Complications arise through nefarious decisions and poor compromises. If you don’t care and just want to know the answer, scroll to the next section. Otherwise read on, history in a nutshell:
- The original motion picture aspect ratio was 4:3 or 1.33:1. Movies were shot this way, and television was designed to conform to this standard.
- When television threatened cinema, many ideas floated around, one of which was the use of anamorphic lenses to double the size of the frame. 1.33:1 became 2.66:1.
- To add the audio track on the same print, the ratio had to be trimmed down to 2.55:1.
- Due to the images being too close together, splices crept in from the negative assembly process (putting the real negatives together for the final print, not the work print). So they trimmed the image further, and got 2.39:1.
- Since it’s so hard for some people to remember 2.39:1, they also started calling it 2.40:1.
- What about 2.35 to 1? In between, that too, was used. And since it rhymes so well with 35mm and Super35, most people ‘chose’ to remember that even though widescreen was 2.39:1.
So what is it, 2.40, 2.39 or 2.35 to 1?
Today, it is still 2.39:1. This is all you have to remember. 2.39:1 was ratified as the official widescreen format by the SMPTE in 1970.
To hammer the point home, DCI specifications are pretty clear:
- DCI 2K Scope: 2048 x 858 (2.39:1)
- DCI 4K Scope: 4096 x 1716 (2.39:1)
The other DCI profile, called ‘Flat’, is 1.85:1. There’s nothing else. If you’re having trouble remembering 2.39, like many before you, then remember that it is NOT 2.40 or 2.35. It is not the easy numbers. It’s the hardest-to-remember number of three.
Side note: For some strange reason, Red Epic 2K is 2048 x 854 (2.40:1). I wonder why? How does Red expect filmmakers to fill in the extra four lines of pixels for theatrical distribution? If you know the answer to this, please tell me.
How does it work with 16:9 HDTV?
If you’re shooting a project for 2.39:1 theatrical distribution, on a camera that doesn’t have that preset built in, then you’re forced to crop to 2.39:1.
However, if your movie is for HDTV television or the web, it has to conform to 16:9 or 1.78:1. In that case, it would be best if you shot on 16:9 (assuming the camera doesn’t have 2.39:1), and just masked off the portions you don’t want. This way, you can slightly reframe on a shot by shot basis.
You also have the advantage of choosing your aspect ratio for aesthetic reasons. Want 2.618:1 (the golden mean)? 3:1? Vertical video? No problem!
That’s all there is to it. To recap:
- 2.39:1 for Widescreen
- 1.85:1 for theatrical distribution
- 1.78:1 (16:9) for HDTV or Web HD
Forget everything else.
Do you have trouble remembering what the widescreen aspect ratio is? How do you deal with it?