clamp around to the precision markings. Apparently the markings are so clear that its difficult to make a mistake.
But the more popular projectors Simplex, Century, Brenkert, and so forth all have SHUTTER knobs. Of course, the SHUTTER knob offers only so much adjustment. If the shutter clamp slips way out of alignment, theres no choice but to stop the show, open up the machine, loosen the two bolts on the clamp, spin it back into approximate alignment, tighten it back down, put everything back together, and start up again. That took a few minutes and now everyone wants to lynch you. But at least youre back on screen, and if you didnt get it quite right, no problem, because now you can fine-tune the image with the SHUTTER knob.
Now that weve covered this problem, which youll see nearly 50% of the time, we can look at the problem you will see at cinemas nearly the other 50% of the time:
Does this look familiar? It should. Here, instead of the shutter closing a little bit late, its opening a little bit too early. But basically its the same problem, with the same solutions.
When you dont see simply either one or the other of the above problems, thats because, in all likelihood, youre seeing both of them at the same time:
So what causes this? In my experience, there could be at least one of several things wrong. The most common analysis would be that your management purchased Century projectors, without opting for the 90° shutter blades, which are not the default blades. The default blades are 82°. Why that is, I have no idea. Maybe 82° blades can work in ideal circumstances. But they didnt work in the circumstances I had to deal with.
Theres also a fair chance that your manager brought in some projectors or parts from a
The third possibility is that there is too much play in the gears. Solution: Shut down the show and tighten up the gears and shafts, and check to see if any of the bolts have sheared or broken or fallen out.
The fourth possibility is that a gear stripped. Solution: Replace the gear. If you dont have a spare on hand, give everyone a free pass and have your supplier FedEx a new gear over right away.
And, of course, the problem could possibly be more than one of the above, in combination.
Actually, theres a fifth possibility, and yes, it does happen: a lab error, causing this travel ghosting directly on the film print. When this happens, theres nothing the projectionist can do short of resign.
Theres even a sixth possibility: The shutter in the camera was out of time when the movie was being made. Yes, this happens too. Stanley Kubrick instructed his camera crew to do this for a scene in Full Metal Jacket. And my favorite filmmaker of all, Tinto Brass, occasionally does this to indicate emotional turmoil, as illustrated earlier. The effect can work altogether too well, if you get my drift.
Finally, theres the seventh possibility, and this one is truly bizarre. Many moons ago, at an eight-plex, there was one projector that had this problem, and the reason was that there was too much play in the gears. The machine was a Monee, a cheap Century/Westar knock-off. I went through that machine countless times, and no matter how much I tightened things up (breaking the cheap, dinky little pot-metal bolts in the process), there was still too much play and the shutter shaft was bouncing all over the place. After months of scratching my head, I saw what the problem was. The factory had made an error when machining the base of the projector. It was the smallest fraction of an inch too wide, forcing the shafts apart. There was no way on earth to remedy that problem. I could have hidden the problem by spending my own money to purchase and install adjustable shutters and expand them to 100° or so, but although that would have helped the image on screen, it would not have solved the underlying problem, which I was sure would lead to break-downs within a half-year or so. And to do such a thing would have created yet another problem: I would have been fired for tampering with the companys machines. Well, I never got to witness the breakdowns, because I was soon fired anyway. The cinema closed down a few years later, and it looks like Monee closed down too. Good riddance.
Really, you shouldnt go to movies, at least not mainstream movies, and at least not at mainstream cinemas. Give it up. Theyre dumb. With the rarest of exceptions, movies are horrible, insulting, stupid, clichéd, stultifying, numbing, brainwashing, unconvincing, annoying, irritating, unfair, propagandistic, classist junk designed to reinforce racism and soften your attitudes toward those in authority. Yechhhh! But if you do decide to pay the ten bucks to have your intelligence insulted by a lousy Hollywood movie and further enrich its already too-rich producers and stars, at least now youll understand what the problem is. The problem is a mistimed shutter! And then you can complain and complain and complain until the manager finally gets fed up with you and calls the police to escort you out of the building and instructs his staff never to let you in again.
When you attend a movie, chances are pretty slim that the picture will look like this:
If it looks like this, leave the usher a tip and make sure to send a letter to the cinemas corporate office commending the projectionist and in your letter of commendation, mention the show, the screen, the date, and the time. If enough people do this, maybe things will improve.
Okay, back to the formats. Now, here are the picture formats that have been more commonly used through the years, though some of them havent been used in quite some time. Please please please please please please do not get hung up on the exact sizes or proportions. There is slop factored in, always. Take, for instance, the popular 1.85:1. So long as the camera aperture is larger than the projector aperture, its safe. So long as the projector aperture is no less than .441" tall and no more than about .460" tall, and so long as it is no less than .800" wide and no more than .832" wide, its okay. Therefore a projector aperture measuring .832"×.441" (technically 1.89:1) and a projector aperture measuring .800"×.460" (technically 1.74:1) are both still referred to as 1.85:1 they both fall within the parameters, and are close enough to .825"×.446". Thats why video reviews drive me crazy. I cant even read them anymore. They are overly obsessed with the exact proportion of width to height and never check the results against the original film. But checking the video against the original film is what they should be doing, because thats what really matters, and thats what well be doing on the next page.
