Aspect ratios on digital ‘film’

the-assassin-official-trailer-1-2015-hou-hsiao-hsien-movie-hd_8920769-10190_1800x945

The frame and bars of The Assassin

Roy commented in his review of ‘Jackie’ about the aspect ratios:

“The opening frames of the film set me trying to calculate the aspect ratio. In our local cinema that is usually proud of its presentation procedures, the image was not properly masked. Eventually I realised that it was set as 1.66:1, that odd ratio favoured by some European and British producers for many years after the development of widescreen processes in the 1950s. It was only later that the lack of masking reminded me of a similar problem with Pablo Larrain’s earlier film No (Chile-US-France-Mexico 2011). The way cinema projection boxes are set up for DCPs now means that the projected image is set to 1.85:1 with the smaller 1.66:1 framing inside it. When the image is bright and the film frame is not masked, the letterboxing at the sides is always visible as dark grey and I found it distracting.”

Added to this the film recreates the famous CBS ‘tour’ of the White House with the First Lady and in a television ratio of 4:3: consequently even larger black bars.

I am not sure where Roy saw the feature, I watched it in Pictureville at the National Media Museum. This had masking but set to 1.85:1, which rather surprised me as I have seen the ratio properly masked at other screenings. The reason apparently is the much reduced projection team now that the film programming is provided by Picturehouse. Some screenings rely on the automated process where the DCP sends ‘signals’ that operate functions such as masking. It seems the cinema has not yet been able to include .1.66:1 masking in this process.

Like Roy I find this aspect of digital annoying., The black bars that surround the frame are not of the same density as masking and are clearly visible. In fact, they do not absorb light as effectively and can be more noticeable when the image is in high-key: whilst with low-key images it is often difficult to discern the edges of the frame.

Currently around West Yorkshire Picture House at the National Media Museum, The Cottage Road Cinema and the Hyde Park Picture House all provide masking for screenings. I think some of the other cinemas in the Morris chain do so and Hebden Bridge Picture House also has masking. The multiplexes almost uniformly do not. Frustratingly the Vue in The Light has [or certainly had] masking from 2.35:1 frame on its screens, [which apparently are 16:9 rather than 1.85:1] but does not use this anymore. The Bradford Odeon is better for some titles as it has masking by drapes for 1.85:1 and the screens are 2.35:1 so full widescreen is also masked.

Even with masking digital offers problems. Roy referred to Larrain’s earlier film No. Because the film was recreating events and television filming it was in a ratio of 1.40:1. But this was placed in a digital frame of  1.85:1. Bizarrely the British release, [I am uncertain about other territories] had yellow subtitles which ran the full width of the frame, so the screening had to be masked [if at all] to 1.85:1, with the problematic black bars on either side.

There are also problems in the descriptions provided by distributors, exhibitors and reviewers. One is the anamorphic ratio of 2.39:1: though everybody continues to use the 2.35:1 term. This ratio appeared in the 1970s, a slight change from the existing 2.35:1. The specification was standardised in the early 1990s. The rationale was to deal with splices in the film. It continues to be used in the contemporary DCP format, though these does not have splices? It is unclear just how consistent the usage is? Most of the time the difference is not discernible but some films are apparently in 2.39:1 and some in 2.35:1. It complicates matters. I believe that both Pictureville and the Hyde Park have masking for 2.35:1. And of course, a whole host of films were shot in 2.35:1, but sometimes they are ‘stretched’ into 2.39:1. It is not really apparent though I sometimes notice a tiny edge under the drapes.

The lack of attention to specifics becomes more of a problem with greater differences in ratios. Take a film like 20th Century Women (USA 2016) which the Sight & Sound lists as 2.35:1 but which IMDB correctly describes as 2:1. It has to be projected in 1.85:1 with narrow [almost] black bars at the top and bottom of the frame. I assume this is intended by the filmmakers, but why?

