The ratio of the film frame is often overlooked. However, it has changed as cinema itself has experienced major changes. In the silent era the dominant frame was 1.33:1, a third longer on the horizontal than on the vertical. With sound the norm, the Academy ratio was established by Hollywood: 1.37:1, accommodating the soundtrack on one side of the celluloid strip. Widescreen bought more changes: New Academy ratio settled on 1.85:1, though European films as frequently utilised 1.66:1. And anamorphic films offered between 2.55:1 and 2.35:1. Larger screen formats like 70mm, Cinerama and IMAX had their own variations.
When film first appeared on television screens they had to fit into an old-fashioned frame, 4:3. The digital age has bought widescreen television, the norm being 16:9, which equates to 1.78:1. At various times television has cropped, stretched or panned and scanned films. And whilst 16:9 is closer to the modern widescreen ratio such practices continue, though with a less drastic impact.
I tended to think that serious filmmakers and serious exhibitors of film will respect older films, preserving their original presentation: complete as intended, black and white or colour as fits, mono or stereo sound as fits, and the correct aspect ratio. The model here would be the filmmaker Hans-Jűrgen Syberberg, who’s Parsifal opens with the prescription that it only be exhibited in the Academy ratio.
From this point of view 2013 was not a good year. Not just one but four [in my viewing] major and serious filmmakers had films released in which older archive material was cropped or squeezed into a 1.85:1 or even 2.35:1 ratio. There was Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45: where the archive material, carefully researched and selected, was almost uniformly cropped to fit a 1.85:1 frame. Andrzej Wajda’s Walesa: Man of Hope (Walesa. Czlowiek z nadziei) also included archive film, this time cropped to fit a frame of 2.35:1. Margarethe von Trotta’s Hannah Arendt included material shot for television of the trial in Jerusalem of Adolf Eichmann. Early in the film there was a cut from such material, cropped to fit a 2.35:1 frame to a dramatised re-enactment in colour and widescreen. This might be justified? But later on there was a cut from Arendt watching a TV monitor to a POV shot, in 2.35:1. And then there was John Akomfrah’s Stuart Hall Project. In this case both earlier film and television footage was cropped to fit the 2.35:1 frame.
I assume that the rationale in all these cases was the time when these films were to be screened on television. In fact, Akomfrah had already used cropping of archive material for his television documentary Martin Luther King and the March on Washington (shown on BBC 2 in 16:9). Much of earlier material in all of these films was noticeably handled at some point – or as above ‘mishandled’. The cropping often cut off heads or the top of the frame, and rendered titles within the frame partial. In the case of 2.35:1 framing, this accentuated the film grain in black and white material. And with some of the colour extracts there was noticeable pixilation.
2014 looks likely to continue this unfortunate practice. Mark Kermode, who I mark as a serious film critic, fronted a profile of Steve McQueen and his new film 12 Years a Slave in which extracts from earlier films like The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939) were cropped to fit the 16:9 frame. Ironically the extracts from contemporary features were screened in their correct ratio.
NB – Stuart Hall Project is now released on DVD. According to the Sight & Sound review this is in a ratio of 16:9. Why it has been cropped I do not know: but presumably the contrast between the new film and ‘found footage’ will be less stark.