|FORMAT||CAMERA APERTURE||PROJECTOR APERTURE|
|Full-Frame Silent 1.33:1||.970" × .723"||.90625" × .6796" (prior to about 1910, the standard was about .940" × .705". Anyway, silent films have all shrunken so much that modern prints cannot withstand an aperture as wide as .90625"; better to file your own apertures at .90000". Also, standardization in the silent days was not too precise, and the framing and picture size from one camera to the next varied dramatically, so its really best not to get too eager about locking your presentations into one specific size; you need a little leeway in projector masking and screen masking.)|
|MovieTone / Photophone 1.18:1||.868" × .723"||.800" × .6796" (.800" was overly cautious, I should say. Knowing what we now know, I would argue that we should file the apertures out to .825" or thereabouts, which would give us about a 1.21:1 ratio.)|
|Academy 1.375:1||.868" × .630"||.825" × .600" (This is often called 1.33:1 or, more colloquially, one-three-three, and the reason for that is that this aperture was supposed to imitate, in miniature, the dimensions of the silent aperture. Indeed, many early sound projectors were equipped with Academy and proto-Academy apertures measuring .800" × .600", which would give 1.33:1 provided there were no keystoning. But, of course, nearly every cinema ever built has had keystoning, as the projector lenses are below or, far more often, above the center line of the screen. In older cinemas and theatres, the keystoning was so severe that it was decided to file out the apertures to about .825" wide, which gave the plates a 1.375:1 ratio, but on screen was not as wide because of the keystoning. Other proto-Academy attempts measured less than .800" wide and up to .610" tall and probably even a bit taller. As a matter of fact, Warner Bros movies up to the end of the 1940s, and maybe even beyond, need to be shown at .610" tall; if you run them with a .600" aperture youll crop the opening credits a bit. Believe it or not, to this day, when you order Academy apertures, theres a fair chance that they actually are .800" × 600", or one-three-three. The projectionists are expected to file out the sides a bit more to compensate for the keystoning, but how many really do that? Now who else on this planet will ever tell you any of this?)|
|Widescreen 1.66:1||.868" × .520"||.825" × .497"|
|Widescreen 1.75:1||.868" × .496"||.825" × .471"|
|Widescreen 1.85:1||.868" × .469"||.825" × .446"|
|Widescreen 2.00:1||.868" × .430"||.825" × .412"|
|V V - SuperScope 2.00:1 (with a 1.5×1 anamorphic stretch no longer used)|| NA (shot in VistaVision and then reformatted in the printing image on resulting film is approx .868" × .630")||.800" × .600|
|SuperScope 2.00:1 (with a 2×1 anamorphic stretch no longer used)|| NA (shot with the full-frame silent aperture, but designed for a 2.00:1 crop and then reformatted image on resulting film is approx .735" × .735")||.715" × .715|
|2.35:1 (with a 2×1 anamorphic stretch this format was introduced as Cinemascope but numerous other companies have used it under many different names)||.868" × .735"||.839" × .715"|
|2.39:1 (with a 2×1 anamorphic stretch)||.868" × .735" (yes, the same as 2.35:1, but without the same precision)||.825" × .690"|
|Cinemascope 2.55:1 (with a 2×1 anamorphic stretch and magnetic tracks rather than an optical track the sprocket holes are undersized to make room for the mag tracks no longer used)||.964" × .735"||.912" × .715"|
|Cinemascope 2.66:1 (with a 2×1 anamorphic stretch and magnetic tracks on a separate strip of film synchronized via Selsyn motors I assume the sprocket holes would be normally sized)||.964" × .735"||I guess it would be .951" × .715" but I really dont know.
I keep hearing that back in 1953 the Roxy Theatre in Manhattan NY premièred the very first Cinemascope movie,
The Robe, with picture reels synchronized with multi-channel mag sound held on separate reels,
and that the result on screen was about 2.66:1, with a little extra width than has ever been seen since.
But Ive never seen any illustrations of the actual negative or of the very first original roadshow print,
and Ive never seen the specs.
The odd thing, of course, is that if you wanted to file an aperture out to .951" wide,
you could probaby get 2.66:1 out of any
|There are other bizarre formats, for instance Super 35,
which simply means shot with the full-frame silent aperture,
but framed so loosely that extreme amounts of height and/or width can be cropped off without ill effect.
These films can then be shown on television and retain (or not retain) all the image,
and they can be cropped in the lab or in the projector, and they can be reformatted to 2.39:1 anamorphic.
This is the format thats recommended for inexperienced directors
who dont know what theyre doing.
On the other hand, some of Terry Gilliams movies were shot this way,
but he and his crew know exactly what theyre doing, and frame for one particular crop.
I think Howards End was shot this way too,
which would explain why, if my memory isnt acting up on me,
I saw one print hard-matted at 1.85:1 and another reformatted to 2.39:1 anamorphic.
More on this later, if I can work up the energy.
Also, in this HDTV age more and more 35mm film seems to be intended with a 1.78:1 result on screen.
The older version of the SMPTE alignment/crop/jitter/weave/ghosting/resolution chart had a setting for 1.75:1.
I cant remember the title of the original version,
but the title of the reissue is
SMPTE 35PA |
Original research and commentary copyright © 2009 by Ranjit Sandhu. All rights reserved.