20th-century-women

There does seem to be a sloppy approach to ratio amongst some filmmakers. Digital cameras such as the Arri Alexa offer the filmmaker a variety of aspect ratios in-camera. I am not sure how carefully these are always checked or set. I have seen a number of foreign language films in 1.85:1 where there is a problem fitting the English subtitles on the screen; in at least some cases this seems to be because the frame ratio is not exactly 1.85:1. There are definitely filmmakers who use 1.78:1 for their films, despite this not being a cinematic ratio but a television ratio [16:9]. Presumably it is the influence of the latter that accounts for this.

And in parallel silent films were mostly 1.33:1: early sound was usually 1.20:1; and then the frame ratio was standardised in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1; but most masking appears to be set at 1.37:1 with a consequent overlap at the edge of the frame for 1.33:1.

A recent parallel was La La land (USA 2016), which, in paying homage to the classic Hollywood musical, used the early scope ratio of 2.55:1. However as the film was distributed on DCPs there were more black bars unless the cinema had appropriate masking. At least one projectionist was caught out, not having noticed the unusual ratio.

Distributors contribute to this sort of error. I have at least twice seen 35mm films in the wrong ratio, one was a 1.66:1 print screened in 1.85:1 and one was a 1.37:1 print screened in 1.85:1. In both cases the projectionist advised me that the print had come in cans marked 1.85:1, hence the mistake. In a different context the Hebden Bridge Picture House do not/did not have the appropriate lens on their old projector for 1.66:1. so I have seen a film there screened in 1.85:1 rather than its proper 1.66:1. The latter seems less of a problem than the black bars of digital.

grand-budapest-hotel-the-poster

Then we have filmmakers who take advantage of digital to play with ratios. The Grand Budapest Hotel (USA, Germany, UK 2014) used 1.37:1, 1.85:1 and 2.35:1. There was a rationale for this in the treatment of the periods in the film so I did not find this a serious problem. Xavier Dolan used 1:1 in his Mommy (Canada 2014). Here also I felt the treatment justified the technique and the film offered a magnificent moment when the ratios changed.  Most recently The Assassin (Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, France 2015) was screened in 1.37:1 but had two short sequences in 1.85:1. Some screenings involved the said black bars: and at one cinema with masking the projectionists decided to mask it to 1.37:1 all the way through: I doubt that the director Hsiao-Hsien Hou would have approved.

The current release Hidden Figures (USA 2016) uses footage from the 1960s, apparently from NASA, newsreels and television. There is black and white footage in 2.35:1; colour film of J. F. K. in 1.37:1, with black bars and colour film of John Glenn in 2.35:1. The rationale, like some of the mathematics, escaped me. 20th Century Women has a clip from Casablanca, apparently slightly stretched and slightly cropped, full in the 2:1 frame. But  a little later the film is watched on a television set in 4:3 [almost the correct ratio].

This type of playing with ratios is extremely suspect. The way the format handles ratios would seem to be a factor in the increased tendency to crop or stretched archival footage used in contemporary films. Serious filmmakers like Ken Loach, Andrej Wajda, Magarethe von Trotta and John Akomfrah have all made films for cinematic exhibition where the older footage is so treated: a lack of respect for fellow artists and craft people that I abhor.

There is some hope for the future, at least regarding the black bars. A friend has viewed a laser projection at an Imax venue. He said that the colour spectrum was definitely superior to current digital projection. In particular the black borders on a digital package were as dense as the masking for 35mm and were not noticeable. It seems that there are current discussion in the industry to agree specifications and standards for laser projection. The hardware is a lot more expensive than existing projection for digital and larger, but the running costs are lower, partly because the lamps do not need replacing. Torkell Saetervadet [FIAF] notes that:

“projectors based on lasers rather than xenon light bulbs a light source have the potential toapproximate the human colour range better.” (FIAF Digital projection Guide, 210).

Commentators also suggest that the contrast is equivalent to that of 35mm.

This improvement will still be dependent on the digital source material which [in the UK] is extremely variable. The ‘boxes’ in which DCPs arrive range in digital size [and therefore quality] from 150 to 300 gigabytes: quite a large variation. But it seems that some UK DCPs are as low as 90 gigabytes. Lasers will improve matters including offering a proper masking for the cinematic frame; but they will not solve all the problems.

Wikipedia has a detailed page on aspect ratios for film and used on television and video.

 

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